A Short Trip To Istanbul
Istanbul!! It might not be on top of your must visit list, but you might be missing a lot by not including it in your itinerary. Being a Journalist and adventurer, my life has constantly been on the road for the past 6 months, making me miss my wife. I was advised by our tour operator that the best month to visit Istanbul is May, It’s our wedding anniversary month, so I had arranged everything a month before and decided to bring along my wife on a 3 day trip to Istanbul , the only city in the world that spans two continents. We planned to make the most of this 3 day tour, quite short but we made the most of it.
Day one of our tour was a visit to Topkapi Palace, known as the home of the Sultan during the Ottoman Empire. This is a palace of brilliant architecture and impressive exhibits of an old era, which exhibits wonderful views across the Bosporus Strait. Topkapi is a huge palace that took us half a day to see. We were fortunate to have a smart tour guide, who shared and explained the history of the palace in great length. Dare not miss the Audience Chamber, this is where the sultan used to receive and accept foreign dignitaries. Here you can also find The Sacred Trusts Exhibit, which displays relics such as the sacred staff of Moses, and a beard hair of the Prophet Mohammad. Going along, we were led to The Treasury Room that features breathtaking jewelry, lots of historical artifacts, large collection of clocks and excesses of the past. The Topkapi Dagger was one of our favorites. Being in this room made me really understand how incredibly rich and powerful the Turkish sultans were. We spent plenty of time wandering the extensive grounds and rooms. The architecture and decorative tile works are stunning. No cameras allowed. Entrance to the harem is another fee, but we chose not to visit it.
The rest of our day was spent in Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia Museum/The Church of the Holy Museum. An impressive architectural marvel that used 30 million gold tiles throughout its interior. It is an awe inspiring sight! I felt like being transported back to the ancient times of the great Byzantine Empire. The grand dome and size of the interior was breathtaking. How they managed to construct the dome of this church back in the 6th Century is remarkable. Lots to see and take great pictures of, I like the ability to walk around and see the mosaics. My wife and I went to the second floor and meditate together on the significance of this Church/Museum during the critical moments of ancient history. After our brief tour, we went to a local Turkish Restaurant for a lovely dinner of lamb kebab, tabouleh and fatoush. We savored our Turkish coffee on the terrace and watched Istanbul’s diversity.
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The next day we explored The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), named for the thousand blue tiles on its pillars and interiors. The seven minaret complex boasts of an impressive architecture. No entrance fee! Before we were allowed to go on our tour, we took our shoes off and left it on the side counter. My wife was asked to wear a Muslim gown and headscarf; these are free but they request a small fee as donations for the mosque. It was solemn inside, in one corner are group of imams, reading their Qurans. The paintings on the column, walls and the stain glasses made me speechless. The central praying space was so huge. The stained glass blue windows added to its charm. It looks like a scene from a postcard as the shining light from the sun peers thru its windows creating a luminous effect. Note worthy attraction was the Imperial Loge covered in marble lattice works. An encased display features a mihrab of the sacred Black Stone from the Kaabah, Mecca. I took pictures of the Mahfil, a high elaborate wooden chair from which the Imam gives sermons every Friday. As we walked further on the North Side of the mosque, we found The Tomb of Sultan Ahmet , the great patron of the Blue Mosque. Like the mosque the tomb was also covered in blue Iznik tiles. Don’t miss this one amazing Mosque.
Next stop was The Basilica Cistern, dubbed as The Sunken Palace, the largest surviving subterranean structure and one of the famous attractions in Istanbul; a wide roof underground structure supported by hundreds of columns. I had never seen anything like this before, just fascinating and eerie. We climbed down the cistern to see the Medusa Heads waiting at the far end of this interesting place. Just watch your steps carefully as the path is wet and slippery. My wife and I held tight as we walked on raised wooden platforms. Bring a small flashlight or activate the flash of your camera to light your way through. Going down under the cistern was pretty cool. Ignore the “audio tour”, it was not worth the money because everything that was said could also be read on signs. It is an impressive journey into Istanbul’s past. Tour of the cistern can be done in an hour.
Then we headed off to The Bosphorus Strait Ferry, a two hour short cruise that gives you a view of Istanbul from the water. To begin with, you will find yourself between two continents while in the same city. We marveled at Istanbul’s landmarks which can only be enjoyed from close this way. The Bosphorus Bridge, The Maiden’s Tower, The Dolmabahce Palace and The Topkapi Palace are the sights to behold. Our short cruise also passed Rumilihisar Fortress. I’m glad we took the day trip; it was relaxing as we watched the birds fly over our heads; stunning as we saw The Marmara Sea shine from a distance. The skyline where we see all the mosques was simply breathtaking! To see the historic European and Asian shore meet up is a once in a lifetime experience.
After our cruise we took a side trip to The Grand Bazaar the largest covered market in Turkey. We were not looking for anything or going shopping at all, we just walked through it. You could feel friendly bartering on every turn, mad and noisy haggling on the other. Most of the shops sell gold, fake clothes and scarves. It seems a nice place to buy souvenirs, just make sure to bargain as shop owners try to charge more than the average price. The place has lots of small cafes where we enjoyed a delicious Turkish pastry called Baklava and a nice Turkish coffee. There are spice stores too. We settled on buying a packet of Turkish coffee powder, a splendid aroma.
Our last day was a time for pampering ourselves as we checked The Suleymaniye Hammam, a traditional Turkish Bath/Spa. Single persons are not allowed to enter, only married couples can as it’s not a traditional hammam. Every masseuse speaks English and guides you to each area when it’s your turn. We got the scrub, wash massage and relaxation/sauna time as a package. It was fun to see couples sitting down to get washed and slapped by scrubs and get washed down with cold water. It was a bit crowded but we both thoroughly enjoyed it and felt completely relaxed when it was over. We went to a nearby tea garden and walked around Suleymaniya Mosque before heading back to our hotel.
Exploring Istanbul was worth it all. In the 3 short days we learned a lot about history, culture and religion. Every place we went to evokes a rich sense of historical atmosphere. It’s a nice feeling to wander between two continents, Europe and Asia. Being there with my wife is one I would always savor remembering.
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