Way back in February 2014, my hubby encountered an amazing deal on airfare: $700 for a round-trip direct flight from Houston to Turkey! I’ve been pestering him about going to Turkey for ages, so he caved and booked it right away. Being my usual, crazy travel-researcher self, I dove right in to stalking Fodors Travel Forum threads and Airbnb reviews until our full itinerary was locked in place. (I do owe a great deal to TripIt for keeping our reservations organized into a chronological itinerary – if you travel often and haven’t drank the TripIt Koolaid, get on it! Total travel game-changer for us.) And that’s the story of how we ended up traveling to Turkey last September.
Our first evening in Istanbul, we were pretty jet-lagged from the transatlantic flight. We checked into the apartment we rented in Cukurcuma and slipped into bed for a long, luxurious nap. When we awoke, it was dark (bummer) but we wandered a few blocks away and found the cutest restaurant ever. Open-air, candlelit, quiet, romantic – it was perfect. A shy neighborhood cat slinked around several times, and our waiter made devilishly cute jokes about Turks and their pets.
Images via Corinne
A quick note on our neighborhood – Beyoglu, the “new” section of Istanbul, is one of my favorite urban areas in the world. Our little neighborhood, Cukurcuma (yes, the setting of The Museum of Innocence!) was incredibly charming – steep hills reminiscent of San Francisco, Ottoman mansions mixed with Parisian-style apartment buildings, antique shops, bars, and cafes everywhere – and locals lounging on tiny stools in alleyways, smoking nargile (hookah) and playing backgammon. A small bit of me died and went to heaven the moment I laid eyes on those picturesque backstreets.
Our second day in Istanbul was Rick Steves worthy – we started the day with a hearty Turkish breakfast (buffet at a small nearby restaurant, in which we ate roast beef for breakfast for the first time ever, and signed our way through the payment at the end – never a dull moment!) and then set off for Sultanahmet, the “Old City.”
It’s hard to really understand Istanbul without glancing at a map. So, here’s a quick visual for you. The upper section is Beyoglu, the “New City” – it’s recently made a big comeback and is trendy for young people (read: hipsters). Nightlife is on point. The “Old City,” Sultanahmet, is the bottom left – it’s separated from Beyoglu by the “Gold Horn” (a tiny inlet of the Sea of Marmara). Tourists flood Sultanahmet by day, and yet at night it becomes pretty dead. Across the Bosphorus River to the East is the Asian side of Istanbul, which is densely populated with working class families. Capische?
Map via Istanbul City Guide
After breakfast, we crossed the Golden Horn Bridge to Sultanahmet and ventured into the bustling streets full of people hawking Turkish donuts and cheap bracelets, tourists looking helplessly lost, taxis careening around corners with reckless abandon… Istanbul has the 7th highest population in the world and is not for the claustrophobic. Check out this street (Istiklal Caddesi) in the middle of a weekday:
We started our marathon of Istanbul tourist sites with the Blue Mosque. I loved every moment in there – it’s truly an architectural marvel.
Right across the street is the Hagia Sophia. (I mean… does it get any better than that? All of the major tourists sites are within a square mile.) Again – we were blown away. It’s a beautiful, cavernous church with these surprising details, like massive gold doors and ornate columns, and in spite of the swarms of visitors, it’s filled with a beautiful echoey silence. This one more than lived up to all of the hype.
At that point in the day, D’s stomach was rumbling audibly – and you can’t cross a man who’s verging on hangry. So we stopped for lunch at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, which was surely the definition of Turkish dive. The restaurant was housed in a tall, narrow building wedged in a block of apartments, and the waiter led us up and up, to the 5th or 6th floor. Inside, there were men sitting around smoking, and lots of businesspeople dining in groups. We were sweating up a storm and weren’t sure how to flag down a waiter to order, but when our kofte (meatballs) arrived, all was well with the world.
Continuing our self-guided Tour de Istanbul, we wandered over to the TopkapI Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. The palace was….no joke. It would give Versailles a run for its money. At one point over 4,000 people lived within the palace and its grounds.
The highlight of TopkapI for me was the intricate tilework throughout many of the buildings. The highlight for D was the harem. (Typical.)
I’d love to see some TV special on life in the harem in the Ottoman Empire – it’s kind of hard now to visualize concubines strolling through the courtyard and the Queen Mother soaking in the luxurious baths.
That evening we dined at 49 Cukurcuma, a fantastic little neighborhood pizza place. I began a nightly routine of drinking raki while waiting for dinner – when we returned home from Turkey, I really craved raki for awhile. Note to self: hunt down a bottle in Houston. Better yet, return to Turkey and drink all the raki.
Another fantastic Turkish drink: apple chai. Apple tea is to Turkey as espresso is to Italy. Everywhere we’d go, the friendly locals would press a cup of chai onto us. Hey, I’m not one to turn down a free drink 😉
When we travel, I love to take a break from the endless museum-wandering, line-waiting, photo-taking frenzy and just curl up somewhere cozy to soak it all in. Aside from our first day in Istanbul, we tried to take things nice and slow – and cafes like this one (pictured below) were one of the highlights of the city. I mean, come on – ivy hanging down from the open-air walls, plush tufted armchairs, and prime people watching – I could move right in.
One spot in Istanbul I was really looking forward to was the Egyptian Spice Market. I have fond memories of Barcelona’s Boqueria, and I had very high hopes for this medieval spice market. But to be honest, it was a little disappointing. There wasn’t too much variety – mostly mounds of Turkish delights and cheap imitation saffron. Still, I’m glad we went – just wish we could’ve traveled back in time several centuries to see the bazaar in all its glory. Now it’s just another major tourist trap.
Speaking of tourist traps – the Grand Bazaar is just a stone’s throw away from the Spice Market, so we headed there next. Guess who got tricked into buying not one, but two Turkish rugs? This girl. I blame it on the apple chai.
(Well, D shares half the responsibility.)
We found out hours later that we got majorly ripped off, which gave us a pretty bad feeling in our guts… but now our soft handwoven Turkish rugs are a focal point in our living room, and we love them – so it all worked out okay. Just a story to tell the grandkids one day.
With our rugs rolled up into rug bags (hah! most exotic carry-on of our lives thus far) and ready to get away from the city hustle, we boarded a plane and headed for Cappadocia.
Next week: recap of our Anatolian adventure!