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Where the occident meets the orient
Member Name: Fritzthecat
Advantages: Lots to see, friendly people
Disadvantages: Very exhausting, hard for wheelchair-users to get around
As I had visited Istanbul before my relocation and loved the city, I always made sure that this stop-over was not only going to happen there, but would also last a minimum of 3 days - rather then the usual 30 minutes pit-stop it would take to reach the UK, or anything between 1-8 hours, as in my case, to reach Germany.
With my husband being Turkish-Cypriot and having friends in Istanbul we didn't have to bother with accommodation.
"Lucky you" I can hear some of you thinking. Well, everything is relative and visiting friends in Turkey and wanting to do some sight-seeing within a rather short span of time can be relatively stressful, if not impossible.
With the Turkish people being very guest-friendly, you can be sure that not only your friends, but also their whole family will have been notified about your impending visit and that they all would be gravely insulted, if you don't show up to pay a visit. This including baba (father) and anne (mother), kardesler (siblings), teyzeler (aunts) and amcalar (uncles).
Whilst we loved them all, especially the dolma (stuffed wine-leaves) of the anne, we soon decided to keep our visits a little bit more secret and stay in a hotel.
Usually you will, probably, have your hotel sorted before starting your journey. If not, like us, there is a hotel finder in Atatürk airport which tells you the location of the place and the price and right opposite there is a counter from which you can check if they have vacant rooms, make the reservation and organize transportation.
In most cases, unless you go for the more expensive hotels which have their own shuttle service, this will be by taxi.
Now here comes the first point were it will be a clear advantage to be accompanied by someone who speaks Turkish to mother-tongue level, as the local taxi drivers, like in many other places of the world, seem to love to fleece tourists and yes, they did try.
Of course my husband did realize and, after a short and heated conversation, which was conducted in a speed that was a bit too fast for my understanding, the mistake was corrected. Leaving us with a mad cabbie and the driving standards were accordingly.
The most common trick used is to put the taxi-meter on gece (night), which will be accompanied with either a red or blue light. Taxi fares from midnight on are higher and most taxi drivers will expect that you don't know that. Also make sure that you have enough changes to pay your driver the exact amount, as some of them will see the left-over of a bill as a tip.
We usually choose hotels that are situated very close to the things we want to see and were especially happy when we once booked one, that was situated right behind the Blue Mosque. Until the muezzin woke us up at 5 am for the morning prayers... Well, at least we were dressed, fed and ready to go before the hordes arrived at the points of interest.
I would recommend a hotel in the area of Sultanahmet, as you will be able to reach a lot of the landmarks from there by walk.
To get around in Istanbul is fairly easy. If you have a centrally located hotel you can do quite a bit by walking. Make sure to wear very comfortable shoes, as the pavements are very uneven (a real killer with high-heels) and full of pot-holes, big enough to bury a cat inside.
The pavements are also very high, so crossing the road can be a bit of a climb and, if like us, you are travelling with small children, who still need a buggy, be prepared to have either quite some lifting to do and or take the public transport or a taxi to get around. For wheelchair users it will be even harder to get around and I fear that Istanbul generally doesn't compare very well when it comes to dealing with the needs of the disabled.
To take a bus or tram you will have to buy the tickets before, most stations have a ticket box where you can buy them. The tram can get very full and your fellow travellers might get closer to you as you like, even my husbands seventy years old aunt got pinched in her bottom, I usually respond by stepping on the offenders toes. Shame the heels had to stay in the hotel ...
So before we start sightseeing lets see why we have come here :
Istanbul is not only the biggest city in Turkey, but also the only city in the world, that is located on two continents, with its northern part being geographically in Europe and the southern part, divided by the Bosphorus, in Asia.
It looks back proudly on 3000 years of history and is considered to be the oldest, still existing city in the world.
Originally it was founded by Greek settlers, way back in 667 BC. They named it Byzantinum after their leader Byzas of Megara.
Nearly 1000 years later, in 324 AD, after the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, it became the capital of the new Roman Empire. They called it, very un-inspired, Nova Roma, which translates as New Rome. The population obviously didn't like this too, and straight renamed it, after their Emperor Constantin the Great, into Constantinople.
With its strategically very important position as a crossing point between Europe and Asia and being able to control the route between the two continents, as well as the passage from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, it was not left alone for too long and in 1453 the Ottomans took over.
Naturally, during their reign the city went through a massive cultural change, from being the centre of the Orthodox Church to being an Islamic centre and most of the churches were converted into mosques.
Still, until today, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is the leader of the Orthodox Church, has his seat here.
The modern Istanbul, as we know it today, was born in 28.03.1930, when the city was renamed again, 7 years after the declaration of the Republic of Turkey and the capitol of the country being removed from Istanbul to Ankara.
