Travel Diary: How To Maximize 3 Days In Istanbul, Turkey
This article is a compilation of three previous posts based on my visit to Istanbul in 2013. Some infomation is updated to the present time.
Puffing, panting and sweating.
This was the first memories I have of Istanbul as I adventurously walked up the hilly and winding streets of Beyoglu, a somewhat quiet neighborhood that seems to wake up only after breakfast-time.
I dreaded taking long-haul flights so after a 10-hour sit-fest from Kuala Lumpur, a trek along the shores of the Bosphorus and a hike up to Taksim Square provides a welcome relief for my numbing legs and behind.
This was my first time in the great city of Istanbul, where I spent a three full days at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
I began the day with a hearty brunch of lamb and rice, both cooked to fluffy perfection, before taking the crowded tram to Tophane on the other side of the Golden Horn.
My first stop was the Istanbul Modern, a contemporary art museum birthed from the demise of a shipping warehouse. Giant metallic sculptures adorn the grounds of the museum while the exhibitions inside are mutually impressive – expressionist and postmodern art occupied the top floor while photography works were displayed along a long corridor at the ground floor.
I was attracted to the photography collection because pictures have a more realistic way of telling me a story than a painting or sculpture – it’s a good way to gain a bit of an insight into the lives of Turks and how they see the world through their lenses.
After a solid one hour at the museum, I dragged myself along the cobbled brick roads going uphill to the infamous Taksim Square, taking the time to observe the goings-on of the people of Beyoglu and take in the architecture of the neighborhood which was new to me back then.
As of 18 March 2019, Istanbul Modern has temporarily moved to the Union Francaise building in Beyoglu due to the construction of the new building.
Admission Fee: TL 60, TL 40 (Students & seniors)
10:00 a.m – 6:00 p.m (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday), 10:00 a.m – 8:00 p.m (Thursday), 11:00 a.m – 6:00 p.m (Sunday)
The near-claustrophobic streets finally opened up to the vast expanse of Taksim Square with its centerpiece “Monument of the Republic” proudly gleaming around hordes of camera trigger-happy tourists and locals on their lunch break. Before I can take a breather, a bunch of protesters climbed the monument and started shouting about the corrupt government (I asked a local there to translate) before the police brought them down, in an ordeal which lasted a cool half an hour.
The open dissent wasn’t a surprise to me since the adjacent Taksim Gezi Park was the site of major protests a few months earlier in June 2013 when news got out that there were plans to redevelop the park into luxury apartments and retail spaces. The nationwide mass protests led to the cancellation of the development and the preservation of the park. I didn’t see any signs of destruction at the park as if the demonstrations did not happen but I did chanced upon a small memorial remembering the activists who lost their lives in the Occupy Taksim movement.
“Independence Avenue” reminded me of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or Melbourne’s Bourke Street when it comes to glitz.
It is a pedestrian street mall filled with every retail and entertainment outlet, including your McDonald’s and Starbucks’ but the wealth of architecture from Neo-Classical to Art Nouveau on display on both sides of the avenue made it palatable to my eyes. I could imagine how pretty Istiklal Caddesi would look at night when street lamps lining the whole length of the avenue are complemented by the colorful displays of each store.
The Lonely Planet travel guide recommended me to stop by Balik Pazari (“Fish Market”), a part of Istiklal Caddesi, to try a street delicacy: Midye Tava, deep-fried mussels on skewer dipped with a garlic pine-nut sauce. This artery-clogging dish was easy to find as most of the restaurants serve it by the street side. There’s not much to explain when it comes to deep-frying food but thumbs up to the garlic pine nut sauce that complements really well with the batter-covered mussels.
Sufi Mevlevi Lodge Museum
A quick detour off Istiklal Caddesi took me to the Sufi Mevlevi Lodge in what is to be my first hand experience with the Sufis.
Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam believing that their oneness to Allah SWT is the purest original form of Islam, and the one here is run by a sect called the Mevlevi Order. The lodge is a simple white-washed wooden house hosting a collection of artifacts depicting Sufi culture – their musical instruments, clothes and wardrobe, manuscripts and their daily routine.
I was eager to learn more about the Mevlevi Order who are known for their Whirling Dervishes. The dervishes would recite zikir, short prayers said repeatedly, while entering into a state of trance by whirling themselves in a circle. This was apparent when I entered the ceremonial hall connected to the lodge – the hall war circular and beautifully decorated with iron-wrought frames and scriptures from the Quran.
The dervishes still perform at the lodge but only as an attraction and not a real ceremony.
Galata Mevlevihanesi Muzesi
Admission: TL 10
9:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m Daily except Mondays
My final stop in what seemed to be a long day was climbing (via an elevator) up the Galata Tower.
