It turns out that Logan and I are really not city people. The noise, the smells, the crowds, not really for us. We much prefer to travel to places with lots of fresh air, very few people and space to lie around reading. Generally we now plan our trips “city-lite”, preferring to cram all the sightseeing into a few busy days so that we can get the heck out of dodge (or Rome or Prague). There are, however, exceptions to our anti-city attitudes. Paris, Budapest, Edinburgh, Vienna, we love them all. The culture, the food, the energy. All that stuff can make up for any middle-of-the-night screaming or the ever-present smell of garbage and urine.
So how did we feel about Istanbul? Did the delicious food and wonderful sights make up for the throngs of people and dangerous taxi drivers constantly threating life and limb? Does it have enough culture and energy to make up for constantly having to question if you stepping in water or pee? In short, mostly. Istanbul is big and loud and smelly and full of cats and shops and people. And it is pretty wonderful.
After a seven-hour bus ride across the Bulgarian border and through the insane Istanbul traffic we successfully figured out the metro system and found our Airbnb in the Beyoglu neighborhood. This proved to be a great home base from which to explore the city. It was much cheaper staying in the Old City and much less touristy, while still being close to the main sights and lots of great restaurants on Istiklal Street.
Our first food stop on our first day of sightseeing was the famous fish bread boats along the Bosporus. These perfect sandwiches consist of bread and fish (grilled mackerel) and onions and are greasy and delicious.
After stuffing our faces full of fish bread (the official name by the way) we lugged our full butts up the hill to the main sights of the Sultanahment neighborhood. Our first stop was the line to get into the Basilica Cistern, the very one in which the climax of the Dan Brown novel Inferno takes place. Being underground in the eerily lit cistern was very otherworldly and strange. I loved it. The only downside was other tourists constantly jostling you to get the best picture (but isn’t that always the main downside at major sights?).
Next we headed to the line to get into Aya Sofia, located right across the road from the cistern. Aya Sofia was a Christian church, then it became Muslim mosque, and now it is a tourist museum. Because of that there are both Christians portraits and Muslim symbols, all of which are beautiful and sparkly and golden.
Just a short stroll across a beautiful square filled with flowers and a bubbling fountain is the equally famous Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is a working mosque, meaning visitors need to be mindful of their clothing and need to plan their visit around the call to prayer, during which non-Muslim visitors are not allowed. We hopped in the longest line of the day and prepared ourselves by removing our shoes and covering our knees and shoulders (and my head).
With all this sightseeing and line waiting we had somehow not noticed how hot and humid the day had become. The original plan was to visit the Topkapi Palace, but we felt tired and cranky and sick of pushing our way through crowds so we cut our day a little short and headed back to our room for reading and relaxing (and air conditioning!) before feasting on kebab and fresh cherries while taking a nighttime stroll down Istikal Street.
It’s always a good idea to end a chaotic day in crowd filled streets with a calm stroll down even more crowded streets.
Welcome to Istanbul!