A Visit to Istanbul
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I visited Istanbul, Turkey in July, 2009 based on the recommendation of friends. Istanbul sits at the juncture of two continents, making it both a European and Asian city. Istanbul, which in Greek means "I'm on my way to the city", has a current population of 15 million and sits on seven hills.
The city of Istanbul is filled with incredible history and architecture. I stayed in the Sultanahmet area, which is a major tourist area. Life in the neighborhood begins early as the first call to worship begins at 4:30 a.m. Local vendors, such as simit (round bread with poppy seeds) sellers begin pushing their carts down the street early and the sounds of seagulls from the Sea of Marmara awaken visitors.
In the Sultanahmet, there are many amazing sites including the following:
1. Blue Mosque: Legend has it that this name originated from a French tourist describing the tiles inside the mosque to a friend. This mosque is known as Sultanahmet Mosque to locals. This mosque is active and is the city's second largest. On entering, shoulders must be covered and tourists who are improperly dressed will be handed a cloak for covering. Head scarves are optional. Shoes must be removed and each individual will be given a plastic bag to carry their shoes.
The blue tiles inside the mosque are really beautiful and the architecture is spectacular.
2. Haghia Sophia: Haghia Sophia, which means "Divine Wisdom", is one of the most popular tourist sites in Istanbul.
3. Basilica Cistern: The basilica was one of my favorite sites, which is a Byzantine vast underground cistern across the street from Haghia Sophia. Inside is fantastic architecture including two heads of Medusa in different positions.
All of the history and buildings in Sultanahmet are incredible and most people are very friendly, but there are a few downsides. The biggest downside I saw was the aggressive Turkish rug salesmen who prey on tourists. These salesmen use various tactics (some of them not very nice) to try to lure you into their shops. Some of the locals warned me that these salesmen make commissions in the area of 35-50%, so the incentives to sell are substantial. I actually planned some of my walks through Sultanahmet based on whether a street had a carpet shop.
The other downside I was warned about was taxis taking advantage of visitors. I mainly walked everywhere and only took taxis to and from the airport. The two cabs I used were extremely nice and very honest but I was warned that some cabs are not. If you are visiting Istanbul, be sure the cab meter works or that you are being charged day rates. Apparently, some drivers will switch to rate 2 (or two dots on the meter) which is double the normal rate.
Outside Sultanahmet, there are several sites in close reach.
1. Topkapi Palace: Topkapi Palace is one of the largest palaces in the world, as the grounds cover more than 700,000 square meters. The Ottomans occupied this palace for over 400 years, but Ataturk turned this into a museum in 1925.
The palace is arranged into four courtyards with the first courtyard open to the public. The second to fourth courtyards are within the palace walls.
One room that was especially interesting was the Audience Room. When the palace was built, there were not many strategic alliances in the world. Visitors to the sultan had to bring gifts through a designated "gift door". If the sultan was away for say six months hunting, the guest had to wait for six months in the room before being granted an audience.
2. Grand Bazaar: The Grand Bazaar is a covered bazaar with more than 4,000 shops. Be prepared to bargain as I was told prices in the Bazaar tend to be higher. With so many shops, it's easy to get lost inside. The shops are arranged along several themed avenues including a jewelry avenue, ceramics avenue and of course the carpet avenue. The Grand Bazaar is packed with tourists and locals alike.
3. Spice Bazaar: The locals refer to this bazaar as the Egyptian Bazaar. The shops are geared more to locals and I actually preferred this to the Grand Bazaar. Shop after shop of spices, nuts, olives, sweets, meats and cheeses are all through this bazaar. The scents are incredible with all the different spice scents mingling.
4. Boat Trip up the Bosphorus: A boat trip up the Bosphorous to the Black Sea is one of the best things I've ever done. The sights are spectacular including several palaces, mosques, palatial homes (apparently valued in the US$3mm to US$100mm range!) and city walls. Currents in the Bosphorus are dangerous and there is only one beach along the way.
If you are looking for a guided boat tour, I highly recommend She Tours (www.shetours.com) as for 35 Euros, the boat tour lasts several hours and in addition, a visit to the Spice Bazaar and city walls is included. I cannot recommend a trip on the Bosphorus enough.
Overall, the city of Istanbul is exotic and really is a meeting of the East and West. The architecture and history are almost overwhelming as there is so much to see.