Mosques, museums and markets - magnificent Istanbul

19:05

We had a fantastic week in Istanbul with husband. If you haven't been there, go immediately! The city is struggling, because the tourists have been scared off by the recent terrorist attacks. But I felt completely safe throughout our visit. And I'm a wimp. The absence of tourists was plain to see and quite sad. All the charming restaurants almost empty every night and businesses clearly suffering with the lack of customers.

View to the Bosphorus and Golden Horn from the Süleymaniye Mosque
View to the glorious Bosphorus and Golden Horn from the Süleymaniye Mosque

The upside for us was that we got our flights and hotel very cheaply and there were no queues to museums and sights and crowds on shopping streets and bazaars were manageable. So now really is the time to go and experience this unique, mesmerising and infuriating, historic city. GO!

There is so much to see and do and we got through a lot in the seven days. My general results orientation does not abate during holidays, so we ticked off a lot of sights, walked more than 10k every day and learned and saw so much. Here are some notes of what we saw and did and can recommend.

Mosques

Istanbul is a city of wonderful, breath-taking mosques and you have to visit at least some. The most famous is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque known as the Blue Mosque. It is big and beautiful. Ladies must of course cover their hair and also wear respectful clothing, no gold satin micro shorts unfortunately. Also if your jeans are too tight which they are likely to be after a few days of kebabs and baklava, the mosque officials will give you a fetching skirt to wear over your jeans. But it's not a catwalk it's a mosque so pull on the skirt and go admire the glass windows and be all serene and philosophical when husband broadcasts pictures of you looking like Auntie Mildred on Facebook.

Süleymaniye Mosque
Aunt Mildred in  the Süleymaniye Mosque
Another impressive mosque is the Süleymaniye Mosque, the largest mosque in the city commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent. The grandiose building set on top of a hill was designed by the illustrious architect Mimar Sinan. The mosque's interior itself is not that special and the skirts they offer to people who are too sexy for their jeans are the same as everywhere, but the views from the terrace down towards the Golden Horn are breathtaking. The call to prayer started just as we were admiring the views from the terrace.

Ortaköy mosque is a very ornate and pretty little baroque mosque right by the waters of Bosphorus and often included as part of the Bosphorus day cruises which is how we stumbled upon it.

Baroque Ortaköy mosque in Istanbul
The glittering Ortaköy mosque

Little Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Eastern Orthodox church.It looks like its big sister on the outside and possibly was a model for it, but it has a very different feel on the inside. Where the big one is dark, impressive and mysterious, this friendly little mosque is light and airy and very, very pretty.

Little Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul
Little Hagia Sophia
Museums

I would recommend anyone to get a museum card - a lot of the museums are covered by this card which you can use for up to 5 days, the cost is 85 TL. You can only visit each place once. We missed the Harem in the Topkapi palace on our first visit and tried to return another day, but they wouldn't let us. We tried to argue our case, but as with so many of their kind the power had gone to the ticket people's heads and they would not budge. I'm not much of a budger myself, but after a bit of a stand off husband dragged me away without seeing the stupid Harem. It was under renovations as pretty much everything else in the city, so we probably didn't miss out on much.

The imperial Topkapi palace is a vast complex of buildings around 4 courtyards sitting on top of a hill looking over the Golden Horn and Marmara Sea. You can see the massive palace kitchens and there is also a weird exhibition of sacred relics including Moses's staff, Abraham's sauce pan (!?!) and Joseph's turban. I am not a great historian but I had some serious doubts about the authenticity of some of the "relics". Abraham's sauce pan, really? Still it's interesting to see. The palace area and the little pavillions are fun to explore and once you've had enough there is an excellent cafe to have lunch in or just take a break with coffee and cakes and admire the views of the Marmara estuary. Husband had a bit of a culture shock moment and opted for spaghetti which was really nice apparently, I had a tomato and cheese pide and a tomato soup.

Goes without saying that if you don't visit the Hagia Sophia you are crazy. This massive building was originally a Christian Greek Orthodox church, then a mosque and is now a museum. There are lots of beautiful wall mosaics and things to see inside. Climb onto the first floor balcony for more wall art and views of the entire space.

Hagia Sophia night time
Hagia Sophia night time
Hagia Irene, Holy Peace, is probably only worth a visit if you have a museum card and are visiting other sights in the area like Hagia Sophia or Topkapi palace. Hagia Irene is the oldest church in Istanbul, first built in the 4th century, but renovated later after a fire and an earthquake. It was never converted into a mosque, but was used as a warehouse throughout the Ottoman rule. It's very basic and bare inside, the wall paintings are barely visible today. but there is a sense of peace there which husband completely didn't get, but was fidgeting to get out. The bare, austere beauty which my deprived Lutheran soul was very much at home with didn't quite do it for husband. The guy's all about the bling.

