So – after the 7-day adventure on the high seas (ok, the calm, blue waters of the Mediterranean – whatev), our troop traveled to Istanbul for a few days of sightseeing, shopping, eating and riding the tram up and down the main line, as we were scattered like dandelion fluff throughout various hotels. (Note to self: next time, maybe try to coordinate that a little better.)
Istanbul is a massive city of about 13 million, but for your first trip, it’s a good idea to base yourself in the small old neighborhood of Sultanahmet. Home to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia (pronounced “Aya Sophia,” not “hagia,” please), Topkapi Palace, the Cisterns and the Grand Bazaar. The only thing out of the ‘hood, which still pains me that I missed is the Egyptian Spice Market. Oh, well, I’ll be back.
Katy and I checked into the Mavi Ev Hotel (also known as the Blue House Hotel), and I’m happy to say I can strongly recommend it as a great base for a stay in Istanbul. The staff was welcoming and friendly, and ambiance was authentic and charming and the rooms – while a tad small – are nicely decorated and have all the amenities you need, including a mini-bar, with complimentary bottled water (I drank only bottled water, per a friend’s suggestion, while there). Want to see the view we had, from our 3rd floor room?
Now – with a view like this comes another bonus: the call to prayer commences at 5:15 a.m., my friends, so bring your earplugs if you want to attempt to avoid it. I kind of liked it, though – it really makes you know you are in a far-away Muslim country. You get a reprieve from the clamor until about 1:15 p.m., and then you get it again at 5:15, 8:15 and 11:15 p.m. The muezzins broadcast on loud speaker, so no matter where you are in the city, you can be sure you won’t miss your prayer time. Praise Allah.
Now, for the sights: the highlights I mention above can all be done in about a day with the exception of the Grand Bazaar. For that, my friends, you need at least half a day, preferably a full-day, broken up with some rest stops for tea or an espresso. I rate sights by “oohs and ahhs.”
One “ooh and ahh” = eh, it’s nice; time to move on
Two “oohs and ahhs” = huh – interesting, but not stupifyingly gorgeous or historically important
Three “oohs and ahhs” = wow – I didn’t know that – this is really beautiful/important/cool!
Four “oohs and ahhs” = holy moly, this is amazing!
Five “oohs and ahhs” – Yow! You’ve GOT to see this! Maybe twice! Take pictures! I might skip shopping or even a meal to stay longer!
Blue Mosque: 2-3 Oohs and Ahhs – it’s the beautiful blue tiles on the interior that make it such an attraction and it is the main mosque of Istanbul – the big daddy, so to speak, so it is important from a Muslim standpoint – but we didn’t spend more than 10 minutes inside.
Hagia Sophia: 3 Oohs and Ahhs – it’s got great history, but it’s not much to look at now – was a mosque, then a Christian church, back to a mosque, now a museum. Good story behind it, but again, 10 minutes’ll do the trick here.
Topkapi Palace: 4 Oohs and Ahhs – amazing history tied to the Ottoman Empire and the Sultans – it’s huge, but that empire was just not into the over-done, gilt-wrought stuff that makes your eyes go all googly – except for the jewels and royal gifts and what-not – ginormous emeralds and lots of shiny hammered gold. The grounds are pretty, but it’s no Versailles. Plan on a couple of hours here to see the stuff you’re most interested in (the jewels, the costumes – I wanted to see the kitchens badly, but they were closed the day we went, on a Sunday).
The Cisterns: 4 Oohs and Aahs – for one, it’s cool – temperature cool – and it was smokin’ hot outside so it felt really good – plus which – it’s got history, they do it nicely for the tourists with lighting and atmospheric music and there are two Medusa-head pillars down there – on one, she’s sideways and another, she’s upside-down – no one knows how these came to be, so you get a good sense of mystery, too.
The Grand Bazaar: 5 Oohs & Aahs – I mean, really: 4,000 shops under one roof? Get out. Yes, it can be a real tourist trap, but you’ve just got to know what you’re doing (luckily, both times I’ve been with an experienced shopper – a friend who lives in Istanbul). I was on the look-out this trip for the beautiful hand-painted ceramics – bowls, plates, tiles, but you will find everything in here – rugs, luggage, Turkish towels, jewelry, shoes, scarves ( pashminas – the real ones made of silk and cashmere – are about $6 or $7 U.S. and come in approximately 500 million colors and designs) – you name it. The trick is to figure out what you want to pay for something. Then ask: “What’s your best price?” The merchant will say something ridiculous (like the equivalent of $250 for a pair of embroidered flats). Then you counter and say what you want to pay – but go low, so you have room to go up a bit. It’s handy to have a little cheat sheet of Turkish Lira to your own currency (dollars for me), so you can be more confident in your negotiation. It’s actually fun, dickering back and forth with the merchants – you kind of get to know people a little bit. I love the Grand Bazaar, but my friend Katy couldn’t stomach it.
Now – on to eating and drinking! Despite the Muslim-ness of Istanbul, these people know how to party. Rooftop cocktail lounges are the name of the game, as are waterside restaurants along the Bosphorus. Look how gorgeous!
Both the people and the scene are gorgeous on the rooftop bars of Istanbul!
The cocktail creations are some of the most inventive and tantalizing I’ve seen. Consider the following, which we dutifully sampled at Besinci Kat (the Fifth Floor) late one Saturday night:
The Narcissus: watermelon syrup, pomegranate juice or liqueur, lime juice, vodka – refreshing and just sweet enough. Another, please.
The Moonshine: Limoncello, lemon juice, milk or cream and Kahlua – yes, sounds absolutely disgusting, but it was delicious! Katia and Mariza went ga-ga for this.
At House Cafe in Ortakoy, another evening, we loved these:
Vodka Ginger: Absolut vodka, sliced planks of cucumber, lime juice, ginger syrup and fresh grated ginger
Cactus Flower: Absolut vodka, cactus flower liqueur, cassis (raspberry liqueur), lime juice and fresh blueberries.
As for food, I love Turkish cuisine. The hot and cold mezes (small plates) for starters can include hummus, mashed fava bean spread, ezme (a spicy mash-up of tomatoes, garlic and peppers) and these little fried roll-ups of phyllo-like dough filled with herbed white cheese (called “cigars” at many places).
Manti – fresh handmade pasta filled with ground lamb and mint, with yogurt sauce and melted butter and more mint on top – are very rich, but so very good. And then you’ve got your kebabs – lamb is my favorite – and Kofte – little, flattened meatball-like delights spiced up with sumac, garlic and paprika. And you will find lots of whole roasted fish, really amazing white rice (what do they DO to it? Why is it so damn good? I’m currently on a mission to answer these burning questions.) And for dessert, you will see Baklava everywhere, but make a point to try some Turkish Delight – know as lokum to the natives – it’s chewy, sugary, full of pistachios, dusted in powdered sugar – one or two small pieces is a perfect end to a meal.
So, there you have it – my second trip to Istanbul and I still want to go back for more. The new ceramic tiles are set into my table at home, happy friends got pashminas