The start of our Trip
We have been to Istanbul a few years ago, but, for us, Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and is always worth a trip. So, here we are! First stop: Istanbul!
Istanbul, the lively. Istanbul, where tradition meets modernity. A city full of energy and with so much history to offer. And this is where it starts … our journey.
We spent six days in Istanbul. In the end, that will again not be long enough.
We arrived late on our first day and took the metro directly from the airport to the city center. As we stayed in a hotel in Taksim, we had to change at the Yenikapi station and then take the metro to Taksim station. The one-way trip costs 5 Turkish lira, which is €0,83 cents.
You can take the metro for even cheaper if you buy an Istanbul Card for 6 lira (EUR 01,00), but the queue at the ticket machine was too long, so we bought a 5 trip card without a discount.
The next day, however, we bought an Istanbul Card and charged it, in order to avoid wasting time buying single tickets at the vending machines and also to save money per trip.
When we arrived in Taksim, we were immediately plunged into the hustle and bustle of Istiklal Street. The street is very well known for its red nostalgic tram, as well as the numerous restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities.
On our first evening, we ended up taking a kind of self-guided food tour, without having planned it, that took us through the delicacies of Turkey.
We like to try what comes across our way. First up were rice-stuffed mussels! This was a specialty that I enjoyed when I was a little kid on the beach with my parents. They were sold by street vendors walking along the beach carrying a tray, or also along the streets.
Sweet delicacies are, of course, a must when you are in Turkey, and so we had to try something sweet. It would be a miracle if we didn’t eat one of the many desserts temptingly touted in shop windows. Even if we do not know the name of the tower that stands before us, we know enough that is a type of baklava. Baklava is a typical Turkish dessert. It consists of a puffy pastry dipped in sugar syrup and filled with chopped walnuts, pistachios, or almonds.
We continue to wander our way through the small streets, and find each place is filled with different music, often with singers or small bands playing live. A city that never sleeps. This sentence can also be said about Istanbul!
And then we stand in front of it .. a small kebab house on a corner, decorated with pictures of Anthony Bourdain. In his series “No Reservations” he recommends the kebabs from a small ‚hole-in-the-wall‘ restaurant Dürümzade. Heeding his advice, we decide to eat the Adana Kebab Dürüm and do not regret it. Simply put, it’s absolutely delicious.
James and I love traveling to foreign cultures and food. So Anthony Bourdain’s travels and his quotes have a special place in our hearts. One of our favorite quotes of his is: “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” – Anthony Bourdain
Istanbul in the Rain
Sightseeing in bad weather
Touring Turkey in November comes with certain risks in terms of the weather. We end up not having much luck and it will, unfortunately, rain heavily the next few days.
But what can we do? We’re here, and we want to see and do as much as possible.
But before we start our sightseeing tour, we first must eat Menemen! Menemen is a Turkish breakfast that consists of eggs, tomatoes, and Green Paprikas. On one of the small side streets of Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street), there is a small restaurant that serves the best Menemen. We ate there eight years ago and it was so good that we wanted to go again. We fight the roaring weather to get to the family business Lades because we need a full breakfast for our day’s plan. Lades has been offering Menemen in their small restaurant since 1978.
Our choice: the classic Menemen topped with sucuk which is a Turkish garlic sausage. A few cups of Turkish Çay (tea) and everything is perfect.
Try it out when you’re in Istanbul! The locals also love the Lades restaurant.
Strengthened by our breakfast, our day starts.
We decide to do a Bosphorus boat tour from Karaköy.
The tours are provided from Karaköy as well as from Eminönü. The excursion boats are lined up and you are truly spoiled for choice. But we‘re not. It is really raining and we are fleeing to the very first ship. Easy.
The tour passes the Galata Tower, Dolmabahce, and Ciragan Palace. We also pass the Ortaköy Mosque, the bridge, which connects Europe and Asia, and the Leander Tower which is also called the Girl’s Tower.
Our boat ride takes a total of two hours, but it is pleasantly warm inside while the weather now rages and we enjoy Istanbul from the water.
We highly recommended a Bosphorus Boat tour, and feel you should definitely do it. Although the information is not very extensive in English, it is a nice change and a great way to see the city. And at 15 Lira (EUR 02,50), it is also a real bargain.
