September in the city formerly known as Constantinople is beautiful. I traveled to Istanbul for five days after Barcelona with my travel buddy to tour every top tourist destination. The first day we arrived, the only “touring” we accomplished was outside our hotel. Here’s my quick tour of the best sights to jam into a four day trip.
Before we left for Turkey, many friends and family members expressed their “concern” over the dangers of two women traveling in Turkey. My friend and I were never concerned about our safety while in Istanbul. We are both very well traveled and Istanbul is a safe and peaceful city. There was never a time we felt unsafe walking around at night. If anything, we discovered how much the Muslim faith is misunderstood and misrepresented through the lenses of our U.S. media machine. We saw many Muslim women walking with their husbands hand in hand, and sometimes, we even saw their husbands holding their purses when they were taking photos. As long as you are respectful to their culture, and make sure to cover and wear appropriate clothes when visiting the Mosques, you will discover for yourself that the Muslim faith is just as special and unique as any other religion. What I found to be the most beautiful introduction of being in Turkey is the call for prayer that happens five times a day. Although, some Muezzin’s have better singing voices than others, I did not get tired of listening to the prayer, even in the wee hours of the early morning. (Please note, we traveled to Istanbul in September of 2014 and my thoughts concerning safety are from that time of reference.)
Staying in the Old City (Sultanahmet) is close to many of the tourist attractions. We stayed in a very modest and inexpensive hotel, called the Hotel Dara.
The hotel was within walking distance to Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilicia Cistern and the Hippodrome. The hotel staff was very nice and accommodating, especially, when we requested a larger room after arrival. We could barely fit two large suitcases in the first room.
The best part of this hotel was the Turkish breakfast that was offered each morning on the hotel’s rooftop terrace. The Turkish breakfast is the BEST breakfast I have encountered in any of my travels abroad and this hotel’s buffet didn’t disappoint the hungry traveler. The hotel offered a traditional Turkish breakfast, consisting of breads with butter/jam and or honey, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet green peppers, feta cheese, yogurt, cold meats, eggs, pastries, and Turkish tea or coffee. I looked forward to this breakfast buffet every morning to fuel each day’s power walking through Sultanahmet.
The Blue Mosque is breathtaking from whatever point you look at it. Non-Muslims have to enter the Mosque on the west side near the Hippodrone. It’s also best to check prayer times since the Mosque is not open for 90 minutes during prayer hours. Women must cover in certain areas outside and inside at all times. Shoes must be taken off before entering the Mosque. Inside the Mosque known for its blue tiles are more than 20K handmade ceramic tiles. We wanted to learn a little more about the Muslim faith, so we attended a free class that was held every day on the grounds where you could learn more about the basics of the Muslim faith and receive a free Quran and other religious literature.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Hagia Sophia used to be a church more than 900 years ago but was later converted into a mosque when Constantinople was taken over by Faith Sultan Mehmed. Now, Hagia Sophia is a museum that blends Roman and Islamic history. What I loved most about this museum was the Byzantine architecture that remained untouched after all these years.
Located near Hagia Sophia and another structure built during the Byzantine Empire is the ancient underground reservoir for storing water, the Basilicia Cistern. The water was supplied to the city of Constantinople and later provided water to the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. It’s the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. On a hot September day, this is a nice, cool, dark place to tour. The amber glow of the light hitting the marble columns and the fish swimming just below the waters surface gives an eerie feel, I enjoyed. There are two marble columns that every tourist must stop to photograph. The first is a peacock eye column in which you should insert your finger in the hole of the eye with your palm against the column and turn your hand 360 degrees for good luck. The second is the medusa head pillar.
Topkapi Palace is a short walk from the Cistern and was the royal residence of the Ottoman sultans. The grounds are very large and we didn’t have enough time to tour each courtyard. I would allow for a minimum of three hours to tour the entire grounds. We paid extra to tour the Harem and it was well worth the extra ticket price. Visiting the Sacred Relics, you will need to wear appropriate clothing and cover your shoulders.
A cruise on the Bosphorus was another check off our tourist list. Before we began the tour, we stopped at the Spice Bazaar located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district, one of Istanbul’s most colorful attractions that was built in the 17th century and was among the city’s most exotic trade of herbs and spices. The bazaar was filled with aromas of cinnamon, caraway, saffron and mint.
In Eminönü there are many public ferry boats that offer Bosphorus tours. We chose one that was relatively inexpensive ($30 US dollars). You can buy water, soft drinks and snacks on the ferry as well. Our tour took approximately 90 minutes.
