When I Went: July 2012
Was That the Best Time of Year to Go? It was a great time of year because of the costs. Things were really starting to get hot and I bet August would be pretty brutal. Being from Texas though, I was able to drink plenty of water and get through it. One of the lovely things is that the Turkish lira has such a favorable exchange rate that bottles of water are sold everywhere and can be found for the equivalent of about 20 American cents.
Why I Went There: It’s a major city that is far enough away that the culture is completely foreign. It’s modern and metropolitan but also richly layered in ancient history. Istanbul is the largest city in all of Europe and for nearly a thousand years Constantinople (the renamed city of Byzantium and the future city of Istanbul) was probably the most influential in the world. I’m a teacher so I can’t afford to travel much. I’ve been going where I can, based on cost alone, but there are so many wondrous places in the world that it’s been fine avoiding the expensive trips. As an educator, I feel the need to embody the desire to continue learning and living life.
Who Went With Me? My best friend and girlfriend, one and the same. It’s important to have someone with you that has similar desires and similar endurance.
We Stayed Here: We stayed at the Hotel Vicenza on the north part of the old historical section. It was an average hotel. Any large hotel like this is semi-Americanized, but without paying top dollar, it’s still only semi. I still don’t understand why hotels around the world don’t have fans. The AC in any hotel is going to be spotty at best. It won’t get your room below the 80s and the AC will only work while you’re in the room. This is common practice in this area of the world. When I travel, I don’t go to see the hotel. I found the hotel sufficient to be restful and supply me with a quality shower and an impressively decent breakfast. The location is great and it’s so easy to get to the mass transit or to walk to many of the sites. Istanbul is so absolutely huge that it’s hard to describe. The city is divided in half by the Bosphorus Straight that separates Europe and Asia. The European side is basically divided by the Golden Horn which is a large inlet of water. The north side of the Golden Horn is the modern city that surrounds Taksim Square. The south side of the Golden Horn is the ancient city that is centered about Sultanahmet Square. This hotel is located on the northern portion of the peninsula that is the south side of the Golden Horn.
You Won’t Want to Miss: There are all the usuals that will define what it means for a thing to be wonderful and awesome. Around Sultanahmet Square, you have the Hagia Sophia which is a testament to religious tolerance, architecture and beauty. The Topkapi Palace was the last of the old Sultans before they Westernized their residence and holds so much culture and opulence. It’s hard to describe the Basilica Cistern’s scope until you’re there. It’s such a vast underground building that the Romans developed to hold water. I suggest going into Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) but don’t let that be the only mosque you visit. Istanbul has such a rich history that the National Archaeological Museum is fantastic from the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great to the oldest peace accord that is the Treaty of Kadesh to the Ishtar Gate that was the entrance to Babylon. Make sure you walk down the Hippodrome that is at the center of the parks of Sultanahmet. You may not even realize at first that you’re walking across the old Byzantine sports arena looking at the monuments that stand such as the bronze Serpent Column made from the melted Persian weapons taken from the Oracle of Delphi in Greece when the Romans relocated their capital here. The Grand Bazaar is such a fantastic complex of over four thousand shops and it’s the world’s oldest shopping mall. Those are just the basics. You have to travel north to the port of Eminonu on the Golden Horn and walk under the Galata Bridge and see the shops. Walk up Istiklal Street that is the completely pedestrianized thoroughfare up on your way towards Taksim Square. A trolley will help your feet going the rest of the way if you get tired. Taksim Square is the center of the modern city and restaurants and shops surround the area. Galata Tower looms overhead and can be a good vantage point for the city. If you travel up along the Bosphorus Straight (numerous boats leave the port regularly), you can visit the Dolmabahce Palace, where the Ottoman sultans moved after leaving Topkapi and desiring a more Western residence. If you cruise further up the Bosphorus you’ll see various fortresses that were built during the Siege of Constantinople including the Rumeli Fortress. You’ll cross under great suspension bridges on the way towards the Black Sea. Take any of the Bosphorus Cruises to the last stop on the Asian side and see such a peaceful village atmosphere on the shores of the Black Sea. Climb to the top and see the old fortifications. Make sure to check out a few of the mosques. Süleymaniye mosque is beautiful and oversees the Golden Horn or the Beyazid Mosque next to the Grand Bazaar. Head west to Eyüp Mosque which is one of the most holy sites in all of Islam. Eyüp was the standard bearer of Muhammad. There aren’t tourists out there, and it’s much more traditional.
Eat Here: Of course, you have to sample your lokum (Turkish delight!) as well as your fair shares of doner sandwiches. You need to have some Turkish coffee and Turkish tea–black or apple. I have to make two specific suggestions on sustenance, though. First of all, on the northern side of Eminonu (the port on the Golden Horn), you will have find several boats docked on the shore. You can walk right up to them and, for four or five Turkish Lira (about $2), you can buy a balik-ekmek. That’s literally a fishbread. The person you’re dealing with is literally still standing on the boat and has grilled a filet of fish and throws it into a sliced loaf of bread alongside some onions. The bread is delivered to them but the fish is thrown from boat to boat before it’s handed to you. Watch out for the little bones, and be prepared to go back for another one! Second of all, you’ll have to arrange bus transport or a taxi to get up to Camlica Hill on the Asian side. Transport is easy to arrange from Sultanahmet Square. This is one of the tallest hills and overlooks almost all of Istanbul. You can have a quality dinner up on the terrace on a Friday or Saturday night at sunset for two for under 60 TL (about $30), which is amazing.
Play Here: You definitely need to check out a hamam (a Turkish bath). There are many historical ones across the city with several in the Sultanahmet district. I was able to walk to Cemberlitas nearby which is about 500 years old. I didn’t pay for the massage but I got the full service experience with scrubbing and fresh squeezed orange juice for about 75 TL (about $40). Men and women have separate facilities. You lay down in your little towel on the hot marble platform and perspire until one of the attendants scrub and bubble wash your body and hair. There’s a small individual shower area where you can rinse and take care of your private business. It’s relaxing and definitively Turkish.
If I Went Again: I’d learn to speak even more Turkish! I picked up a lot just while I was there. Their language was rewritten about 75 years ago by the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It makes the phonetics and grammar extremely easy to learn and pick up. I found it far simpler to learn than any other language I’ve studied including Spanish, French or Italian.
How Did You Get There From Dallas? We flew from DFW to Istanbul with a layover in Rome. The airport is connected via rail so it was easy to get all the way into the city.
Other Tips For Fellow Travelers: I was there for a full week and every day was jam packed from sunrise to well beyond sunset. I was moving at an extraordinary pace and there was never anything left. The Turkish people are so embracing and welcoming. If you show any interest at all, they are genuinely excited about showing you their culture. I wish I could go back and see more of the interior of Turkey.