See Istanbul from another perspective.
Culture in Istanbul
What’s worth visiting more than once
We are so in love with this city. All the historical highlights that we already know, but we always like to see them again.
Instead of sitting in a café and watching people, planning future trips, or reading, which would probably be smarter in these weather conditions, we head off to the Süleymaniye Mosque.
The mosque has to be earned because the way up there is steep but manageable. We stop at the Museum of Rosaries along the way. The entrance is free and also provides us with a small breather from the strenuous climb up to the mosque.
If you don‘t want to walk the complete way, you can take a tram to the station Beyazit and then walk the rest up.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is beautiful and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is absolutely worth a visit!
It is one of the largest mosques in Istanbul and was completed within a very short timeframe, from 1550 to 1557. Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned it, and the renowned architect Sinan created something incredible.
We enjoy being at mosques during prayer times because it always gives us a goosebump feeling.
Even if you are not allowed to be inside the mosque during prayer time as a tourist, the imposing exterior along with the sounds of the prayer is already very impressive. And it provides an opportunity to look at the external details of the mosque.
From the outside, the Süleymaniye Mosque offers a breathtaking view of Istanbul. The elevated location of the Mosque is simply outstanding!
You can also go inside the mosque as a tourist after prayer times. Even if it is not your religion, it means a lot to many, and the traditions should be respected. Bring a headscarf (women) with you and wear long trousers and shirts so knees and shoulders are covered (men and women).
If you visit a mosque and are not dressed appropriately, you can borrow headscarves and kaftans free of charge at the entrance.
At the entrance, plastic bags for shoes are also provided … but in our opinion, they are totally unnecessary and only serve to increase plastic waste. Simply bring your shoes in and put them on the shelves inside the mosque. Because prayers take place on the carpet, and the forehead touches the ground, it is not allowed to go into a mosque with shoes.
Inside, we take our time and enjoy the moment and let the beautiful red carpet and large light dome have their effect on us.
We could spend hours here as Sulemaniye is one of the most beautiful mosques we’ve ever been to.
We let the evening comfortably end in Eminönü and watch the hustle and bustle that surrounds us. In Eminönü there are many fish restaurants and large boats at the dock where fish sandwiches are directly sold (Balik Ekmek).
I must admit that I’ve never tasted one. But if any of you have had one, please let us know how you liked it.
Under the Bosphorus Bridge, there are several fish restaurants strung together. Sitting there you can see the fishing lines from the fishermen on the bridge above you. The fish then practically land directly on your plate. It doesn’t get much fresher than that!
Despite the constant rain we decided on the third day to go to Chora church. James had read about this former Byzantine church in many of his history books.
Although the exact construction date of the Church is unknown, Emperor Justinian had the church rebuilt during his reign (527-75), and much of what we see now is from the 14th century.
The Chora church is located just outside the city, so you must drive a bit to get there. (The ancient Greek word Chora translates to ‘outside the city ‘.) So, we leave the big city and take the metro from our station Tophane to Yenikapi and change there from the M2 to the M1 to Topkapi-Ulubatli.
Having arrived at the right station, we end up on the narrow streets of a small village. We think how nice it is to have time to look at other things.
Meeting prying eyes, we stop in a small mom-and-pop shop to buy some water and see how quiet it can be in other parts of Istanbul. Finally, we arrive at the church.
Unfortunately, we did not inquire in advance of our trip and find the outside of the church wrapped and in restoration work. Nevertheless, we buy a ticket but can see only a small fraction of the museum inside. Although the few frescoes and mosaics that we can see are very impressive, we are a little disappointed because despite that the church is under construction and offers very little to see, complete admission is required (45 Lira = EUR 7,58).
We must come back when the work is done to study Istanbul’s most magnificent Byzantine church mosaics.
If you are interested in museums and buildings, buy yourself a Museum Card. You can choose between a five-day or a fifteen-day card.
The 5-day card costs 185 lira (EUR 31,16/USD 35,17) and is well worth it if you want to see all the important historical treasures. If you have a longer time, get the 15-day card for 315 lira (EUR 53,05/USD 59,88).
