Since I visited it in 2007, Istanbul has been high on my list of top cities around the world. Back then, it was a first stop in a classic route that would take me to the fairy chimneys and hermit chapels of Cappadocia, the travertine hot springs of Pamukkale, magnificent ancient ruins like Ephesus and the Mediterranean beach of Bodrum. This time, taking advantage of one of Elena’s business trips and with barely a weekend, we devoted ourselves to Turkey’s de facto capital (the actual capital is Ankara since 1923, but Istanbul remains the largest city and economic and cultural heart). 48 hours turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore all the highlights of Istanbul.
On our first day, early in the morning to avoid the crowds, we set off to Sultanahmet Camii. Built in the beginning of the 17th century and still widely used for prayer, it is one of the symbols of Istanbul and popularly known as The Blue Mosque. The best view to take panoramic photos is from the park on the north, which we reached via the Hippodrome (byzantine horse-racing circus long gone, now marked by two obelisks). Once we had appreciated the mosque’s scale and its six stylized minarets, we walked into the courtyard and through the tourist entrance. It was free and we received a covering for our heads and a plastic bag to put our shoes in. Once inside, the name of the mosque made sense, as it was adorned with thousands of blue and white Iznik tiles. The two other elements that I particularly liked were the stained windows and the giant, low hanging lamps.
We exited and crossed the park to the even more famous Hagia Sophia. Built as an Orthodox church in the 6th century, it was later turned into a mosque and then secularized and converted into a museum. It is, without doubt, one of the masterpieces of architecture around the world. Its massive dome is a technical feat, and its byzantine style served as inspiration for countless mosques, including the blue one we had just visited. We paid the 30 Turkish Lira (~$10) ticket, but at least there were no lines, since winter is clearly low season in Istanbul. The moment we set foot inside, we fell in love with the place. We marveled at the complex nave, the marble pillars, the golden mosaics, the gigantic medallions, and the asymmetric mihrab (added during the conversion, and always pointed to Mecca). We took the Indiana Jones-style ramp to reach the upper gallery, where the views were more impressive, if possible, and we could observe more mosaics close up. When we walked down the ramp and made our way to the exit, we nearly missed one of the most impressive mosaics, located over the gate; luckily, a mirror had been placed to alert oblivious visitors like us.
After these two amazing visits, the bar was set really high but I wasn’t worried because it was time to hit one of my favorite and definitely one of the most surprising spots in the city: the Basilica Cistern (20 Turkish Lira, ~$7 cash only). Located underground, only a few meters away from Santa Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, it was used to store water for this palace and its predecessor. It’s basically a large subterranean room supported by hundreds of columns. Most of these were apparently recycled from old temples, which explains why they are not consistent, and also its two most famous features: the poorly oriented Medusa heads at the bases of two columns, and the eye engravings on another. The cistern is a magical place in the middle of a chaotic city.
We were making great progress, so we decided to check out a couple more mosques before lunch: Little Hagia Sophia and Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque. Little Sophia, another contemporary Orthodox church converted into mosque, did indeed look like a miniature version of Hagia Sophia. The interior was very minimalistic and elegant (all the original mosaics are gone), and we really enjoyed the peacefulness of sitting in the gallery balcony, alone. Sokollu was less memorable, more similar to others we had and would see this weekend, but still contained gorgeous Iznik tile decoration.
We walked north, though the lesser known parts of the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet, where commerce still occurs on pebbled streets that seem to be organized by guild. Before we realized, where were being sucked by the expanding tentacles of the Grand Bazaar, and it took as a while to get away and find a local place to eat. We devoured some kebab and pide (Turkish take on pizza), as well as a typical pomegranate juice (a bit sour but interesting) and ayran (Turkish national drink, similar to kefir).
We circled back to the Grad Bazaar, a 500 year old shopping mall, home to 3,000 shops. Its well preserved structure and bustling activity could make it a great experience, a unique place to imagine life in its glory days, as you wander pass shops selling ceramics, jewelry, tea, pashminas, chess boards, etc. Unfortunately, the bazaar has become overly touristy, and most shops carry the same mass-manufactured stuff at abusive prices. The best part was tasting Turkish sweets: all sorts of lokum, nuts and baklava (the latter one we had to pay for).
We went back on the streets, set to find Buyuk Valide Han, a ruined 17th century caravanserai (a sort of motel and storage for traveling merchants). We spotted and entered a blackened arch with the name, took a flight of stairs on the left, and found ourselves inside a half demolished building. An old man pointed to a staircase and asked us for a Lira. The views from the roof, which preserves the original domes, were fantastic: the vast city, the numerous mosques, the Galata Bridge and Tower, the Bosporus…
The last visit we had planned for the day was Suleymaniye Mosque, the largest in Istanbul, and magnificently perched on a hill. When we arrived, the call to prayer was coming out of the minarets, and visitors were being denied entrance (this happens 5 times per day, for an hour, in every active mosque). Luckily, a young man, who happened to be a mosque volunteer, saw our disappointment and sneaked us in. He sat down with us on the sidelines and explained the ceremony and other principles of Islam. Furkan, that was his name, was gentle and wholesome, making us reflect on our involuntary biases.
The day was not over, one of the best experience still awaited us: the Suleymaniye Hamam, a historic Turkish bath right behind the Suleymaniye mosque. It was a bit of a whim (130 Turkish Lira, ~$45, cash only), but we decided to splurge. This haman is one of the oldest and most renown of Istanbul, as it was designed in the 16th century by the same architect as the mosque, ordered by the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent himself. We were provided bath cloths and brought to a marble sauna room, with faucets on the sides. After about half an hour of relaxing and sweating, our masseuses came in and we moved to the bathing rooms on the corners, where we were scrubbed and massaged with copious soap. A bit more sauna and then we were wrapped in towels and taken to the resting tea room. The whole experience was fantastic!
It was getting dark when we walked back to our hotel in the heart of Sultanahmet, exhausted from a packed day… and passed out. What was supposed to be a ‘power nap’ went out of control because of the brutal jet lag coming from LA. We went back out near midnight, to grab dinner (lamb and a delicious local dessert called kunefe), and to enjoy one of my favorite sights: the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia illuminated at night. It was the icing on the cake for a day where we had seen so much. And yet we still had many highlights left for the following day: Topkapi, Spice Bazaar, Yeni Mosque, Galata Bridge and Tower, Istiklal Avenue…