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Published: April 5th 2010
Hagia Sophia Outside
Approaching the Hagia Sophia Museum on foot.
Our first visit to Turkey was an awesome experience. This blog will share my experience of our first visit to Istanbul. I also write for the Associated Content website and have posted an article about this trip titled Need A New Vacation Destination? Discover Turkey
. If you like this blog you will want to read the article because it contains a lot more detail and history of this interesting city.
In 2006 my wife and I planned our first family vacation to Istanbul. She is Turkish and wanted to show me her homeland. The opportunity to visit such an ancient land fascinated me, so I conducted a little research prior to our journey there. I did this to learn more about her country, which I knew absolutely nothing about and also to map out all of the important stops that I wanted us to make while we were there. The links I've included at the end of this blog will help you to conduct your own research and map out key areas of interest, as there is much to explore.
As an adult I had never been outside the borders of America, so when our plane finally landed (about 14 hours later) my stomach was
Hagia Sophia Mosaic
Beautiful mosaic being restored.
full of butterflies. My wife's brother was meeting us at the airport to pick us up. Ali would be our official tour guide for the next three weeks, and would show us many parts of Istanbul that were off the beaten path. These destinations are my favorite because they allow you to see the true culture of a city, not just the sites that are geared up for tourism.
As we left the Istanbul Ataturk Airport and began driving through the city it became quickly apparent that I wasn't in Kansas anymore. Although there were occasional signs that I could read in English, just about everything I saw was written in Turkish (the country's mother tongue). One of the first things that I noticed was the age of the city. Istanbul is thousands of years old, and many of the buildings are extremely aged and lavished with unique architecture. Whenever I try to point out something "historical" to my wife here in America, she is quick to remind me that my country is only a couple of centuries old. She jokingly tells me that Turkey has many outdoor café's that are older than that. Okay, so we're the new
Hagia Sophia Entrance
My beautiful wife Alev inside the entrance to the Museum.
kids on the block, I get it.
We had the luxury of staying at our condo in Istanbul during most of our stay, but we did treat ourselves to one week in Antalya (Described below). We were also fortunate enough to have Ali act as our official tour guide while we were there. For tourists who don't have this ideal setup, there are plenty of good hotels in Istanbul that are close to where you will want to visit. The city's mass transit system is complete with an arsenal of busses, trolleys, subways, and ferries. Of course, cabs are plentiful and can be easily located just about anywhere you will visit. You can also rent a car, but given how aggressive drivers are in this city (they make New York drivers look tame) you would be better advised to stick to the city's extensive transportation system.
Our trip was exhausting because the flight itself took 14 hours, but with layovers we spent over 20 hours of travel time. Turkey is 7 hours ahead of America, so although we caught a late afternoon flight out of Columbus it was around 9 am when we reached Istanbul. When we finally
Hagia Sophia Domes
Beautiful architecture inside the museum.
arrived at the condo the first thing we did was unpack our luggage (yes, I'm happy to say it arrived safely with us), collapse on the couch, and drink a hot cup of Turkish tea (spelled cay and pronounced ch-eye). It's a strong black tea that tastes delicious. The Turks drink it constantly and you can find it everywhere.
I quickly broke out my digital camera to ensure that it was ready for our upcoming excursion. We then began to formulate a game plan for what sites we would visit in the upcoming week. A little side note here about the digital camera. If you usually use a time-date stamp on your pictures...don't use this overseas. My 2006 vacation time-date stamp reverted back to 01/01/2004 because it couldn't handle the European time change, so my advice is to turn this feature off.
The next day we headed out to hit the town, and the first stop we made the Hagia Sophia. Our planned stops that day were the Hagia Sophia; Basilica Cistern; Topkapi Palace Museum, and the Grand Bazaar. Admittedly it was a pretty ambitious schedule, but if you visit the Sultanahmet district you can see many of
Hagia Sophia Dome Closeup
Beautiful architecture closeup.
these sites in just a day or two because most of them are located within this region and some are within walking distance of each other.
There is something magical about visiting an ancient country and viewing structures that have stood for over 1,000 years. Our visit to the Hagia Sophia was amazing. Constantine originally built the Great this huge structure as a Christian church in the fourth century. In 1453 Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer converted it into a mosque, and in 1934 it was converted into a museum. I noticed several beautiful but damaged mosaics on the walls that are currently in the process of being restored, but the overall architecture of the building was most impressive.
From the Hagia Sophia we walked a short distance to the Basilica Cistern. This grand underground cistern is known locally as the sunken palace and was built by the Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century. It served as a functional water supply for the city as late as 1453 when the Ottoman Turks established running water rendering it obsolete. There are 336 columns supporting this massive underground structure, and the columns containing the inverted head of Medusa as a
Basilica Cistern Entrance
Entrance to the Basilica Cistern.
base fascinated me. The cavern
was dark and cool, and many of the structures that held standing water also contained large goldfish that swam about freely. I could see where numerous people had thrown coins into the water as if it were a wishing well.
