Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2012 trip to Turkey.
It’s hard to sum up a trip to a place like Istanbul. I’ve already spent three entries on the city, so I’ll try to tidy up the rest of our adventures in the city in one last post. Here goes:
If you’re planning a trip to Istanbul do yourself a favor and watch the movie Topkapi on Netflix. It is hilariously cheesy but I promise it gets better if you can make it through the first 20 minutes or so. And it offers some spectacular scenes of Istanbul and Topkapi Palace, in particular. It’ll make you want to come home with your very own Sultan’s Dagger souvenir.
Topkapi Palace overlooks the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. It’s no wonder Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror chose this location to be the center of his empire in the 1470s. A century later, Suleyman the Magnificent made Topkapi his home and so it was for the next 400 years or so of Sultans. We used Rick Steves’ Istanbul Guide for our tour of the Palace grounds, which we think gave us a good overview. It costs 25 TL to visit the museum beyond the First Courtyard. We splurged for the additional 15 TL ticket to tour the Harem Complex (and really, you’re in Istanbul! You should splurge). Unfortunately for us, portions of the Harem were under construction and we were rerouted through rooms not included in Rick’s tour, which made for a confusing understanding of what we were seeing.
Be prepared to see armed guards and entrances to Topkapi Palace. This is a bit unsettling for us Americans who aren’t accustomed to seeing assault-style weapons out in the open. The ticket booth is located in the First Courtyard and there is also a gift shop with a clean, FREE public restroom (though you’ll probably need your own TP). After touring the Harem and exhibits surrounding the Third Courtyard, be sure not to miss the Fourth Courtyard with its gorgeous water views and interesting Pavilions. Plan on spending a whole day here.
The Grand Bazaar
In the mood for some shopping? Well, I can guarantee that there isn’t a mall or flea market you’ve been to that could compare to this place–the original mall, with roots going back to Byzantine times. The Grand Bazaar is itself a city within a city, complete with named streets and alleys. The seemingly endless labyrinth of shops is full of loud and aggressive salesman, constantly yelling out their guess at your nationality as you walk by. Part of the fun of visiting the Bazaar is to haggle over the price of a souvenir but don’t be afraid to say “no.” Even if shopping is not your thing (it isn’t really mine), a trip to Istanbul is not complete without experiencing the Grand Bazaar.
The Spice Market
Because one market isn’t enough, you should also check out the Spice Market. This is the place to go to stock up on your very own apple tea, salep mix (so, so good and impossible to find in the U.S.), or freshly made Turkish Delight.
Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent
Completed in 1557, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent is a half-century older than the Blue Mosque. Having visited both, I probably enjoyed the architecture of this one more, which surprised me since the Blue Mosque’s tile is so widely praised. After you’ve stopped in, be sure to enjoy the views from its plaza and visit the (free and very clean!) public WC’s. We ate at Kanaat Lokantasi, which is known for its bean soup made with dried white beans and junks of beef and served with rice. Quite inexpensive and yummy!
There are some very cool sites in Istanbul’s Hipposrome, once the home of a Roman chariot racetrack. Close to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, be sure to check out the Egyptian Obelisk, the Column of Constantine, and the German Fountain. And if you’re lucky, perhaps a cart selling hot salep will wonder by!
We didn’t make a point to see the Underground Cistern, but we had some free time one morning and decided to check it out. Boy, were we glad we did. This place is amazing and well worth the 10 TL entrance fee. Built in the 6th Century to store water, its builders recycled 336 columns from more ancient (mostly Roman) structures to support its brick ceiling. Unbelievably, the cistern was eventually forgotten before being rediscovered. The Medusa heads are its most famous features, turned sideways and upside down, likely by the Christians who built the cistern and wished to show disdain for the pagan Greek god.
The New District and Istiklal Street
We decided to visit the New District by taking Rick Steves’ “New District Walk,” beginning at Taksim Square. We rode the tram to the end of the line and easily found the square. Finding Istiklal Street proved a bit more difficult, only because we were so turned around at that point! If you’ve been following the happenings in Turkey of late, Taksim Square is very close to Gezi Park where protests broke out earlier this year, spreading across the country. We were there about 6 months prior to those happenings and while we did see a peaceful demonstration and police in riot gear, I imagine all was about as quiet as it could be on the bustling Istiklal Street. We ended up walking down Galip Dede, past Galata Tower on our way back to the Old Town.
Alas, if all of this doesn’t make you want to pack your bags for Istanbul (not Constantinople), perhaps this will: