Istanbul, TURKEY: Istanbul is a modern secular city with lots of history and rich culture. This the only city in the world the falls under two continents – Europe and Asia. The people here are very friendly. If you are traveling with kids, don’t be surprised if you see road side vendors giving free goodies to them. It’s s a good idea to learn some local words and phrases but most of the sales persons and officials understand and speak English very good. Our stay in Istanbul was for four days and it gave us enough time to visit all the places that we wanted to visit.
Our Time of Traveling: Winter of 2010 during Christmas break. The weather was pretty good, little bit of cold, but fortunately we got no rain.
Our Hotel :We stayed in Hotel Prince near Sirkeci train station, which was only 5 minutes walk from Sultan Ahmet Square. The service here was simply AWESOME. The breakfast was free and that included variety of options. The hotel has their own Turkish hamam/spa/sauna and charges only 20 euros for an hour in the hamam. Don’t miss the unique experience of taking a traditional bath in the hamam. Also, there are many stores near the hotel where you can find tons of souvenir items for much cheaper price than Grand Bazaar or Egyptian Market.
Food You Should Try: Who doesn’t know about Turkish kebab? Doner kebap from the road side restaurants are good, it usually comes with different types of salad, and bread, sometimes rice. Also try the grilled chestnut from the street vendors, I got addicted to them, so good and nutty. A famous Turkish beverage is the apple tea. You can find them anywhere. They serve it in small cups. If you are not into apple, then may be try the orange or lemon or other types of fruity tea, so yummy after having kebab for your meal. Turkish delights are another must eat when you are in Turkey. They come in variety of taste with fruits and nuts. I have heard that Turkish seafood dishes are also very good, but we didn’t get time to sit down in a formal restaurant where we could get some fish. But I am sure you can get fresh seafood from Bosphorus river served right on your table in upper class restaurants.
Things to buy: There are tons of things you can buy from Turkey, which are unique to this place. Hand-painted ceramics, tea-cup set, chandelier/lamps, quilted square pattern runner/pillow case/wall tapestry, Islamic arts and calligraphy, Sufi music CD, and last but definitely not the least is the Turkish rug. But don’t fall for the price sellers give you, make sure to BARGAIN.
Below are the places we visited in Istanbul, Turkey.
1. AYA SOFYA or HAGHIA SOPHIA: This is located in Sultan Ahmet Square. This served as Cathedral of Constantinople from 360 to 1453. Then it was converted to a mosque 1453 and stayed as a mosque until 1931. In 1935 this building was opened as a museum. Therefore you will see a combination of both Islamic and Cathedral like design here. There is a ticket to get into the museum, but don’t pay extra 10 euros to go to the upper gallery. I personally didn’t think it was worth it. The real attraction is on the main floor.
2. SULAIMANYE MOSQUE: This dates back to 1550 A.D. This building represents Ottoman architectural design. If you have some extra time, it’s a nice place to visit and doesn’t cost anything. But please be careful during the prayer time, respect the locals when they enter the mosque to pray. It’s always good to carry a scarf in Istanbul, comes in handy when you are entering a mosque.
3. AYUB ANSARI MOSQUE: This mosque is not big in size, but every year this place attracts thousands of tourists because of the unique historical artifact that it houses. This mosque has a marble stone that has the imprinted foot print of Prophet Mohamed (SAW). Many muslims come here to look at this stone since it carries a sentimental value for all the muslims all around the world. It has a nice big courtyard where you can spend some time eating, walking around, and knowing the locals.
4. TOPKAPI PALACE: I think everyone who has ever been in Istanbul visited Topkapi Palace. This was official and primary residential of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years. The construction started in 1459 after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. You can easily spend a whole day exploring inside the palace. There are museums which contains Ottoman ornaments, decors, arms, Islamic artifacts including Prophet Mohamed (SAW)’s tooth, beard, sword, his daughter Fatima (RA)’s cloak, prayer rug, and 4 caliphs’ swords. You can also get a beautiful view of Bosphorus river while you walk around the palace.
The entrance fee to the palace is TL20 which does not include entry to Harem. You have to buy the ticket for Harem separately (don’t miss it). The lines to go to each section of the museums are very long, even during the winter (I can’t imagine what its like during summer) and you cannot take any stroller inside the room, since these are very small rooms full of artifacts. There is a cafe facing the Bosphorus river in one section of the palace where you can either sit indoor for privacy or outdoor to enjoy the view of the surroundings.
5. SULTAN AHMET MOSQUE: Also known as Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built between 1609 to 1616. This mosque is one of the two mosques that has six minerats. The interior decoration of this mosque is absolutely stunning. You can easily spend an hour roaming around the place. No matter which religious background you come from, the quietness inside the mosque gives you a peaceful mind. The entrance is free, but its better to go there when it’s not a prayer time, otherwise you will have to wait til the prayer ends. Shoes are not allowed inside the mosque and for ladies, it is respectful to have a scarf covering the head when entering the mosque.
If it is possible take a little stroll in Sultan Ahmet Square at night. The lighting near the Blue Mosque and the small part is very beautiful.
6. DOLMABAHCE PALACE: This is a must see when you are in Istanbul. Ready to spend at least half a day or may be a whole inside the palace. The entry fee is TL20 and that covers the everything that you want to see there. It is located in the European side of the Bosphorus. It was built between the years 1843 and 1856 and served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922. The architectural design of this palace combines Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical and the traditional Ottoman styles. You will an amazing view of Bosphorus from the palace. Oh, don’t forget to take a picture with the royal guard in front of the palace 🙂 You cannot go inside the main museum hall without a guided tour. The tours are usually in English and in Turkish. We were lucky that we got there just in time for the English tour.
The founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey Kemal Ataturk spend his last days in this palace and eventually died here on November 10, 1938. You will get to visit his bedroom with the guided tour. But NO camera is allowed during the tour.
7. GRAND BAZAAR: This is THE place to go while you are in Istanbul. This market place has more than 4000 shops and about 11 entrances. You will find anything and everything here including tea/coffee, hand painted ceramics, carpets, leathers, Turkish delights, gold jewelleries…you name it and you will find it in Grand Bazaar. It is very easy to get lost while shopping, just remember which gate you entered from.
One thing to remember while you are shopping in Turkey is that you must bargain for everything you buy, even if it says “Fixed Price”. Take your time and ask for price for the things you want to buy in couple different stores before you decide to buy them. Start bargaining from the half of the price that the sellers gives you and come to a middle point. If you buy few things from one place, the seller may cut you a good deal. It is the culture there…so, enjoy it without being rude to the sellers. Although this place is little bit pricey compare to other road side stores, visit this place at least for once since it is one of the oldest and biggest markets in the world.
8. EGYPTIAN SPICE MARKET: This is a smaller version of the Grand Bazaar, therefore less crowded and the price is cheaper too. You will find Turkish tea/coffee/delights, hand painted ceramics, scarves, dried fruits, tea sets, spices, and many more giftable items here. Again, BARGAIN BARGAIN BARGAIN. This market had one main entrance and is very easy to find your way out.
9. TAKSIM SQUARE: Do not waste your item going to Taksim Square, you will regret it. This is a popular hub among the locals because of the varity of shopping centers, restaurants, hotels and offices. You will find McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King along with many local restaurants. The Republican Monument in the middle of Taksim Square comemorates was built in 1928 and commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic.