Once we landed in Turkey, I immediately updated my Instagram bio to say “51 countries”!
Our flight to Istanbul was uneventful, minus the $150 baggage fee for one bag when we were checking in! Upon arriving in Turkey, we were struck by how big the Istanbul airport was – we think the airport may not be able to fit in the city walls of Dubrovnik. Once we walked through Customs to baggage claim, we hopped in the van that our hostel had arranged for us. Since it was a late arrival, we didn’t want to have to deal with trying to get a taxi once we landed, so having a pre-arranged ride made our lives much easier. We arrived at our hostel, immediately checked into our room and collectively crashed.
The following morning, we met our private tour guide for the next two days who would take us on a walking tour of the main areas of the Old Town right by our hotel the first day before being joined by a driver for the second day to visit places we could not travel by foot. The location of our hostel was optimal in that it was about 5 minutes walk from the Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque and a few of the other places we planned to see.
Our first stop was the world famous Hagia Sofia mosque. It was stunning from the outside and we learned that it used to be a Catholic church before being converted to a mosque. Instead of destroying the Catholic mosaics and other features of the building, as was done many times in history, they plastered over the mosaics to preserve the beautiful aspects. It was something we all were surprised about and did not expect. The mosque itself was beautiful inside with its large dome in the middle of it – it was a sight to see. Once we took our shoes off, we were able to explore the mosque a bit more and learn about the history and meaning of some of the Arabic words. About half way through, I actually had to borrow my friend’s socks as we realized that my crutches were technically like a second pair of shoes. Once we put the socks on my tips, we were good to go!
After the Hagia Sofia, we made a brief stop for breakfast at a restaurant nearby before heading to a Sultanahmet Square (also known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople) for a meander through the multiple block public area which was formerly a chariot racing venue. It was here that there are multiple obelisks, columns & statues from throughout the history of Istanbul and the world including the Obelisk of Thutmose III which was brought from Egypt and the Serpent Column which was formerly located in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi.
We then traveled to another mosque, the Blue Mosque, which is less known than the Hagia Sofia but is just as, if not more, stunning despite being (very much) under construction.
After this, we headed to the Topkapi Palace Museum, which was overwhelming sprawling. It used to be called the New Palace and was composed of multiple gates and courtyards – each of which was more exclusive than the previous. There were lush gardens and beautiful buildings throughout the complex. It used to be a palace for Saray-i Cedid-I Amire and was completed in the 1400’s and was the royal residence from 1478 – 1853. One of the most impressive parts of the museum is that it has the gold shrine which held the cloak of Mohammed. We waited in the for about 30 minutes to see it because it is such a significant piece of history to Muslims. There were multiple other galleries which held things from the imperial treasury and relics of previous living quarters. It also had a stunning view of Istanbul!
I was absolutely exhausted and my arms were about to give out during our time in the palace (I guess walking around for multiple days straight without resting my arms was enough to do me in), so we decided to modify the itinerary and head back to our hostel to relax before our sunset boat cruise on the Bosphorus. The weather wasn’t perfect, but we were still able to enjoy the view and the atmosphere. The boat was relatively small and came with food and drinks which was exactly what we needed after a long day while we took in the beautiful sites and magnificent buildings along the river. There were multiple mosques that we could see from afar and we even heard the prayer call, something that is more beautiful than I ever could have imagined from watching shows with it on TV.
The following morning, we checked out of our hostel for our last day in Istanbul which started at the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the Spice Market). This was similar to other bazaars I had been to in the past (a bit smaller), but I am always amazed by the beauty, sites & smells as I walk down the aisles. We all bought some Turkish Delight to bring home to our families.
We were then off to the Dolmabache Palace, which was one of the palaces we had seen along the river the night before and was used from the mid 1800s to the early 1920s by the Ottoman Empire’s leadership, after Topkapi Palace was phased out. The palace was, again, quite sprawling and inclusive of a large building and gardens. The most impressive part of this palace was the chandelier. While we couldn’t take a picture of it, imagine a 4.5 ton chandelier with over 700 lamps!
After the palace, we were dropped off for a walk along the Istikal Caddesi which is essentially the main western shopping corridor of Istanbul with high end stores. I found a small hole in the wall place to buy a duffel bag because I bought a few extra souvenirs I couldn’t fit in my bag home. Then, we boarded our van for the final stop of our whirlwind tour of Istanbul – the Grand Bazaar! We all wanted to get a few things so this was the perfect place to buy them. I bought something I could turn into a Christmas ornament and a beautiful painting on a stone for me to hang in my apartment.
Then, we were off to the airport for our next stop – Cappadocia!