4 nights in Istanbul
I think we can agree that being a traveler is different than being a tourist. And the best way to be a traveler and really get to understand a new place is spending time with locals. We were so incredibly fortunate to have local friends in Istanbul and this not only made for one of our favorite trips, but also gave us an opportunity to see places and areas that we otherwise might not have seen.
We took a red eye from Bali to Istanbul last spring and landed in what is now the defunct Atatürk airport. The airport and the afternoon traffic was a sh*itshow to say the least, so we were very happy to finally get to our apartment in Sultanahmet. Our friends graciously lent us their extra flat and had the building manager, Mami, greet us. She had shocking red hair and a huge smile. She did not stop hugging us, smiling, and talking to us until she had completely shown us around the apartment. She did not speak a word of English and we do not speak a work of Turkish, so needless to say this was entertaining.
Despite a little jet lag, we hit the ground running. We were in the perfect location to start seeing some of Istanbul's best known treasures, like the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sofia. We had scheduled a tour of the old city for the following day, so we were happy to just wander around and try some of the street food.
I had scheduled one thing for our first night and that was a scrub at Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. I think this was one of my best ideas ever. We had the airplane germs professionally scrubbed off of us and were pampered and cozy for a great night's sleep. Pro tip: Bring a clean change of clothes with you because it would have been a little dispiriting to put those airplane clothes back on.
We booked the Istanbul: Private Tailor-Made Sightseeing Tour of the old city through Get Your Guide. Our guide, Caner, met us at our apartment and was thoroughly vetted by Mami before we headed out. Caner was an amazing guide and we really got a great history lesson, an intimate view of the Muslim religion, and a fun lunch date where my son was challenged to eat more meat that he'd seen in the last six months.
Highlights of the tour included:
The Blue Mosque, which sadly was under renovation but was still exquisite.
Hagia Sofia. This incredible structure was something that had been on my bucket list since my 12th grade art history class.
Basilica Cistern. This ancient underground cistern is the largest in Istanbul. The architecture is incredible.
Topkapi Palace. This beautiful palace on the Bosporus is a lot to take in. Personally I got lost in all the tile work and decoration.
Hipprodrome. In ancient times this was used for chariot racing, but is now a lovely promenade with remnants of the ancient Roman influence.
Grand Bazaar. I was happy to have a guide for our first real trip to the Grand Bazaar. It is huge and overwhelming. Caner turned us on to turkish delights at Hazer Baba, which was a blessing and a curse.
We were planning on a tour of the Bosphorus on our friend's boat, but the strong winds had other plans for us. We did manage a cruise along the water, but we needed to do it on a bigger boat.
We started our day at the Süleymaniye Mosque, which was delightfully uncrowded and absolutely extraordinary. The area leading up the mosque was quiet and it was a peaceful way to start our Sunday. The interiors of mosques are distinctly different from churches and I had never been inside a mosque before visiting Turkey. The pristine carpets for kneeling and the very low and enormous chandeliers are particularly beautiful.
From Süleymaniye we wandered down to the Spice Bazaar, which is somewhat similar to the Grand Bazaar but much smaller and more manageable. There are stalls upon stalls of fresh nuts and olives and turkish delights, all of which are free to sample.
The Spice Bazaar is located a stones throw from the harbor where you can take cruises along the Bosphorus, so after we filled up on turkish delights, we wandered over to the docks and found an english speaking tour boat to go up and down the Bosphorus. It was a cold and windy day, so we were happy to find a nice big boat with indoor seating and large windows for viewing all of the interesting things along the river like the Beylerbeyi Palace and the Boğazkesen Castle.
We followed our cruise with lunch at Hamdi right by the Spice Bazaar. I was a little worried that it was going to be overpriced tourist fare, given the location, but we had a great meal and the views from the restaurant are beautiful.
After lunch we decided to walk to Chora Church to see the gorgeous Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. It was a very long walk through a variety of different neighborhoods. There is a lot of renovation happening in Istanbul right now and when we approached the church we saw scaffolding all around the exterior. I said to the kids, "Oh my gosh, I hope the church isn't closed after we've walked so far" and my son replied, "It doesn't really matter because this has been such a great walk." I thought at that point that I had done a pretty good job raising real travelers.
All in all, we walked 8 miles this day.
Our friends showed us a real slice of Istanbul after we checked off the last touristy thing that we really wanted to do... Galata Tower. My son loves a good climb and lookout in every new city we visit, so we convinced our friends to meet us there. They have lived there for a very long time and this was their first visit. It's not a big climb, but you can see every area of the city and across to the Asian side of Istanbul.
After our bird's eye view of Istanbul, we roamed the artsy, cool area near Galata, Karakoy, popping in and out of the unique shops. We stopped at the Soho House for a coffee and later made our way to, Karakoy Lokantasi, for a delicious lunch. We loved the interior decor as well the traditional Ottoman food.
The cold and wind from the day before had died down enough to warrant an ice cream, so we headed back to our friend's neighborhood, Bebek, for a scoop. The kids were able to bike along the river and climb in the trees before we went back to their house for dinner.
There is obviously more to see and do in Istanbul and next time we'd love to explore some more areas of the country. But we loved our first time in Istanbul and are so grateful for our friends who made us feel so welcome.
Street and local food that you must try when in Istanbul:
Pide. Sort of like Turkish pizza.
Simit. Sesame dough rings- choose the nutella stuffed version.
Roasted chestnuts. A nice pick me up in the old city.
Kebabs. My son ate his body weight in meat in our few days in town.
Turkish Delight. Trust me. (But truth be told, I ate so much of this in a few short days, that I may never eat it again.)