The fast lane for the museum entrance is also included with the purchase of the card. This is really worth it, because Istanbul is always well visited, which means the queues are correspondingly long.
Chora Church 45 lira
Topkapi Sarayi Admission 45 Lira
Hagia Sophia Admission 60 lira
Archaeological Museum 20 lira
For the fast lane, 30 lira each.
Even if due to lack of time, we have not fully exploited the card, we have still saved – both money and time.
If you would like to read more about the museum card, you can find out more here.
After visiting the Chora Church we went back to the main sightseeing area of Sultanahmet. We had been to Cisterna Basilica (Yere Batan) years ago and really enjoyed it. And because the rain was getting worse and worse, and we had our museum cards now, we thought we should have another look at it.
Southwest of Hagia Sophia, located in the Sultanahmet district, the Cisterna Basilica is easy to get to and close to the other attractions.
The Basilica Cisterna was built in the 6th century and covers 9800 sqm. There is space for 100,000 tons of water.
The cistern consists of 12 rows, each with 28 columns. With the subdued light and silence underground, it feels almost mystical.
There are two main highlights in the cistern. One is the “Crying Column,” so-called because, unlike the other columns, it is wet.
And the two Medusa heads. Probably used as a support for the columns, there are several legends surrounding these heads.
According to legend, the heads were placed there and used for protection. Coming from Greek mythology, Medusa is one of the three Gorgon figures. She had snakes as hair and turned anyone that looked at her to stone.
Oh and… the cistern is not included in the Museums Card and we ended up paying extra for it. 20 Lira (3,37 EUR/USD 3,82).
After admiring the cistern, we walked to the nearby Grand Bazar.
We were quite surprised because it was amazingly empty. And because we didn’t want to buy anything, and it was raining harder and harder, we decided to go back to the hostel to be rested for the next day.
We just can’t get enough!
Time goes by too fast. Only three more days remaining.
Today we want to visit the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Şerefiye Cistern, and Ortaköy. In our opinion, all are such beautiful and interesting buildings and places.
As usual, we do not plan too much, so we have time to admire everything in peace. The luxury of slow travel.
The Hagia Sophia should be known to everyone as a “must-see”, and we can definitely confirm that it is. If you are in Istanbul, there is really no way around it, you must see the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia was first constructed in 360 and served as a church. At that time she was called “Megale Ekklesia” (Big Church). After two different fires, both caused by riots, it was rebuilt under Justinian the First command in 532 in only five years. Justinian ordered the Hagia Sophia to be built with only the best materials so that it would become bigger and grander. The finest materials were brought from all over Turkey, and also from North Africa and Syria. Even columns from the Artemis Temple (today UNESCO) were used to build the church.
The Hagia Sophia was a church for 916 years until Fatih Sultan Mehmed ordered it to be converted into a mosque. It served as a mosque for another 482 years. In 1935 Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by order of Atatürk and the Council of Ministers.
To enumerate all the architectural features here would be beyond our scope. But it is unbelievable what greatness and glory could be built that long ago. Everything seems so perfect and built for eternity. We take a thousand pictures and could stay here forever.
Before we head to the Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Camii, we go to another cistern.
The Şerefiye Cistern was discovered relatively recently and is now opened as a museum. Admission is free, works of art are regularly exhibited, and the atmosphere in the cistern itself is awesome. AND … there are hardly any tourists! The restoration took eight years in total and the result can be seen.
The cistern was probably built during the reign of Theodosius (428-443), which is why it is also known as Theodosius Cistern.
It is smaller than the Basilica Cistern but is a hundred years older. Together with the Philoxenius Cistern, which we reserve for our next trip to Istanbul, these three underground reservoirs form a 250 km long system that provided fresh water for the city.
The Blue Mosque.
Not only does it shape Istanbul’s skyline, but the Blue Mosque is also one of the major works of Ottoman architecture.
The master architect Sinan, who also designed the Süleymaniye Mosque (as well as the magnificent Selimiye Mosque in Edirne … absolutely AWESOME! Go see it if you can) has created an absolute masterpiece here.
Outside, we stand in front of the magnificent building and listen to the prayer that comes from the minarets through the loudspeakers.