Hagia Irene church Istanbul
Hagia Irene

Mosaic Museum is all that remains of the old Roman period imperial palace. It is a small museum and included in the museum card, so worth a visit to the geeky among us to admire the intricate ancient floor mosaics.

Mosaic Museum Istanbul
Husband was so excited about the Mosaic museum he could barely sleep the night before
Basilica Cistern is a beautiful underground water reservoir from the Roman times and worth a visit. It is not covered by the museum card, the entry costs 20 TL. Wander around the beautifully lit cave of hundreds of columns and find Medusa's head at the bottom of one of them. Don't let your husband talk you into being photographed in silly period costume.

Basilica Cistern a Roman undderground water reservoir Istanbul
Basilica Cistern

I am a bit of an overly diligent tourist. I'd hate to visit somewhere and afterwards find out that I missed something. I remember once completely exhausting even myself in Berlin visiting every bloody museum until I decided I never want to see another German painting and sat the rest of the holiday in an Irish pub drinking beer chatting to a gay French bartender called Dominique.

I also felt responsible for husband and his nephew who joined us for part of the week and who both admitted that if it wasn't for me they would just sit in a pavement cafe drinking beer all week. BUT with me in charge they were learning so much interesting stuff! (Said without sarcarsm, I'm sure.)

This time the exhaustion moment came on day 6 in the Archaeology Museum. Having zigzagged through 300 rooms of clay pots we came to a dead end because of some renovation works (which seem to be eternally going on everywhere in Istanbul and which made this museum into a maze of turpentine smelling endless small rooms and long corridors) we had to then walk through the same endless rooms of clay pots and headless limbless marble statues of slightly overweight but underdressed ancient people to get out of the bloody place. If they ever finish the renovations, it might be worth a visit. A section of the museum houses some bits of the magnificent Ishtar gate but I saw a lot of that in the Pergamon museum, one of the highlights of my thorough Berlin visit.

Bazaars and shopping

The huge Grand Bazaar must be seen. It really is grand and they sell everything. It is so large it is very easy to get lost. The shopkeepers do hassle you, so it's not a particularly relaxing experience unless you are immune to hassling. We managed to buy a couple of T-shirts for the kids and some cushion covers and table cloths for us.

Near the Galata bridge is the Egyptian or Spice Bazaar. It sells all kinds of typical bazaar goods but specializes in spices. I visited one spice shop and bought a salad spice mix and a kind of herb and veg spice mix which apparently is great for soups. The guy first tried to force sell me two huge bags, which I made him undo and halve the amounts. But you have to be quite assertive not to be completely taken the piss of. He tried to sell me a tiny pot of saffron for 300 lira (about 70 GBP). I love saffron, but can get very good quality saffron in my local Iranian corner shop for a fraction of the price. Mersi.

Between the Spice bazaar and Grand Bazaar there are endless market street selling everything and the locals seem to shop on these streets.

A little bazaar that seemed to be a bit less hassly is called Arasta bazaar and sits near the Blue Mosque selling all the normal stuff like pashminas, teas and spices, lamps and carpets. At the Blue Mosque end of the bazaar there is a tea room where we had some Turkish and apple teas and saw a whirling dervish dancing to live Turkish music. We only found out the story about whirling dervishes afterwards, so we just thought the whole thing a bit weird. Like why would you not learn any other moves, if you're doing a live dance show. But read about this cult and then go see the guy whirl his ass off while you are sipping on your tea and smoking a sheesha if that's your thing. Our smoking days are done, so no sheesha for us.

Turkish whirling dervish
The dervish is whirling
We stumbled on a farmers market one morning near our hotel. Find out when and where there are food markets in your area and find an abundance of gorgeous fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits, fresh cheese, nuts and dried fruit.

Istanbul fruit and vegetable street market

The more modern shopping can be done on the Istaklal street, which is worth a walk through even if you are not after anything in particular. Or take the cute red tram. There are loads of great restaurants in the area too and it seems a bit more lively nightlife-wise that the old city side.

