I fell in love with Istanbul. At times, Istanbul felt very familiar and natural to me. Other times, it was a completely different and foreign world. I loved the regular Call to Prayer sounding from the minarets throughout the day. I loved how diverse and friendly the people were. My god, I loved the food in Turkey so, so much. I would return just for the food. The city is ancient and modern at the same time. It was amazing.
When I was there, I couldn’t help but think how much Istanbul reminds of San Francisco:
The Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco and Marin. The Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and Bosporus Bridge connect Europe and Asia. You can take a ferry between SF and Marin/Mill Valley. Similarly, ferries circulate between the European and Asian sides of Turkey.
In San Francisco people eat, drink and chill with friends at places like Dolores Park, Alamo Square, Washington Square, Fort Mason, etc. It’s the same in Istanbul. Families and friends picnic and barbecue kebabs on the waterfront, on green patches, parks, etc.
San Francisco is hilly. So is Istanbul.
Anyways, here are my highlights and travel recommendations for Istanbul:
A Visit to the Blue Mosque
Sultanahmet, also known as the “Blue Mosque” is known for the beautiful blue mosaics adorning its interior domes. Women have to cover their heads and legs in order to enter as modesty is crucial. Everyone is equal in the mosque – the rich, the poor, the wealthy, the less-fortunate – even the Sultan. The belief is that God or Allah created all of humankind to be equal.
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A Visit to the Ayasofia
The Ayasofia (Church of Divine Wisdom) is a nice little walk from the Blue Mosque. The Ayasofia has a unique history because it was formally a Byzantine church and then later became a mosque before finally transforming into a museum in 1935. The Ayasofia exhibits both Christian and Islamic characteristics – pretty rare and remarkable.
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A Visit to Dolmabache Palace
Dolmabache is the largest palace in Turkey. It was built in the mid-1800’s and its construction was largely funded by foreign loans. It was extremely costly to build and was a huge reason for the Ottoman Empire’s financial crisis/bankruptcy. The palace is filled with glitz and glam – beautiful crystal chandeliers, gold carved walls – the whole 9 yards. The only way to view the interior is by taking a guided tour. Unfortunately, all photography is banned so I only have pictures of the exterior and a snapshot of these sexy plastic bags we had to put on over our footwear.
(BEWARE: There are very long lines to visit Dolmabache. I think I waited in line for 1+ hours to enter. Someone told me that there are daily visit quotas as well).
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A Shopping Trip to the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is filled with souvenirs and trinkets. With over 3,000 shops, it’s one of the largest covered bazaars in the world. You can buy hookahs, Turkish tea glasses, shoes, clothes, jewelry, baklava, costumes, soap, Turkish towels, Turkish Viagra (which apparently comes in a jar – see bottom right) – the list goes on.
The shops along the main pathway are more expensive due to higher rental costs. For bargains, it’s better to get lost in the maze of shops off the main strip. Haggling is an absolute must.
Many vendors relentlessly try to get you to buy their goods. Some use humor or cheesy compliments to get you to take a look inside their shops. I remember passing a shop and making eye contact for a brief moment with the shop-owner.
Hello! Come in, lady. I have got a very good deal for you, beautiful lady. 30% off just for you! 30% discount on everything for you! Where are you from?
I smiled but kept on walking. About 10 minutes later, I had to backtrack a bit to try to find a friend and ended up passing the same the shop again.
You’re back! Okay, okay, okay. I know. Okay, fine. I’ll give you 50% off. It’s a very special deal just for you. Come in, beautiful lady.
I smiled, shook my head and kept walking. I found my friend and we walked around the bazaar for awhile longer. It was hard to know if we had been down a row of shops before because the bazaar is just so damn big. Everything starts looking the same. Before I knew it, I ended up passing the SAME shop for a THIRD time. The shop-owner yelled out again.
Everything is free for you, pretty lady.
By the third time, we both knew he was just messing around and trying to get my attention. We both laughed.
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Eat, Eat and Eat
Turkish breakfast may just be my favorite kind of breakfast. It can last for hours and is a mouth-watering affair complete with breads, jams, cheeses, fruits, eggs, tea, meats, coffee, honey, yogurt, vegetables and more. My favorite breakfast was at Kale Cafe. Here are just a few pictures I snapped of the food in this city:
Final Notes on Istanbul
I did a couple of other noteworthy things while in Istanbul. I attended an absolutely amazing wedding at Suada Club, a venue on a little island between Europe and Asia. The Turkish certainly know how to party because after the wedding, there was an after-party and then an after-after party until 8am!
I walked around the city and people-watched:
And I spent the majority of my time in Istanbul with one of my closest gal pals. I think we were sisters in another life.