Our third destination for spring break was probably my favorite: Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul is a vibrant, beautiful city with a blend of east and west that makes it different from pretty much anywhere else in the world and that we found really relaxing. It was just Christy and I and fell at the end of the trip, and even though we had food poisoning, we had four days to spend in the city so took it easy and explored at our own pace.
Though Istanbul isn’t the capital of Turkey, it’s one of its largest cities, which I guess should be surprising considering it’s one of the largest cities and urban agglomerations in the entire world. Formerly the seats of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires as Constantinople, Istanbul has a really long and important history that has put it at the crossroads of the world. That continues to this day with it being one of the only cities to straddle two continents, Europe and Asia, its key location along the regionally-important Bosphorus Strait, and its ability to act as a link between the West and the Middle East. Obviously you can never see everything, but we really got to experience a lot of this historical culture and can truly understand how Turkey is unlike any other place in the world with its unique blend of cultures.
Our trip started off, of course, with some interesting transportation adventures. We had another early morning to catch our flight, leaving Prague for the airport on the 06:30 shuttle. Everything seemed to go pretty smoothly until Air Serbia delayed our departure — normally that would be fine, but our layover in Belgrade was only 15 minutes and we had an airport transfer that would be waiting for us in Istanbul. To make a long story short, we just made our connection in Belgrade by running to the gate, and they closed the door right after the people from our flight got on.
Because Istanbul is such a huge city, we decided to dedicated one day to each of the main areas and just wander around them. On our first day, we stayed in the old city area near our hostel, Sultanahmet, which is basically historic Constantinople and is a peninsula formed by the Golden Horn. Looking back, that was a really busy day filled with lots of sightseeing. We started off by going to the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox basilica that was later an imperial mosque but is now a museum. Afterwards, we randomly stubbled upon the burial sites of some of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire and then went to see the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, that we could see from the rooftop of our hostel. Due to Turkey’s large Muslim population (around 99%) and long history of Islamic influence, Istanbul’s skyline is dominated by many mosques like the Blue Mosque that are beautiful structures that are not only tourist attractions but also working religious sites used by the population of Istanbul five times per day for prayers. After spending some time enjoying the atmosphere and architecture of the mosque, we headed to the Basilica Cistern that my friend Elyssa had mentioned was pretty cool. It’s below ground and they used to store water there for the city. The pillars and whole thing was definitely very cool, even if the dark and dam atmosphere made it a little creepy.
After taking a break for lunch, we continued our walking tour with the Grand Bazaar. Though neither of us are big shoppers, it was cool to see one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world that remains one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions. They kept asking me if I wanted to buy new jeans though… I’m not sure if they say that to everyone or they were trying to tell me something about the ones I was wearing. We continued exploring after there, not entirely sure where we were going because of the scarcity of street scenes, but definitely enjoying the journey and city experience. Eventually we found our next stop, the New Mosque, located right by the Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn and connects the two European sides. We really liked the mosque for some reason, maybe because we were able to just sit down in the inside, taking in the whole thing and watching people pray. From there, we continued walking and made it to our last two spots: the Archaeological Museums and Topkapı Palace, the former home of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. After a long day of walking in the sun and lots of tourist stops, we ate dinner at the hostel and went to bed pretty early that night.
Day 2 was, as luck would have it, rainy. Luckily it didn’t stay bad for long, so we decided to brave the weather and cross the Golden Horn to the Beyoğlu and Galata districts that were still part of the European side, but across the bridge from us. We took the tram to Kabataş and transferred to the very convenient funicular line that only takes 110 seconds to get to Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul. We were there in the rain, but we could see why the wide open area is a major meeting and leisure place, full of nightclubs and the location of the city’s protests, just like Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. It’s a key shopping area, so after seeing the Republic Monument we walked down İstiklal Avenue, a long pedestrian street full of shops, restaurants, candy stores, and more. We saw the nostalgic tram, and it turns out that the local Tünel Metro Station holds the second-oldest underground metro line in the world, after the London Underground. If you’ve been reading my blog faithfully, you’ll hopefully be confused by that since we thought we had just seen that in Budapest. Budapest actually has the oldest full subway line with multiple stations, while this one is just a funicular line with two stations. Still very cool, especially to think that we went to two of the oldest on the same trip!
