Istanbul: Day One

OMG. OMG. OMG.

I love it here. I’m never going home. You can’t make me.

(Ask me how I feel in about seven days when all my clothes are dirty and I’m tired of people trying to sell me carpets by shouting at me in Turkish, Spanish, and Russian after incorrectly guessing my nationality.)

Istanbul is gorgeous. My first impressions are that it’s a clean, well-planned, and diverse city. I get the sense that I came at the right time of year–there are other tourists, but not as much, as I’m told by the locals–as there would be had I come later in the summer. The weather has been perfect–it’s mid-70’s and sunny all week. Being right next to the sea results in a nice breeze every few seconds, which is welcome, because it is also humid. I’m reminded of that each time I climb the extremely steep cobblestoned hills and immediately am rewarded with a sheen of sweat.

So far I haven’t met any other Americans here. The only other native English speakers I’ve met are from Australia and New Zealand. Most other tourists are from Spain, Germany, Nigeria, Russia, China, or South Korea. It’s kind of refreshing to be in a part of the world that is less-traveled by my countrymen. However, I can’t really blame them for not coming because our governments have not been friendly to one another. In addition, this city has a reputation for being unsafe at the moment, which based on my limited experiences so far, is undeserved. There hasn’t been split second when I’ve felt unsafe; the locals are are reserved but kind, and there are armed police everywhere who all speak English. (I don’t talk enough about how incredibly lucky I am that English is my first language, and how grateful I am that others take the time to learn it.) At the same time, however, the presence of the same armed police does remind one that this country is still technically in a state of emergency. This city has always had a tumultuous history, and I don’t think that will change.

Soooo before I get into what I did today, let me preface it with the fact that the wifi at my hostel is absolutely horrible, so I haven’t been able to upload as many pictures as I’d like. I will make up for it once I find a better connection/get back to the States. To recap the day:

I woke up late because I am INCREDIBLY jet lagged. Like, so jet lagged that I thought I was sick and had to go to the hospital until I remembered that my body just has to adjust to the hell I’ve put it through. To make things worse, I hardly ate at all because I was so excited. Queue me almost passing out in a park this morning before realizing that I need food and water. I had a tasty simit–a fresh bread ring encrusted with sesame seeds–and a European Coke (I’ve missed you guys!!!) to stave off the blood sugar crash, and that did me right for a day packed with sightseeing.

My first stop was obvious: the Hagia Sophia. The exterior of this building is so huge that you can’t even fit it into one frame when photographing it. My anticipation built up as the line waded through fragments of ancient columns and tombs and inscriptions. My heart started beating rapidly as I entered the doors, and then BAM–there I was, inside the single most beautiful building in existence. I actually cried. Yes, you heard me–just hours after crying because the Golden Knights made the Stanley Cup Finals, here I was full-on bawling in the Hagia Sofia. (I really need to find more important stuff to cry about.)

I had read this countless times before, so I was prepared for this to be the case, but there really is no way to photograph this building properly–you absolutely have to see it in person. I took dozens of photos and they all suck. Two that I don’t hate as much as the others are below:

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Just looking at these photos again makes me so upset that I couldn’t even get close to the beauty of that building 😦

Next, I went to the Basilica Cistern. A cistern is a Roman-age water reservoir, essentially, that was used to bring water to the citizens of the city. This one is particularly huge and located entirely underground, which makes it super eerie and cool.

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On my way to Topkapi Palace I stopped by Hagia Irene, Hagia Sophia’s little sister. Although much smaller and not nearly as impressive, I actually found Hagia Irene more interesting because it was never converted to a mosque like Sophia had been, so you get to see what Sophia would have actually looked like if it had never been restored.

