In order to give a break on the long journey from New York to Thailand, we decided to make a strategic layover in Turkey. I had never been in the country and being a big fan of its culinary, rich history and culture, there could not be a better place for a stop between the East and the West.
We had exactly 10 hours, so we exchanged a few dollars and boarded a taxi towards the old town
The minarets – towers from where it sounds the call to the prayers – are so tall that made it hard to fit in this picture.
In 40 minutes without traffic, we arrived at the center of the old town, at Sultanamet mosque , the most important of the city, which was named Blue Mosque by western visitors because of its beautiful blue stained glass.
It is noteworthy that the mosque is fully active and is not allowed the entrance of turists in any of the five daily prayer times.
We were lucky and arrived just at the end of the preaching of 3 pm.Note that the dress code is very important in Turkey , but do not worry , if you are not with shoulders and knees covered adequately and without a hand scarf, it is possible to make a loan right there .Never wear your shoes inside a mosque, bring them with you inside the plastic bag provided .
With so much beauty , it’s hard to look down , but try to be careful not to step on the wrong place .And without further notice, let yourself be amazed about the super ornate ceiling with more than 20mil tiles and the carpet so well maintained .
As soon as we step out of the mosque we can see its neighbor Hagya Sophia.
Feeling the long flight and the 7 hours difference from New York we went in search of a Turkish Coffe before continuing walking.Right next to the mosque, at the pedestrian street called Kabasakal , we found the Elif Cafe and its decorated tables, where we filled up with (powder of) coffe and cheese pastries.
From there we went to St. Sophia, the basilica built in the 500’s (Yes , Istanbul is a shock of age!) first to be the cathedral of the Byzantine Empire .
One hundred years later, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, it was converted into a mosque .
The bell, the altar, mosaics with Jesus and other Catholic symbols were replaced by Islamic and minarets were added on the outside.
In 1935 it was turned into a museum, somewhat decadent already, nowadays is undergoing major renovations. It has one of the largest domes in the world , 55 meters above the ground – smaller only than the roma pantheon – and a calligraphy collection considered unique and precious.
At the second floor take a look at the cathedral’s mosaics which are very special. Althought many were destroyed over time – with an earthquake or even were looted (and sent to Venice) – some resisted bravely .
As the beauty of the light that enters through the windows wasn’t enough, from them we can also see parts of the basilica exterior and the Blue Mosque beyond!
Off the basilica we still caught the sun setting, showing the silhouette of minarets scratching the sky:
From there we walked some meters to the Basilica Cistern, the largest among hundreds of underground cisterns of Istanbul . It was built in the 6th century and provided a filtered water system for the palaces in both the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires. Capable of holding 100 thousand tons of water, now refurbished , its a special scenary that deserves to be in a Dan Brown book.
And it is! Angels and Demons, in this case .
The medusa head mentioned on Dan Brown’s fiction.
Despite the claustrophobia feelings (and fear to know that that estructure is too old ) 336 marble columns support the ceiling majestically .
From there we began to descend towards the Topkaki Palace. The rich residence of the Ottoman sultans. Great was my disappointment to come face to face to the gate!! Unfortunately , It closes at 5!!
There’s an usefull tip, search for the opening hours! Before!
It’s well know by its beauty, details richness and the Harem – where we’re kept the sultan’s concubines – a must see.
We continued towards the Bosphorus, the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, marking the limits of the Asian and European continents in Turkey.
There are boats that make tours through the channel and transports people from one shore to another.
Then we enjoyed the view as the city lightened up, with the Galata tower watching us from the other side .
Still at the edge of the Bosphorus, right by the Galata bridge is located one of the most famous street food sites in Istanbul.
They serve a fried fish sandwich. The Balik Ekmek !
That was when hunger hit us!!!
But, as I am more a “kebap-hummus type of girl”, we crossed the street and went to Hamdi. On the third floor, overlooking the canal and the Yeni Cami Mosque, this restaurant has been operating since 1960 with the reputation of having one of the city’s best kebap.
It’s not for less, the menu offers 17 types of it! Our choice came full of pistachios!
Right next to the restaurant is located the Spice Bazaar, one of the largest markets of its kind in the world, made for the spice trade since the medieval era. It is still widely used, despite being well touristic. It is a treat for the eyes and palate. Besides herbs are sold dried fruit – apricots, dates, nuts, pistachios, macadamia – leaves and flowers for tea, sweets and the most acclaimed article, the Turkish Delight.
Lokum is the turkish name for this ancient delicacy, yet created in the Ottoman Empire, which consists of a gel/gum made from sugar and starch, fruit or even roses flavored, sprinkled with pistachios or hazelnuts, covered with sugar or grated coconut.
Think of a gummmy bear… Well, let’s say the delight was its precursor!!
We rushed from there to the Grand Bazaar that was just about to close. (Opens untill 19hr on weekdays and 18hr on weekends)
This is one of the largest covered markets in the world and could not be missed on our visit to Turkey.
The art of commerce is in the turkish’s blood. There are 5 thousand stores distributed in a 60 street’s maze!There we can find ceramic hand-painted pieces, carpets, jewelry, souvenirs and gorgeous lanterns, among others.Besides not-that-friendly sellers when they see our camera in hands!!
At 7pm everybody was out, sharply. From there we got the tram towards Karakoy, a pleasant neighborhood on the other side of the strait, where we walked trought the beautiful narrow streets coming up to the Galata Tower.
The medieval-style tower nearly 70 meters high was built in 1348, used as a lighthouse and observation center which partially resisted attacks, has undergone renovations and since 1967 when its wooden interior was replaced by concrete has been open to the public. It has a restaurant and a café on the top floors plus a panoramic Istanbul view from its balcony.
Istanbul at your feet , with the Blue Mosque and St. Sophia deep down.
Walking down the streets of the neighborhood , we then proceed to Karakoy, a young neighborhood full of bars and funky restaurants, allong with the city’s best pastry: Karaköy Gulluoglu.
It was time to taste the best Baklava in town!!
An official turkish dish, the delicacy consumed in the palaces, this is a mille fuille pastry – precisely 40 layers of dough super hyper mega thin – stuffed with a paste of crushed walnuts and drenched in syrup or honey. There are varieties that incorporate pistachios, hazelnuts or sesame seeds. Rolling the dough requires hard hand work and master bakers come to work 10 years to get this title!! (Info taken from a documentary about the Baklava, which I watched on the flight going there. Just imagine how much I desired to eat it !!!)
This was the first bakery to commercialize it, needless to say, it has the best and most celebrated. Delicious, crispy and moistened !!
Lose your flight but do not leave Turkey without taking a bite
We walked around the streets of the neighborhood, passing by several cool restaurants and finally sat at a wine bar called the Green. From there, we went back to the airport by taking the tram + subway, which arrives directly in the terminal.
As many flights to Asian destinations have layovers here, the Turkish Airlines itself created a tour that stops by the main sights – guided and free – leaving at different times a day!!
I personally found this a great idea, unfortunately our schedules did not match! Check it out: