Istanbul, Turkey – The sightseeing

When my good friend Dawn invited Mike and me to join her in Istanbul for a few days in April, my first reaction was no. I hadn’t done any research on the city and it had never really been on my radar. But the timing was perfect and there was no reason not to go. We managed to find a decently priced flight + hotel package and booked it before we could change our minds. It turned out to be one of our highlights of our European adventure.

Blue Mosque

loved our little taste of Istanbul. We took it easy since I was still recovering from my marathon and Mike had to work during the day. Dawn and I spent our days wandering around the city at a leisurely pace and it was glorious. I felt like we were there for the perfect amount of time (5 days, 6 nights). Although Istanbul is technically part of Europe, it is nothing like any  other European city we visited on our trip.

IMG_3801The heavily touristed areas (admittedly, where we spent the majority of our time) were very well maintained and a fascinating mix of modern and old. Several times a day you hear a call to prayer that comes from various speakers throughout the city and I found it fascinating to see this happening on such a wide scale. After a few days, it just seemed normal to me.

A house we found not far from the waterfront.

As I mentioned before, all of the restaurants in the heavily touristed areas are really well modern and well maintained. The bathrooms were cleaner than the bathrooms in England! If you walked a little beyond the tourist areas, you could see hints of how old the city really was. This is one of my favourite aspects of any European city. Canada is so young in comparison that everything is “new” in comparison.

This building was just outside the tourist strip we stayed in.

I think Spring is definitely the time to visit Istanbul. Everywhere we looked, we saw bursts of colour from all the tulips and flowers they had planted everywhere. It felt like I was walking into a colour movie after watching black and white films for months in Europe. Think Dorothy in Wizard of Oz when she first steps into the Land of Oz.

Beautiful tulips everywhere. My sister and mother would have loved this!

It was also warm and sunny, but not too hot which made visiting mosques a pleasant experience since you have to cover up a little more than you would and walk around barefoot (the carpets kind of smelled like feet, but it makes sense since you have to take your shoes off). I can imagine it would get really uncomfortable navigating high traffic areas like the Grand Bazar and Spice Markets in the middle of the summer. Even in April, those areas were constantly packed with people and it was almost impossible to walk freely without getting caught behind large crowds. Don’t even think about planning a run around this area unless it’s well before the shop keepers start opening up…

Every walkway was filled with different colours.

Things to See/Do

  • Blue Mosque – One of my favourite places to visit. As soon as I walked in, I felt a buzz of energy. It really felt like the building was alive. The stained glass windows and the wide open space for praying was really neat to see. Very different from the churches I grew up going to that are filled with pews.
  • Hagia Sophia – If you don’t like crowds, visit the Hagia Sophia museum on a Thursday night a couple of hours before it closes. We discovered this by accident, but every other time we walked by, the line was ridiculously long. We opted not to get any guided tours so we made our round of this place fairly quickly. While it was very grand and beautiful as well, I didn’t get the same jolt of energy that I did when we went into the Blue Mosque.
  • Basilica Cistern – These Roman aqueducts were so cool! I felt like I was walking through an Indiana Jones movie or something. There was a neat little story about two columns that had Medusa heads at the bottom. It was well worth the visit.
  • Beyazit Mosque – I loved this Mosque. It was a little smaller than the Blue Mosque but just as impactful and gorgeous on the inside. The stained glass windows were amazing, and there was also a lady there who was available to answer any questions we had about the Mosque and her religion. I learned more there than I did at any other mosque we visited. 
  • Spice Market / Grand Bazar – While these were definitely worth visiting, I’d have to say you only need to visit each of these markets once unless you’re mad about shopping. We are not, so it was great to walk through, but eventually felt repetitive and the crowds were overwhelming. 
  • Boat cruise (but don’t go on cable car) – Dawn was kind enough to organize a cruise for us to go on where we could view the Asian and European side of Istanbul. It also included a bus ride up to the top of the Golden Horn where you get a few views of the city and then take a cable car down. The cruise was fantastic and I consider it a must for anyone who visits Istanbul. The cable car portion of the trip, I could have done without. The traffic in Istanbul is a nightmare and the drive up to the top and back to our hotel probably added an extra 2 hours to the tour. The actual cable car is a 3 minute ride… not worth it to me.
  • Hamam Bath House – Ha! I waffled back and forth a lot about whether I wanted to experience this. But, I went for it and all I can say is that it was a crazy experience. You can read more about the process here, and I’m certain by the way we were treated and the price we paid that it was a traditional bath house rather than a touristy one.
  • Whirling DervishesI don’t think I appreciated this show as much as I could have if I had read up on the ceremony before we went. Initially, I wouldn’t have recommended this, but I’ve had a change of heart since it is a big part of their culture and just because I don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t significant and a worthwhile thing to experience.
Istanbul at night is just as stunning.

I would go back again in a heartbeat. The food was fantastic and the running was pretty decent (in certain sections) which I’ll expand on in a different post because this one has gone on long enough!


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