Three years ago, my brother & I visited Istanbul. Since then, I’ve claimed it as one of my favorite cities in the world. Okay, maybe I’m not so sure I would want to live there with 15 million other people, but I love the energy, the scenery, the food, the landscape…I could go on and on. I am not always willing to visit the same place twice, but in this case, I was more than happy to go back for a second time.
Switzerland (well, at least canton Vaud – where I live) had a public holiday on Monday. Fasting Day? (I can tell you, I did not fast. I was eating kebabs and baklava for the third time in three days!) Since Istanbul is a little bit further than most weekend destinations (and by further, I mean a three hour flight as opposed to 1-2 hour flights…gotta love Europe!), we decided to take advantage of the long weekend to get there!
[As an aside, public holidays in Switzerland are determined by canton. They are not national.]
Four of us drove to the airport after work on Friday(and parked REALLY far away, since I can’t seem to figure out where to park when the first two structures are full). We taxied to our hotel and found out that they didn’t have enough rooms for us. Two of us would be staying at a nearby “sister hotel property” for three nights, while the other two would be staying at a different “sister hotel property” for one night, then moving back to the original hotel. WHAT?! They didn’t appear to have a plan B, so we made our way to our respective new properties (which thankfully, were within a block of each other).
This was the first weekend trip for the newest member of the “American Mafia” (as our US expat community is affectionately called). She arrived at the beginning of the month and dove right in to a wild destination. I laughed several times throughout the weekend thinking about how easy her other European travel will be after this weekend. We walked around the corner to our new property and chuckled. I’m pretty sure we were staying in someone’s apartment for the night. This door hardly looks like the entrance to a hotel property.
On Saturday morning, we woke up to find that there was no hot water in our temporary place, and the hair dryer stopped working within the first 30 seconds. Plus, we received no wi-fi code. Between those three items and the hassle with the rooms, the hotel already had four strikes in my book.
We ate breakfast outside of the hotel with a creepy stray cat lurking. I’m not really comfortable with cats to begin with. Maybe it’s because I’m allergic to them or because you never know what they’re thinking. This one was making me so nervous. She was sitting right next to our chairs…probably waiting for us to feed her (and her 6-8 kittens living nearby). At one point she hissed at me, and at another point, I really thought she was going to jump up on the table (or worse onto my chair!). I admit, I jumped up a couple of times while we were eating, which totally makes me the Fraidy Cat.
After surviving the hotel, the cold water, and the stray cats, we were off to start exploring. Our first stop was Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya). Originally built in 537 A.D., it was originally an Orthodox Church. In 1453, it was converted to a mosque after the Ottomon Turks conquered Constantinople (Istanbul). Some fragments of the mosaics of Jesus, Mary, and other Biblical figures remain, even though most of them were removed or covered in plaster. In 1935, the mosque was made into a museum, which is what it is today. It is pretty spectacular inside and outside.
[Legend has it that this “Weeping Column” has healing powers, if your finger emerges moist.]
After our visit, we walked over to the Blue Mosque. Construction took seven years and was complete in 1616. The tiles on the walls and hand painted ceiling are gorgeous. The line was long, but we managed to make it in before it closed for the Call to Prayer. Women have to cover their heads in order to enter. Hence, the scarves on our heads.
Two sites in, and we were ready for lunch. On our way to the restaurant, we learned that someone really loves baklava. This was the first of a few stops throughout the weekend. I’m sure I’ve had it before, but I can’t remember. Given the fact that I can’t remember, I think it’s fair to say that the baklava this weekend was the best I’ve ever had.
My Turkish colleague recommended a place that was also in the guide book. Both claimed it had the best kebabs in Istanbul. Hamdi Restaurant is located near the Spice Market, and it was delicious. I chose a kebab with yogurt and tomatoes! We sat on the second floor and had a seat next to the window, so we could watch the boats come and go from the port as well as all of the people milling about below.
Next, it was time for a cruise on the Bosphorus – the river that divides Istanbul in two. One side is Europe, the other side is Asia. The boat was a lot more covered than we would’ve liked – particularly given that it was a beautiful day. But, we enjoyed the ride (and a chai tea on board).
[That huge, long, white building stretching along the water is Dolmabahce Palace. We’ll visit it tomorrow.]