With such a colourful history, Istanbul offers many sights, which remind of its former rulers and a diversity which I have never encountered in any metropolis I have visited before.
Istanbul can be very modern, like in the office districts in Levent, or very traditional, like in the district of Fatih, were most inhabitants will be found wearing the Muslim habit, ladies in grey or beige coats over layers of clothes with their hair hidden under a hijab and the gents with a takke (small hat), baggy trousers and coats.
If you take a boat-trip on the Bosphorus, you will see the elegant and luxurious houses and palaces of the rich, while a trip into one of the Ge¸ekondus, drab estates, that often have been built illegally on land that belonged to the government, will show you in which poor conditions one third of this cities population are living.
There are the very modern shopping malls, full of giggling teenagers clad in mini-mini-skirts and designer (?) jeans and the old bazaars.
The modern highways and by-passes, filled with-too many - cars, some very modern and some so old, that they could be easily found in a museum here.
The labyrinth of narrow and uneven streets, in which you easily can get lost will lead you, sooner or later, into one of the neon-light filled Boulevards and the world's leading fast-food chains exist happily next to the traditional buffe, serving dishes like kelle paça (soup made of sheep's brain), tripes and kebab.
It's a fast living city, but still its inhabitants are lively and loud, friendly and helpful, everybody seems to have time for a little chat - and a smile.
As you've taken my advice and booked into a hotel in the Sultanahmet district, we won't have to bother with transportation, as it is close enough to walk, and our tour can start with some of the sights that I like best
This horse-racing arena dates back to the year 203 when Emperor Septimus Severus had it built to replace the much older one, that had been erected by the Byzantines. Later it was renovated and enlarged by Emperor Constantin and was big enough to entertain up to 100.000 spectators with chariot races, fights and executions.
Impressing, isn't it ? Well, no it actually isn't...
Most of the hippodrome has never been excavated and therefore lies a few meters under the ground. The way they laid out the pavement is meant to give you an idea of the dimensions of the racetrack, while the only thing that is really old here are the two Obelisks , which are around 4000 years old and in very god condition and the Serpentine Column, which once held the tripod of the Apollo Temple of Delphi.
I'm obviously not going to spend too much time here, so let's stroll over to the mosque.
The Sultanahmet Mosque
You will probably know this one under its more common name Blue Mosque, a name it was given because of the more then 20.000 ceramic tiles inside, which are mostly coloured in blue.
This mosque is a place of worship and therefore might be closed to non Muslims during the prayer times. Please make sure that you are dressed adequately, you wouldn't probably go half-naked in a church either, and the ladies should cover their hair. You will be asked to remove your shoes.
If the weather is fine the Blue Mosque is beautiful, with the light falling through its 200 stained glass windows, but on a rainy day, when there are only the chandeliers, it doesn't look that impressive.
From the outside it is definitely worth seeing, with it's massive dome in the middle, surrounded by lots of ascending smaller ones and its six minarets.
The Blue Mosque is the only mosque in Turkey to have that many minarets.
The Ayasofia is right opposite of the Blue Mosque, which isn't a coincidence but well planed, as the creators of the Blue Mosque wanted to show the world that they could out-do any Christian creation.
Once the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople the Ayasofia is now a museum.
During the time when the church served as a mosque all the mosaics had been plastered over, but now have been brought back to daylight and there are some really stunning ones.
The massive dome is really spectacular, although the view is somehow obstructed by a scaffold that must have been there for ages, as I've never seen it without. Maybe they are trying to keep it there long enough to make it an antique sight too...
The whole park area around the Hippodrome, Sultanahmet and Ayasofia is famous for it's pick-pockets, so make sure to hold on to your bits and bobs.
The Topkapi Palace
One of my favourite places and I can easily spend a day there. It is right behind the Ayasofia. You might encounter long queues in front of the ticket boxes, so I like to go there early. Especially in summer, before it gets baking hot.
The Topkapi was built for Sultan Mehmet II and completed in 1465. There is quite a lot to see, like some old clothes that belonged to the sultans and their families, old armour, the throne room, the kitchen, the largest diamond in the world, ...
There is an absolutely great view over the Golden Horn up there, nice gardens to walk around if in need of a break, and a restaurant, too.
I wouldn't recommend to eat in there, as I found the food very overpriced, not too usual standards and the whole place is much too busy for my liking.
If you want to see the harem too, then you will have to pay extra for this, so remember, when purchasing your tickets. Something I always find a bit strange, I've come that far, of course I want to see it all !
The Kapali Carsi (Covered Bazaar)
The covered bazaar can be found by following the signs from the Topkapi Palace.
This is one big market hall, with hundreds of shops, a maze of streets, and continues on the other side throughout many streets on the outside, all the way down to the Bosphorus. Actually, it isn't big, it's HUGE.
