16 – 21 September 2010, Istanbul, Turkey
We arrived in Istanbul early in the morning after a red eye flight from Uganda. Willing ourselves to stay awake during the ride into the city, we watched with bleary eyes as the city passed by the tram windows. Despite our fatigue, I was captivated by the beautiful old buildings lining the narrow cobblestone streets and the hundreds of minarets dotting the skyline. We checked into our hotel and were immediately impressed with the building’s character and cleanliness, as well as with amenities like hot water, comfortable beds and fast internet. After two months of camping and subpar hotels in Africa, we couldn’t help but feel spoiled.
Former capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires and the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul bears the mark of many cultures. With such a colorful and extensive history, there are seemingly endless options for places to visit and things to see in Turkey’s capital city. If we had visited Istanbul towards the beginning of our around the world journey, I have no doubt we would have run ourselves ragged trying to see as much as possible. However, our arrival in Turkey coincided with the six month mark of our trip. After half a year on the road, we had adopted a different attitude towards sightseeing. Rather than exhaust ourselves trying to visit all the major tourist sites, we moved at a leisurely pace and took time to simply enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of this extraordinary city.
During our five days in Istanbul, we spent the majority of our time in the neighborhoods of Sultanahmet and Beyoglu. Sultanahmet is Istanbul’s Old City and a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site filled with the city’s most famous sights. While Sultanahmet has the potential to be charming, its close proximity to the major tourist attractions means that the streets are filled with tour buses and the sidewalks packed with a nearly constant stream of tourists. During the day we braved Sultanahmet’s crowds in order to visit the sights but once the sun set we retreated to cosmopolitan Beyoglu for delicious food and a breather from the tourist crowds. Beyoglu’s best feature is Istiklal Avenue, a 3 kilometer long pedestrian street filled with shops, cafes, restaurants, galleries, pubs and theaters. The street looks and feels like State Street on steroids and is an ideal place to spend an evening wandering and people watching.
One of the most impressive sights we visited in Istanbul was Aya Sofia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Originally built in 537, it was later converted into a mosque by one of Turkey’s greatest conquerors. In 1935 it was declared a museum and is now Istanbul’s most famous monument. We didn’t think much of Aya Sofia from the outside so we were pleasantly surprised when we journeyed into the building’s interior. The massive domed ceiling is incredible and it was fascinating to see the contrast between the Christian images on the walls and the Islamic calligraphy on the dome. We spent more time in Aya Sofia than originally planned because there were so many things to appreciate including some impressive mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints, emperors and empresses. Covered in plaster when the building was converted to a mosque, some have been uncovered and restored or partially restored. Despite their fragile state it’s easy to appreciate how much time and effort clearly went into creating these masterpieces.
Across the street from Aya Sofia is the Basilica Cistern, once used to store water for the city’s palace and surrounding buildings. We descended the stairway to find a cavernous space filled with 336 marble columns supporting an arched ceiling. The columns were salvaged from ruined buildings and although they’re roughly the same size there is great variation in their styling. Two columns sit atop oddly oriented Medusa heads. The Basilica Cistern turned out to be one of our favorite sights in Istanbul; it’s beautifully preserved and despite the same crowds that fill every tourist sight in the city, the subterranean space felt somehow more hidden and untouched.
We made sure to visit a few of Istanbul’s other highlights, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Spice Bazaar, and the Grand Bazaar. However, we most appreciated the city when we escaped the tourist surge and sought out areas frequented by locals. Turkey was significant as it marked our first visit to a predominantly Muslim country. It was interesting to see mosques throughout the city, women in headscarves and to hear the Islamic call to prayer reverberate through the neighborhoods. Not since Cape Town had we seen such a clean, beautiful and modern city. The food was also a welcome change, and Istanbul offered our first taste of Turkey’s abundance of fresh fruit and incredible bread. We entered Turkey with no definitive itinerary, and five days slipped by before we found the initiative to venture further afield.