It took a total of 14 hours, 29 minutes in the air, and just under 24 hours on the ground, but we finally made it to Istanbul with a couple of hours of daylight to spare on a lovely Friday evening. We wouldn’t have a ton of time to spare – we arrived just before 5 P.M., and were scheduled to board our cruise ship at 2 P.M. the next day – so we’d have to keep a move on things to see much. Fortunately, Istanbul is tailor made for those on a tight sightseeing schedule, especially if you are staying in the old quarter of town or just across the Galata Bridge, as there is so very much to see within walking distance.
Disclosure: this was our second trip to Istanbul, the first being almost exactly 6 years earlier, so we already had a good idea of where everything was situated and precisely what we wanted to see. Technically, this trip also broke my general rule about not visiting the same place twice, but I have to admit, we both really enjoyed our first trip to Turkey, and didn’t mind going back at all.
Date of Visit: Friday-Saturday, June 26 and 27, 2015
The first order of business was getting to our hotel to meet up with my family, who had arrived in a few different groups over the past week or so. Since we were toting heavy bags for the cruise, mom arranged for the hotel (the Hotel Nena in the Sultanahmet district, which I will review in a separate post) to send a car to pick us up. It’s roughly 12 miles from the airport to Sultanahmet, deep in the Old City, so it is a bit of a haul (you can also take the tram to Sultanahmet station if you prefer – we did this on our last trip and it’s a cheap, easy ride). Shortly after leaving airport property, we came across this interesting fountain at a traffic circle.
As you make your way down the Kennedy Caddesi, it’s not long before you catch your first glimpse of the Sea of Marmara, and the Old City in the distance.
You also quickly realize that there is history everywhere in this city. Even just driving down a city boulevard, you’ll find random artifacts like these ruins of a fort, presumably dating back to Roman times.
You also encounter what Istanbul is infamous for – bumper to bumper traffic.
In any event, even with the traffic jams, we made it to the hotel in about 45 minutes. Coincidentally, after checking in and heading back downstairs to head over to the Grand Bazaar, we ran into my family returning from dinner. My brother and oldest sister were actually wanting to visit the Grand Bazaar, too, so we all headed over that way. “Controlled chaos” is the best way I can describe the scene in and around the bazaar.
Unfortunately, it didn’t compute with any of us that the shops inside the bazaar close at 7, and since it was already 6:45 by the time we got there, there wasn’t much to be seen. On the bright side, the last customer of the day is apparently considered good luck, so I was able to swing a good deal on a necklace for Prita. Tip if you want to shop there: though some merchants accept credit cards, they do so reluctantly, and will give you a larger discount if you pay cash (and remember – never, ever pay full sticker at the Grand Bazaar). There is an ATM machine outside the main bazaar entrance if you need one.
That box ticked, my brother and I wanted to catch a glimpse of the Old City’s second best-known attraction – the stray cats. Ok, so maybe that’s not a big deal unless you’re obsessed with cats like me, but on our last trip, I was fascinated with the number of friendly strays wandering around the area between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. We wandered around that area a bit, showing off my Texas Rangers pride in front of the Blue Mosque. In case you’re wondering, since we’d seen both it and the Hagia Sofia on our previous visit, we didn’t take a tour inside either one this time.
There was some sort of Turkish cultural show set to begin around sundown, so the park was bustling with people. That made for a nice shot of the Alman Çeşmesi (German Fountain), built in 1598, with the Blue Mosque towering behind in the background.
But there were no cats to be found anywhere. My brother, who had been in town for about a week already, mentioned that there was a small park across the street from our hotel (just south and to the left of the Hotel Nena on Klodfarer Caddesi) with a makeshift “cat camp” set up, complete with a handful of cats. It seems the city must be on a campaign to clean up the strays from public areas, and restrict the cats to designated areas. To that end, someone had set up a small area complete with food, shelter, and toys – a great idea, actually. And one kitty decided our presence was worth the interruption and came to say hello.
He’s what I’d call semi-friendly; following us around and giving us rubs, but would also be prone to trying to bite when petted. If you’re a cat lover and want to get in some cat time, beware before trying to give one a belly rub.
In an attempt to fight off jet lag, my wife and I ventured out of the hotel to enjoy a leisurely dinner, picking Cafe Amedros across the tram tracks (review forthcoming). On the way back, we could hear quite a commotion coming from the direction of the Blue Mosque, and soon realized it was from the cultural show ongoing on an outdoor stage. I wasn’t sure what it was, other than some kind of traditional Turkish folk music and dancing. I actually would have loved to stay and watch for awhile, but couldn’t find a place to sit or stand where we could actually see. The Blue Mosque was also lit up, with a banner overhead, and the same fountain from the picture above was illuminated blue and red. Perhaps a reader can translate what the banner means.
Now a little after 10, our hope was that a full day, followed by going to sleep at a normal time, would be enough to get our internal clocks back in shape and we’d wake up at a reasonable hour the next day. No such luck; we were both wide awake at 3:30 A.M., and despite our best efforts, neither one of us could go back to sleep. Once the sun was up, we gave up and went for a walk, basically following the tram tracks as they went east, then north towards Sirkeci and the Galata Bridge. Along the way was the entrance to the Hagia Irene, an old Byzantine church dating back to the 4th century, at the bottom of the hill leading to Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi (Topkapi Palace). You can see the Yerebatan Sarnici (the Basillica Cistern, a Roman Hippodrome) behind the center arch.
