Istanbul is one of those world cities members of the English-speaking population typically can’t visit without breaking into song. And I don’t mean just any song, but one possessing such a solid foothold in pop culture that it’s inextricably intertwined with that city. Examples that come to mind include Ella Fitzgerald’s “I love Paris,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and the song that plagued me throughout Nepal, Bob Seger’s “Kathmandu.” In this particular case, it’s They Might Be Giants’ cover of “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” a fast-paced, comical tune referencing the last official name change of the city, which took place in 1930 following the creation of the Republic of Turkey. (In addition to Constantinople, the list of Istanbul’s former names includes Lygos, Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Kostantiniyye, Stamboul and Islambol).
Whatever you want to call it and despite your inclination to sing about it, it’s safe to assume two days in Turkey’s most populous city is not enough time – unless, of course, rioting is underway. Istanbul was the last stop on Him and I’s World Trip, a last-minute squeeze between Greece and home, and we managed to visit about a week before violent clashes erupted between the government and protestors opposed to the construction of a shopping mall on park land.
The U.S. Department of State now warns American tourists about the possibility of both widespread demonstrations and attack from various terrorist groups.
At the time of our visit, however, the most alarming aspect of Istanbul was we had only two days to experience it –- and the fact that our hotel reservation fell through.
It wasn’t until we spent an hour trudging up and down the hills of the Galata neighborhood that we learned our pre-booked hotel, Sumo Cat Hostel, 9 Galata Beyoglu, had not, in fact, reserved a private room for us. The proprietor offered to let us crash in the dorm room for free, and when we declined, he suggested we could find a private room at his friend’s hostel, Chillout Cengo. We accepted his plan and the TL 10 he provided for a taxi, but after traveling through scam-laden India and reading online about similar Sumo Cat reservation mix-ups, we suspected this could be some kind of ploy in which employees of a well-rated hostel purposely overbook and then receive kickbacks when they refer tourists to a hostel with lower ratings. Scam or not, our private room and bathroom (TL 120 per night) at Chillout Cengo Hostel, Atif Yilmaz cad. Halas sok. No. 3, proved comfortable enough – albeit in the Beyoğlu neighborhood, a bit more removed from the major tourist sites. The owners advertise the establishment as “family-run” and homely.
“The kitchen is ‘all go’…there is a love swing, soft carpet spiral stair ways & space to be yourself,” according to the City Spy Mapping listing. (Note: Despite the type of – ahem — acrobatic activities we Americans might associate with the term “love swing,” to Turks, it apparently means an indoor swing with a wood-plank seat big enough for two people. We have no idea what features constitute an “all go” kitchen.)
Our first full-day in Istanbul was a Friday, and we awoke early and ordered breakfast at Savoy Café, Sıraselviler Caddesi, No 91/A. The café was extremely crowded, and it took about 30 minutes to receive our counter-purchased meal: two miniscule Turkish coffees and a slice of Su Böreği, a strange, lasagna-type dish served cold (TL 14). Later, we realized we should have simply grabbed a simit (TL 1), a thin, donut-shaped sesame pastry sold by street vendors through the city.
From the café, we walked south down the Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian street packed with multi-storied restaurants and global shopping brands. The Beyoğlu neighborhood was once known as Pera, and the original name for this fashionable street was Grande Rue de Pera. The Galatasaray tramway bisects the avenue, the rails ferrying shiny red tram cars from a bygone era. This “Nostaglic” line runs 1.5 kilometers between Tunel Square and Taksim Square and costs TL 2 round-trip with an Istanbul Transport card or TL 3 for a one-way token.
Nearing the Golden Horn, or Altın Boynuz, the Galata Tower rises 67 meters above a little square. Built during the 14th century by Genoese merchants, the tower has served as a prison for Turkish enemies, a shipyard warehouse, a lighthouse, and, until the 1960s, a fire lookout tower. Now it’s a tourist attraction, and the panoramic views afforded from its observation deck cost TL 13. Alas, Him and I could not justify the hefty price considering our dwindling finances. Instead, we discovered an enjoyable free pastime of people watching from the two-level Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü). The fishermen establish themselves on either side of the bridge’s upper deck, and we watched from the lower deck as their poles created a shimmering wall of monofilament and dangling bait. While the upper deck funnels vehicular traffic, the lower deck features a pedestrian walkway with shopping as well as waterside dining (I hear the fish sandwiches are legendary). On each side of the bridge near the navigation channel, the walkway juts out to offer photographic views of the city skyline. Those four vantage points are especially advantageous at sunset, when it’s possible to photograph silhouettes of the city’s ornate mosques.
