Having spent our first day in Istanbul trying to resecure accomodations and our second day recovering from the fiasco of the first, my family and I fully geared into tourism mode on the third day. I had a busy day planned, and we started by taking the tram to Sultanahmet district, where most of the city’s historical sites (and tourists) are located.
Our first stop was Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or Sultanahmet Camii). It’s also known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning its interior. I was struck by how huge it was inside, and how peacefully quiet, despite the crowds. On one side, an imam recited the Quran in front of a few faithful men and women in prayer, and tourists came and went.
After we emerged from the mosque and put our shoes back on, we crossed the street and walked a block to the Aya (or Hagia) Sofia. Once a patriarchal basilica, then a mosque, and now a museum, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture.
The famous Byzantine and Ottoman battles for control of Istanbul are reflected in the museum’s design, which boasts not only minarets and Islamic tilework, but mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Istanbul is truly a city where East meets West.
Aya Sofia is huge, but we still had more to see for the day. We walked a few blocks towards Topkapi Palace, which was the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans during their 400-year reign. Overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, the palace interiors do not allow photography. The entrance from Gulhane Park, however, does.
The palace has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only a few are accessible to the public. These include lavish rooms full of robes, weapons, armor, Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphy and murals and Ottoman jewelry.
Our last stop for the day before we headed back to Aksaray was a very late lunch at Can Restaurant. We were hungry, but the pitfall of eating at a restaurant in the middle of Istanbul’s most crowded tourist sites is that a busy eatery does not necessarily mean good food. Sure, the place was impeccably clean and the service was friendly, but my doner kabab was so dry and tough that I’m pretty sure an Istanbullu would have shaken their head at my plate.
Not all was lost, because my uncle cooked us all a fantastic dinner at our apartment later that evening. And with the bounty of fresh flatbreads, meats, and produce available in our neighorhood bakers, butchers and grocers, we got to sample the best of Turkish food.