Monday, 17 August 2015

City Guides: 6 Things Not To Miss in Istanbul

Istanbul is the most highly populated city in Turkey and has the interesting quirk of being located in both Europe and Asia.   It is situated on the Bosphorus River, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.   Around 64% of the population lives in Europe (the Thracian side) and the remainder in Asia (on the Anatolian side).

We booked an apartment through Air BnB and spent a week exploring the city.   We also discovered that Turkish mosquitos LOVE LT and they spent much of the week eating him alive.   I’m usually a pretty tasty snack for them, but he’s clearly way more enticing.   

Sultan Ahmet Mosque
hagia sophia
Hagia Sophia

Days 1 and 2: Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Mosquito Bite Count: around 40
Mood: Itchy and Mildly Annoyed

Hagia Sophia:
This former Christian basilica and mosque is now a museum and one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture in the world.   The famous dome and minarets can be seen from all around and it tends to be a very busy attraction.  We waited around 30 minutes to buy tickets, but it was definitely worth the wait.   The interior is filled with mosaics and marble pillars and I guarantee you’ll come out with a sore neck from all the craning you’ll do.   

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque):
The functioning Mosque is just a coupe of minutes walk from Hagia Sophia and gets it’s nickname from the blue coloured tiles that surround its interior.  This was the highlight of my trip and although, again, there was a wait to get in, it was well worth it.   You must remove your shoes before entering and ladies must cover their heads before proceeding.  You can pick up a headscarf at the entrance, where they are very kindly left out for you.  The Mosque has a massive main dome, 8 minarets and 6 further, smaller domes, which give it its beautiful shape.   Sultan Ahmet Mosque is widely considered to be the last great Mosque of the Classical Period.  It’s also worth going back to see at night when people crowd around the nearby fountains and the Mosque is fabulously lit against the dark.   Both this and Hagia Sophia can be accessed on the tram to the Sultan Ahmet stop.

Hagia Sophia lit up at night
The beautiful Blue Mosque in the evening
Hagia Sophia by night

Days 3 and 4:  Basilica Cistern and Street Food
Mosquito Bite Count: 140 approx.
Mood: Miserable, Even More Itchy, and In Need of Beer

Basilica Cistern:
Descending 52 stone steps into the cavernous vaults below the city streets will see you enter the Sunken Palace.    James Bond fans might recognise it from 007’s adventures in ‘From Russia With Love’, and Dan Brown enthusiasts from final scenes of the author’s book ‘Inferno’.    I was way too busy marveling at the dark and creepy interior, which was made to seem darker as we’d just come out of the brilliant sunshine.   I spent much of my time trying not to lose LT as he darted around taking photos.   Luckily, I managed to hear his soft Scouse accent in amongst the throngs of foreign tongues, as he regularly cursed and clawed at his new mosquito bites.   This made him a bit easier to locate.  

The Basilica is a maze of columns and pathways and is easy to navigate.  One of the highlights is the Medusa column, which manages to be beautiful and ugly as sin at the same time.

Street Food, Turkish Tea and Local Beer:
After spending the following morning checking out our local neighbourhood, we spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun and trying out the local cuisine.   We stumbled upon the tiniest café I’ve ever seen, with a food cart outside serving up chicken breast, white rice and chickpeas.  It sounds simple, but it was sooo tasty and incredibly cheap.   On each tabletop in the Café (by which I mean both of them), were clay pots with whole chilies in them.   I stuck a couple in my chicken pilaf and proceeded to make lots of odd panting noises and the inside of my mouth slowly melted away.   They. Were. Fabulous.    So fabulous, in fact, that I bought a jar to take home with me.    

After setting my chops on fire, we moved on to some Turkish apple tea, which was served cold with a bit of sugar to sweeten and then rounded off the late afternoon and early evening with a few local Turkish ‘Efes’ beers in the shadow of the Blue Mosque. 

A well deserved refreshment
Choose your fresh fruit and have it squeezed into a cup while you wait.
Basilica Cistern in all its creepiness...
Medusa Columns.
Day 5:  Cruising The Bosphorus and Topkapi Palace
Mosquito Bite Count: almost 200
Mood: Approach With Caution…

Cruising The Bosphorus:
As poor LT was, by now, almost entirely covered in bites, we thought we’d take the day and head out on a cruise.   We decided on a boat with a roof, so that he could stay inside.   We haggled on prices with some vendors outside the Blue Mosque and got a great deal on a short circle cruise around The Golden Horn.     

We hopped aboard at the dock and set sail.  It was fantastic to view all the Minarets of Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, and all the other places of worship as we peacefully floated around the river and beneath the massive bridges that carry vehicles from Europe to Asia and back.  

We also got to sail around Maiden’s Tower, which sits on a little islet.   It was also featured in the Bond movie “The World Is Not Enough’, which is the second time I’ve written about Bond movies in this post.   I’m not actively trying to visit Bond movie sets; it just so happens that these are the facts that stick with me.   My head is full of useless knowledge.  

Cruising the Bosphorus gives you a great sense of how massive Istanbul is and provides wonderful views of the unique skyline on both sides of the river.

Topkapi Palace and Grounds:
Once back on dry land, we hit up Topkapi Palace and Grounds.  Now a major tourist attraction, it was previously home to the Ottoman Empire for 400 years.  It is now a museum and holds extremely valuable artefacts from the Muslim religion, which includes the cloak and sword of Muhammed.  

Topkapi is also a UNESCO world heritage site and quoted as one of the best surviving examples from the Ottoman Empire.  It has huge grounds with beautiful gardens that can be enjoyed, as well as the interior.  It seemed to be a popular hangout for sunbathers and it’s wise to set aside a good few hours to properly experience it.   Topkapi is located within a few minutes walk of The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, so everything here is in close proximity. 

A bit of mosquito relief for LT 
stunning city views from the Bosphorus
Topkapi Palace and Gardens

We did spend a full seven days in Turkey, but our trip to Cappadocia and the Grand Bazaar were fully deserving of their own posts…which they now have.   Ever get the feeling I’m trying to drag something out?  Quite.   

PS - LT made it home in one piece, with just a few bite scars to remind him of his trip to Istanbul.  

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