Istiklal shopping street and tram Istanbul



Bosphorus strait and Black Sea

A day cruise up and down the Bosphorus is a must do. There are lots of companies organising these tours, we just booked one at our hotel. The bus picked us up in the morning and took us to the Kabatas harbour where our boat was waiting. Our first stop was the pretty Ortaköy mosque, which I mentioned earlier and we had some free time to walk around the area and have a cup of tea while waiting for the mosque to open.

We then crossed over to the Asian side of the strait and stopped at the small baroque summer palace called Küçüksu Palace, good luck pronouncing that, where the Ottoman Sultans would go for hunting or their woman folk would go for a day trip. I particularly loved the yellow palace dog called Yellow.

Küçüksu Palace Istanbul
Küçüksu Palace

We also stopped at the Rumeli Hisari Fortress and climbed up for amazing views of the Bosphorus bridge and turquoise waters. We heard of the story Mehmet the Conqueror and the role the fortress played in the fall of Constantinoble. We also heard of the Chinese tourist who fell down from the battlements taking a selfie. She survived but with broken bones and now we were not allowed entry to the highest parts. It's always the story, one ruining it for all.

View to the Bosphorus bridge fro Rumeli Hisari Fortress Istanbul
View to the Bosphorus bridge fro Rumeli Hisari Fortress 
Rumeli Hisari Fortress Istanbul
Rumeli Hisari Fortress

After the fortress we were served a pretty gruesome lunch onboard the ship. We then visited a little fishing village (=tourist trap) called Anadolu Kavağı where the hassling was so intense that we literally ran for the hills and spent our 45 minutes of free time hiding in the back streets playing with stray dogs.

During warmer weather the boat stops at the Black Sea end for swimming off the boat, but the day was a bit windy and cool and water probably still very cold, so no volunteer swimmers emerged. I would normally be very much up for that kind of thing being used to the cold lakes of Finland, but decided to give it a miss. But we saw the Black Sea and even some dolphins following our boat.

Bosphorus Bridge Istanbul Turkey
Bosphorus Bridge


Other landmarks, places to see and things to do

There is a small section of the old Roman period Hippodrome still standing. It's worth a quick look if you are in the Sultanahmet square area. On the square itself you can still see a couple of obelisks and a monument that mark the centre of the hippodrome that used to run where the square now sits. 
Fountain between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque at night
Fountain between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

Next to the Topkapi palace is a lovely green space called Gülhane Park, a perfect place to escape the heat and bustle of the streets for a little stroll in the shadow of the sky high trees.

The Galata tower on top of a hill on the north bank of Golden Horn is a landmark that is almost as famous a part of the Istanbul skyline as the big mosques. It's worth getting up to the tower for the views and there is a restautant and cafe up there as well. The tower is beautifully lit in the evening, so worth a couple of pictures in it's blue night lighting.

Other than that we didn't particularly fall in love with the northern bank of the Golden Horn. Taksim square was ugly, dirty and busy - possibly the shittiest square ever. The selfie-stick and bird seed sellers were numerous and aggressive, so we escaped the square to the equally dire Taksim Park. Afterwards we found a nice roof terrace bar at the nearby Intercontinental Hotel with awesome views.

View to the Marmara Sea and the Princes Islands
View to the Marmara Sea and the Princes Islands
The Galata bridge connects the two banks of the city across the Golden Horn. On the lower level of the bridge there are lots of bars and restaurants. We visited one with football on the screen and horrible tone-death Turkish live music in the nightclub side next door.


Hassling

I don't want to buy a carpet and therefore I don't need to see your carpet shop. I also am not interested in black market perfumes. I definitely don't want a selfie stick (because we already have one it's embarrassing). If I want to buy spices or a pashmina I will go into a shop that sells them and make a purchase. It is very clear to see from the outside what products all the shops are selling. You also don't need to ask me where I am from. And no, I am not from Germany, vielen Dank.

If I am thirsty or hungry I will go into a restaurant. But I would like to choose for myself. And if you manage to manhandle me into your restaurant against my will, leave me alone with the menu to read through it without trying to sell me the most expensive thing on the menu. I will ask questions if I have any. Don't rush me and don't roll your eyes at me if I take my time or ask for extra salad instead of the rice.

Incidentally your rice is a bit crap. I wish I had told you that, that probably would have shut you up and at least then you would have had something to roll your eyes over about.

The sometimes even aggressive hassling resulted in me leaving the country without buying a pashmina or a scarf, which is pretty unheard of. Luckily I have probably more than a 100 scarfs and pashminas, so I will live, but still I am annoyed.

