Experiences in Istanbul

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Christian and I spent about four days in Istanbul. Enough time to hit the main sights and get a glimpse of some of the neighborhoods. But by no means enough to explore the nuances of this vast city where 11 million people are spread across 39 districts. Here are a few of our impressions and experiences.

  • What we learned on Istanbul’s history: Istanbul came to prominence when the Roman Emperor Constantine established it as one of the capitals of the Roman Empire under the name Constantinople in 330 AD. Since Constantine had converted to Christianity, Constantinople became one of the most important Christian cities, outside of Rome. Soon after, when the Roman Empire split in two (east and west), Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire. For the next several hundred years, Constantinople was the biggest metropolis of the Western Hemisphere. Islamic influence in the region increased and by 1453 the city became part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest Islamic empires in history, spanning through until the early 1900’s. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire emerged the modern day Turkish Republic in 1923 and the capital was moved to Ankara. Initially the population of Istanbul was decimated in half but structural changes and the modernization of the city together with an influx of people looking for work steadily increased the population. Today Istanbul is a unique combination of old and modern, East and West, and Islam and Christianity (and other religions).
  • “Must sees” in Sultanahmet: The main sights (most of them are in the Sultanahmet district) are definitely worth a visit, even though they are very touristy.
      • The Hagia Sofia specifically reflects the influence of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It’s an Orthodox Church, turned mosque, turned museum. So as you can imagine it is a pretty unique combination of Christian and Islamic architecture, art and symbols in one building.
      • The Blue Mosque is also a grand building with beautiful interior tile work (most of it with blue tiles, hence the name). It is an active mosque, therefore only a small part is roped off for visitors to go through and admire the interior. I’ve read in a blog post that it’s worth visiting some of the other big mosques in town that are equally impressive in order to avoid the crowds.
      • The Topkapi Palace. Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit this grand palace that was the primary residence of Ottoman Sultans. But I had the chance to visit it a few years ago. Back then I was impressed by the imperial harem (i.e., the Sultans private apartments with more than 400 rooms).
      • The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar: You can truly get lost in the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 61 streets! Lots of good souvenirs to buy there. But be ready to bargain. It’s part of the game. We took our time to stroll through and explore and after getting lost (as expected) we found ourselves in the book bazaar. That said, we behaved and didn’t buy anything as our carry-on only luggage is already close to its limits :). Also worth making a stop at the spice bazaar with its incredible number of spices, sweets and many other goodies.
      • Get lost walking around town: Satisfied to have seen the main attractions, Christian and I spent most of our time exploring the different neighborhoods. Our guesthouse (Hotel Nomade) was located in the main tourist area Sultanahmet. While incredibly convenient (and a nice place to stay at, especially with its amazing rooftop terrace and direct view on the Blue Mosque) we would probably pick a different neighborhood next time. We loved to walk around Karakoy or Galata (the broader Beyoglu district), getting lost amidst the cobble stone streets and observing what locals were up to. Istanbul is a city of contrasts. You walk down a street that seems to fall apart, then turn around a corner to find an art gallery next to a hip coffee shop where locals hang out. Taking the ferry over from the European to the Asian side was a great call as well. Not only did we get great views onto the Topkapi Palace but we mingled with locals on their daily commute. Over on the Asian side we explored Kadikoy, more of a student-like, alternative area with lots of bars and cafes, where locals were enjoying their Sunday afternoon teas or beers. A small but true taste of the local culture!
      • Enjoy the Rooftops: Istanbul has amazing rooftop restaurants and bars. Once you are up there you have a totally different impression of the city. Some of the hipper restaurants are hidden, so worth doing some research beforehand to find them. We enjoyed a romantic dinner at Leb-i-Derya. Modern Turkish food with incredible sunset views!
      • Cats are everywhere: You can’t spend a day in Istanbul without noticing cats. They are everywhere. On the roof deck of our B&B. In train stations. In every single neighborhood you’ll go to. Even in some restaurants. I must say I’m more of a dog person. Therefore, I was very surprised not only about the sheer number of cats “living” in this city (these cats are not owned by a single person but rather roam around freely) but also that the Turkish people love to pet and feed them. Most cats looked well taken care of and didn’t really bother anyone. And the more days we spent in Istanbul, the more the cats seemed to be an integral part of the city.
      • Eating traditional Turkish food at Ciya Sofrasi: We ate well in Turkey but this place stood out. Thank you to my friend Matthew Rascoff for the recommendation! The owner’s, Musa Dagdeviren’s, vision is to preserve traditional Turkish recipes. There are actually three restaurants in the same street. Two of them offer kebab, grilled meats and fish. The other one “Ciya Sofrasi” prepares what was typically the “home cooked” food with an incredible spread of mezzes (spreads and other appetizers), lentil and yogurt soups, meat balls in cherry sauce, lamb sausages, eggplant stews and many other tasty dishes. Here is a link to a 2010 New Yorker article that gives you the whole story!
      • Cooking traditional Turkish food at “Cooking Alaturka: Christian and I love new experiences. Plus, we both love good food and cooking. So what would be a better birthday present for Christian than to do a cooking class in Istanbul? Making our way through a thunderstorm and pouring rain we arrived at Cooking Alaturka, Istanbul’s first cooking school. We spent the first three hours in the kitchen cutting, stirring, sweating and laughing with Feyzi, the chef, and Mara, the host and sous-chef. Preparing Turkish food is really labor intensive, especially all the cutting of vegetables that need to go into the soup, spreads and sauces! Our work paid off. We had prepared a 5-course meal: Red lentil and bulgur soup, green runner beans cooked in an olive oil base, zucchini patties with herbs and cheese, lamb stew in tomato sauce and smoky eggplant puree, and walnut-stuffed figs in syrup. Not only did we get to enjoy these great dishes, but what we cooked was also served to the other guests at the restaurant that evening! What a great way to end our Turkey experience. Highly recommended!