Based in Houston, Texas, GEV is a blog by The GreenEyed Venuist. Her posts explore travel and photography through her green eyes.

24 Hours in Istanbul

For anyone that has flown Turkish Airlines, you know that no matter the destination, you will have a layover in Istanbul. With that knowledge during the planning phase of my most recent vacay, we chose to extend that layover for one night so that we could take in the city just a little bit. 

I wanna brag on Turkish Airlines for a sec. I had a friend who recently flew Turkish to Paris. He had tons of positive things to say. So aside from the cheap ticket (which was cheaper than other airlines by a lot), the plane was enormous, they fed me, and fed me well, like 4 times, the liquor, beer and wine was $free.99 and there were movies in abundance on the interactive seat back screen thingy. On top of that, the international flight kit they give you comes equipped with ear plugs, slippers, toothbrush and toothpaste, lip balm, eye mask for sleeping and socks. There was a nice plush pillow and blanket warming my seat when I approached. I was overall extremely pleased with Turkish and would fly them again. My only complaint is that the technology, as far as booking, checking in online, etc is not as advanced as some other airlines. Finally, they need more people working at the check-in desk at the airport. The lines to get boarding passes, since you can't print them from home, and check bags were astronomical and had me thinking I was going to miss my flight each time.  

So I arrived in Istanbul around 4:00pm, having no idea what I was about to get myself into. My best friend had arrived and made her way to the hotel much earlier that day so I was on my own...in a extremely busy airport with lots of security/passport check points. Although I previously read that it would take me years to get out of that airport once I landed, I was pleasantly surprised. I was out the door and in the shuttle within 45 mins. I have to admit that I did not expect the airport to be as modern or have as much English signage...again, I was surprised. AND more people speak English than you would imagine so it wasn't a total fail that I couldn't learn any Turkish before I left. 

Please note that my flight to Mykonos left Istanbul at 7pm the next day so I had less than 24 hours to see what I could see. So here's an extended version of my itinerary. Like to hear it? Here it go.

We stayed at the Aren Suites. It's my understanding that Turkish Airlines will put you up in this hotel if you have an overnight layover. Not sure if my travel agent was aware of that but coincidentally, its the same hotel the above mentioned friend stayed in before meeting me in Paris in Spring 2014.


Aren Suites is a cute boutique hotel in the middle of Sultanahmet/Old City Istanbul. Its just a stone's throw from the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Museum. The staff was friendly and spoke English very well. They equipped us with maps of the area and recommendations of restaurants and things to see. Of course Elizabeth had a list of places she researched before we got there so they helped us find or discouraged us from attempting to find those places too. Indeed, they were very knowledgeable about the attractions. We had a double room which was big by European standards and included a sitting area. It was actually the biggest room we had the whole week.

Note: To avoid the jet lags, its best not to sleep until the locals sleep. So after a quick shower, we went straight out to see the sights with a friend of Elizabeth's who lives near Istanbul. She speaks the language and knows where everything is so that was REALLY helpful. It was even better that she was able to tell all the annoying sales guys to bug off in their own language...pretty funny to see their expressions too. 

Like I said, the hotel is right around the corner from the Blue Mosque and with the last little bit of day light, I was able to capture some pretty dope photos. Our first stop was the old Hippodrome of Constantinople or Sultanahmet Square. There we saw the Obelisk of Theodosius - of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III and then the German Fountain - constructed to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II's visit to Istanbul in 1898. It was built in Germany and transported to its current location in 1900. There's some history for you...see the pics below.




There were watermelon and chestnut stands everywhere - and a bunch of other goodies:




Across the busy street, we saw the Hagia Sophia Museum, a former Greek Orthodox basilica, turned imperial mosque, and now a museum. It was late so I didn't actually get a chance to go inside but the site of it from the square was incredible. 



A 180 degree turn later, you're confronted by the magnificent Blue Mosque. The blue mosque is named such because of the blue tiles that adorn the walls of the interior. It was built between 1609 to 1616 during the rule of Ahmed 1.The tomb of the founder is located inside, along with a madrasa and a hospice.  





Because we arrived after closing hours, I didn't actually get to go inside until the next day.