Istanbul is a city of countless symbolic monuments, but perhaps none is as revered and well-known as the Hagia Sophia, or church of “Holy Wisdom.” The church museum opens at 9 a.m. every day except Monday, and I suggest arriving early because entrance requires waiting in two frightfully long lines: one to purchase a ticket (TL 30) and one to actually enter the building. Tourists can expedite the process by purchasing a Museum Pass Istanbul (TL 85), which allows access to six of the main city sites during a 72-hour period. The pass means limiting the wait to just the Hagia Sophia’s second line. Otherwise, I recommend splitting parties into two groups – one to wait in each line. Of course, the obnoxiousness of this tactic increases exponentially with the size of the party. (I wish I had thought of this before Him and I both joined the first of two queues containing 500+ people).
Victim of both fire and rioting, the Hagia Sophia was constructed three separate times throughout history. The first church was dedicated in 360 A.D. during the reign of Constantius (337-361 A.D.), though some historic chronicles attribute its foundation to Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.). Back then, it was known as Megale Ekklesia, or the “Great Church,” and the coronation of Byzantine emperors took place inside. In 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II and his Ottoman army conquered Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire fell and the structure became a mosque known as Ayasofya Camii. The Christian mosaics were plastered over and Islamic features including the four minarets, the mihrab (a prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and the minbar (No not minibar. The minbar is a platform from which sermons are delivered) were added. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the building was secularized and converted into a museum.
I was immediately impressed by how cavernous and airy the Hagia Sophia’s central basilica is. Sound bounces and echoes off the walls and inside the massive, 30-meter diameter dome. But even with all those tourists inside, the building felt a tad dreary and, thanks to ongoing construction, dusty.
Across the Sultan Ahmet Square is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, better known as “The Blue Mosque” thanks to the colorful interior tiles of its upper floors. The mosque was constructed between 1606 and 1616 under the direction of Sultan Ahmet I (ruled 1603–17), who desired an Islamic place of worship rivaling the neighboring Hagia Sophia. The sultan’s architect, Mehmet Ağa, therefore bestowed the mosque with six minarets, cascading domes and a vast outer courtyard.
As the mosque is a working mosque and Muslims observe five formal prayer sessions each day, tourists must pay careful attention to the prayer schedule in order to time their visit; non-Muslims attempting to enter the mosque during official prayer times are turned away. Entrance is free, but donations are accepted.
The Topkapi Palace Museum (and Harem) is another site serviced by the Istanbul Museum Pass. Otherwise, it costs TL 25 to enter the palace and an additional TL 15 to tour the harem. During our visit, the lines to purchase individual tickets were just a few people long, but the various queues to see the exhibits snaked around the inner courtyard.
Sultan Mehmed II ordered construction of the palace shortly after conquering Constantinople in the 15th century, and it became his home and the home of his Ottoman descendants.
Within the Imperial Treasury, we filed past thrones with mother of pearl inlay, gold flasks and an 18th century bejeweled bow case and quiver. These items arrived at the palace as gifts or spoils of war. The most valuable item within the treasury is the “Spoonmaker’s Diamond,” an 86-carat, pear-shaped stone bordered by 49 brilliant-cut diamonds. Legend has it that a penniless fisherman living during the 17th century found the diamond among garbage and gave it to a jeweler in exchange for three spoons after the jeweler claimed it was only glass. Of course, the impressive stone may have earned the moniker simply from its spoon-like shape.
Him and I were fascinated by the Clock Gallery, a palace collection of centuries-old timepieces. Among the gallery’s curious exhibits are a skeleton astrolabe (an ancient astronomical computer), a German pendant watch from 1580 and an English grandfather clock Queen Victoria gave to Sultan Abdulhamid II in honor of the 25th anniversary of his reign.
Visitors to the Harem inevitably experience cricks in their neck from peering up at the ornate ceilings within the royal family’s private apartments. The Harem is worth visiting, its interior considerably more colorful than the rest of the palace thanks to floor-to-ceiling tile. But our Lonely Planet guidebook may have been just a tad overzealous when referring to it as “mind-blowing.”
“So far, my mind is still intact,” Him joked during our self-guided tour.
Lonely Planet also asserts “no visit to Istanbul would be complete” without a visit to the Grand Bazaar or Kapali Çarsi (“Covered Market)” near the city center. Encompassing 60 streets and 5,000 shops, the labyrinthine interior showcases glittering mosaic lamps, whirling dervish dolls, ceramic bowls, pyramids of spices and brass oil lamps fit for a genie. We agree the bazaar is worth a look, but what was once an authentic Oriental market now caters mostly to tourists, and the merchants hawk all the same souvenirs for inflated prices. For a bona fide Istanbul market experience, tack on visits to these local favorites. And don’t forget to secure a bag of Istanbul’s candy claim to fame, the incomparable Turkish Delight. The boxed stuff sold in U.S. shops simply can’t compare to the rosewater-infused, lightly dusted, sugary goodness sold at Malatya Pazari shops within the Spice Bazaar (aka, the “Egyptian Bazaar.”)
A small sack of Malatya Pazari Turkish Delight served as Him and I’s single Istanbul souvenir. It was a treat we purchased for the plane ride home, something to sweeten the fact that after six months of travel spanning the globe, we were finally headed home.