This stone tower marks the end of Istiklal Caddesi and the start of the Galata neighborhood. This cylindrical structure was originally named Tower of Christ after the Genoese of Constantinople built it in 1348. The tower’s non-conforming shape compared to the surrounding buildings made it easy to spot from across the river, making it an iconic landmark on the other side of the Golden Horn.
The line was quite long as I took 30 minutes to finally get on the elevator.
At the top, I had to climb two flights of stairs to get on the two-tier observation deck of the tower to a view that I can simply describe as breathtaking. The tower looked to be not that high but I somehow caught a 360 bird’s eye view of the metropolis. You could really feel that you’re at a highpoint of the continental divide, a place so majestic many major powers covet it over the centuries, through peace and war.
Admission: TL 25
9:00 a.m – 8:30 p.m, Daily
I was quite amazed at myself for covering that much of an area on my first day in Istanbul. At the end of the day, I was too tired to walk and slept as early as 8:30 pm after another hearty meal of lamb and rice. The Beyoglu and Galata neighborhoods are comparably new since I spotted shiny new skyscrapers north of Taksim Square, as compared to the old quarters (we’re talking about centuries old) which I explored on Day 2.
I think I had inadvertently arranged my Istanbul itinerary to be done in a somewhat reverse chronological order – my first day in Turkey was spent marveling at a collection of Istanbul’s modern art, tracing the remnants of the Occupy movement at Taksim Square and peeking into the life of the Sufis at Mevlevi Lodge.
On the second day, I traveled further back in time to the tip of the Golden Horn, the coveted peninsula overlooking the Bosphorus, to witness centuries-old monuments that were once part of the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires once gloried by their peoples.
The Blue Mosque
The grand mosques in Istanbul are a dud on the outside – the multi-dome design with four-cornered minarets is replicated throughout the city while it is painted in a dull and drab color, making them blend in too well with the surrounding buildings.
The mosques do look impressive as it strongly stands out from afar but this was still a far cry from the many unique mosques I grew up to admire back in Malaysia. As it turns out, the character and identity of a Turkish mosque is elaborated on the inside by its many colorful adornments.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque was completed in the year 1616 under the auspices of Ahmet I, on the site of a former Byzantine palace. It gained the moniker of “Blue Mosque” due to the generous use of Iznik tiles on the interior of the mosque.
Once in the prayer hall, I could not help but gaze at the intricate floral designs of the tiles and lines upon lines of Islamic calligraphy called “khatt” encircling the many domes of the mosque. Much thought and labor was put into creating this masterpiece that it could be still be enjoyed by people like me 400 years after it was built.
Sultan Ahmet Camii
8:30 a.m – 11:30 a.m, 1:00 p.m – 2:30 p.m, 3:30 p.m – 4:45 p.m, Daily for non-Muslim visitors
Right across the park lies Aya Sofya, a former Byzantine cathedral converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and now a museum.
It looks like just another mosque from the outside with the main dome and minarets being the defining features but the mood totally changes once you step into its hallowed chambers. My senses were telling me that I am surrounded by Roman columns and marbled walls but each pillar had a banner with the name of “Allah,” “Muhammad,” or one the Prophet’s four khalifahs.
Away from the main hall, I wandered around the second floor of Aya Sofya to look for the mosaic murals crafted by the Byzantines throughout the centuries.
At first glance the murals look like paintings but a look closer showed that tiny mosaics were meticulously arranged on to form a visual canvas of Christ and other Byzantine luminaries. The gold mosaics that act as a background to the characters would glow a luminous hue upon contact with sunlight, creating an aura of awe to the unsuspecting onlooker.
Admission: TL 60
9:00 a.m – 7:00 pm (April – October), 9:00 a.m – 5:00 p.m (November – March)
Another amazing Byzantine construction is the Basilica Cistern, a subterranean structure used as a reservoir for the city’s water supply.
This out of sight cavern is not too far from Aya Sofya and it takes two full flight of stairs to descend into darkness. The water has been drained out up to the knee-level and walkways have been built for visitors to roam around the forest of pillars.
I love how some sections of the cistern as poorly lit to create an atmosphere of eeriness, especially the route that leads to Medusa’s head.
One of the far corners of the cistern holds two scary-looking Medusa’s Heads as column bases. These two heads were placed in an odd manner: one upside down while the other on its side.
The two mysterious bases were theorized to come from a Roman building and were conveniently used to support the columns during the construction of the cistern. The Medusas creep the heck out of me and I couldn’t imagine how the maintenance crew back then would dread going down there.
Admission: TL 20 (Foreigner), TL 10 (Local), TL 5 (Students)
9:00 a.m – 6:30 p.m, Daily
My final stop in Sultan Ahmet is the immense palace right at the tip of the cape. Topkapi Palace was used by the Ottoman emperors for about 400 years, consisting of sprawling courtyards mixed with gorgeously ornamented buildings and an equally large harem.
