January 06, 2020

Turkey and Spain - Part 1 (Istanbul)

Happy New Year!

From December 7 to 31, Helen and I travelled around Turkey and Spain. Turkey has diverse landscapes such as Istanbul’s hustle and bustle, Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys, Pamukkale’s hot springs, and ancient ruins along the Mediterranean and Aegean coasts. The Andalusian province of Spain is home to Western Europe’s last remnants of Islam, great hiking trails in Granada, bike friendly Seville, and delicious tapas.
Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia)
This travel series will be split into five parts:

Museums and Transit

Before visiting Turkey, we identified which museums we wanted to visit and determined Turkey’s Museum Pass was worth buying, though regional passes are also available. The Turkey pass costed 375 Lira at the time (now 450 Lira), was valid for 15 days, helped us skip the lines, and could be purchased at our first museum visit (but not online). However, the pass was not valid for Basilica Cistern (20 Lira) & Dolmabahce Palace (90 Lira).
In addition to the Museum Pass, we got the Istanbulkart at Istanbul Airport’s bus loading area. Not only could we use it to pay for the Havaist airport bus (18 Lira to Sultanahmet), we used it for local buses, trams, subways, funiculars, and ferries. The Istanbulkart machines (Biletmatik) were not the most user friendly at first, but were easy to top up once we got the card. Public transit was cheap with the first riding costing less than 3 Lira and each transfer less than 2 Lira.

Arrival and Sultanahmet

Once checked in and rested at our Airbnb in Sultanahmet, it was time to explore Istanbul for the next five days. The Blue Mosque was not that impressive compared to some of the mosques in Cairo and elsewhere in Istanbul.
Byzantine Christian and Ottoman art inside Ayasofya
The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) next door – built during Emperor Justinian’s reign in the 6th century and converted to a mosque after the Ottoman invasion – presented a harmony of Byzantine Christian mosaics and Allah related messages in green circles.
Crying pillar at the Basilica Cistern
Just north of the Ayasofya is the Basilica Cistern with its over 100 underground pillars including the crying pillar and two Medusa heads.
The audience chamber inside the Harem at Topkapi Palace
East of Ayasofya lies Topkapi Palace which itself needed four hours to explore including the Harem (included with the Turkey pass). The tiled walls, stained glass windows, and decorated ceilings were beautiful to see along with several collections of weapons, ceramics, and sacred Islamic artifacts. The Harem housed the Sultan, his mother, his wives and children, and black eunuchs before moving to Dolmabahce Palace in the 19th century. We ended our first day with a brief visit to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum which has three separate collections of ancient civilizations, Islamic art, and Greco-Roman sarcophagi including that of Alexander the Great.

West of Sultanahmet
The Phanar Greek Orthodox College is an architectural delight
For our second day, we took the tram and bus to the Byzantine walls and the Chora Museum; the latter of which was not worth visiting with only a couple of mosaic covered rooms open. A short walk east of the Chora Museum brought us to Balat; Istanbul’s Jewish neighbourhood. The neighbourhood itself is charming and has several beautiful buildings including the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, Saint Stefan Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarchate.
Inside the Suleymaniye Mosque
We continued east to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which deserves to be visited over the Blue Mosque. The Suleymaniye Mosque is larger, more elegant inside and out, has a nice courtyard, and offers great views towards Beyoglu and the Asian side. We stopped by Mimar Sinan Teras Café near the mosque which is best known for the views, but not so much for the food.
Galata Bridge with lots of people fishing and restaurants below the bridge deck
Our final stop for the day was Galata Bridge where we saw lots of people fishing and many shops or restaurants under the bridge deck.

Beyoglu (New Istanbul)
Outside the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami
If you could do one frill in Turkey, taking a Turkish bath should be it. We did that at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, which serves women during the day and men during the evening. While there are cheaper baths, their spa like experience is definitely worth the 310 Lira. You are given a sherbet – not the ice cream but a delicious punch – before going to your locker to strip down to your underwear and towel. You sit in a steam room and have warm water poured on you. You then lay on a slab of heated marble for 10 – 15 minutes and drink cold water to stay hydrated. You are scrubbed down head to toe with bubbles which almost feels like a massage before being rinsed and put in a drying room. Afterwards, you can relax with a beverage before leaving. An unforgettable experience!
Dolmabahce Palace
After Helen’s bath (and before mine), we headed to Dolmabahce Palace which is more European inspired than Topkapi Palace. They don’t allow you to take pictures inside, but the Sultan’s bath was our favourite room being all covered in marble. The outdoor gardens were nice and lots of chickens, ducks, and peacocks could be seen.
A heritage tram runs along Istiklal Cadessi
We took the funicular (angled tram) to Taksim Square – Istanbul’s main plaza – and strolled down the trendy shopping street of Istiklal Cadessi. Just off of Istiklal is Hayvore, which is an excellent place to eat fish. We ended our day with a visit to SALT Galata; a new library with modern amenities – including a question mark table – and great views of the old city.

Kadikoy (Asian Istanbul)
The ferries used to get from Eminonu (Europe) to Kadikoy (Asia)
With Istanbul being the world’s only city spanning two continents, taking the 30 minute ferry to the Asian side was a must. The ferries were nicely furnished and sold snacks and drinks at affordable prices. We walked around Kadikoy which is known for their produce market. The vibe in Kadikoy felt more down to earth – not as many tourists visit the Asian side – and shopping there was cheaper. For lunch, we each got a good sized pide (Turkish pizza) at Kadikoy Ruhha for less than 25 Lira.
Some Christmas decorations can be found among the markets in Kadikoy
After returning to Europe, we visited the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts which provided a good showcase of Qurans, Ottoman carpets, and other Islamic artifacts. It also provided good backgrounders of the different Islamic empires from the Umayyads in the 7th century to the Ottomans which dissolved in the early 20th century.

Before Cappadocia
Inside the Grand Bazaar
Our final day in Istanbul included Little Ayasofya, as well as the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar; neither of which were that appealing. Instead, we preferred Iznik Classics and Tuncer Gift Shop for souvenirs, while Karakoy Gulluoglu was the hands down favourite for baklava.
The fish at Hayvore was one of our favourite meals in Istanbul
During our time in Istanbul, there was far less harassment than in Egypt, diverse neighbourhoods, and lots of good food options. Street food such as simits (a.k.a. pretzel rings) and borek (a flaky pastry) were cheap and good for breakfast (2 – 4 Lira), while Turkish coffee was ground finer than espresso and comparable in price (8 Lira). Many meals could be bought for 40 Lira or less ranging from lots of kebab to Turkish ravioli. While we enjoyed our stay in Istanbul, we would prefer to stay in Beyoglu next time.
A view of Istanbul's old city from the SALT Galata library
We took the Havabus (18 Lira) to Sabiha Gokcen Airport, which is mediocre at best. The airport didn’t have free WiFi or places to charge phones, while the announcements were constant.

Check out my next post on Cappadocia.

Rob Z (e-mail)

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