Since we have now moved to Europe, of course we are going to take advantage and see as much as we can over here. We’d like to see every country in the world of course, but would definitely like to cover the whole EU while we are here. That being said, when I see a good deal on airfare to a country that we haven’t visited as of yet, I’ll try to find a way to book it and get over there ASAP. And what did I find in the middle of January….a good fare to Istanbul, Turkey!

Hagia Sophia

I’ve always read that Istanbul is a city you must visit, but of course I was a bit skeptical with all the news about the mosques, and how important religion is there. Those things have never really scared me, albeit maybe they should, but I’ve never seen an issue traveling somewhere just because some others are nervous. I wanted to take full advantage of being in Turkey, so we booked a 3 day trip to Istanbul with an open mind and hoped for the best.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque…otherwise known as the Blue Mosque

First, we took Turkish Airlines….one of the best airlines we’ve been on to date. Unlike airlines in the states, they still serve full meals in coach, full drink service, etc. We even had a laugh when the flight attendant thought Annemarie was Turkish. Note, Annemarie has now been asked if she was the following: Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Dutch and Hispanic. Quite the renaissance woman I married don’t ya think? Anyway, we got into Istanbul right on time and made our way through customs. We had a bit of a snafu with the transportation, as the hotel was supposed to pick us up, but to our surprise when we arrived they had upgraded us to a suite, on the house. While they were getting the room ready, they invited down to the lounge for a glass of house wine, and showed us the lay of the land. I’ll be the first to recommend Hotel Amira to anyone that ever visits Istanbul. The service was impeccable, great location, the works.

As usual, we wanted to crush the city as we like to say it, or see as much as possible in 3 days. We read up on a walking tour of the city that was supposed to take 6 days. We finished it in 6 hours. I’m not sure if the tour book was geared toward people who were over the age of 70 or blind, but I think they need to update their book. Now, we are some of the craziest travelers I know, so maybe to the average walker it would’ve taken 2 days tops, but in no way would it take 6 days. Since our hotel was in the Old Town area in Sultanahmet, we were pretty close to all of the major sites. Our first stop was over at Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia is an old mosque/church that is no longer in commission because it’s not that structurally sound anymore. It’s huge, and quite unique on the inside, but after seeing St. Peter’s in Vatican City and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it’s not the most incredible thing we’ve seen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still unique and quite an amazing structure, we’ve just been spoiled by seeing some of the world’s most incredible holy buildings. After stepping out, and walking across the street, literally, we headed over to the Blue Mosque, which is the largest active Muslim mosque in Istanbul. This again, is quite incredible….from the outside. The minarets that surround it are lit up at night which allows you to see it from any part of the city, which by the way is enormous. The first night we were in town we walked by it at night and were in awe, and then the call of prayer started, and we were floored. I’ve never heard a loud-speaker system like that, and you can hear it from all points in the city. You have to be there and experience it for yourself to really appreciate how loud and clear it is.

entrance to Topkapı Palace

Since we got in kind of late, we wanted to grab some dinner, and of course we like to eat at local joints versus tourist spots or any place that has a “tourist menu.” The hotel made a couple of suggestions, and we hit one up. There were probably only 6 people in the place total, as January isn’t exactly the high tourist season in Istanbul. We were told this place was famous for its clay pot dishes, so of course we had to order one. DAMN! I don’t like lamb all that much, but whatever spices they added to this, and on top of that cooking it in the clay pot, it was unbelievable. That along with some appetizer dish that I can’t quite describe now, but I know I also ate more eggplant on this trip than in my whole life combined. We knew from this point that our trip was going to be great!

having some lamb cooked straight from the clay pot

The next day we got up early, got some breakfast downstairs, and hit the city. Since the weather was perfect, we wanted to hit everything that was outside and keep the Grand Bazaar for the final day since that was covered. As I mentioned above, we hit both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which both were unique and massive. We also went inside the Blue Mosque, where women are still supposed to cover their heads, and no shoes are allowed. So pretty much all you see is a ton of tourist, walking around with plastic bags filled with shoes, and women with scarves or hooded jackets on. We both said “wow, this is really nice carpet!”…but it better be since hundreds have to kneel down on it multiple times a day to pray. The architecture and design on the inside is kind of ruined by all the wires and such that hang from the ceiling so there can be light closer to the floor, but we got the general layout of the place. It’s actually not that big on the inside, compared to the massive structure you see from the outside.

After we hit both of those up, we headed over to the Basilica Cisterns, which are underneath the city. To this day, they are still unsure why exactly they were built, and how two Medusa heads, that most likely came from Greece or Italy, are down there as well. Today it really seems to be used just as a tourist destination, a place to take strange pictures, and act as a giant fishbowl (tons of fish swimming down there, with no predators, so they get quite large.)

Why is this here? And why is it sideways?

While there, we also went into the new city area, where the Galato Tower is, which has one of the best views of the city from the top. Of course they had to ruin it by putting a restaurant at the top with highly overpriced drinks, but I guess that was a no brainer for them. The new city area is where all the high-end shopping is, the “modern life” of the city you could say. There is a shopping row there, which is pedestrian, which seems like it goes on for miles. You start at the top, which is reached by a funicular, which in my eyes, seems a waste of money as it’s only a 45 second ride to the top, but I guess it warrants enough daily travelers to be worth it. Some things I just don’t get, and especially this one since it wasn’t built for tourism, but for locals. Oh well, moving on. We decided to then walk back to the old town area, and across the Galato Bridge, where hundreds of fisherman are lined up catching dinner and then sell it on the bridge. I’m not sure what kind of fish they were catching exactly, but you knew one thing, it was fresh.

Getting the catch of the day!

After finally getting across the bridge, we walked around the spice market, and through a maze of streets, up and down hills, until we made it back to our hotel to get ready for restaurant #2, which once again, was fantastic. This time we ordered way too much food, but again, was fantastic. I can’t even remember what I had, but I do remember the service once again being amazing and finishing the night with some shots of grappa. We then took a late night stroll around the Blue Mosque and stood there wide-eyed at the lit up minarets once again. Istanbul had won us over.

On the final day, we of course wanted to check out the Grand Bazaar. Now, we’ve been to markets all over the world, but this place is enormous. It’s something like 600 acres of real estate….and it’s the same store repeated every 4 stores! You’d have a lamp shop, a carpet shop, a scarf shop, and then a knock off shop. That’s it! And there were at least 1,000 stores inside this bazaar, so after about 15 minutes, I got a headache and wanted to get hell out of there! I don’t mind these markets that much, but when they are constantly in your face and yelling at you to buy, I get a little put off.

Lack of indecision would work well in this store!

We ended up getting a lamp ourselves, and shipped it back where it met us at home only 4 days later. Not bad for not really having any definitive proof that it would ever show up at all. I recommend anyone traveling that wants to see something a tad different and expose themselves to a completely different culture to visit Istanbul. I know it doesn’t represent the whole country, let alone the other half (Asia) of the city, but from what we saw, it definitely will stick in our memory. You can see all of our photo’s in the photo album link at the bottom of the page.