40 Hours in Istanbul

Back in December, we started seriously exploring our options for a long visit with N’s family in Belgium. International airfare was considerably more expensive than the last time he went home, so we spent a lot of time looking at every possible route. Much to our surprise, it was cheapest BY FAR to fly through Istanbul.

With two flights out to Brussels each day, we determined we could either have a very short layover or a very long layover, albeit overnight. OR we could book as a multi-destination flight, and spend 40 hours in Istanbul, which is what we did.

After an exhausting and, for me, harrowing flight, we arrived in the early evening and were immediately overwhelmed. Istanbul is an enormous city, both in terms of population and geography. It is also populated by intensely crazy drivers, as we learned on our ride to the hotel. We were later told by a family member that riding in cabs in Istanbul cured her of her fear of flying. I would believe it!

Our hotel was located in the Sultanahmet district – tourism central – and anyone who has done any traveling knows it’s hard to really judge the nature of a city by these areas. With such a limited amount of time, however, we were happy to be proximate to the major tourist sites, which is where we headed after dropping our luggage. We arrived in the gathering dark, just in time for the final call to prayer of the evening. It’s hard to really explain how breathtaking it was.

Aya Sofya
We took more than 300 photos in the 40 hours we were there, so please assume that for every photo shared here, there are several more on my Flickr.

After a quick dinner followed by sahlep and baklava, it was back to the hotel for a relatively early bedtime. With our schedules turned upside down by long flights and time zones, we were awake half the night, falling back to sleep suddenly and soundly after the first call to prayer of the morning.

Turkish breakfast

After our highly satisfying hotel breakfast, we set off in search of the Spice Market. We found the Grand Bazaar:
Grand Bazaar

a number of street cats:
I am a crazy cat lady.

Istanbul University:
Minaret

and the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque.
Süleymaniye Mosque

Süleymaniye Mosque

We also found urban chickens, a small botanic garden, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and a bridge across the Bosphorus:
Walking to Asia

We did not, however, find the Spice Market, despite quite a lot of famished wandering around on our part. Conceding defeat, we tracked down lunch in a very strange basement “restaurant”, crossed back through the Grand Bazaar, and went on to the Basilica Cistern, which was at the top of N’s must-see list. Built in the 6th century to provide water to the city, it can now be accessed from an unassuming building near the much more grand (at least above ground) Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque. It’s an incredibly dramatic place – hard to imagine the same grandeur from our contemporary public works projects:

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern

From there, our day went a bit downhill. We arrived at Aya Sofya after it closed, and at the Topkapi Palace just as it closed.

Aya Sofya

N talked me into trying an ear of corn from a street vendor, and it was gross.

Untitled

The Blue Mosque didn’t disappoint, but also lacked some of the peace and quiet of the smaller, less centrally-located Süleymaniye Mosque from earlier in the day.

The Blue Mosque

After not getting to see any of the things I really wanted to see, the restaurant I chose for dinner either didn’t actually exist, or the map was incorrect. I was about ready to throw in the towel on Istanbul when N found a restaurant that didn’t have an annoying barker out front AND had Iskender kebab on the menu. I promised a street kitty that I would give her a bite of my food if she came back later, and let me tell you: it was hard to keep that promise.

Iskender Kebab

Iskender kebab face

We finished the night with Turkish Delight and a quiet walk back to our hotel before our early morning flight to Brussels.

A month removed from the whirlwind visit, I feel like we did a reasonably good job of seeing the touristy parts of Istanbul. We did a lot of walking, ate some traditional foods, and saw a few amazing things. Our long layover provided me with what will likely be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore that part of the world; while I enjoyed it, I doubt I’d go out of my way to go back. But stranger things have happened, as indicated in these warning signs:

Warning signs

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