As we left the cistern I snapped a picture of the Blue Mosque as we walked by it. It is extremely close the cistern and is another major tourist attraction.
After visiting the Basilica Cistern we drove to the Topkapi Palace Museum. The Topkapi Palace Museum was the grand home of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and has been restored to its original pristine condition. We had fun looking at all of the ancient weapons used by the Ottoman Turks. I was surprised to find the jewel-encased skull, hand, and arm of John the Baptist displayed in the holy relics section of this museum. We weren't supposed to take pictures in this room, but I quickly snapped a picture and moved on before the guard could confiscate my camera. There was a plaque beside the case that explained how and when his bones were moved to this location, but I couldn't get a picture
Ali and Figen posing by the Medusa column.
of it because by now I had the museum guard's attention.
By now we were getting hungry so we stopped at an outdoor café and had lunch. Turks love to eat outside and the country literally has thousands of outdoor cafes just about everywhere you look. Right across from this café stood the Istanbul University, which has existed for over 500 years. This is another landmark that was erected during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror. While were eating at the café I noticed a local police officer nearby and decided to get my picture taken with him.
The next day we resumed our touring with a trip to the Grand Bazaar. This mammoth building was built in 1455 by; you guessed it, Mehmet the Conqueror. It is currently home to thousands of vendors selling everything imaginable. This building is so immense that it actually has a map to help you navigate the 60 streets and 5,000 shops. Turkish vendors love to haggle and several of them who recognized that I wasn't Turkish approached me.
We returned home to shower and cool off, and then headed out to another outdoor seaside café overlooking the Bosphorus strait. I
Basilica Cistern Medusa
Closeup of Medusa column.
sat there drinking tea and watching the ships pass along the coast. The view was wonderful and I noticed a street vendor selling roasted corn on the sidewalk by the seaside. Turks love to eat roasting ears and you can find these vendors scattered throughout the city.
The Turkish cuisine is perhaps the largest and most diverse fare in the world. For those who are unfamiliar with it I have found that if you like Greek food, you'll love Turkish food. To my American palate I found both of these cuisine's to be very similar, but the main difference I noticed was the much larger variety of Turkish foods to choose from. Of course, the meal wouldn't be complete without desert, and Turkish Baklava is simply to die for! We visited the Gulluoglu Baklava Café in Istanbul as they have the best selection of fresh baked baklava in Turkey. They are the oldest pastry shop in Turkey with over one hundred flavors to choose from. Being American I tried the chocolate baklava and loved it. My Turkish wife jokingly told me that only tourists eat this, but who cares, it was delicious.
Things to eat while in Istanbul
The Blue Mosque
Outdoor shot of the Blue Mosque.
include: Doner kebab (Turkish gyro); Karniyarik (eggplant stuffed with spiced ground beef); Lahmacun (across between a Mexican tostado and pizza); and marinated lamb chops just to name a few. My advice is to experiment and have fun, as there is plenty to choose from.
Turkey has some of the best hotels in the world. They are pristine, rich with unique architecture, and truly all-inclusive (unlike most American hotels). We stayed at the Topkapi Palace Hotel for one week. This is a seaside hotel located in Antalya, and we had a wonderful experience there. I simply can't say enough good things about this hotel. This hotel was fashioned after the original Topkapi Palace Museum that we visited in Istanbul.
This hotel had four swimming pools (including a wave pool for the kids), three restaurants (free meals with reservations), three outdoor bars (I drank free beer all day), an outdoor auditorium where nightly plays performed, and a barbershop, which offered free haircuts. The main dining area in the hotel contained an old fashioned brick-fired oven where they baked special pita bread that is normally served only during the month of Ramadan. I absolutely went crazy for this bread, as it
Topkapi Palace Museum
Alp and Ali posing by Ottoman Turkish weapons.
was the best fresh-baked
bread I have ever had. It literally melted in my mouth, and people stood in line to snatch it up as soon as it came out of the oven. You can learn more about this hotel Here
Other than our brief excursion to Antalya we stayed in Istanbul for two weeks and took in numerous sites. I must say that this is one fascinating city that I could have spent at least a month exploring further. One thing's for sure, if you begin your exploration of Turkey with a visit to Istanbul, then I guarantee that you won't be disappointed and you will want to return to see the other beautiful cities just waiting to be discovered.
When visiting Istanbul, my top picks for evening activities include drinking cay at an outdoor seaside café, and taking a nighttime ferryboat ride across the Bosphorus. You can research all of these and more from the Turkey Travel Planner website Here
Next time I'll talk about our first visit to beautiful Izmir, which is another city you will definitely want to experience for yourself. It is located just 45 minutes away from the Greek islands, which
Topkapi Palace Museum
Entrance to Topkapi Palace Museum.
you can visit by ferryboat.
Thanks for listening,
Eric the Turkish Traveler
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