Minarets and beggars, exotic bazaars and 15 million people, crumbling buildings amid 15 hundred year old churches, haunting calls to prayer echoing thru the streets, a Sultan’s ornately adorned palace, … that’s Istanbul.
People ask me if I liked it. I struggle to answer. Yes — But….
It’s a fascinating, frustrating, frightening city. I’m glad I went, though less sure I’ll return.
Orhan Pamuk’s book, simply entitled “Istanbul”, captures the heart of this complex city which has oscillated between east and west thru its centuries long history. Read it before you go – but don’t let it stop you from going.
The number of con men and buskers is not to be underestimated. Practice the harsh brush-off. You’ll need it. But don’t let it replace some light hearted banter with those calling you into the “best restaurant in the city”. Remind yourself, it’s a poor city. These people are trying to make a living and support their families. And expect to get your shoes shined at least once.
We decided to stay in the Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s ancient heart. The positives and negatives are easy to find on the internet. This district is a top 10 list of attractions and as a consequence it is a tourist and scam artist mecca.
The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Topkaki Palace, Hippodrome, and the bazaars – both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice (or Egyptian) Bazaar -are all nestled in and near this small quarter.
The locals do not nestle here. To nestle with some locals, cross the Galata Bridge and head up to Istiklal Street. Go hungry and try a grilled fish sandwich made with the fresh catch of the day from the fishermen lining the bridge. Tell me how you liked it.
We covered the major sites in three full days. My favorite was the Church of the Saint Saviour of Chora (aka The Chora Museum)– the sole site outside the city’s core which we visited. The church was built in the 13th century and converted to a mosque in the 16th century. Conversion protected the 15th century Byzantine mosaics which were covered as the church became a mosque. The mosaics and frescoes, now restored, are best understood with the audio guide avaiable near the entrance.
We took a taxi to the church and walked the four or so miles back to our hotel. It was a glimpse into a more real feeling, though at times frightening, Istanbul. Buildings stand amid buildings in ruins. Children run up the street showing off their English to the obvious foreigners; “what’s your name”, “how old are you”, “let’s take a picture together!” Locals wave us into their cafes and bakeries. We take a deep breadth and we enter, buying pasteries and baklava along the way. The calls to prayer emanate from mosques the size of a modest home. Local men scurry to respect their prayer traditions – unlike the more touristy old city where tourists scurry to photograph a place of worship poorly understood by most.
I am working on expanding my comfort zone. To achieve some of my “bridge” goals, I must. My discomfort with such open poverty scares me a bit. But the next time someone approaches me to shine my shoes; I say “yes”… I add “please”.
Make it happen:
The Neorion – A newly opened hotel in the heart of Sultanament. If I found out I needed a new kidney, one would be packed in ice and waiting in my room. The service is like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Buhara 93. Nestled behind the blue mosque is this plain but good restaurant. Try the Buhara special kebob or Baked Beyti (spelled Beked Beyti on the menu). For dessert, go for the rice pudding.
Sultanahmet Koftescisi: The menu is very limited. The main course is meatballs. Go for a fast, cheap, delicious lunch or dinner.
In keeping with Muslim tradition and in respect for the proximity of the Blue Mosque, don’t expect alcohol in either of these restaurants. Finish your meal with an apple tea.
Museum Pass: Purchase the museum pass at one of the smaller sites (perhaps the Chora Museum) and use it to skip the long ticket sales lines at the Haghia Sophia and Topkaki palace. It’s worthwhile if you plan to see most of the included sites.