Over July 4th weekend I traveled to Istanbul for a minibreak, enjoying my first trip to Turkey and what, I can hope, will be numerous trips back in the future. I flew in on a Thursday evening and enjoyed a long car ride from the airport just as the sun was setting. It was Ramadan, so all of the parks and public areas were filled with families and groups of friends laying out iftar spreads and getting the grills ready for copious amounts of meat. We entered the old city just as the adhaan rang out, and it was fun to watch people taking their first sips of water and bites of food, bringing me back to good times in Jeddah.
I wanted (needed) a relaxing weekend without an ambitious agenda but wanted to be close to the more-visited sites so booked a highly-rated boutique hotel in Sultanahmet. Its location was superb, the room was comfortable and pleasant, the breakfast buffet was sumptuous, and the staff were very helpful. That first night I ordered room service and got to bed fairly early. (I got some great advice on what to do and where to go - and avoid - from hannah at the slow move east; while I didn't get to too many of her recommendations, I have lots of ideas for future visits!)
On Friday I decided to go farther afield and do some strolling and exploring. I took the tram and funicular to Taksim Square and then wandered down Istiklal Caddesi to the waterfront, stopping along the way for a cold drink in a lovely cafe and to do some browsing in stores. From there I took the tram out a ways into some of the less-touristy districts before turning around and hoping to find a place for lunch. The tram broke down a couple stops from the Grand Bazaar, so I joined the throngs of pedestrians, grabbed a quick (and not great) lunch at a hotel restaurant, and then steeled myself for the Grand Bazaar. I knew (myself) better than to actually try and shop while there; I wanted to get a feel for its size and architecture and not get overwhelmed by the crowds or sales tactics.
It was even busier than I expected, and I did just a quick walk-through of a few sections to get a sense of the place. Lots of color, lots of the same things over and over, lots of people. In the future it would be fun to take a tour of the place, but I just wasn't up to trying the do so on my own that day. I headed back to the hotel, had a quick snack at their afternoon tea, rested, and then found a restaurant for a leisurely dinner.
Saturday I was a bit exhausted so fell back asleep after breakfast, waking in the early afternoon rejuvenated and ready to tour. I walked up to the next tram stop and was excited to find a short line for entrance into the Hagia Sophia. Armed with my Rick Steves guidebook I did my best to get a sense for the history and detail of the place, contending with the other tourists and the copious scaffolding, both of which detracted from its overall majesty. Don't get me wrong, it was gorgeous and amazing, but there's only so much jostling while trying to look up or take photos I can take. I emerged to find a large, seemingly peaceful, protest in between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I bought an ice cream and assessed. Riot police were out, but they were standing by, relaxed. The protest turned out to be against Chinese oppression of Uighurs in 'East Turkestan, who I hadn't realized were a Turkic people. The protest continued to be peaceful, so I made my way through and towards the Blue Mosque.
I wasn't as lucky there as at Hagia Sophia, and the line was ridiculously long. I wandered the courtyards a while before deciding to go back another time and headed behind to the Arasta Bazaar, which came highly recommended as a no-pressure bazaar with good prices and products. It didn't disappoint, and I walked away with a couple artisanal pomegranates for my budding collection (one porcelain, one hand-crafted metal) and some gorgeous tulip table runners for me and the family. By now it was getting late, so I walked back to the hotel to drop off my purchases and then found a nice neighborhood restaurant for dinner.
Sunday I headed to Eminonu to scope out the ferry terminals for Monday's adventure, meander through the Spice Bazaar, and have a quick lunch on the water. I went back to the Blue Mosque to see if I might have an easier time getting in, but it was prayer time, and the line was growing. So instead I wandered through the Hippodrome and delighted in finding a Ramadan bazaar with tons of craft and food vendors. I did a little shopping and indulged in a few treats (juice, ice cream, baklava) and enjoyed the convivial atmosphere, with fewer tourists and more locals than I would have expected. It was lovely.
That night I went to a local cultural center for a whirling dervish performance. It was interesting to learn more about Rumi and Sufism and see the ritual movements. Afterwards I made my way back to the hotel looking for a restaurant that looked good; I ended up at the same one from the night before, which had good food and service and was a pleasant place to while away a couple hours. Afterwards I stopped at the corner bakery/sweet shop to buy some gourmet Turkish delight to bring home in August.
Monday morning (also my birthday) I checked out of the hotel and stored my luggage before heading to Eminonu to catch the ferry to Asia. I was there early enough to get a great seat and enjoyed the ninety minute ride to Anadolu Kavagi on the Asian side. There I had a lackluster seafood lunch with a lovely view and yet another ice cream before reboarding for the ride back. It was a long day on the water, and I was ready to head home by the time I reclaimed my luggage and got into the car for the airport. The airport was an absolutely madhouse, completely overcrowded. I grabbed a bite to eat and a couple last souvenirs for the kids and was relieved to board the plane for home.
It was a lovely weekend with perfect weather and a perfect break from Beirut. I will definitely be back to Turkey!
|Hagia Sophia interior|
|The Blue Mosque, as seen from the Hagia Sophia|
|East Turkestan Protest|
|Ramadan Street Market|
|The Blue Mosque|
|Ortakoy Mosque (definitely need to visit in future!)|
|Rumeli Hisari (I want to visit next time)|
|Lunch with a view|
|Gorgeous views from the ferry|