How to summarize five days in Istanbul, one of the most compelling, exciting, ancient, cosmopolitan cities in the world? Exactly. Istanbul is a myriad of so many flavors and cultures. A meshing of ancient with modern. Burkas and miniskirts. Sushi and traditional Turkish mezzes. It is overwhelming and wonderful all at once.
Turkey is one of those places that people rave about. It was their faaavorite trip ever. So Napper and I had high expectations for our almost three week (!!) trip last month to celebrate our five year wedding anniversary.
Arriving via a Turkish Airlines direct flight from LAX to IST (pay the extra on average $300 for “Comfort Class”- nicer than most business classes and a deeelight for those 14 hours!), our driver told us we were lucky that the 45 minute trip into Istanbul hadn’t taken three hours as it often can in the horrendous traffic that afflicts Istanbul. Pair 17 million people with ancient narrow streets and you get worse traffic than LA. Than anywhere I’ve ever been actually.
Our five nights in Istanbul kicked off at the Ciragan Palace, one of the oldest and most luxe hotels in the city located on the banks of the Bosphorus River. The modern building which houses the majority of the hotel is unspectacular yet boasts tremendous views (11 magnificent suites that go for $30k/night as well as a fine dining restaurant are located in the gorgeous actual palace building adjacent). You’re not staying here for the room which is decidedly pleasant and nice, but without anything uniquely Turkish about it. Except for the view. Do not stay here without springing for a room with a view! Do not!
the view from our room at the Ciragan Palace
The main (and exceptional) draw of this hotel is its pool. The pool is one of the most stunning I have ever clapped eyes on. Located literally on the Bosphorus, framed by a bridge leading to the Asian side of Istanbul on one side and the Palace gate and building on the other, the pool is a luxurious and inspired place to while away a few hours in the afternoon after a morning of sightseeing.
We also loved having a glass of rose at the riverside bar as the sun set one evening before dinner. Be sure to negotiate breakfast in your room rate– the breakfast buffets in both hotel restaurants are a sumptuous feast perfect for quelling jet lag and getting one energized for the day.
On day one after said breakfast buffet, we took a taxi to the Old City (Sultanahmet) where the majority of the historic sites are located. Also, side note, buy the “museum/sights pass” at your hotel- you skip all the lines and are paying about the same amount for individual tickets. We started with Aya Sofya (Haghia Sofia in Greek) as it is the most famous of sights in Istanbul. And we found it first.
To be utterly honest, there is a bit of me that feels like sightseeing is a “to do” list and somewhat obligatory. That went out the door upon walking into Aya Sofya which took my breath away. Literally. The domed ceiling full of light and mosaics of angels alongside medallions of gold Arabic inscriptions to God is one of the most fantastically amazing sights I have ever seen. Aya Sofya was built in 537 by the Romans and was “the greatest church in Christendom” until Mehmet the Conquerer had it converted to a mosque in 1453. In 1935, Ataturk had it declared a museum and it has remained as such.
Turks love animals! We made a friend in Aya Sofya.
On a high, we criscrossed the gardens that lie between Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque — such a staggeringly beautiful stretch of city is hard to come by– to the Blue Mosque. It is important to dress conservatively to enter, or really even wander about the most significant mosques. I was wearing 3/4 length sleeves and tied a long scarf around my waist. I still was given a a blue sheet that was wrapped securely around my waist that fell to my to feet upon entering. Tourists (non-worshippers) go through a separate entrance and most women are swaddled in blue sheets and everyone must remove their shoes (bring socks in your bag so as not to have to pad around barefoot).
The Blue Mosque is also stupendous. I have to say though, after Aya Sofya, it paled in comparison for me. The exterior is exotic and glorious to be sure. The inside has loads of little wires criscrossing that somewhat mutes the amazing tilework all over the ceiling. And the smell of feet is quite strong (go figure). We shuffled through and determined it was time for lunch.
Two young guys in their finery near the Blue Mosque.
There are lots of spots for a bite around this area– they are pretty much all touristy so pick one with a nice view on a rooftop — we found one with mediocre overpriced food but a view of both Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque which made it special. Or pop into the Four Seasons Sultanahmet for a fancy lunch in their gorgeous courtyard.
After lunch, we headed to the Topkapi Palace– all three of these important sites are within walking distance, very close together. In hindsight, I would have broken up these sights into two days as you could very well happily spend several hours exploring the Topkapi Palace. If you weren’t about to pass out from a morning of sightseeing in the heat and jet lag!! The standouts at the Palace for me were the ornate libraries– window seats nestled between vivid ornate tiled walls in rooms with windows overlooking fountains and the city, are just the place I would have wiled away the day as a Turkish princess!
More to come on the Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, shops, restaurants and the chic, quiet riverside boutique hotel we stayed at our last two nights… and then tales from the “Turkish Riviera” on the Aegean Sea in the south!! xoxo