Istanbul is huge. And it’s old – it was founded as Byzantium in 660 BC and then as Constantinople in 320 BC. The Ottomans were in power until the early 1900s when it then became Istanbul. With 14 million people, it is the largest city in Europe and the 5th largest in the world. But what many don’t know is that it is a city divided on two continents – the European side and the Asian side.
While we flew into the Asian side (I can say I’ve officially been to Asia now!), we are staying in the old part of the city, or the Sultanahmet district which is separated from the new part of the city by the Golden Horn. We plan to take a day, if we have time, to spend on the Asian side, but for us, seeing the big historic places was first priority on our list of things to do.
But thus far, our focus has been the Sultanahmet. While much larger than Barcelona, the narrow cobblestone roads in this area remind me of the Gotica and Born neighborhoods. We worked our way up and down hills to get to the main areas of attraction.
Checking out our map, we knew what we wanted to cover during our first day and it was easy since it was all grouped together in one small area. Admittedly, I was a little nervous about safety – I think I mentioned that before. But once we got walking, it felt like any other city – only this one with some of the most insane drivers I’ve seen (and we’ve seen a lot of insane drivers in Europe!).
We walked down the Divanyolu Caddesi towards what we thought would be the trifecta – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Like all good plans, this one had to be tweaked and what we set off to do and what we actually did, ended up slightly different.
While walking, we came across some ruins… and lots of cats. We’re still not really sure what these ruins were so if you’ve been to Istanbul and know, feel free to share!
On our way to the Blue Mosque, we stopped quickly at the Alman / German Fountain which is in the Hippodrome. At the time, I didn’t realize this is a fountain as it wasn’t running and doesn’t really look like a fountain. And having walked by it several times since, I still haven’t seen any water coming out of it. Perhaps it’s the time of year???
Eventually we made our way over to the Blue Mosque which actually goes by the name Sultanahmet Mosque. Built in the early 1600s, it gets the name of the Blue Mosque from the tiles in it’s interior, and it is only mosque in Istanbul with 6 minarets (towers). It was the first time that I had been in a mosque where I was required to wear a headscarf which was interesting (I had been inside a mosque / church in Andalusia, Spain and it wasn’t required) but as I don’t wear a tank top in a church out of respect and I’m not Catholic, I didn’t think much of this since it’s just what is done here.
Anyways, shoes off and headscarf on, we made our way inside. It was free which was nice, but also incredibly packed. I’ve been inside my fair share of churches, temples and mosques at this point – this one was impressive but admittedly, the wires hanging down from the ceiling to hold up all the chandeliers bothered me – a lot! It really took away from what should be stunning beauty of this place but I found it to be a distraction. But it was beautiful nonetheless and it was a quick in and out visit which for the kids was perfect.
Moving on, we saw that there was a bazaar open nearby (the Grand Bazaar being closed on a Sunday) so we meandered down that way to check out. Normally we don’t purchase much when on vacation beyond our token Christmas ornament (less of a challenge here than I expected given that it’s not a Christian country), we found some beautiful Turkish bowls and plates and found one that we loved. We also learned how to tell the difference between one painted by a master and one painted by a student.
By now we were hungry so we stopped for lunch. While it was a touristy place, the location was great with wonderful views of the Hagia Sophia Museum. What we really enjoyed was the presentation of our Turkish coffee at the end of the meal though. Served using an ornate silver service, it was very elegant and a lovely touch to the end of the meal. The Turkish coffee is a bit more bitter than what I’m used to, even for European coffee, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Nearby was the Basilica Cistern. I didn’t know much about it and from the outside it was unimpressive (later googling, I realized there is much more than meets the eye above the ground) and there was a huge line. So we skipped it. We ended up going on our last day in Istanbul and I’m so glad that we did! This Cistern used to supply the city’s water and was built in the 6th century. While the pictures look like the columns are above concrete, they are actually immersed in shallow water and there were catfish swimming around – I assume to help keep the water clean??
We had intended to go to Hagia Sofia but as the kids (ok, and Josh and I) aren’t huge museum goers, we opted for the photos outside and if we have time later, we may make the trip inside. But as a note on the museum, you should know that it was built in 537 as a cathedral (back when Istanbul was known as Constantinople) and remained as such until the mid 1400s when it was turned into a mosque. It served as a mosque until the 1930s when it was converted into a museum. Yes, this building is almost 1500 years old!
Now I feel a bit guilty for not having gone inside since just the building alone has so much history. Instead, we started to head to the Topkapi Palace, just on the other side of Hagia Sophia. Unexpectedly we got sidetracked though. That’s the beauty of vacation and one that hasn’t been planned down to the hour. You can change things as you go.
On the way to the Palace, we came across this cool marker:
We found a park just below the palace entrance and decided it would be a good idea to let the kids run crazy for a bit. It was definitely much needed and it was a relaxing stroll through what turned out to be a massive park – the Gülhane Park. It turns out the park, the oldest in Istanbul, was once a part of the outer garden of Topkapi Palace. The kids had a lot of fun running, playing on the playground and then running some more.
We eventually found our way to a tea house that overlooked the Bosphorus Strait while we worked our way uphill in the park. With wonderful views and another beautiful beverage presentation, we all enjoyed our tea while relaxing for a little bit before walking some more.
While I would have loved to push the kids a bit and go to the Palace since we were right there, my foot was really acting up (update – still having pain and no new results despite an x-ray and an ultrasound – appointment after we get back to review with the doctor AGAIN) and so I was happy to follow everyone back to the hotel instead. By now it was getting close to dinner time anyways and it would give us an hour or two to just relax before heading out for our meal.
We ended the night having a nice meal at a restaurant recommended by the hotel. It was a great first day in Istanbul – better than expected – and now I’m even more excited to see what tomorrow will bring!
Knuffels en kussen,