The one place I remember being totally overwhelmed by the last time I was in Istanbul was the Spice Market. This time was no different, but I was much better prepared. We meandered through the market – at moments finding ourselves swimming upstream. We made it out unscathed, and I actually paused to take a picture or two this time.
[You never know what you’re going to see on the street in this city!]
We went back to the hotel for a rest (in our new room) before heading out to dinner. Another great recommendation – Karakoy Lokantasi. Calamari, eggplant, shrimp, hummus, veal…so much goodness! And of course, we stopped to buy some baklava during our walk home.
Up bright and early on Sunday morning for another day of adventures! First stop? Dolmabahce Palace. This is where the last six sultans and the first Turkish President lived. It is incredibly ornate, including a 9,000 pound chandelier! Unfortunately, they don’t allow pictures inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it. And even more unfortunate than the lack of pictures was our “tour guide.” They sent between 100-150 people with the 10:15 English speaking tour, which is completely unmanageable. On top of that, he wasn’t very loud and he barely shared any information while we were in the palace.
After the palace, we took the funicular up the hill to Taksim Square. From there we strolled down Istiklal Avenue – one of the most famous pedestrian streets in the city,which runs through the Beyoglu neighborhood. Along the way, we ate doner kebabs and shopped a bit. (And almost cried when we saw a Shake Shack AFTER we ate our lunch.)
Just before we crossed the Galata Bridge on the way back to the old town, we checked out a market. I thought it was going to be all produce based on the first stand, but boy, was I wrong! It was a fish market with people yelling and throwing water everywhere. There were SO MANY fish! I don’t know who eats them all!
[Maybe these are the fishermen catching all of those fish at the market??]
The ladies headed to the Turkish bath for the afternoon. For those of you who aren’t familiar, I’ll just say that it’s not your typical spa experience. We chose to go to Cemberlitas Hamam – a historic Turkish bath. It was built in 1584 by a famous Turkish architect, Mimar Sinan. It was more chaotic than my previous hamam experiences in Turkey and Morocco (probably because it was a Sunday afternoon), but we still left feeling clean and relaxed.
One of the things I love most about living and working in Vevey is the fact that I am meeting people from all over the world. One of my friends moved back to Istanbul a couple of weeks ago. I’m sad that he isn’t here anymore, but I was thrilled that we could meet up with him & his wife. They chose a lovely restaurant for dinner – Park Fora. It is a delicious seafood restaurant situated right on the Bosphorus in a posh part of town. The food was SO amazing, the service was impeccable, and the company was even better.
[Can you tell how excited I am?!]
After dinner, we took a walk to a different neighborhood (Bebek) where we climbed to the fifth floor of a building to enjoy a drink at the outdoor terrace of Menagerie.
It was such a great evening with local friends. I think we all agreed it was one of our highlights of the weekend.
On Monday morning, we headed to Topkapi Palace. This was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years (1465-1856). Last visit, I preferred Dolmabahce Palace, but this time I actually preferred Topkapi. It seemed more livable, and there was so much great outdoor space. Now, I’m sure they were FREEZING in the winter time, but we’ll just pretend it was nice all year round. (Or maybe it was just me that was freezing when I visited in November.)
I think the most impressive thing I saw in the palace was the 86-carat diamond. One of many unbelievably ridiculous items in the Treasury. I’m so grateful we went early. The line was OUT OF CONTROL as we were exiting the palace.
And finally, one can’t go to Istanbul without shopping in the Grand Bazar. I LOVE it – the little “streets” winding around with all kinds of different goods to purchase. Yes, the salesmen are pushy, and yes, they all claim to have a “special price,” but all of the painted pottery, the scarves, the towels…it’s all so fun to look at!
[Fresh squeezed pomegranate juice]
[And because we saw so much of this grilled corn around town all weekend, we had to try some! It’s not quite as good as it looks, but we didn’t know that yet. That’s why our smiles are HUGE in this picture!]
Our adventure getting home was a little nutty…45 minutes to the airport on public transportation (where no one thinks twice about violating your personal space), a 2 hour flight delay, and an hour drive back to Vevey at 12:30am made for a group of four tired travelers. But, it was all worth it for a great weekend with fun friends!