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Topkapi Palace is HUGE–a sprawling complex of chambers and harems and quarters, built first by the Roman emperors and then refurbished by the Ottoman sultans. A couple of my favorite scenes:

Believe it or not just those four places took me over six hours to get through, and my feet are killing. So I wrapped up the day with two of my favorite street foods, Balik ekmek (literally just “fish bread”–simplest and tastiest fish sandwich sold right off the boat) and baklava. The chocolate was my favorite 🤤

I just finished this post at 3:00 AM Istanbul time, and I’m wide awake. My poor body has no idea what’s going on. I’m off to get some sleep/possibly end up watching the Lightning-Capitals game if I can’t. Tomorrow I’ll be back with more photos, assuming they don’t take so long to upload!

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LAS -> LAX -> IST

I’m here!!! I made it to Istanbul! It’s been a long day of traveling, but everything went really well. Shout-out to Turkish Airlines for being legitimately the best international airline I’ve ever flown. I had heard their food is really good and I have to say I agree. Besides the bags taking almost an hour to arrive from the gate, getting through customs was really fast and easy too. The only hiccup I experienced is meeting the airport shuttle driver to take me to my hostel. When I arrived, the dude holding a sign with my name just shouted at another dude in Turkish for like 20 minutes while I sat there confused. Finally I was directed into a white van with a driver who kept made emphatic remarks about the Erdogan propaganda covering the streets, none of which I could understand. By now I’m just used to embracing this type of chaos.

The driver took me into the Old City, which is, as the name implies, super old. We drove right past the Theodosian walls–the ancient land walls that are what allowed the city to survive from antiquity into the 21st century–which made me emotional for a bit. All this stuff I had spent so long reading about, and now I was actually here to see it in person!

I got to my hostel a few hours ago and was welcomed with some apple tea and a pet kitty. I popped down the street to the Hagia Sofia as the sun set, but immediately regretted it because I finally realized how hungry and tired I was, and I didn’t get to soak it in like I should. For the same reason, I didn’t feel up to taking many pictures either. After trying and failing to find a balik ekmek (famous fish sandwiches) joint, I picked up a feta cheese breadstick thing and a gigantic Turkish chocolate chip cookie from a nearby bakery, both of which were delicious.

I’m so glad I got a private room, because it means I can take my pants off!!! Now I’m sitting here watching the Golden Knights play, because my body thinks it’s 1:00 in the afternoon even though it’s 11:00 PM here and my FitBit tells me I only got 1 hour and 12 minutes of sleep on the plane. 🙂

Tomorrow will be an actual, real, pictures/re-cap post and not just me complaining and talking about sports, I promise!

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No matter where you are in the world…gotta rep, ‘cuz your team’s in the Conference Finals 😉

My Istanbul Adventure

Today the countdown app on my phone kindly alerted me that there are just 9 days until I board a plane to Istanbul, Turkey. My family, friends, and co-workers have been eagerly asking me, “Are you excited?!” And yes, of course, I’ve been planning this trip for 10 months and it’s been at the top of my travel bucket list for years…but I always have a brief moment of trepidation right before I depart for a new destination. How am I going to survive the 13-hour flight? What if I get ripped off by a taxi driver at the airport? What if the fish sandwiches make me sick? What if Erdogan detains me because I accidentally look at him funny? What if I get kidnapped by ISIS?

My mom helped me put all these fears to rest on Sunday. “You’ll be fine,” she told me, “because you have to be fine. Seriously, don’t get into trouble over there, I don’t have time to negotiate a ransom for you.” She’s right…my dad is a candidate for a highly invasive back surgery, and my brother and his pregnant wife have just moved in with them for the summer. Also, Scott is watching the NBA Playoffs and continues to be addicted to Angry Birds as if he’s a 15-year-old trapped in 2014, so he won’t be much use either if I’m sold into slavery.

