Istanbul exceeded our expectations; it’s a beautiful city with a lot to see, is surprisingly easy to get around, and it gave us a glimpse into Muslim culture. Ben and I stayed for 5 nights in the Old Town area of Istanbul, within short walking distance to all of the famous sights like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The food was great – we mostly stuck to kebab and baklava, delicious! – and we enjoyed browsing the local shopping markets – even if we weren’t shopping for a Turkish carpet. All in all, I absolutely loved Istanbul, and after touring a lot of European cities last fall, I’d put it near the top of the list. Here’s some of the things we explored…
Just like Catholic churches in Rome, there are mosques around every corner in Istanbul. I can’t compare them to elsewhere, but in Istanbul they were all similarly impressive with multiple domes and tall, skinny minarets. Apparently most of them are modeled after the Hagia Sofia which was built as a Christian church around 350 AD by a Roman emperor. Tourists can enter mosques for free, but are asked to respect the religion by removing shoes, covering shoulders and knees, and wearing a headscarf if you’re a women. It’s worth it because the interiors are beautiful; covered in geometric patterns, painted tiles, and names and phrases from the Quran.
The Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian church during Byzantine times, back when the city was called Constantinople. The dome was the largest in Europe until the Renaissance in the 1500’s.
The Topkapi Palace is a hilltop palace which was home to the Ottoman Sultans of Istanbul for 400 years. Part of the palace is dedicated to the “Harem” where the Sultan’s 4 wives and many mistresses lived.
Istanbul is full of street shopping, along with two big markets in the Old Town: the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. They sell all kinds of things for tourists and locals alike. They’re fun to walk around in, but sometimes we found ourselves looking straight ahead and walking fast to avoid getting haggled by each and every store owner. “Yes, please! Where are you from?…(no response) … Australia?” This was one of the many things the store owners would say to try and get your attention, so that he could talk you into browsing his store. Interestingly, we were asked if we were from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada – but never the USA. Although this behaviour might appear rude or annoying on the surface, we actually found the store owners to be really friendly and not at all aggressive. Nobody grabs you or insults you or tries to rip you off. And if you do stop to chat, they are warm and friendly and will always let you walk away without buying anything. Still, if you’re not looking to buy or chat, it’s best to avoid eye contact and keep walking!