After milling around the square and taking in some of the culture, we hopped in a cab and zoomed over to Galata Tower, a good starting point if you plan to walk along Istiklal Street on the way to Taksim Square. Istiklal is a really long street with souvenir shops, other shopping, food and whatever else you can think of. It's like the Champs Elysees of Istanbul but on a smaller scale. 

So here's Galata Tower, the point where the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus meet. It looks pretty cool in person. I'm not exactly sure of its historic significance but there is a restaurant and cafe inside, as well as a night club.


I was able to capture a few shots of Istiklal Street before it got too dark. I still don't really know how to use all the fancy settings on my camera so this is as good as it gets. I thought it was funny, the street was lined with what appeared to be Christmas lights. At any rate...it's a really long street but its one of the places you definitely have to go when you visit Istanbul. 



We stopped at this candy store that...to be honest...overwhelmed me. I have a ridiculous sweet tooth. I mean, I can kill a bag of candy in one sitting...easy. But there were rows and rows of Turkish delight, Baklava, other candies with sesame seeds and honey. I didn't know where to begin! Our Turkish friend Irem asked the guy if I could try some and while I was willing to pay for it, he gave it to me for free! So I tasted Turkish Delight....which I wasn't really a fan of and something that looked like it belongs in the Baklava family but was rolled like sushi. I was literally like a kid in a candy store. 





I looked to my left and there was a man shaving huge hunks off of a slab meat. I pretty much saw this everywhere because all the restaurants, for the most part, sell kebabs. 


Before I left, I had read about a Turkish Street Food that I had to try. Basically it was like a wet, saucy hamburger. I'm a little adventurous when it comes to food so I asked Irem to find us a stand that sold them. She had the perfect one and then likened these strange little things to something you'd eat after you've been partying all night to soak up the liquor. Not gonna lie....the buns were wet with a tomato-y sauce and it was really weird mostly because of the texture. It didn't taste bad. If I had to describe it, I'd say it was like a reverse sloppy joe. 



We finally got to Taksim Square. There were so many things going on there....it was like a sensory over load. We happened to be in Istanbul on Victory Day - a national public holiday that commemorates the key Turkish victory against Greek forces in the Battle of Dumlupinar in 1922. As you can see from the pics below, there were huge Turkish flags hanging everywhere and images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (founder of the Turkish Republic).




After our tour down Istiklal Street, we ended up in the Beyoglu district, a more modern and lively area with lots of restaurants, cafes and most importantly for me, roof top terraces with incredible views of the city and the Bosphorus. I had done some research before we left and one of the main things I found was that in Istanbul, these rooftop terraces are kind of a big deal. We had a few in mind but they were either under construction or difficult to get to. The concierge at one of the hotels mentioned a place called Frankie located on the roof of the Sofatel, so we went there. We stepped off the elevator and were immediately enchanted. The venue is so sexy, has a really great lay out, nice furniture and the view was outrageous. It was definitely a boo spot, you know...a place you're take your boo. I'll have to remember to go back there with a boo...lol (shoot, I need a boo). I can honestly say that I got my Istanbul rooftop fix at Frankie. It gave me so much life. We had drinks, snapped a few pics and headed back to the hotel. See below (these might be a little blurry but you get the idea. There were fireworks going off in the background...really awesome):



   
In the morning, Aren Suites provided a buffet style, traditional Turkish breakfast with some American flare, assorted deli meats and cheese, tomatoes, lentils, yogurt, several different types of pastry and cereal. We were able to take our breakfast to the hotel's rooftop terrace. So breakfast consisted of boiled eggs, fruit, toast, Greek yogurt, the Sea of Marmara in front of me and the Blue Mosque behind me. 





 


After breakfast, it was time for us to take in the city by day. Check out was at noon so the hotel staff held our luggage while we explored. Right outside the doors of the Aren Suites, there were a few cafes. Each time we passed, there was a group of older gentlemen congregated there, drinking tea and smoking from a hookah. I appreciated everything about this scene because to me, it was the epitome of Turkish culture. Especially the furniture they were sitting on, the items on the table, etc. I wasn't able to capture a shot of the old fellas but this is where they had set up shop. 