Obviously I’m joking, and I would never willingly go somewhere that I actually felt was dangerous. But why exactly I chose Istanbul, the city where East meets West along the Bosporus Strait, is a fair question. I never had much of an interest in ancient history until I read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This wonderful book, set primarily in Istanbul, exposed me to the rich and compelling history of the city, and soon I knew the city of Constantine would be my next international solo travel destination. I started reading other books about Byzantine and Ottoman history (including this one and this one and this one, if you’re interested) as I made my plans. I booked my ticket on Turkish Airlines in January and haven’t looked back since.

Over the past few months I’ve made an itinerary and booked hostels and hotel rooms around the massive metropolis, trying to include as many neighborhoods as I can while still making time for the archaeological sites. Since so many people have asked, I thought I’d share what I’m going to do while I’m there. I plan on posting photos here on the blog (now that I’m sans Instagram), so readers can know what to expect and when. Also, maybe there are some fellow travelers out there who would want to use the itinerary for their own trips:

Days One & Two: Trapped inside a giant, cold metal tube 7 miles above ground

  • LAS -> LAX
  • LAX -> IST

I’m in for 14.5 hours of travel, and Istanbul is 10 hours ahead of my current time zone. It’s gonna be a rough one. Constantine, your digs better be worth it!

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Hagia Sofia. Duh.

Days Three thru Five: Sultanahmet District a.k.a. “Old City”

  • Hagia Sophia (duh)
  • Blue Mosque (also duh)
  • Grand Bazaar
  • Hippodrome/Sultanahmet Square
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Balat neighborhood (Jewish quarter)
  • Chora Church
  • Suleymaniye Mosque
  • Valens Aqueduct
  • Theodosian Walls
  • Museums:
    • Istanbul Archaeological Museum
    • Mosaic Museum
    • Panorama 1453 (the conquest of Constantinople)

Obviously I’m cramming A LOT into three days. All the Istanbul guides I read said that this is the minimum amount of time one needs to see the sites in the Old City, but I want to be sure to see as much I can of the other districts too.

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Day Six: Beyoglu District

  • Galata Bridge
  • Galata Tower
  • Istaklal Street
  • Taksim Square
  • Maiden’s Tower

Beyoglu is located across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, still on the European side. Taksim Square is more or less the epicenter of the city, and supposedly has all the best nightlife.

Day Seven: Food Tour & Kadikoy on the Asian side

  • Culinary Backstreets “Two Markets, Two Continents” Tour: book here

I found this awesome all-day walking tour that starts on the European side, includes a ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side, and ends in Kadikoy, which is one of the city’s best culinary destinations. If you hear news about an epic baklava shortage in the Middle East a couple weeks from now, that’s all me.

Day Eight: Relax at a fancy hotel

  • Hamam (Turkish bath)
  • Hanging out with rich Chinese people
  • Resting my very tired feet

Almost every other day of my trip, I’ll be staying in private rooms in various hostels. I like this option because it’s cheap and provides a connection to the hostel community of younger, budget-minded travelers, but I can still have privacy. However, I once got some advice to splurge on a fancy hotel for at least one night of a trip–which I’ve followed and enjoyed ever since–so I chose a point in my trip where I’d probably be completely worn out and would really appreciate a fluffy white robe and an intense body scrub administered by a burly Turkish woman.

dolmabacheDay Nine: Besiktas

  • Ortakoy mosque
  • Ortakoy street market
  • Dolmabahce Palace
  • Galata Mevlevi Museum (whirling dervish performance)

I’ve read great things about the Besiktas neighborhood, particularly the street market held on Sundays. Also, rumor has it that Dolmabahce is even more opulent than Topkapi Palace.

princes islandsDay Ten: Prince’s Islands

Depending on how exhausted I am or if I want to go back and see more of what I saw the previous nine days, I may or may not take the ferry out to the Prince’s Islands. This is where they used to exile all the dethroned emperors that the current emperor decided not to kill.

Day Eleven: Get back into the giant, cold metal tube

Assuming I don’t get kidnapped, detained, or simply refuse to leave the wondrous place that is Istanbul, I’ll conclude my trip on Day 11 and endure another full day of travel.