The sights we saw…
1) Dolmabahce Palace
We took the tram across the Golden Horn to the last stop which plops you out practically right outside this beautiful huge waterside palace. To provide some heh historical background, back in 1843 the Sultan at the time wanted to reinvent the Ottoman Empire in a European image and thus build this luxurious palace along the sparkling Bosphorous shore. Super luxurious it is, with 46 reception rooms and galleries, lavish decorations of gold and crystal (there is a staircase literally built of crystal!) that rivals the Palace of Versailles in Paris–Ironically, (as it seems with most cases in history) this extravagance triggered the demise of the Ottoman empire and the last emperor had to flee into exile in 1922.
Walking through the ceremonial hall, with its huge dome and crystal chandelier (a gift from Queen Victoria of England and frickin weighs more than 9,000 lbs!) I tried to imagine that I was back then, attending a ball …It made me realize that it is the imagining of being in another person’s shoes–imagining being in another world/country/time–that really makes these historical buildings and sites come to life for me. Otherwise I think its easy to just see and say oh wow, thats pretty fancy…Next!…So begrudgingly, I realize the benefit of studying the history of a culture prior to viewing its sites (I say begrudgingly because studying history has normally connotated a boring activity–reminiscent perhaps of high school history…)
2) Taksim Square (and Beyoglu neighborhood)
This is the young-hip happening side of European Istanbul with a main promenade-like street (called Istiklal Caddesi) for pedestrians lined with the latest clothing shops, cafes, restaurants and churches. Random bit o info: Did you know that the brand Mavi is Turkish? (I hadn’t) and apparently Turkey is known for the high quality of the cotton they use…So of course I bought a shirt…and then a scarf (however the scarf was kindly made in China haha).
Walking along this packed promenade on a Saturday afternoon was similar to playing a video game of frogger though with human bodies rather than cars pummeling towards you. I think my walking maneauvering skills have increased exponentially from this experience.
Galata Tower: Towards the end of the sloping walk from Taksim Square down towards the sea, one of the most distinctive landmarks is the 230 ft high Galata Tower. It was built in 1348 by the Genoese (Byzantine Empire’s main trading partners) and has 11 floors. We went to the top of the tower for a beautiful panaramic 360 view of Istanbul.
3) Sultanahmet and the Old City
This is the charming neighborhood where we stayed–a perfect location in my opinion, walking distance to all the main sites and plentiful restaurants, shops and cafes. We stayed at the lovely Osmanhan Hotel (I need to write a review on TripAdvisor) but they had nicely appointed clean rooms with a delicious included breakfast each morning (more on that in the “What we ate” section).
SultanAhmet Cammii (The Blue Mosque): Completed in 1616, the mosque is called “blue” because of the beautiful blue iznik tiles in the interior. One word to describe this mosque: Majestic—with six minarets I think the only other mosque with this many minarets is in Mecca. Upon entering, women cover their heads with scarves and everyone must take off their shoes (my germaphobe side: I can only imagine the numerous odorous disadvantages caused by the removal of shoes, when visiting the mosque in the hot, humid sticky summer months….with hoards of tourists…eeee hehe) SO it was nice that the weather was quite on the cold side, and due to the rain that day, few tourists. The outdoor courtyard is a wonderful place to take a moment and sit.
Ayasofya (Haghia Sophia): The first church built on this site burned down in 404 AD and then the second one destroyed in 532…finally the third which was inaugurated by Justinian in 537 still stands today (through earthquakes and war). In 1453 it was converted to a mosque so it is interesting to see the mixture of both symbols of faith in the vast interior (frescoes of Jesus alongside calligraphic Islamic elements).
Inside the church we saw this adorable funny cat—gathering warmth despite the brightness, from a uplight.
Topkapi Palace & Archaeological Museum: In the same area as the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya, is Topkapi Palace (which is connected to the Archaeological Museum-though it requires a separate entrance fee). Some prime real esate—the palace sits on the land that juts out into the Golden Horn , Bosphorous and Sea of Marmara. Right after conquering Constantinople, the sultan built this in 1459ish.
Highlights of Topkopi Palace: In the royal treasury we saw a gorgeous mother 86 karat diamond, amongst numerous other precious jewels. The Harem (har-eem) which used to house up to 200 slaves eunuchs from Sudan and Ethiopia and where as many as 300 concubines lived at a time! Shiiieeet the sultan gets around! hehe
Highlights of the museum: seeing super OLD stuff. There was a cane…the caption was that it was the prophet Moses’ frickin cane….(how do they know / find these things!) It always puts me in a state of dumbfounded awe, trying to wrap my brain around how old some of these things are…and that a person, actually made/wrote/touched/ate off of etc. this object. And I had forgotten (or lets be real, had no clue) that Troy was in this part of the world–so you can follow the history 3000 BC to first century AD.
Grand Bazaar / Spice Market: Crazy packed with seemingly hundreds of carpet and jewelery shops and stalls selling piles of spices in burnished orange, red and amber hues. The Grand Bazaar was founded back in 1461 to be the trading heart of the empire. I’m sure you could negotiate some good deals on precious stones and on the beautiful Turkish carpets but Jenn and I just wanted to window shop (if you stare a bit too long at something the shopkeeper will immediately try to engage you in a sale so to prevent that we just walked and looked).
Although we did not shop, I do have a coworker (whose best friend is Turkish so I’m sure that helped) purchase a beautiful sapphire ring for $200, and it was appraised when she returned to the U.S. for $800 (so deals can be found but i’m sure the exact opposite has happened before as well).
Basilica Cistern (“Sunken Palace”): Located basically right across the street from both the Blue Mosque and Ayasofya, is the Basilica Cistern. It was built as a vast underwater storage tank, begun by Constantine and expanded by Justinian in 532 AD. Once held 18 million gallons! The roof is supported by 336 pillars and uniquely has 2 upside down Medusa heads as bases for the pillars (we realized that they certainly re-used a lot–so spare pieces from other temples etc were used again in temples or other building structures.) Very eerie and cool ambiance!
Bosphorous Cruise: On a perfect sunny afternoon, we took a ferry boat ride up and down the Bosphorous Sea (which eventually if you kept going north, would connect you to the Black Sea). From here we had some nice skyline views of the mosques’ minarets and round tops behind the literally sparkling Bosphorous Sea.