Istanbul – Not Constantinople


The first thing I must say. I think this was one of THE BEST vacations I’ve ever been on, and there are a few reasons why.

  1. Turkish Airlines is like, THE BEST airline I’ve ever flown… we’ll get to why that was in a bit.
  2. Turkish people are probably some of the NICEST people I’ve ever met in my life. I cannot get over how welcoming and nice everyone we met was.
  3. Turkish food is SOOO tasty!

Anyway, on to the important bits…

Flight with Turkish Airlines

So, there’s a reason Turkish Airlines has won awards for being one of the best airlines. I should also add, no they are not paying me to write this (though I would totally accept that.. ha ha). Of course we are dum dums and didn’t take any pictures; however, we flew non-stop from Dublin to Istanbul in economy. They provided actual menus to select your drinks and dinner from, and your meal was served with actual plates and actual cutlery. The plane was BRAND new with some awesome entertain systems – each person had their own video screen. They served this amazing mint lemonade during take off and landing as well. YUM!! I need to find more places this airline flies to so I can fly them again.

Notes about Istanbul

Religion

When we first got there, we decided to take a day walking around and getting oriented. Now, we were there pre-coup, so I don’t know if this has changed since we were there. One thing to keep in mind is that this a predominately Muslim country, so many women do walk around wearing burkas and hijabs, that being said we never, EVER felt like we were being judged for not dressing that way. It was the middle of summer and HOTTTT!!! So I was walking around in short shorts and a tank top and never felt out of place. There was definitely a sense of openness and understanding from everyone.

Additionally, they often play the call to prayer several times throughout the day… including at 6am. This is something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about staying somewhere located near a mosque… ha ha.

Alcohol

Because this is a Muslim country, there are certain places it is illegal to drink alcohol, and this is mainly places within a certain radius of a mosque. That being said, there are plenty of places to go grab dinner and drinks.

Getting Around

This city is HUUUUGE. Like their population is 15 million people JUST in Istanbul. We mostly walked everywhere, except we did do the hop on/hop off bus tour tickets for 48 hours. Normally we don’t do this in a city, but it just seemed like the easiest way to get around. There is a light-rail in the city, but we just didn’t happen to go where the light-rail went. Plus it was nice learning about the city as we went around.

Sights to see/Things to do in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox Church, turned mosque, turned museum. The church was first built by the Romans in 537 AD, and was converted into a mosque in 1453. It remained a mosque until 1931, before opening up as a museum in 1935. It also remained the worlds largest cathedral for nearly 1,000 years until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. It was a pretty impressive building. It’s also where the first council of Constantinople met (which is where the Nicene Creed was confirmed) WAAAAAY back in the day. Overall, it was a very impressive building architecturally, and it was really cool to see both Christian and Muslim artefacts peacefully together in the same place.

 

Grand Bazaar

My friend Erica in front of the Grand Bazaar

Where do I start with the Grand Bazaar… it’s one of those places that you have to go see, but it has become VERY touristy. Also a warning, the shopkeepers are AGGRESSIVE. If you so much as look at something in their shop, they will legit follow you down the aisle trying to convince you to come in and buy something. And haggling isn’t just okay here, it’s expected. A lot of the stuff looked like touristy junk; however, there were a few neat shops mixed in if you took the time to look. We bought a lamp while we were there and our friends we were travelling with bought a Turkish rug, which is an experience in itself. What is really cool about being here, though, is realising that this market started in 1455… that is a seriously old market, and there are 4,000 shops there.

