Located on the Bosporus, on the border of the European and Asian continents, the Turkish city of Istanbul is a city full of bazaars, mosques and good food, in short: our expectations upon departure are are high!
We take a flight with a stopover in Zurich, which is cheaper, but when we arrive at Istanbul airport, the transfer turns out to be disadvantageous, because our luggage is still in Zurich. We are promised that our luggage will be delivered to the hotel tomorrow evening. Well, let’s hope so.
From the airport we take the metro to the center of Istanbul. This ride takes about half an hour and costs (like all other metro rides in the city) 1.30 lire, about eighty eurocents. Our final station is Aksaray, near the street where our hotel is located and which has the same name: the Aksaray caddesi. When we exit the station, we are immediately swamped by the hectic pace of the city. On the square in front of the station there are many traders in fruit, clothing and other items, the noise of traffic comes from all sides and all kinds of smells reach our noses. Welcome to Turkiye, welcome to Istanbul.
After a good night’s sleep, we get up at eight for our first real day in Istanbul. After a (simple) breakfast we walk out, into the busy Bazaar district. We walk along the Ordu caddesi, where shops and busy traffic dominate the streets. Where the Ordu caddesi changes into the Yeniçerber cadessi, you walk from the Bazaar district into the Sultanahmet district. This is the old part of the center. Asphalt makes way for cobblestones.
At the end of the street is Sultanahmet Square, a park with a large pond in the middle. When you stand in the middle of the park, to your left is the Aya Sofia camii (camii = mosque) and on your right you see the huge Sultanahmet camii, or the Blue mosque. The latter is the most impressive from the outside, with six elongated minarets that stand out against the blue sky. The only other mosque in the world to also have six minarets, is the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It’s an overwhelming feeling to stand between these two great works of art.
At the entrance of the Blue Mosque we take off our shoes. Inside the mosque, which was built in the seventeenth century, it is too busy to speak of a serene atmosphere. But still, the building is impressive. In the center of the mosque is a huge dome, which rests on four robust pillars. The light comes through large windows, which are fitted with colored glass.
On the northwest side of the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome, the site that was the political center at the time when Istanbul was the heart of the Byzantine Empire (similar to the Roman Forum in Rome). Now it is a park with benches, only the two obelisks and the text in the travel guide remind us of the history of this place.
The Aya Sofia is no longer in use as a mosque: it has been turned into a museum, which is handy because for a museum you can charge an entrance fee. The Aya Sofia is less impressive on the outside than the Blue mosque, but the inside makes up for that. The mosque was built in the seventh century and is therefore no less than a thousand years older than the Blue Mosque. Yet the builders of the Blue Mosque have failed to recreate a dome like that of the Aya Sofia, which seems to float above the central space of the mosque without visible pillars. The dome is being restored, whicj seems necessary, judging from the condition of the paintings on the inside of the dome.
After we have seen the Aya Sofia and are back in the park, the call to prayer sounds from all sides. Alternately, a voice blares from the loudspeakers of the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and a nearby third mosque. It is already half past one when we sit down on a terrace on the corner of the square for lunch. Quite a touristy spot, but the food is fine.
After lunch we go to the Yerebatan Sarnici, or the Basilica Cistern. This is a large underground water reservoir from the Byzantine era (6th century). Under a former basilica (hence the name), this was one of the water storage sites of Istanbul (then Byzantium). Now you can walk through the cistern on a wooden decking. The building is reminiscent of an underground cathedral with its columns and vaults. Due to the beautiful lighting, the vaults reflect in the water, which gives a surreal effect in photographs.
When we are back above the ground, we walk past the Hürren Sultan Hamami, an old bathhouse, which now serves as a carpet shop. Weird combination. At the entrance of the Topkapi Palace, the palace turns out to be closed for the rest of the day, so we continue to Sirkeci Gari, the train station that was the terminus for trains coming from Europe in the glory days of the Orient Express. The Orient Express restaurant on platform 1 is still there.
