Intro to Istanbul
Modern Turkey was founded as a republic in the early 20th century by Mustafa Ataturk. You’ll see his name everywhere, including the airport. Ankara is the capital of Turkey but Istanbul is its vibrant heart. It’s a place where there young and beautiful congregate in trendy clubs on the Bosporus River while the Muslim call to prayer sounds off in the distance from the city’s grand mosques in the old town.
Istanbul is unquestionably one of the world’s great cities. It is the link between east and west. A secular Muslim country where the land mass of Asia hits Europe. It has at various points in time been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires and it’s full of relics left from each one. Whether you’re looking for a great intro to the Muslim world or just a city full of history, there is no better place to go.
Istanbul’s Ataturk airport has multiple direct flights from all over the world and they are often cheaper than short trips to the rest of Europe. The flight is on the longer side and there are so many sights that four days is probably the minimum amount of time you should spend here. If you have a five day weekend, leave on Friday and return Wednesday, that would most likely be ideal. If you’re planning a longer trip around Turkey then you’ll probably be ending and beginning here.
When we went
New Years 2008/09. Easy direct flight to Istanbul, slept in the old town for 4 nights, easy direct flight home.
The sights and sounds and things to do
The old part of the city is called Sultanahmet. Remnants of ancient walls that still line some streets. One of the highlights of our trip was walking back to our hotel in this area, on a very foggy evening, and hearing the call to prayer from the mighty Blue Mosque echoing through the stone lanes. The Blue Mosque is the high point of Sultanahmet, think of it like the Notre Dame of Mosques. The number of minarets (tall narrow spires) often indicate how important a certain mosque is. These also serve as a bell tower like structure and the call to prayer is announced from the top. While most local mosques have just a little one, the Blue Mosque has seven big minarets. Each are lined with speakers. When the call to prayer goes off (five times a day) watch the startled seagulls get blown of their perch.
Across a park from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. Built in the 5th century by Emperor Justinian it has served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, a mosque and finally a museum.
If you’ve read the Dan Brown book “Inferno” or watched James Bond “From Russia with Love” then you’re already familiar with Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, one of many cisterns built by the Roman’s under Istanbul.
Pockets of old world ambiance are still relatively easy to find in Istanbul. While I wouldn’t advise buying anything in the famous Spice Market, outside of a small ornament like souvenir, it still makes for a fascinating stroll.
When you’re done find a nearby hooka bar, sit outside puffing on the water pipe, and watch the stream of humanity go by.
The Bosporus bridge connects the old and new sections of the city. Day and night fisherman line either side. Boats on the old town’s end sell fresh fish sandwiches, hot off the grill.
When the Ottomans ruled Istanbul the Sultan lived in a huge palace, called Topkapi, in Sultanahmet. What struck us as odd about Topkapi was how open it was. It’s not one big palace but a collection of buildings. We were here in January and it was really cold.
One of our favorite memories is smoking hookah next to a mosque after having gone to a very authentic Turkish Bath.
There was definitely a “street food” experience in Istanbul. Whether you wanted fresh juice — blood oranges and pomegranate — or fresh fish sandwiches or Turkish tea, it could be found at street carts throughout the city. Inside and near the Grand Bazaar, men would push tea carts.