Istanbul is one of my favorite cities; it is loud, chaotic, bright and full of life. The people are friendly, the food is fantastic and as cliche as it is to say it is a clash of the east and west. I feel like Istanbul is the one city you can truly say this. Being based on the Bosphorus, Istanbul, or in ancient times Constantinople, has always been the basis for trade between the west and the east. In this city you have stunning ancient roman ruins likes the Basilica Cistern, ruins of Byzantine walls which kept the Huns out, graceful mosques that dot the skyline, and a thriving modern city. Alex and I visited Istanbul for eight days and I could have stayed for a month. There are so many reasons to visit Istanbul but here are some of my favorites.
The Book Bazaar
I love old books and I actually collect old books as souvenirs during my travels so I had to visit the book bazaar. The book bazaar is a mix of shops and stands selling both old and new books in a variety of languages. Tucked between the university and the grand bazaar, it can be a little tough to find but it is worth it if you are a bibliophile. While we were there I picked up a book from 1920 called “The Way We Travel”; it is a children’s book that explained all the different methods of travel available then including the brand new underground metro in New York. I also picked up an Ottoman dictionary and Alex picked up a copy of Shakespeare’s plays published in 1930.
The Turkish baths were one of the more interesting experiences that Alex and I had but well worth it. Alex truly loved the baths and I’m pretty sure the post he wrote on them could be considered a love letter. I also enjoyed it however, if you are a bit shy this may not be the activity for you. To be fair, I was a bit uncomfortable at first but it was fantastic and I am glad that I sucked it up and went.
Kabob man (our nickname for him) was about the greatest person we met while in Istanbul. Every night he would bring his cart out to Sultanahmet and sell a variety of kabobs and once he was sold out that was it; he would pack up and go home. He set up in downtown Sultanhemet right next to the Big Apple Hostel. Kabob man is super popular so he sells out quickly so get there early. It will be worth it!
Suleiman’s Mosque is not one of the first stops that tourists make when they visit Istanbul but we happened to stumble upon it while we were exploring the first day and I instantly fell in love with it. The mosque is very different from the Blue Mosque with it’s graceful and elegant yet simplistic design. There is a serenity and peace here which seems more pronounced than in the Blue Mosque.
Just because Suleiman’s Mosque is my favorite does not mean you should not visit the Blue Mosque. This building is absolutely stunning. It sits across the park from the Hagia Sophia and is overwhelmingly ornate inside. The walls are covered with bright and vibrant mosaics that soar upwards to the ceiling. You can spend hours just looking at all the intricate designs. Alex and I definitely spent a solid two hours in the Blue Mosque just soaking it in.
Taksim Square is across the Bosporus but still on the Europe side of Istanbul and is worth a visit. There are great shops here and great nightlife too. When we were in Istanbul we spent one of our last nights in Taksim and I wish we had gone out sooner. We ended up at two live music joints, one being a metal bar not playing metal, and had a fantastic night out. We met some Germans who insisted we visit Freiburg (we apologize that we have not visited yet) and we drank beer and tequila till the sun rose, successful night in my book.
The Hagia Sophia is really the place that embodies the clash of east and west in Istanbul. It was originally a Byzantine church built by Emperor Justinian in the early 500sCE and was converted into a mosque after Istanbul was conquered in 1453 by the ottoman Turks. It is a beautiful building that still has the original frescoes from the cathedral on the walls mixed with Muslim elements. It is definitely worth seeing and spending some time in the Hagia Sophia.
Also look forward to our second half of this post, we love Istanbul so much we couldn’t contain it to just one post!