East Meets West in Istanbul

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November 23rd 2014
Published: December 24th 2014
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Blue MosqueBlue MosqueBlue Mosque

View from the garden between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque
Many have used the colloquialism "East meets West" to describe cities like Hong Kong and Taipei as a marriage of the Orient and the Occident, but while it's cliche to portray anything as such, nothing holds truer to that mantra than Istanbul. Nowhere else on the planet can you find geography, politics, religion, and race from both hemispheres mold into an amalgam that is the metropolis present today. The people here don't appear quite Arabic, but they aren't quite European; the cuisine isn't exactly Middle Eastern, but it's not exactly Western; the places of worship aren't fully Islamic in architecture, but neither are they Christian. Confused yet intrigued at the same time, Kristina and I were excited to explore Tripadvisor's top destination for 2014.

Formerly known as Constantinople, this city was the capital of four empires--Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman--attesting to its historical significance. It was the crossroads of two continents, making it the cultural and economic pulse of the ancient world. If one ever needed a fine cup of tea while ruling a kingdom, this was the place to do it. Besides tea, Istanbul is also famous for its grand bazaars, flavorful food, and ornate mosques. To visit these
Spice Market Spice Market Spice Market

Wide assortment of spices and sweets so distinctive of Turkey
attractions, you'll need an IstanbulKart that can be purchased at yellow machines in metro and tram stations for 10 liras (6 for the card and 4 in ride credit). This is how the locals commute and is a cheap and convenient means of transport.

The first stop on your journey should be in Sultanamet on the T1 line from Aksaray to Kabatas. This is the historic center where the famous Hagia Sophia stood as the world's largest cathedral for a thousand years before being converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. Closer to the Hippodrome nearby is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), which is surprisingly more majestic and esthetic than its counterpart and is what Kristina and I consider the most spectacular landmark we've ever visited. The distinguishing feature is the six minarets from which the calls to prayer (ezan) are blasted five times a day, as opposed to four that are customary, which caused controversy when Sultan Ahmed insisted it be built this way to rival its predecessor, the Hagia Sophia. If the vibrant blue and insanely high ceilings aren't enough to lure visitors, the Blue Mosque is free to enter while the Hagia Sophia is not,
Hagia SophiaHagia SophiaHagia Sophia

The world's largest cathedral for 1000 years before being converted to a mosque in 1453.
since the latter is now a museum. Just remember to cover your head with a scarf if you're female and all guests are required to remove and place their shoes in the plastic bags provided.

Around the corner on Divanyolu Caddesi is the massive underground water supply that serviced the city during the 6th century and required 7,000 slaves to construct. The Basilica Cisterns' (Yerebatan Sarnic) dimly illuminated columns possess an eerie aura as you tour the venue for 20 liras apiece. When finished, take the tram from Sultanamet towards Kabatas and get off at Eminonu. Head southwest and you'll find the Spice Market (Misir Carsisi) just behind the New Mosque (Yeni Camii), where eager vendors offer free Turkish delights (lokum) and baklava samples. Try these flaky sweet treats while surveying the countless spices that make this country so distinctive, then roam the streets in search of cheap eats like pide (flatbread with meat and vegetable toppings) or simit (sesame covered pretzels).

Now embark on a ferry and make your way to another continent. You can use the same IstanbulKart and board a Sehir Hatlari boat from Eminonu port to Uskudar, Harem, Haydarpasa, and Kadikoy on the Asian
Turkish LanternsTurkish LanternsTurkish Lanterns

These popular lanterns can be found in any market around town.
Anatolia side, or go north towards Karakoy, Kabatas, and Besiktas on the European Thracia side. The trek we took from Eminonu to Uskudar took 25 minutes and ran every 15-20 minutes, so don't waste money on cruises run by tourist companies like Turyol when all the locals use ferryboats. Soak in the beautiful skyline dominated by towering mosques and palaces on the seven hills as you cross the Bosphorus, the lifeblood of this civilization from the beginning of time.

Once you arrive in Uskudar, cross the street and walk southeast to Kanaat Lokantasi (Selmanipak Caddesi 9) for the best rice pudding anywhere. This combination of lightly sweet and deeply refreshing concoction won't blow the bank, but having an entire meal here will. Instead, leave an empty stomach and try the other eateries nearby like we did, especially when the Asian side of the Istanbul is known for being easier on the wallet. I ordered iskender (thinly sliced lamb smothered in tomato sauce and melted sheep butter, served on pita bread and yogurt), while Kristina got durum (a flatbread wrap encasing doner kebab meat), all for 20 liras (10 USD). The iskender was the best meal we had in Istanbul,

Sliced lamb drenched in tomato sauce and sheep butter, served with pita and yogurt.
but we were unaccustomed to Turkish spices, which impart pungent scents for a surprising lack of flavor; maybe our palates are unrefined and acquainted to Americanize Turkish cuisine, but we were left underwhelmed by the food here.

