This begins our first trip to Turkey. Although I’ve done the Sarah Palin version of an international visit, having seen Turkey from a Greek ferry more than twenty years ago, I’ve never actually set foot on Turkish soil, that is until two days ago when we landed in Istanbul just after midnight.
I tend not to know too much about a place until I actually land on the ground. Kind of like not wanting to read too much of a movie review before seeing the film. I like the surprise. And boy was I surprised. Who knows where one collects misinformed impressions? Istanbul is far tidier, more organized and more charming than I ever imagined.
We are staying in the Sultanahmet area near the top sights. It’s striking just how close together the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and the Topkapi Palace are, located in a small area and filled in between with hotels, restaurants and small shops all catering to tourists. Sounds Disneylandish and it is a way, but real, with stunning architecture and historical importance. For a first trip to Istanbul it is the perfect place to base your stay.
What to do in just two days? Without much of a clue we followed Lonely Planet’s two day itinerary, more like a two day blitz, it gives you a taste of this fabulous city and will leave to hungry for future visits.
At 9:00AM we started with the Aya Sofya, the entrance of which is off Sultanahmet square (the side facing the Blue Mosque). A magnificent Roman structure built by Emperor Justinian in 537, whose imposing size and impressive dome is enough to drop your jaw. Don’t miss the mosaics in the upper gallery.
Basilica Cistern, also built by Justinian in 532, originally to store water for the palace, is a dark underground cool sanctuary with a pathway that leads you through elegantly lit but mis-matched columns, originally salvaged from nearby ruins, to where two large Medusa heads, one upside down and the other on its side, are used as column supports.
Watch Opening Hours of the Blue Mosque
Not paying enough attention to prayer times we missed the morning opening of the Blue Mosque from 9:00AM – 12:15PM. We would have to return either between 2PM-4:30PM or 5:30PM – 6:30PM.
Next we headed north to the Grand Bazar, a tidy well lit maze of colorful shopping, fabrics, clothing, bags, ceramics, lamps and of course carpets all under roof.
Stop for lunch at a little square just outside of Gate 18. Our first taste of Turkish kebabs and cacik, a yogurt sauce or soup and ayran and a thin yogurt drink.
And on to the Spice Bazar, just north of the Grand Bazar towards the Galata Bridge. On a Friday afternoon the place was packed, but still the intoxicating scent of spices and teas lures us into the building. Tidy stalls display spices, teas, Turkish delight (a fruit jelly candy) and other Turkish sweets as well as various tourist trinkets.
Finally the Blue Mosque, an immense structure of elegant proportions built by Sultan Ahmet in the early 1600’s to rival the Aya Sofya. And while the inside is worth donning a scarf, the painted walls in various Islamic motifs somehow don’t have the same sophistication as the Aya Sofya.
Dinner in Beyoglu
Dinner in Beyoglu just off a Taksim square across the Galata Bridge from the Sultanahmet area. Needing to stop by the Turkish Airlines office at Taksim square we took the opportunity to take a spin through Instanbul’s trendier shopping district. There is an easy tram system that should whisk you across the channel, but late on a Friday afternoon it was a slow, packed train on a journey that felt like it would never end. Was Taksim really this popular? Certainly Istiklal Caddesi (street) was a sea of strolling Turks and foreign tourists despite the thunder shower rolling through.
Stopped for dinner at Kenan Usta Ocakbasi at Kurabiye Sokak No. 18. Zubeyir Ocakbasi, next door and recommended in Lonely Planet, was unfortunately full. We had no idea what to expect. Our waiter seemed to just want us to order from the list of meat dishes and they would take care of the rest which turned out to be first cold meze plates – garlic yogurt dip, humus, melon, cheese and black eye peas with olives. Next, warm plates – a spicy tomato pepper dish, eggplant, green salad (not warm), grilled long green peppers and sautéed onions.
When the meat dishes we ordered arrived we were too full to eat them but of course they were also too tempting to pass up – special spicy lamb, grilled chicken, grilled lamb chops, and “meat on a stick”. The meal ended with complimentary fruit – sliced apple, green plums, sliced banana with honey and nuts, and strawberries. As for the check, they charged us for all the meze dishes in addition to the meat dishes we had ordered. How you would order the meal without the meze or if you could, I have no idea. Including drinks the bill was 50TL per person.
April 27, 2012
For links to all the posts in this series see the Turkey page.