Compared to the hustle and bustle of Friday evening, the steets of the Old City are quiet and peaceful early on a Saturday.
At a very slow walking pace with numerous photo stops along the way, it took approximately 45 minutes to reach the end of the Old City at Sirkeci (~20 minutes walking quickly). We contemplated crossing the Galata Bridge to see the Galata Tower, but decided against it since our family was expecting us at breakfast soon. So, we “settled” for taking in the view of the Golden Horn, and our cruise ship docked and ready to welcome us in a few short hours, before hopping on the tram for the ride back to the hotel.
Galata Bridge and Tower
Emerald Princess docked and waiting
The one thing we didn’t get to do on our last trip to Istanbul that I was determined to on this trip was take a cruise through the Bosphorous Strait, and so we booked a morning tour for the entire clan to take us there and back before it was time to head to the ship. We used Turista Travel to book tours for us on our last trip; we were very pleased with their service so we used them again for this tour. 25 euros per person got us a roughly 2-hour cruise of the Bosphorus, plus a visit to the Rüstem Paşa Cami (Rushtem Pasha Mosque) and Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Market). Not bad. Our first stop was at the Rushtem Pasha Mosque, bulit c.1561-1563 by its namesake, the husband of one of the daughters of Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. They say that Rushtem Pasha is even more “blue” than its more famous cousin due to its lavish use of İznik tiles, featuring more than 80 varieties of floral and geometric designs. If these designs look familiar, they are similar to the ones used in ceramic pottery found throughout Central Asia and even northern India, with cobalt the mineral typically used to provide the deep blue hue seen in the tilework. Typical of mosques from this period, Rushtem Pasha also features sweeping courtyards, extensive use of marble, ornately decorated domes, and Arabic-style archways throughout. NOTE: shorts, bare shoulders, and any other clothing deemed immodest are not permitted inside the mosque, and women must wear a head covering. Scarves may be borrowed free of charge at the entrance. You also must climb up and down a couple of flights of steep stairs to reach the entrance.
Example of a dome, with intricate designs and stained-glass windows
Arabic-style arch designs
What was once the main door to the mosque, currently closed for renovation
Close-up of the fascinating tile work
After our tour of the mosque, it was time for a visit to the Spice Market. Basically, it’s the Grand Bazaar of fruits, spices, and teas, with hundreds of stalls selling a variety of goods. Needless to say, Saturday morning is chaotic, as people from across the city (and the hordes of tourists) stop by to pick up what they need for the week, an Istanbul tradition since 1664.
Unlike the Grand Bazaar, prices are usually fixed, though you may be able to swing a small discount if you buy a large quantity. Most tourists come here in search of saffron, but if you do, be aware of one highly important detail – stay away from “Turkish saffron”. It’s cheap for a reason, i.e. it isn’t actually saffron. Real saffron can be found here, but it’s typically sourced from Iran, and it isn’t cheap. You’ll typically find it sold in pre-packaged jars or boxes. And of course, when you come home, don’t tell customs that you got something made in Iran. If you don’t need saffron, you can also find a large selection of fruits and nuts, particularly dates, of which we found more than a dozen varieties at the various stalls. These are sold by the kilo and the vendors will vacuum seal them for you, making this an ideal place to pick up snacks for a cruise. Before you start buying, ask the vendor if they take credit cards if you don’t have cash; it’s about 50/50 as far as taking plastic goes.
I didn’t ask, nor did I want to know what was in the “Love Tea”
Spices, spices, and more spices as far as the eye can see
Mom took care of buying some goodies, so I just milled around for a bit. Apparently they see quite a few Indian tourists, as I had more than one shopkeeper shout out a Bollywood reference as I walked by to lure me in. While I find the controlled chaos fascinating, I also get just a tad claustrophobic, so I walked around the outside to find my way back to our meeting point out front. From the open area out front, there is a good view of both the Rushtem Pasha mosque and Yeni Cami (New Mosque), both a stone’s throw away. Incidentally, “New” is a relative term, seeing as this mosque was built c.1660-1665. An example of why I really love this city.
Yeni Cami (New Mosque)
Rushtem Pasha, with what I believe is the Ahi Ahmet Çelebi Cami to the left
After free time at the Spice Market, we walked to the waterfront to board our boat to cruise the Bosphorous. I’ll be covering that part of the tour in a separate post.
In closing, a single day isn’t nearly enough time to truly experience Istanbul, but if like us, schedule constraints don’t allow for anything more, you can get a good taste of what the city is all about in that short a timeframe. Pick a hotel in the Old City, pack a pair of walking shoes, and take in more than 20 centuries of history in roughly the same number of hours.
Note: this post is part of my multi-part trip report series about my wife and I’s trip to Europe in June/July, 2015. Read the trip report introduction for an index and background about our trip. Photo at top: Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque as seen from the pool deck of the Emerald Princess, June 27, 2015.