After dinner, stroll around the winding streets and steep terrain as you experience how the natives spend their afternoon. The luxuries of HBO and Xbox are unbeknownst to these people, so they resort to the only resources available. A hot cup of tea, a popular boardgame like backgammon, and some good company are a frequent sight at cafes and restaurants around Istanbul. As you wander the streets in Uskudar, it's worth exploring a covered market in front of the Yeni Valide Mosque. Turkish lanterns, rugs, and bootleg apparel are the usual suspects at these venues, but we were attracted by a fruit stand that processed fresh juice for only 1 lira. If you've never had kiwi or any assortment of fruit in a cup, then try some here.

Return to the docks and take a boat back to Eminonu. From there, walk to the Beyoglu district by crossing the famed Galata Bridge and watch the residents catch and sell fish. There
Hafiz MustafaHafiz MustafaHafiz Mustafa

This branch in Taksim Square is part of the chain widely considered as one of the top 25 bakeries in the world.
are horror stories about the water quality so we passed on tasting the local delicacy, but if you're feeling lucky, have a go. Beware of shoe shiners pretending to drop their brush in front of you, then gratefully offering you a "free" shining after you return it to them, only to demand money afterwards. While we love helping people and even offer money to those in need, a scam is no way to make a living. If you walked the bridge unswindled, continue up the slopes to the Galata Tower, the tallest structure in Istanbul when it was built in 1348. It provided officials a way to spot fires in the city and issue an alarm, but it has since been turned into a tourist attraction offering great views of the town below.

Head back to the main road of Kemeralti Caddesi and take the tram from Karakoy to the final stop, Kabatas. Then hike up the steepest residential streets you'll ever encounter to the modern and chic neighborhood of Taksim. At the top is Taksim Square, the site of many politcal rallies, as well as the location of Hafiz Mustafa's many store branches. This is considered one of
Galata TowerGalata TowerGalata Tower

Tallest structure in Istanbul when it was built in 1348.
the top 25 bakeries in the world, so indulge in sugar or simply order some tea like we did. Then cross the street and discover the city's nightlife scene on Istiklal Avenue. We arrived on a Sunday evening and were fearful this place would be dead, but the impending workweek has no sway on the Turks' desire to blow steam. This broad road lined by shops and restaurants is catered for tourists, but residents and visitors alike enjoy it the same, provided you aren't annoyed by the price tag. Avoid eating or buying from these stores, but a leisurely stroll along here offers great architecture, lively performers, and an unassuming passageway called Cicek Pasaji, where an outdoor garden flanked by cute balconies is housed inside a building. Wander off Istiklal and you'll find Nevizade Street, a busy alley full of restaurants hawking for your business. Return to the main shopping avenue and keep going west, leading you downhill and back to the Karakoy tram stop where you can catch one back to your lodging in Sultanamet, which for us was a delightfully cozy hotel called Sultan House (Disdariye Cesmesi Sokak 1).

Despite having an early flight on our last
Istiklal AvenueIstiklal AvenueIstiklal Avenue

A bustling avenue for shopping and dining in Beyoglu.
day in Istanbul, Kristina and I desperately wanted to see the most visited attraction in the world--the Grand Bazaar--since it was closed on Sunday when we arrived. While it was built in the 15th century as a center for selling textiles, it quickly grew into a mammoth commercial district spanning 61 roads and comprising of 4,000 shops, 17 inns, 5 mosques, and even 1 school. We would suggest coming for a quick look, but don't stay long expecting you'll find something here that didn't exist at other markets.

We also visited the Basilica Cisterns before our departure, which pushed our luck and caused us to miss our flight back to the States. Being stuck in a foreign country with minimal money remaining and a language barrier on the day after Thanksgiving aroused some anxiety, but we managed to fanangle our way onto the next flight thanks to my brother. Lack of internet access and a phone to call within Turkey forced us to maneuver around the system, from stealing Wifi to buying food from the grocery store in the terminal to sleeping on a cafe's couch and washing up in the public bathroom. In a city full of rich
Basilica CisternsBasilica CisternsBasilica Cisterns

Served the city in the 6th century as an underground water reservoir.
history, beautiful landmarks, and a complex cuisine, it's humorous to acknowledge that our most memorable moment from this trip would be the arduous 24 hours spent at the airport. But with our hectic style of traveling, we wouldn't do anything differently; just pack some extra baby wipes, snacks, and a SIM card the next time you're in the land where East meets West.

Additional photos below
Photos: 14, Displayed: 14


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Blue Mosque Ceiling

The famous dome ceilings that gave this mosque its name
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Turkish Tea

Some people-watching outside Hafiz Mustafa.

Doner kabab meat wrapped in flatbread.
Grand BazaarGrand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar

The world's busiest attraction with 91 million visitors annually, housing 4,000 shops, 17 inns, and 5 mosques.
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Kilometer 0 Sign

The original stone in Istanbul from which all distances were measured from.

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