Ever experienced the thrill of visiting a place you saw on TV? In a favorite show, no less? Well, I have to tell you that exploring Istanbul Turkey was nothing short of exhilarating because I had been avidly following ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’ (Magnificent Century; a Turkish drama). Because I had been watching this show I was really interested in visiting Istanbul.
I got to explore the palaces and old town of Sultanahmet and there was a whole extra depth to my experience because I was so familiar with much of the history and stories revolving around the lives of Ottoman royalty and Hurrem Sultan in particular, who was one of the most influential women in the early 1500s.
With a hotel booked in Sultanahmet area, I was right in the heart of all the action and the best Istanbul attractions were all in walking distance.
So here’s how I spent a few days exploring Istanbul Turkey
I woke up before the crack of dawn to offer prayers at the Blue Mosque and enjoy the tranquility of the place before Istanbul burst into life. While I strolled around the old town so early, I found food carts selling ‘börek’, a sort of pattie with potato, chicken or lamb filling. A delish and perfectly unhealthy snack to start my day with!
Because nothing else was open so early and because I did not want to waste a second of my tour, I ventured to the nearby Gulhane park. During March and April Gulhane park is covered in tulips and has amazing landscaping. However, when I visited it was just a bit chilly and not much going on with the flower scene, so I simply wandered around, taking in the peace and tranquility.
The first thing I crossed off my bucket list was the Hagia Sophia
Some of it was under construction but from what I did see, it was an elaborately decorated museum with elements of both Christian and Islamic faith. However, I found the flower shaped chandeliers to be the most fascinating, which were hanging there by the dozens!
Crowds are often thick during the high-season and having gotten a good dose of jostling and photo-bombing at the museum, I decided to go early morning to Topkapi Palace. Built overlooking the Bosphorus, the palace encompasses a vast area and there is a lot of walking involved (water bottles and comfy shoes are a must!).
But the architecture and landscaping were neat and there was beauty in the little details (like the little tap in one of the Harem windows). You could just envision the sultans and their companions striding through these same halls and delighting over the same splendid views, ages ago. What secrets those walls must hold!
Basilica Cistern & the Grand Bazar
The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It’s the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie underneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern is 150 meters south west of the Hagia Sophia on the peninsula of Sarayburnu. Visiting Basilica Cistern was mainly to check out the place that appeared in one of the James Bond movies and the mysterious Medusa heads. But I ended up dressing up as a ‘Sultana’ for an exorbitantly priced photo opportunity there. So cheesy, but fun!
Nobody goes to Turkey and comes back without a trip to the Grand Bazar. This is one of the most visited places in the world, after all. Inside the covered bazar, there will be Turkish vendors with lots of steep priced memorabilia to sell to tourists, all clamoring for your attention at the same time. I didn’t buy anything, but the ambience inside this ancient mall warrants a visit for sure. Instead, I found the neighboring Spice Bazar a bit calmer and much saner. I got my souvenirs and lokum (Turkish delight) from there at pretty reasonable prices. Just always remember to haggle. It seems the vendors not only anticipate but also enjoy this!
Next up Dolmabache Palace at Besiktas
In stark contrast to Topkapi, the Dolmabache Palace at Besiktas is more aligned with western architecture and this is apparent on first glance of the imposing gates!
Also unlike Topkapi, you can’t just freely stroll through the rooms at your own leisure. There are timed groups going in, walking along a set route with a guide explaining the history. No photos are allowed inside either. There were more statues and columns around the gardens and I really enjoyed taking it all in, especially when I discovered that it had also been used by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (the founder of modern Turkey) throughout his Presidency and till his dying breath.
Exploring the modern side of Istanbul
Istanbul isn’t just for history buffs or architecture fans. And believe me, it’s no laidback town that goes to bed at sundown. I dedicated one whole day to exploring the modern side of Istanbul which includes high-end boutiques, international brands and fancy cafes. Restaurants in old school buildings offering intercontinental food line the famous Istiklal street.
Though modern commercialization is the same everywhere, the installation of the antique tram that runs through the center of Istiklal, from one end to the other and back at Taksim square, gives it a little uniqueness.
Wandering through the streets in the Taksim area, which is the newer, more commercial district, I noticed all the upscale houses and wider streets, a result of modern construction standards. Public transport is well-developed and does a great job of connecting the old and new town and last but not least, the nightlife is amazing in Taksim.
The highlight of my time exploring Istanbul
The waffles! I also bought the most delectable baklava (the most famous Turkish desert) I had tasted in all the city, from Istiklal. Since I was staying in the old town and didn’t want to splurge on a taxi fare, I had to leave early before the metro closed for the day, sadly leaving behind the vibrant metropolitan buzz of modern Istanbul, with restaurants and nightclubs just getting going.
On my last day, I was rather subdued because I knew there was so much more to see, and I would miss this amazing city! But the tiny visitor at breakfast lifted my spirits and I knew I had to plan another trip to Istanbul soon.
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