Now the shops on the inside are mostly plain tourist traps, selling fake designer articles and overpriced jewellery and souvenir items (still cheaper then here though) and as soon as you check the outlay, the shop-owner will try to cajole you into his premises.
Which you should avoid, as you really can get the same item cheaper somewhere outside. If you can't resist, then you'll be asked to sit down, be offered a drink (usually tea, but as I do not drink tea, it will be a Kahve for me, sade please, as I don't take sugar). Then the haggling begins and, depending on how good you are at this, you will either leave a very happy shop-keeper behind, or one that is still earning much more then his colleagues outside of the bazaar.
I love this place for it's atmosphere, never miss to come here, and, if you follow the signs, there is a lovely restaurant, situated in a patio, right in the middle of the bazaar.
The Misir Carsisi
The Egyptian market, also known as Spice Market, is located in Sirkeci, so you can take the tram down there.
It is another inside market, this time mostly dedicated to spices, sweets (such as Turkish Delight in many variations), dried fruits, coffee and tea. I love this one - not only for the sweets - but just for the scents, which enter your nostrils as soon as you set one step inside.
Next to it is an animal market, which I beg you to avoid under any circumstances, as it is heart-breaking. I've seen there creatures being held in dirty and dismal cages, many being very obviously ill or disabled, not very looked after and the whole place is just shocking.
The Adalar (Islands)
The Princesses Islands, 5 there are, are located in the Marmara Sea and are a much more cheerful place as the one named above.
They can be reached easily through a deniz autobüs, which is a ferry boat, the biggest and most popular one being Büyükada ( Big Island).
You take the tram to Sirkeci, don't forget to have a look at the Büyük Postahane, which is the most elegant post-office I've ever come across.
Ticket counters for the crossing can be found along the quays, very well signed out, and start your journey. It will take around 45 minutes and you can buy food or drinks on the ferry.
There are no cars allowed on the islands, which is a welcome relief after the mad traffic in the city, with its forever honking horns and exhaust fumes.
The only means of transportation are horse drawn carriages, which can be found not for from the pier, and bicycles. Only the police and ambulance are allowed to drive an engine powered vehicle here.
You can take a trip over the whole island, which will last a bit more then one hour, in one of the carriages, which are reasonably priced.
There are plenty of restaurants, mostly specialized on sea-food,shops and several hotels.
Do I have to mention that our girls loved this trip ???
Back on the mainland you can take a stroll around the waterfront, which is especially nice at night. There are always small fishing boats docked on which the owner cooks the fish on long skewers. These taste and smell absolutely delicious.
Eating in Istanbul can be very enjoyable, although it might be a bit stressful to find the right restaurant, as they will try to get you inside as soon as you seem to be interested - which makes it nearly impossible to check a menu before.
I would recommend to avoid the very busy tourist areas, even the restaurants might look nicer there, but the portions will be smaller and much more expensive.
The starters, meze, will often be offered on trays, so that you only choose which ones you want. The selection should offer hot and cold dishes. We sometimes get a bit carried away here and choose that many, that there isn't really any space left for a main course. If this should happen to you too, then don't worry, the waiters are used to that and don't mind.
Soups are very popular and, apart from the tripes and the sheep-head -soup, which I don't touch as my stomach turns at the very thought, very nice. My favourites here being mercimek (red lentils, bit spicy) or yayla (yoghurt soup).
Meat dishes are usually either made of chicken or lamb, beef is less common. As it is a Muslim country you won't find any pork.
Koefte are small meatballs which are usually cooked on the grill. As a side dish rice is more common then fries and they often mix chickpeas into it.
The desserts are usually very sweet , as they work a lot with sugar-syrup here, and can be very filling. If I still have space for a dessert I rather take fresh fruit or keîkül (almond pudding) and leave the baklava for a coffee-break.
After the food you will be offered kahve. This comes in small portions, tastes very much like espresso and you will have to tell them before how sweet you want yours, as the sugar is being added before the boiling process.
Sade means no sugar, orta is 1 flat coffee-spoon and sekerli one heaped coffee-spoon.
After about two sips of the kahve you will realize that your cup is empty and all that is left is the coffee-powder at the bottom, as they do not filter the kahve before pouring it. Some people believe that, if you turn the cup upside down and let the powder residue run unto a plate, you will be able to tell your future from what you find. Now, if this works than my future will be very messy, as a big mess was all that I have had on my plate so far....
All in all I would recommend a trip to Istanbul to all that are interested in the oriental history ,but still want the comfort of the modern, western life-style. Families with very small children might have a problem here, as there isn't much around to keep the little ones amused. Parks are rare, play-grounds even less and forget about theme parks.
Wheelchair users and disabled people in general will find this city very unwelcoming, as it is not only very hard to get around in it, but it also misses often such important things as disabled toilets and ramps.
Thanks for reading , Sandra
This review has also been published on Ciao
Summary: Great for a short trip to a very different city