Day 13: Istanbul

Posted on

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.

Inner courtyard of Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Sultan Ahmad Mosque

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 Marble Door

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.

Ayasofya/Hagia Sophia

Interior of the Ayasofya/Hagia Sophia

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.

Gate of Salutation/Middle Gate

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.

Porch outside the Imperial Council

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.

Döner kebab

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.

Days 11 and 12: Istanbul

Posted on

After a stopover in Frankfurt, we arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul at two in the morning. Sleepy and jet-lagged, my family and I gathered our luggage and waited for the person sent to pick us up from the apartment rental agency I’d arranged a flat with.

We waited an hour and then we began trying to contact them, to no avail. They finally picked us up, four hours late, saying they had mixed up our arrival time. We arrived shortly at our “flat,” a dilapidated building at the end of a run-down alleyway, adjacent to a police station. After an hour of trying to gather our wits, we left the apartment rental agency scammers, notified the police, and they urged us to leave the neighborhood, helpfully hailing us a taxi.

Without a place to stay, we turned to the one district we knew of: Aksaray. My uncle and his wife would be arriving from Iran the next day, and we had arranged to meet near an Iranian travel agency in this neighborhood. The trouble is, there are endless Iranian travel agencies in Aksaray. Nevertheless, we found the right one, and several hours later, via yet another agency, we secured an apartment. Keyvan and Maryam, the husband and wife team who helped us, not only rented our apartment to us, but showed us around the neigborhood too. Aksaray is a mixed residential area, and it reminded me of some of the older neighborhoods in Tehran.

We wearily stopped at a nearby restaurant, Pacaci Hasan, to fill our stomachs before we settled in for the day. I can’t remember the name of what I had, but it was a very spicy eggplant dish, sort of like khoresh-e bademjaan:

Patlıcan musakka

We were also served green salad, barbari flatbread, buttered rice, and ayran, Turkey’s version of doogh. It was a shame we were too tired to really eat or enjoy the dishes, but the food’s quality still showed. After lunch, we returned to our apartment and rested for the remainder of the day.

The next morning, my family and I awoke to the sound of my uncle and his wife at the door. Keyvan and Maryam had surprised us by bringing our relatives to us rather than us meeting them at the agency! There was much catching up to do – I hadn’t seen my uncle in seven years and I hadn’t seen his wife in ten. We exchanged gifts, and much to my delight, they brought me a small jar of Iranian caviar, one of my most coveted foods:

Iranian caviar

I would spend the next week savoring a bit of it each morning with Turkish flatbread and butter.

Feeling refreshed, we relaxed over tea and fruit at our apartment, before getting ready to explore. We headed out through Aksaray and began walking down Laleli, the main street in our greater neighborhood, full of shopping centers, hawkers, street vendors and the general feeling of the new starkly contrasted with the old, which permeates so much of Istanbul. We walked all the way to Istanbul University’s gates, right on time to hear the call to prayer at a nearby mosque.

Istanbul University

On our walk back, we stopped at Koska, a sweets shop, to buy a variety of freshly-baked Turkish delights. I came to love this shop over the next couple of weeks, not just for the name (I know you Persian-speakers are smirking right now), but for how amazingly delicious their pasha Turkish delights are.

Buying lokum (Turkish delights)

Despite our rough start, we were back on track and falling in love with Istanbul. I couldn’t wait to see more.