Sunday, April 5, 2015

Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Airplane travel really sucks the life out of you. International travel in particular. For five or ten or fifteen hours you exist in a sort of limbo (or perhaps purgatory) as the cramped metal tubular thing you're flying in hurtles towards its destination. And no matter how many newfangled in-flight entertainment options the airlines offer, the time seems to drag on forever.

...But finally, after about 12 (or 1200, depending on your arithmetic) hours of flying, you arrive - and (hopefully) it's suddenly all worth it.


It's 9:00am in Istanbul, we're tired, bleary-eyed, and bedraggled - and ready to explore one of the world's great cities.

Istanbul is a huge, sprawling city with many thousands of years of history and a population of more than 14 million people. Even if we had a full month in the metropolis it would be altogether impossible to visit every interesting site. With just three days to visit, we've opted for the "Greatest Hits" tour. Fortunately, a good majority of Istanbul's most famous sights are located in and around the relatively compact Sultanahmet section of the city.

The Mosques

Our first stop, about a ten minute walk from our hotel room, is the central square where both the Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and Aya Sophia (aka Hagia Sophia) lie directly across from each other. The Blue Mosque is possibly the most impressive of the two sights, but both are awe-inspiring in their own way. It's not until you're up next to them that you realize the true massiveness of these buildings.

The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, so it's closed at certain times of the day for prayers and most areas are not accessible to the public. However, it's arguably most impressive on the outside, so it wasn't too much of a problem.

Interior of the Blue Mosque
Aya Sofia, once a Greek Orthodox church and then a mosque, has since been officially converted into a museum. As such, it's much more accessible than the BM and we were able to explore it more fully. Both on the outside and the inside, it's a sort of strange mashup of different styles - with symbols of Islam side by side with very Christian images of Mary and the cross.

Interior of Aya Sophia

Basilica Cistern

At the entrance of the Basilica Cistern - right next door to the Aya Sofia - you descend about 100 feet into a gigantic underground (you guessed it!) cistern.  Hundreds of pillars - a small handful of them carved with images of Medusa and other ancient figures - hold up the ceiling and create an appropriate sense of "epicness." As befits a cavern that's capable of holding millions of gallons of water, the whole place is humid and slick with moisture.

There's not much to the place other than the pool of water and the pillars, but it's still a unique experience to walk through this still architecturally impressive 1500-year old well - though it's probably also the most dispensable of the places we've visited so far if you don't have a lot of time in Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace

It's a short walk from the two mosques and the cistern to Topkapi Palace - a complex of palaces, residences, and other buildings used by Turkish sultans and other government officials for nearly 500 years. A mishmash of architectural styles, Topkapi is probably more notable for the history behind it than for any single building.

Some of the most notable areas in Topkapi:

-A "treasures" room containing many Holy Relics, including keys to the Kaaba in Mecca as well as swords and cloaks believed to have been worn by the Prophet Mohammad and his companions.

-Various rooms containing some beautiful examples of Arabic calligraphy. I've often thought that Arabic writing can be a work of art in and of itself, and these were some of the finest examples I've ever seen.

-The palace site also provides an interesting vantage point across the Golden Horn and Bosphorous Strait (the body of water that marks the boundary between Europe and Asia.) It's only when you see the city from this angle that you truly get an idea of how truly massive it is - sprawling as far as the eye can see in almost all directions.

Grand Bazaar

About a 15-30 minute walk from Topkapi is one of the single largest markets in the world. Though very busy, the Grand Bazaar seems slightly less chaotic and stressful than some other Middle Eastern markets I've visited (I'm looking at you Cairo Market.) You never feel completely trapped by shoppers and merchants, and even though the entire place is enclosed and some of the alleyways get somewhat tight, I never feel any trouble from my mild sense of claustrophobia and intense fear of being smothered by human beings. Of course, that may simply be down to the time of the day we're visiting.

The market is filled with thousands (3000+) of shops selling everything from tourist items (like t-shirts, kitschy "art" products, and beautiful but hugely expensive Turkish rugs) to everyday goods like groceries and spices and delicious, delicious chocolates.

Of course, haggling is one of the most essential skills for shopping at any market in this part of the world - and it's a skill I have yet to develop. So rather than being quoted an insultingly high "tourist price" for a t-shirt that says "I Heart Istanbul," I'm content to sit back and enjoy all the wares on display and leave the bargaining to those more inclined to such activities.


Once you leave the immediate area of the two big mosques - and the inevitable accompanying tourist trap restaurants - you should be able to find reasonably priced meals. During our first two days in the city, we ate at several restaurants that provide excellent, filling meals for an affordable price. In fact, our cost per meal averaged about $7 per person. 

The best dish I tried was a yogurt & kebab dish from an unpretentious restaurant across the street from our hotel. But every meal we had was good.

On the dessert end of things, I'm sad to report that Turkish delight - at least the varieties we've tried so far - just isn't that good. The flavors are too artificial and the gummy consistency just doesn't do it for me. However, we were offered a small sample of a pomegranate & pistachio delight that tasted much better than anything else we tried, so it may simply be down to finding the right place that makes it fresh and with the right ingredients. 

Beyond that, the pastries are uniformly very good, and freshly made baklava is divine.


We stayed at the Basileus Hotel, a fine establishment with wonderfully helpful workers and a delicious breakfast buffet every morning. The hotel itself just overlooks the narrow streets and similarly nondescript buildings across the way, but there are lots of shops and restaurants nearby, and the main area of Sultanahmet is just a short walk away.

Unfortunately, our time in the city coincided with the worst power outage in Turkey in many years (the cause of which is still unknown), so we ended up spending part of the evening in the dark and without internet. But this situation allowed us the experience of going into a darkened bakery and ordering baklava and cheese pastries by candlelight, so it was probably worth it.

Anyways, after two full days of sightseeing, it was just about time to finally catch up on sleep. Jet lag, like airplane travel, isn't much fun.


Next up, dear reader, we visit some lovely ancient ruins. as well as one of the most amazing places in the world.

In the meantime, here's a random photo dump:


  1. Very interesting narrative and great pictures to go along with the script. Thoroughly enjoyed this!

  2. Thanks for taking us with you, if only by Internet! Love this!!

  3. Sounds like the beginning of an amazing experience. Keep us posted. -Pete

  4. We're ready to see more! :)

  5. This is very, very cool, Tim. You've made me quite jealous!
    Uncle Buddy