A little further on we arrive at the quay of the Eminönü district. Here, at the head of the Haliç (The Golden Horn), the ferries dock from here to elsewhere along the Bosporus. It is a busy place. Along the quay, fishermen stand with their rods over the railing and ferries come and go. Tired of walking, we find a terrace under the Galata Küprüsü (the Galata Bridge), one of the two bridges that connect this part of Istanbul with the northern part of the city, on the other side of the Golden Horn. Under the bridge, on the water, there are all kinds of cafes and restaurants with a view over the water and both banks. A perfect place for a drink. After our drink we cross the Galata Bridge to look for a restaurant in the Beyoglu district, where we have delicious mezzes.
The next morning we walk to the Kapali Çarsi, or the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar consists of a maze of covered streets with shops. Jewellery, clothing, water pipes, tea glasses, carpets, leather jackets, you can buy everything here. A real shoppers paradise, if you like a lot of bling and don’t mind that the Ralph Lauren logo on your shirt is fake. You can wander around the bazaar endlessly.
After seeing enough of the bazaar, we walk down a number of streets where the residents of Istanbul do their shopping themselves. Here too, all shops have displayed their stuff in front of and on their facade. It’s a busy place as well, but unlike in the Grand Bazaar there are few tourists here. All the more old men and veiled women.
Via a few up and down streets, we arrive at the Süleymaniye camii, a large mosque that sits on top of a hill and can therefore be seen from all over the area. In contrast to the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, it is a lot quieter here (which fits better with the atmosphere of a mosque). The courtyard of the Süleymaniye mosque is very photogenic, which makes for some nice pictures.
Then we walk towards the Misir Çarsisi, or the spice bazaar. Again down small streets full of shops. The spice bazaar is a lot smaller than the Grand Bazaar. Here they mainly sell spices, baklava and ‘Turkish delight’. Our feet have earned some rest by now, so just outside the spice bazaar we look for a terrace to have a cup of tea. When we have recovered we get a box of baklava at the bazaar. We walked past so many shops where the baklava was seductively staring at us, that we have to take a box home.
On our fourth day in Istanbul it is more cloudy than before. After breakfast we take the tram to the Topkapi Palace. This Ottoman palace was largely built in the fifteenth century and consists of several walled gardens and buildings elaborately decorated with colored tiles and gold leaf. Here the sultan lived with his harem and from here he ruled his empire. From the furthest garden you have a beautiful view over the Bosporus.
Next we walk to the harbor of Eminönü. Small boats are moored here, and on the quay you can buy freshly baked fish sandwiches. While we eat our sandwich on the square and stroll past the Istanbulus, the call to prayer sounds again.
This afternoon we take a boat trip on the Bosporus (locally known as the Istanbul Bogazi). First, the cruise takes us along the European side of the city. From the water we can see the neighborhoods of Besiktas and Ortaköy, the Dolmabahçe Palace and the Ortaköy camii. This small mosque stands right next to the Bosphorus köprüsü, the first bridge to connect the European continent with the Asian one. Further north is the second connection, the Fatih köprüsü. From there we sail back along the Asian side of the city (Üsküdür). It is quite windy and it is quite cold on board, but the trip is worth it.
Back on the mainland, we take the tram to the Grand Bazaar, where we stroll around and indulge in baklava before heading back to our hotel.
On our last day in Istanbul we take the tram to Beyoglu, the area north of the Galata Bridge. The neighborhood is located on a hill and from the bridge the first part goes up quite steeply. The Galata Tower is the last attraction we visit. Beyoglu is mainly the neighborhood of the restaurants and the long shopping street Istikal caddesi. This is modern Istanbul. The car-free shopping street (with a classic tram), the high-quality range of shops and the many coffee bars give this part of the city a modern, almost hip appearance. The Istikal caddesi could just as easily pass for a shopping street in Paris or Barcelona.
In the course of the afternoon we have to go to the airport for our flight back home. Our Istanbul city trip is over. The city is absolutely worth it. If you have to compare Istanbul, it is a combination of Rome and Barcelona plus a touch of the Middle East. A hectic, overwhelming and at the same time atmospheric city, with beautiful sights and many restaurants where you can eat delicious food. Recommended!