Husband was even more freaked out telling me not to answer them or make eye contact. Even when we were passing a football T-shirt shop and I knew that he was after some for his kids. "Don't make eye contact, don"t talk to them." But I just feel so rude not answering someone. Suprisingly it was my gentle and kindly husband who was able to be a lot more ruthless in this respect.

Well, it's their country and their way, so we must accept and adapt. They are very warm, welcoming and hospitable people, so maybe this is a part of it.

Now there's an idea,

Food

We didn't plan any of our lunches or evening meals and did no research into the restaurants. We just walked around and went in somewhere nice looking when we got hungry. Most nights we just went somewhere near our hotel and there were lots of great restaurants in the Sultanahmet area where we stayed. Most of the food was really good, but there were a couple of disappointments too. Overall it's not amazing value for money. Istanbul is not cheap and wine in Istanbul is definitely not cheap. It's usually served in massive glasses but in such tiny amounts that you think what is the point. So if you want to avoid disappointment, do more research, don't let the waiters pester you into the restaurant, if you don't like the look of it and order wine by the bottle or carafe, not by glass if you want more than a thimble.

The mezze which usually are my favourites were actually not that great. I found it all a bit too lemony and tangy. Even the hummus was disappointing and lacking tahini.

Authentic Turkish mezze plate
Mezze - looked better than it tasted
I love Turkish Coffee, husband hates it. It reminds me of the pot coffee that we make at the summer house on my parent's island. We had lots of Turkish red tea and I really liked the Apple Tea and even bought some to bring home, although I'm sure it's easy to get in the ethnic shops in London. And we fell in love with the refreshing yoghurt drink Ayran. If it gets hot in this country this summer I will definately make it for us as a cooling summer drink.

Turkish tea Istanbul

Ayran Turkish yoghurt drink
Ayran - a perfect refreshing summer drink
Our best meals were probably the two clay pot testi kebaps we had. It's food cooked in a clay pot. Although husband suspected they cook the food in a pan and then just put it in the pot for show purposes. Entirely possible. We had a swordfish and vegetable pot one evening which was lovely and lamb and veggies on another evening which was very tasty and soft.

Turkish Testi kebab
Show time


Testi kebab with lamb and vegetables

Testi kebab Istanbul
Testi kebab with swordfish and mushrooms









We are not fans of the Doner kebabs, we find them a bit fatty, although I am sure they are at their most fantastic in Istanbul. But we didn't try those. We had a few mixed grill platters with chicken and lamb, which were all very nice. And husband had grilled fish a few times. I also couldn't cope with all the big food all the time, so had a halloumi, chicken or a greek salad, which were always fresh, light and tasty and simply dressed.

Turkish mixed grill platter with lamb, chicken and rice
Mixed grill platter with an unexplained pyro show of burning salt in the middle
One of my fondest food memories of the week is from a cozy and colourful restaurant called Mom's Corner Restaurant that husband took us for lunch after the Archaeology museum disaster. There was a lady (Mom perhaps?) frying pancakes and they sat us on cushions on the floor around a low table. Husband promptly placed an order for white wine, Turkish savoury pancakes which are actually more like quesadllas, filled with feta, spinach, meat, mushrooms and whatever you like, and Ayran, the lovely yoghurt drink. Happiness was quickly restored. At the end of the meal we were presented with a massive tray of desserts. We chose the cute bird nest pastries.

Turkish filled savoury pancakes
Turkish filled savoury pancakes by Mom

Dessert tray at Mom's Corner Restaurant Istanbul

Bird's nest dessert at Mom's Corner Restaurant Istanbul





Shrimp with garlic and butter Istanbul
Shrimp in garlicky butter sauce - very yum!

My worst food experience was in an Anatolian restaurant called Kiva (="nice" in Finnish) by the Galata tower. Not so kiva in my opinion. Husband was happy with his lamb and chickpeas with yoghurt dressing, but my vegetarian salad combo was oily and horrible and although the magnificently mustachioed waiter tried to tell me what it was - IZ LIKA MUSHROOM BUT IZ NOT MUSHROOM (my Turkish accent is rubbish, sounds more like Italian) I wasn't really sure what was in there, probably kale and other cabbage patch crap shit not intended for human consumption.

The mysterious tastes of Anatolia which I wish would have remained a mystery.























But to end on a positive note, I will never forget our week in Istanbul, the müezzins competing with each other with their calls to prayer, the seagulls screaming even louder than the müezzins outside our hotel window at four in the morning, the mosques and minarets, the colours, scents and tastes of this sparkling gem of a city overlooking the turquoise waters of Marmara and Bosphorus.

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