If you want to buy a Turkish rug, you go into one of the shops where they have a small sampling of the rugs they have. Then if you express interest, they take you out of the market to their warehouse a few blocks away. I’m not going to lie for the first 5 minutes all 4 of us looked at each other with that “um, are we safe?” kind of look, but it ended up being an AWESOME experience. They show you all the different types of rugs and educate you on the different regions and Turkish rug types while giving you treats and this GORGEOUS herbal tea. It’s customary there that they treat you like a guest and try to impress you while you pick your rug. And remember, SERIOUS bargaining/negotiating is expected even though they will “act” offended. For example, we were trying to bargain with a guy pretending to offended when we purchased a lamp. He felt so bad for how bad we were at bargaining that when we left he threw in two table coverings for free. Also, if you get a chance to go, BUY A TURKISH RUG. Now that a lot of rugs are made by machines in factories, handmade Turkish rugs aren’t made anymore, so they’re just going to continue to become more and rarer. I’m kicking myself every day for not buying one while we were there.

Me playing with the stray kitten while our friends shopped for rugs

Being shown the different types of rugs

The rug I’ve been kicking myself for not buying.

Basilica Cistern

This is the largest ancient cistern that exists beneath the ground in Istanbul. It was basically a cool old place to walk around while it was hot outside while we were there.

Süleymaniye Mosque

 

So, this was the first time I’d ever been inside a mosque. Just a heads up, when you enter a mosque, as a female you cannot expose your head, shoulders or knees. And for guys, you cannot wear shorts. If you are not dressed appropriately, they provide clothes for you to wear to cover up. It was really gorgeous on the inside. The thing I noticed most though, is that women had to go pray in a separate room that was blocked off from view while men and boys prayed in the main area. This mosque was originally built in 1557.

Toby wearing the blue skirt they made him wear since he was wearing shorts.

Main area for prayer

 

Turkish Baths

If you get a chance, DEFINITELY do a Turkish bath (also called Hamam). We went to Suleymaniye Hamam because it was one of the few Turkish baths where men and women can go in together. This particular Hamam has been running since 1557.

Reception area of the Hamam

When you first arrive, this particular bath provides you special swimsuit like outfits to change into, although if you go to a Turkish bath that is not co-ed, it customary to go naked. You then go sit in a sauna for approximately 10-15 minutes. Now, ladies and gentlemen, this was the hottest “sauna” I’d ever been in. Now, I can handle heat okay, but I felt like I was going to DIE by those last couple minutes from heat stroke. The “sauna” that you’re in, is giant room with a hexagonal stone in the middle. You lay or sit on the stone. After about 15 minutes, they take you and your partner into one of the rooms that offshoots from the sauna (you can see in the photo below- one ot he left and one on the right).

Inside the “sauna” area

Once you’re inside, a masseuse uses this pillow like sponge filled with soapy water and uses it wash you down (and remember, at least at this location you are clothed for this in a swimsuit). Aftewards to do a full body scrub, and then wash you again while giving you a massage. Also, if you’re a female they wash your hair.

After this part, you sit down on a stone next to the bed you were laying on, and without warning they dump really cold water over your head. Needless to say, this was a shock to my system after sitting in the super hot room just before this. Once you’re done, the couples seperate to gender specific rooms to change out of their swimsuits and dry off with a towel and sit in a robe. They then provide you traditional turkish tea to drink to relax before you go change and go on your way.

Where you sit and have tea afterwards

 

Turkish Coffee

All I have to say is, this is an acquired taste but you MUST try turkish coffee if you ever get the chance. It’s a small serving (probably slightly larger than espresso), and is very strong. It’s an unfiltered coffee, so there are still grounds in it when you drink it… the liquid is pretty thick. Superstition says the grounds left after drinking Turkish coffee can be used for fortune-telling by looking at the marks left on the cup after it is finished.

Hookah

Lastly, I highly recommend trying hookah at least once. Hookah is a vaporized way of smoking flavored tobacco. You can get all sorts of fruity flavors, and they even provide an ice pack to put around the tube you smoke it through to cool the vapor. This is by NO MEANS healthy, but it was a fun thing to try while we were there. A lot of restaurants in Istanbul offer it if you’re sitting outside, and we treated it as a “dessert” after dinner.

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