My 2 days in Istanbul wasn’t nearly enough! This was a city that had been on my bucket list for years, though I didn’t actually know that much about it. The only images I had in my mind of Istanbul had been painted there from the stories I’d heard from fellow travelers over the years, all of whom told me I had to go; that Istanbul was a special place with a certain exoticness to it, that it was unique, that it was a beautiful, exciting. It was the only city in the world to sprawl across 2 continents. It was once Constantinople!
I had to know it.
And once I did I immediately understood what all those others guys had been on about.
Getting from Aratuk Airport to my hostel in Sultanamet was simple, or at least it should have been: take a train then take a bus – $4 later and I should have been there. Done. In reality I managed to miss my train stop (due to the incorrect advise of a friendly, but not so helpful local) which resulted in me having to backtrack. Eventually, I managed to get myself on the Tramway (T1) to the old district of the city. My hostel gave very detailed directions as to how to locate the place. A quick stroll through the park, past the Blue Mosque and around a bend and I was there.
I took in as many of the must see sights as I could without trying to do too much, leaving time to wander aimlessly and explore. I love getting a bit lost as I soak up a new environment.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
With its iconic 6 minarets the Blue Mosque is incredibly picturesque and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself! It’s 400 years old and only took 7 years to build, which is pretty impressive when you consider that the Taj Mahal (built during the same time) took over 20 years to complete! I visited it in the morning and only spent about 1 hour exploring the grounds. It was gorgeous and I really enjoyed photographing the striking mosaics while I sat and absorbed the beautiful atmosphere of the place.
Located just across the park for the Blue Mosque Aya Sofya is also well worth an hour of your time. I particularily enjoyed learning about the history of the building (how it was once a church, and then a mosque and now the museum that it is today) and how these changes were reflected in the mosaics, artifacts and art work found throughout the premise. The actual building itself is also stunning.
This place was really neat; probably one my favourite sights. It’s the oldest cistern in the city, built way back in 532! Originally it was built to store water for the nearby Great Palace but it closed down and was lost and forgotten until the mid 1500’s when it was discovered by the curiosity of civilians who found they could put buckets down holes in their basements and scoop up water! This lead to an investigation that revealed the cistern. Once found, it was used unceremoniously to dump garbage and all sorts of other waste and wasn’t opened to the public as a historic site until 1987.To get into the cistern you walk down this dark winding staircase into this underground reservoir full of over 300 pillars. The place is illuminated strategically to create a very mysterious and ancient atmosphere. It’s damp and kind of creepy. You explore the cavern by walking along a boardwalk raised just above the water. I particularily liked the 2 Medusa heads at the back and the mystery regarding how they got there.
Admission: 20 TL
The Grand Bazaar
*Closed on Sundays
I highly recommend taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Grand Bazaar but I warn you it’s a pretty overwhelming place. The Turkish have this delightful custom of serving apple tea to patrons as they shop. I first experienced this at the Grand Bazaar with a lovely scarf merchant. Both he and the tea were very nice and I had every intention on buying some of his wares when another couple came into the crowded shop and quickly purchased a few scarves for several hundred dollars. At that point I finished my tea and quietly disappeared into the crowd (I have an upper limit on the price I’ll pay for scarves and it maxes out somewhere around $25). I did buy some pistachio Turkish delight and some wonderful smelling “relax” tea for my family before I found my way out.
Sleeping – Bahouse Guesthouse
As far as hostels go, this one was pretty great. It had friendly atmosphere, was in the perfect location for me right in the heart of Sultanamet and their bartender Rusty was fantastic! The night I arrived they were having a BBQ so I signed up with the hopes of making some friends. I then, of course, sat awkwardly on the rooftop by myself feeling a bit alone and fairly jet lagged and socially awkward until I built up the nerve to introduce myself to the table that appeared to be having the most fun. They were a fun lot around the same age as me and I had a great time wasting my evenings away on the rooftop bar drinking beer, sharing adventure stories and, of course playing drinking games. At one point the games devolved into Spin the Bottle (a first for me at a hostel) and I was amused to find that this made everyone in the circle (a group of fairly sexually accomplished adults, if Never Have I Ever was any indication) giggling like they were a bunch of school kids again.
Tip: If you’re staying for a short period of time Sultanamet is a great base as must of the historic sights are found here. If you have more time Taksim is probably the better bet as it’s where all the nightlife is.
Was it Safe?
If you use your common sense (don’t go wandering down dark alleyways by yourself in the middle of the night) and practice a bit of extra caution, especially if you’re a solo female traveler, like I was. The men are very forward and I did run into few situations which made me uncomfortable and may have had the potential to become dangerous if I’d allowed myself to fall into a vulnerable position.
As it was, the worst encounters I had was multiple instances of men approaching me under false pretenses (pretending they’re tourists, asking for direction, asking to practice their English with me) and then very quickly trying to get me to go off with them or in one instance the bizarre request to hold their hand (made by a young man I met for all of about 2 minutes while I was walking across Galata Bridge). These men were a bit hard to shake off and tended to follow me even after I made clear attempts to leave the conversation. In the instance of the bridge hand holder I had to explicitly tell him that he was making me uncomfortable and I wanted him to leave me alone.
There was also the discrete sexual harassment made by many of the the scarf men who like to show you how to wrap their scarf in elegant ways, all the while leaning closer and closer to you until their crotch is pressing against your back – gross. But despite these experiences I didn’t feel particularly less safe in Istanbul than I have anywhere else I’ve travelled.
Being able to look out across the Bosphorus and see Asia. It was really cool to be standing at the border of two continents!
I also went on a really fantastic food tour with Urban Adventures where I was taken out by a local guide and brought to try all sorts of local cuisine that went from breakfast to dinner and included traditional snacks, drinks and dessert! We ate from food stalls, hidden backstreet cafes and traditional taverns. It was a very cool way to explore the city and learn about the culture and the locals.
All the cats! Istanbul is a cat lovers paradise. There are stray cats everywhere (and I mean everywhere – in the subway, in Aya Sofia, around every bend) and they’re well loved. People put out food for the strays and as a result they’re very friendly towards people. I really enjoyed just sitting in the park watching dozens of cats frolicking away!
Istanbul is fantastic! I would come back in a heartbeat and cannot wait to spend more time exploring both the city and the rest of the country!
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