We were pleasantly surprised to find out that İstiklal Caddesi ends at Galata Tower, which was the other thing we had planned for this side of the Golden Horn. A medieval stone tower, today Galata Tower is one of the city’s main landmarks and a cool tourist attraction because of the panoramic view it gives of the city, letting us see the rest of Galata, the Asian side, and even the historic peninsula where we had been the day before, with tons of mosques dotting the skyline. From above it almost made it seem like we were on a bunch of small islands because of how the natural barriers affect how the city is formed. Not wanting to buy more Metro tokens and realizing we ended up so close to Galata Bridge, we decided to walk back home across the bridge. We stopped a few times to people watch and take in the city, and ended up spending a lot of time chilling in Gülhane Park, which is part of the same complex as the Archaeological Museum and Topkapı Palace from yesterday. There were tons of kids around playing on statues and just having fun, so between that and the sun that came out we were very content.
After stopping back at our hostel for a quick rest, we decided to be daring and ignore our stomach problems to try some good food. We went to a cheap area that was apparently known for its good quality and value. The meal turned out to only be 20 TRY for both Christy and I, which is only $9. We got pide, which is there version of pizza on pita bread, and it was really good. 🙂 It was definitely interesting that I got water in what looked like a jello cup and that the restaurant hasn’t had a bathroom in over 330 years — the waiter took me down the street and paid for a public WC when I asked where the bathroom was — but it was definitely interesting and a very good meal.
We weren’t really sure what to do for our last day in Istanbul. We were originally thinking about going over the Asian side (Anatolia), just to say we did it, but after finding out that we had actually flown into the Asian side (we flew into the cheaper, but further airport) we decided to try something else interesting: visit the nearby Prince Islands. These islands, known as the Adalar district, are very popular destinations for the residents of Istanbul to escape the busy city life during the summer. All motorized vehicles, other than service vehicles, are forbidden from the island, so people need to explore by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn taxi carriages, making it more peaceful. It took about an hour and a half for us to get to the biggest of the nine islands, Büyükada, but the tokens were very cheap and we met some cool Dutch university students along the way. We walked all around the island, going to the top of one of the hills to see a monastery and a viewpoint, and just hanging around. It was definitely a fun, relaxing way to end our trip.
We tried to go to bed pretty early that night because we had our earliest departure yet to look forward to: we needed to get up at 02:30 to make sure we were on the 03:15 shuttle. Sabiha Gökçen Airport was definitely cheaper and we can now see why, given how long it took us to get there from where we were staying. Fortunately though, our early departure would give us time to study for finals and work on essays for our last week of classes at Mosaic. We even ended up being on the same flight as people we knew from Madrid, so they helped us stay awake at the gate despite the early hour. We also reasoned that we couldn’t be delayed by a late plane if we were the first flight out! Given our troubles with Wizz Air and Air Serbia, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that we had to sit 20 minutes at a broken jetway and leave from the back when we got back to Madrid and bus to the terminal. At that point we were champs at transportation problems though, so we handled it with style. 😉
Overall, Istanbul was definitely a very cool city and a good end to a fun spring break trip. It had a very cool blend of European and Middle Eastern characteristics, and though there was a definite Muslim influence, it was distinctly not Arab, even though people often conflate the two. We actually grew to enjoy the call to prayer five times a day; it was very beautiful and made us stop to reflect every time we heard it. The Islamic gender roles still take some getting used to, with the separation in the mosques and the fact that it’s more common to see men holding hands walking around than a man and a woman or groups of women. Beyond the city itself, we had a lot of fun random stories from our visit to Istanbul, like Rosie the Cat, one of the city’s main wild cats and dogs that roam the streets, who has come to our hostel for breakfast for 8 years and used to get pregnant twice a year until one of the local owners got her spayed. On our day in Beyoğlu we also ran into the same three Spanish travelers four different times, leading us to playfully ask them in Spanish if they were following us when we ran into them the last time at Galata Tower. Our talks with the Dutch students were also fun, with them commenting on how it sucks we don’t have a “secret language” because everyone knows English and just laughing about stupid things.