The blue Iznik tiles feature prominently on the walls of the palace and I spent hours taking photos of the motifs on every nook and cranny. The best ones are reserved for the sultan’s and chambers but the tiles in the harem are just as beautiful as the royal rooms.
There’s also a small gallery in the Privy Chamber where sacred relics of the Muslim world can be viewed like Muhammad’s cloak, Moses’ staff and Joseph’s turban. The Topkapi Palace is so huge that it takes 2 – 3 hours to cover the grounds so do make time to wander around the complex.
I ended the day by lounging at the cafe overlooking the Sea of Marmara while snacking on the local combo of baklava and Turkish coffee. And that was the day my visual senses were rightfully overloaded with splendid architecture across the ages.
Topkapi Sarayi Muzesi
Admission: TL 60 (Museum), TL 35 (Harem) TL 30 (Hagia Irene)
9:00 a.m – 4:45 p.m (October – April), 9:00 a.m – 6:45 p.m (April – October) Daily except Tuesdays
I’m not a person who likes to shop so I would often skip going to local bazaar on my travels. My aversion to these places stem from the feeling of being drowned in a sea of shoppers, having only enough budget for “essentials” and lacking enough backpack space for the long haul.
But Istanbul’s bazaars are another beast.
These markets are hundreds of years old and has been virtually untouched since their inception. The shops may look new after countless renovations to keep up with the times but the hustle and bustle of the bazaar made me feel like I was a merchant with a shipload of goods ready to be bartered with the honest but wary traders of Istanbul.
Here’s how on my third day, Istanbul changed my mind about going to bazaars.
As far as naming goes, the Grand Bazaar does live up to its moniker.
This covered market is somewhat hidden among the throes of street-side stalls since I could only find an entrance after wandering around for a good 10 minutes. I thought that the bazaar would be a very long street where I would come out to the light at the end of the tunnel but after hitting a number of cross junctions with equally long streets, I came to realized that I was about to enter a labyrinth.
I later found out the Grand Bazaar has up to 5,000 shops scattered along 60 streets selling all kinds of items.
It is like an ancient departmental store where stuff are sold according to sections, from jewelry at Kalpakcilar Caddesi to carpets at Sahaflar Caddesi. It was really fun to just stumble upon a specific section of the bazaar only to act really clueless once the shopkeepers started imploring me to enter their premises and start hawking their products at “good” prices. I would politely decline and told them I was just looking around while snapping photos.
My subject of interest was handicrafts made with a Turkish flair – lanterns ruled the roost while in need of something more colorful, I came across the ceramics side of the bazaar. After being wowed by the blue and green Iznik tiles at Topkapi Palace, the plates and saucers on display was like a bed of flowers exuding a multitude of bright colors of red, yellow of orange. The blue-only Iznik designs still dominate but the contemporary ones were more liberal in the usage of colors, creating complex yet pleasing patterns.
The saucers were like blooming flowers to a honeybee and this little bee decided to break his self-imposed rule of not buying any souvenirs. So, I ended up with an ancient-looking Iznik tile that doubles up as a coaster. Bazaar 1-0 Danial.
9:00 a.m – 7:00 p.m, Daily except Sundays
The second largest covered market in Istanbul is the Spice Bazaar located close to the Galata Bridge in the neighborhood of Eminonu.
Unlike the maze-like Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar was built to be one long corridor lined with open air shops selling the all kinds of spices and tea. The scene feels more like a marketplace where traders would cajole their potential customers into entering their store followed by serious rounds of haggling and price negotiations.
I was on a mission to procure spices ordered by my mother so instead of doing a full lap and figuring out which shop had the best prices, I randomly picked one that looked okay and straight away asked for the types of spices needed. The shopkeeper was glad to show the different grades of spices by telling me that the best ones are very aromatic and has smooth texture so I compromised by settling on the medium quality ones, with a “best price discount” as well. Throw in a couple of boxes of apple tea and I was good to go.
With the score settled at Bazaar 2-0 Danial, I had to admit defeat.
Sure I still have a dislike of swimming in a crowd of people at a market but I wouldn’t learn a bit more about the character of a city if I hadn’t gone into one. The Grand Bazaar was spectacular for delivering the same types of good for hundreds of years, preserving Turkey’s culture in the form of its arts and craft while the Spice Bazaar helped be hone my haggling skills, which I can proudly say was put to good use in my other market experiences.
9:00 a.m – 7:00 p.m, Daily
Although I covered the all most-visited places in Istanbul, three days just barely touched the tip of the iceberg. There were so many past relics, mosques and museums to discover and I haven’t even crossed the Bosphorus to the Asian Side! Istanbul is a wondrous city and you should really take your time exploring it like I did – step by step along the cobbled streets surrounded by buildings as old as time permits.