For years I had dreamed of traveling to Istanbul. It is the largest city in Turkey and the third largest in Europe. Although it is not the capital of the country, for me it could well be one of the capitals of the world. I had read so much about the city, seeing its yalis next to the Bosphorus, its minarets, and its thousand colors. Istanbul is a unique city with a thousand adjectives with a wonderful mixture of smells, colors, and flavors.
I loved the city of Istanbul. It is ordered, clean, neat and beautiful, at least in our eyes. Halfway between Europe and Asia, it is the only city established between two continents. It offers the traveler a mix between the Asian, Arab and Western culture that will surely leave no one indifferent. We were captivated by the days we were there and we bring you this Istanbul travel guide so you can get the most out of your trip.
It is the only city in the world located on two continents between Europe and Asia, with a more European than Asian style. The typical image we had of Istanbul was that of the sunset under a huge mosque. But when we arrived we were surprised that there is not only one immense mosque, but several that dot the urban landscape of Istanbul.
We arrived at the Sabiha Gokcen airport (the one on the Asian side) after midnight. We lost the bus. At one in the morning, this airport was almost empty. The passengers who had arrived with us had already disappeared. There were the guards, a man with a cane and a galley (those characters that are always there) and a salesman hanging around.
Luckily they were left because they were the ones who helped us. The first explained the options to get to the city center at that time (one more expensive than the other). The second one lent us a phone card to call the guy from the couch who was waiting for us. The third put on his jacket and went out to check the bus schedules and request the taxi drivers not to loot us with the prices.
After a thousand laps to decide how we were going to our house, we decided to take a local bus. It passed at 2.20 am to Kadikoy, on the banks of the Bosphorus, on the Asian side. From there we had no choice but to take a taxi, as it was already after 3 in the morning and we need sleep after the fatigue. It was the most expensive taxi of our lives.
We arrived at 4 in the morning and apologized to the owner for the hour and for the confusion of the airport. We thought we were arriving at the airport on the European side, 10 minutes from his house and we went to sleep.
Day 1 - New Years Eve in Istanbul
We barely recovered from the endless trip, with 14 hours of wait included. After breakfast, we went up to the terrace of the hotel to see the views of the city. Despite the cold, everything looked nice. We went out to enjoy the city. Some parts of the city reminded us of the Hague, and others of Paris.
We not only liked the architecture, the bars, and restaurants on the street or the food, but we also felt very comfortable with the people we met on the way. Everyone was kind and helped us whenever we needed it. Also, they are not invasive or talk to us all the time. At least that was our experience.
We went up Caferiye to Sogukcesme Sokak, with its yalis and its quiet atmosphere of people going to the palace. We enter and Hagia Sophia receives us with a scaffolding too big and all the majesty that the centuries give. Ayasofya, as the Turks call it, was taken by the Ottomans and converted into a mosque, endowing it with 4 minarets. Ataturk transformed the mosque into a museum.
And from Hagia Sophia, we go to the impressive Sultanahmet Camii, better known as Blue Mosque. We enter the courtyard and go out on the opposite side to access the entrance of tourists. There are bags for shoes. It was built in the seventeenth century and is the largest in Istanbul, also called Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
We finally understood why it is called the Blue Mosque when we entered the interior and saw the thousands of blue tiles that adorn the dome and the walls of the mosque. The light entered through the more than two hundred windows providing great luminosity. At about three meters above the carpets, there are large chandeliers that hang from the domes in the area delimited to pray, which is separated from the area that tourists can step on.
We settled on the carpet supported by one of the columns and enjoyed unhurriedly every detail that is part of the spectacular decoration of the mosque. The blue mosque seems to us a magical place, like so many others in this city. The atmosphere in each mosque is perceived differently.
The landscaped esplanade between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is known as Sultanahmet square. It is a fantastic area to walk. Leaving from Hagia Sophia to the left are the baths of Roxelana, from the XVI century. And here next to the Arasta Bazaar, there are nice and quiet, shops with wooden structure outdoors. There is also the Great Palace Mosaic Museum of the Byzantine emperors.
In the rain and the extremely cold weather, we went to see the Topkapi Palace, the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire. Inside we can see, among other things, a collection of pieces of imperial treasure, incredible. The entry fee is quite expensive. As if that were not enough, they have a second ticket to be able to see the Harem, but we do not pay it.
In photos, it looks spectacular. It's the same thing that happens in the Palace of Versailles in France. There you have to pay a ticket to see the palace and another one if you want to enter the Hall of Mirrors. We walk to near Sirkeci, following the route of the tram, to the restaurant on the top floor of a hotel. In this area, there are many hotels and places to eat.
The restaurant is good and the views are great, with nice service, rich and well-presented food and a very reasonable price. We ordered a durum (rolled kebab) of chicken, a soft drink, and an orange juice. There is in the meat roll itself the potato, carrot, onion, or whatever one wants to add. The truth is that they were delicious and being so cheap, it was a recurring meal during the days we spent there.
After lunch, we leave for Eminonu. One of the obligatory routes is to get on a boat and cross the Bosphorus. A narrow water channel separates the European and Asian part of the city and connects the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea. The boat stops at Uskudar, and goes through Ortakoy and continues to the second bridge.
With a chilly wind blowing, from the ship we could see some of the most beautiful views of the city, as well as palaces and mosques. I spend a lot of time on the deck, despite the cold wind. We then return at sunset to Eminonu again, seeing the Asian part. Upon arrival we hear the call to prayer, that was really magical. Istanbul looks splendid. We take the tram to return to the hotel and prepare to go out to dinner.
We pass by a Hammam and go in the little street of restaurants next to Divan Yolu. I wanted to go to a meyhane for dinner, with a more informal atmosphere than a restaurant, and dine with meze, or Turkish Kebab. So we went straight to see a few. We ordered soup, calamari, a very rich lamb kebab, honey chicken, pasta dish, burek, drinks, and desserts. And I assure you that I have not eaten so much in my life, (nor so long and so extensively) and even then, we were not able to finish everything.
It was the New Years Eve in Istanbul and when it was 12 o'clock at night, they start the countdown. Everyone started cheering and hugging each other. Then, the lights went out and suddenly, a dancer appeared (spectacular and beautiful). We see her belly dance to the music and intoxicating drums. Almost all the women joined her in dancing after a while, until finally a few men finished dancing with her on the table.
After the beautiful dancer left, we continued having dinner (at 12 o'clock we still had not eaten the main course). The people already blind of raki, began to sing duets from one table to another. The funny thing is that the Turks who were there (who were the majority of the rest of the diners) stopped eating. They smoke a cigarette, eat, dance for a while, and they smoke again. They gulp half a bottle of raki, sing a song, and have another round of raki. They ate again and they were still having dinner at 1 in the morning.
Without a doubt, for them, the matter of the table and the good food, is something that they enjoy as much or more than we do. During dinner, there was a gentleman playing the typical Turkish guitar and singing. The parishioners accompanied him with songs very often. All the guests seemed to be regular and Turkish customers, except us and another couple of Italians.