Then we headed to the Blue Mosque to finally catch a glimpse of the inside. The line outside the Mosque was pretty long but it moved quickly and entrance is free. If you're planning to visit the mosque, please keep in mind that you will not be allowed to enter if your body isn't properly covered. There is an attendant near the line that will loan you a long velcro skirt and head covering. I was wearing a dress that was about knee length and they handed me the velcro skirt to cover my legs to the ankles. Also keep in mind that the mosque is closed to visitors during prayer times so you'll want to plan your visit around that. 



The inside of the mosque is exquisite. But...just so you know, it was hot in there and I kept catching whiffs of body odor. Actually, that was true for lots of the places we went to in Istanbul....


  
 



After we toured the inside of the mosque, we made our way to the Grand Bazaar. It was Sunday, so the Bazaar was closed but I wanted to see what it looked like anyway. It was like a ghost town, but that didn't prevent me from imagining the crowds of people, locals and tourists alike, shopping and observing. I could see people haggling over jewelry and other things like antiques or spices, clothing and trinkets and it excited me. 





Next stop was the Basilica Cisterns also commonly referred to as the Sunken Palace. It is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul and built in the 6th century, during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The history of it is pretty interesting and if you wanna know more, the article on Wikipedia tells all. However, the significance as we understood it was that this cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and then later to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and forward. The cistern was cold, damp and dark but it was humongous. When I see ancient structures like one, I'm totally in awe. I imagine the effort and time that it took to build something like this without modern day technologies. I wonder how they were able to design something so sophisticated and how many people it actually took to carry out the task. Not only that, but it was built to last. the structure was actually constructed between the 3rd and 4th centuries and served as a Basilica, was reconstructed in 476 and then was converted to the cistern after 532. Do you see the years that I just listed? That doesn't say 1532, but actually a year that only had 3 digits. That means this place is old as hell. And it's still standing, and still has water. I'm not sure if its functioning....but I bet it could. 

In the far northwest corner of the cistern, there are two columns whose base is reused blocks carved with the head of Medusa. Not sure why the heads of Medusa are there but it was cool to see. 


 



 


We stopped to eat at a restaurant called Kebab Time. Lunch was really weird plate of meat, potatoes and something else weird covered in a tomato based sauce served with a flat bread. We were starving so we ate it but resolved to never order it again. We made friends with the waiters who introduced us to the owner of the adjoining scarf and rug shop In the front of the store, there was a guy that was making the scarves on the old contraption that he had to sit on and pull back and forth to weave the thread. I can't think of the name of this thing and that's sad because I used one in an elementary school art class. Oh well...I should have gotten a picture. (Its a LOOM! Thanks Jermecia) Anyway, we spoke to the 25 year old proprietor briefly and I'm guessing he was so taken with us that he invited us for some Turkish hospitality, hot tea in the back portion of the store which was likely also his office. I know that sounds really rape-y but it ended up being very cool. We talked for way too long - I'm sure we would have been able to get to the palace before we had to be back to the hotel to meet our shuttle if we had not met this kind man, but it was a different and very nice experience plus, he seemed to take a liking to my friend so I was highly entertained. 

As you can see...you're able to get a lot in during 24 hours in Istanbul. After tea with the store owner, we thought we'd be able to tour the Topkapi Palace before we had to head to the airport. Unfortunately, time ran out and we were only able to see the gardens surrounding it. 




 


                                

We looked down at the time and realized we had about 15 mins to walk back to the hotel to meet the shuttle...it was a brisk walk but we made it on time. 

As you can see...we did enough in 24 hours to fill 3-4 days. But, you have to make the most of the time you're given. I could totally do a show like Anthony Bourdain....give me a short time in a city with lots of things to see and do and I'm on it. 

Fortunately, my best friend is also willing to do what it takes to see everything....you honestly never know when you'll visit a place again. I met a guy in the nail shop the other day that says he tries not to visit the same place twice....there are just too many other places to see. I feel him on that.

Are you exhausted? This is just the first 24 hours of my trip! There's much more to come but I hope you enjoyed visiting Istanbul as much I did! Next up, we head to the first leg of our Grecian Adventure.....Mykonos Island!

Dance Drink Never Sleep! Mykonos

Get ready for the Turkey/Greece Vacation Blog Overload