The Galata Bridge is also located in Eminönü. We walked under the bridge where there were many restaurants and local fisherman selling fresh fish.
Hammam (Turkish Bath)
On our last night in Istanbul, we wanted to experience a traditional hammam. Our only wish after the experience was that we booked it sooner and for a longer time period. (We had a 35-minute session). We chose a luxurious hammam experience at the Ayasofya. There are separate hammam rooms for women and men.
After we checked in, an attendant guided us to a dressing cubicle where you undress into a bath wrap and slippers. We were then greeted by an hammam bath attendant who walked us to a beautiful white marble steam room with gold facets and gold bath bowls. In the center of the room is circular piece of raised marble where guests are massaged and bathed. We were first told to sit in the steam area of the white marble room. My friend and I are both on the conservative side so we sat in the steam room wrapped in our bath towels. The bath attendant comes around after 10 minutes to pour a bowl of water over my head and removes my bath wrap. We are then walked to a separate shower room, where the bath attendant vigorously scrubbed my body from neck to toe. You can see and feel the dead skin sloughing off your body. After the body scrub, we were walked back into the huge white marble steam room and told to lie on the circular raised marble platform in the center of the room. The bath attendant uses a long soft soapy swab/sponge to lather my entire back side. While laying on my stomach, the attendant massages my back, neck and head. After we are lathered and massaged, we are moved to the showers to wash off the soap from our body and the attendant washes my hair. This concluded our hamman experience. We are given our bath glove, olive oil soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion that was left over from our hamman experience as a token memory. At the very end of the experience, we sit in our robes and slippers in the lounge area of Ayasofia and the bathe attendant gives us tea and Turkish delight before we head back into the dressing cubicle to change back into our clothes.
We stumbled across Palatium café in Istanbul because of its outside courtyard with plush comfy. Little did we know we stumbled upon a hidden jewel. The restaurant contains underground ruins of ancient imperial palace of Constantinople. We only noticed this when looking down at our feet to find a window looking into a cave below ground. Patrons are free to visit the ruins below the restaurant and it’s quite a remarkable discovery to step on grounds of an ancient city from over 1,000 years ago. The food was delicious at this place too. We ordered the Meze plate, which arrived at our table with warm pita bread.
We also enjoyed the restaurant right next to our hotel, called Vaha Café & Restaurant. We ate dinner on the rooftop terrace at sunset our first night in Istanbul, which had a beautiful view of the Marmara Sea. We ended our last night at this restaurant too. The service and staff were excellent. The food is authentic Turkish cuisine and fantastic. A must order is their Turkish bread and kunefe dessert.
Suada Club is not to be missed if you like to experience a scene and one that is in the middle of the Bosphorus. We were intrigued by the concept of bars, restaurants, and a pool floating in the middle of the Bosphorus. Suada Club caters to the elite crowd. Price for drinks and food are higher than in the old city or surrounding areas, except for maybe Bebek, which we didn’t have time to explore. My friend and I didn’t stay longer than a couple of hours at Suada Club, long enough for some people watching and a few expensive drinks. There was no charge to get into the club, except if you wanted to use the pool. There is a commuter boat that takes guests to and from the club. On a hot summer day or night, I imagine Suada Club is a nice place to stay cool and look cool too.
One night we had dinner outside at Ayasofya and watched the whirling dervishes, and almost every other night we would have dinner or drinks up on the many rooftop restaurants in Istanbul. This is the type of entertainment, I enjoy most; sitting outside on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Blue Mosque and hearing the sounds of Turkish folk music.
A different type of entertainment would be visiting the Grand Bazaar. We found this experience to be entertaining and depleting at the same time. The Bazaar contains thousands of shops selling just about anything, all fashion brands are replicas. and I found one beautiful Hermes scarf that I couldn’t walk away from, dragging my friend back another day in search of this one scarf, which I ended up buying overpriced from a handsome Turkish man who brought us into his “private” room in search of all Hermes replicas he sold. It’s now slowly coming apart at the seams. You must bargain like a pro in order to make out well at the Bazaar and have the patience to shop from pushy Turkish sellers.
Top 5 Favorites
- Kunefe (I have not found a Turkish restaurant in the U.S. that makes this dessert as well as what you find in Istanbul)
- Hammam (I have not found any spa treatment quite like the Turkish Bath experience at Ayasofya in all my searching for one in my residence of Boston or even neighboring city, NYC).
- Basilicia Cistern
- Topkapi Palace, especially the Harem with all the beautiful ceramic tiles
- Bosphorus Tour