We stayed with friends in their amazing place, but it was a good hike to downtown historic Istanbul, which gave us the opportunity to experience all facets of Turkish public transportation! All in all we experienced bus, train, funicular, tram, taxi and ferry as well as lots of walking. We started with a walk down Istiqlal (Independence) Street which is a main thoroughfare in upper Istanbul with stops along the way to see an Orthodox church, sample some Turkish delight, and have a savory Turkish nosh. After Istiqlal Street it was down the funicular to walk across the Galata Bridge which separates old historic Istanbul from not quite as old and almost just as historic Istanbul. The lower level of the bridge is an equal mix of Pike’s Place market, Ponte Vecchio and Brooklyn Bridge with shops, restaurants and bridge infrastructure all fighting for space. After surviving the Galata we hopped on a tram and headed to the Grand Bazaar, which is an oversized covered version of every medina in Morocco. Even though we figured that if you have seen one bazaar, you have seen them all we were blown away by its size, scope and density which even the Medina of Fes in Morocco cannot quite compare.
After having a traditional Turkish lunch we made our way to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (pronounced Aya Sofia) which were amazing sights. The most fascinating aspect of the Hagia Sophia is its multiple uses throughout history, from church to mosque to museum. The result is a complex interweaving of cultures and beliefs and restoration. Restoration in a place such as the Hagia Sophia is particularly challenging – does one restore back to the Eastern Orthodox Basilica period or just to the early days of the Ottoman Empire – does one recreate the defaced figures painted on the four corners of the main apse or maintain the Islamic adjustments to the Basilica? Fortunately our little one was not concerned with these vagaries and found the large open space perfect for toddling around introducing herself to our fellow tourist friends.
Since it was early August these tourist meccas were jam packed with people, but that did not lessen the spectacle. We had hoped for some interesting experiences in Turkey since it was Ramadan, and we were not disappointed. The Hippodrome adjacent to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia was hosting a craft bazaar which was heavily focused on Ramadan goods. Even more interesting than the Ramadan bazaar was well over a hundred picnic tables that were being reserved by fasting Muslim families in preparation for Iftar (breaking of the fast). This was one of the only overt signs of Ramadan that we encountered in Istanbul – a far cry from the empty streets and closed restaurants of a Moroccan Ramadan. After the Hippodrome we headed back to the Galata Bridge for a fish sandwich dinner that was cooked in rafts bobbing on the waterway. Not to be outdone, after our fish sandwich we headed into the nearby spice market to see mounds of spices next to dates, figs and nuts of every flavor being sold in stadium-like stalls replete with neon lights and signs; a modern version of spice markets back home (in Morocco). After quite a full day of sights we made our way back home to prepare for our next day of sightseeing.
Guidebooks – We used Lonely Planet Turkey for this portion of our trip and were very happy with it. It was useful both during the planning phase before the trip and while in the country traveling. We didn’t have any guidebook specifically for Istanbul and never found the need for one with Lonely Planet Turkey.
Bus – We started our day off on the bus which was pretty easy to use after some start off instructions from a local and given the distance we had to travel saved us a lot of money over taking a taxi. I would ask your place of lodging to help you figure out the best routes to take if you are going to use the bus. Stroller note – The buses while clean are not new. These buses are not kneeling buses that allow you to easily roll a stroller on, there are several steps to carry the stroller up which can be done pretty easily with 2 people. Our problem was our stroller at 24” wide was an inch too wide to fit between the door and the handrail requiring us to pick the stroller up and over the handrail while carrying it up the stairs, not ideal.
Funicular – This was completely tourist friendly and was easy to figure out all on our own. It was also very stroller friendly.
Istiqlal Street – This was a great walk, lots to see along the way and a great area to sample some local fare – Must see!
Galata Bridge – Very interesting, this two story bridge is full of small eaters, fresh sea food, and lots of locals. – Should see!
Grand Bazaar – This reminded us very much of the Moroccan Medina’s, but seem much greater in size because it was all shops, (not intermixed with residents as it would have been in Morocco). You could spend days wandering through here and never see it all. It’s clean, and pretty organized which helps find your way around. Stroller note – It was crowded, but not unreasonable to navigate with a stroller if you’re not in a hurry. – Must see!
Blue Mosque – Beautiful of course; and truly unique! Due to the controlled access of this to site though it is run a little like an assembly line; you’ll need to remove or cover your shoes and ladies will need to put on a cover and there is very little space to do all this in. Stoller note – you will not be able to bring a stroller in and there is very little room to find a place to put it out of the way, but it’s doable. – Must see!
Hagia Sophia – Love it, this was probably my favorite site! The overlapping pieces of history were fascinating. And while it was crowded there was a lot more space to disperse visitors in then the Blue Mosque so it felt much less crowded. – Must see!