Aside from its magnificence, what distinguishes the Blue Mosque from the others are the six minarets (usually you will find four minarets or less). Legend has it that Sultan Ahmet I wanted golden minarets. But instead of four golden minarets, the architect Sinan built six non-golden minarets. To this day, it is unclear whether he deliberately misunderstood the similarly sounding words “altin” which means gold, and “alti” which means “six” because he believed that gold was too expensive.
Only after the prayer are we allowed to visit the mosque as tourists. I tie my headscarf, which I always have with me, and look forward to experiencing a piece of history again.
Meters upon meters of precious silk carpets, oil lamps from abroad, and thousands of blue Iznik tiles were used in the construction of the interior. It is the use of blue Iznik tiles that adorn the walls of its interior that give the mosque its name.
We sit down on the red prayer rug and watch all the commotion going on around us.
Inside there is a shelf with free leaflets on Islam in all languages which you can take for free.
On the walls, you’ll see prayers from the Koran and the words of the Prophet Muhammad.
We always find ourselves humbled by what people created so many years ago.
After so much sightseeing we need a big good (late) lunch and so we took the bus to Ortaköy. When we were in Paris for the Ryder Cup, we had burgers one night and met three Turkish people who were sitting next to us. We chatted for a while and they recommended Biber Burger to us as the best burger place in Istanbul. So we decided to try it out and had a fantastic burger there. Afterward, we went on a little walk along the Bosphorus and found a nice coffee place where we ended up having coffee and cake.
We end the day in Ortaköy. Ortaköy is famous for its Kumpir, which is what we originally wanted to have for dinner. Kumpir is a baked potato that can be filled with as many various ingredients as desired. Several Kumpir stalls line the streets, and the vendors really smell a customer when they see James. Everyone waves and calls and wants him to buy a Kumpir from them. Unfortunately, we must disappoint them all, as we are still so full after the burger and cake.
Ortaköy is such a lovely area of Istanbul. There is a large cobblestoned square where you can often find artists and street musicians. The path leads to the Ortaköy Mosque, which is beautifully lit at night. From here you have a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus Bridge. We could spend hours in the summer, but it starts to rain again, so we start heading back, ending a wonderful day.
An Evening with Friends
From Paris to Istanbul
Our plan for today is a very special one! We have two invitations that we have been looking forward to for a very long time.
Our first invitation was to the Istanbul Golf Club, where we receive a warm welcome from Bekir Şerbetçioğlu, the Club Secretary-General. We learn all about the club, and the membership, we chip and putt a little bit and are invited to a great lunch. If you are interested, you are very welcome to read James’ blog about the historic Golf Club.
Our second invitation is from Ayça and Efe, the Turkish couple whom we had met in Paris.
But before dinner, we drove with Mr. Şerbetçioğlu to the Ataşehir Golf Club where we played golf. And, as lucky as we are, Ayça and Efe live exactly opposite the Golf Club. In one of the biggest cities in the world! What a coincidence!
Unfortunately, the third person that we met in Paris, Oytun, is not in town, so we will not see him this time. But Ayça and Efe are already waiting for us and it is great when we meet again. Turkish hospitality is presented to us at its very best. The two of them have prepared several appetizers called mezze, and we are spoiled from the start to the finish. Everything is so delicious, and it feels like we’ve known each other forever. A fun and sociable evening that we hope to repeat with them somewhere in the world again. We spend the evening talking about travel and getting some more Istanbul restaurant tips. The evening flies by and so it is time to say goodbye. As if they don’t spoil us enough, they drive us to the ferry, to make sure we get comfortably and safely back to our hostel.
Thank you Ayça and Efe for this unforgettable evening!
We will be back
It’s our last day … before we have to say goodbye to Istanbul and hello to Akbük.
We have a few hours left and use our time (it is raining again, or should we say it’s still raining) to go to the Archaeological Museum.
Due to the bad weather, we were not able to do everything that we would have liked to do if it would have been dry, but we found our time in Istanbul to still be absolutely worthwhile.
The mix of classical traditions with modern life, the cultural and historical sites, the delicious food … this all makes Istanbul unique and, in our eyes, always worth a visit.
Every time we come here, we experience and learn something new. And every time we are greeted with open arms.
Istanbul- we will be back!