Saved the best for last: I spent my third and final day wandering through all the famous sites in the city. This included the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome. The Grand Bazaar was scheduled on the itinerary too, but given the Ramadan celebrations, the Grand Bazaar was closed for 3 days. Instead, I asked our tour guide if we could be accompanied to the underground Basilica Cistern! Other highlights of this particular day? Consuming another fabulous Turkish breakfast, walking across the Galata bridge, dining out and finally, sitting at a café to have Turkish coffee, baklava and dessert! Someone recently asked me if I would plan a “foodie vacation”. While I’ve never sought out a place specifically for food, I sure do enjoy trying local cuisine! But first, the historic sites:)
As mentioned in my planning post, the tour portion was arranged by Road Runner Travel.
Alison and I were both severely jet-lagged and we woke up at the ridiculous hour of 5 am. We were actually both awake and alert earlier, but didn’t want to be the annoying friend that disrupts the other person while on vacation! We decided to capitalize on our early start and meandered around the streets which was really peaceful.
Quiet and empty streets, a stark contrast to the crowds on my first day!
We walked between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque and past a centuries-old Hamam – a Turkish Bath house. Our tour guide Ahmet would later tell us that going to a hamam is one of those bucket-list-must-do-before-you-die experiences! Music to my ears! (Link to hamam experience once I write it up)
All the shops were still closed, but several had received their morning delivery of bread that was left hanging in a plastic bag on their door handles.
Speaking of bread, it was getting close to the time for breakfast! I was very excited for Alison’s reaction! The variety of foods couldn’t even fit in a single picture frame (or my stomach!).
Another day, another full plate of delicious vegetables – all washed down with some hot fresh coffee.
I had introduced Alison to Derinda (the American woman who I toured around the previous day, while on my own!) and we sat next to her at breakfast. Here we are soaking up the sun while having breakfast outdoors.
Knowing that we would be out all day exploring sites, we discreetly wrapped cheese pastries in napkins and stuffed them into our purse! A great mix of crunchy and chewy layers to enjoy later.
Our guide for the day was Ahmet who was very friendly and spoke perfect English (I mentioned in my Turkey overview post how impressed I was with the rigor that tour guides went through to get accredited!). He walked us down the street to another hotel to pick up a family of three. And that was our full tour group for the day – a nice, intimate size hooray!
Our first stop was a tour around the Hippodrome, which is an old city square in Istanbul. Now we got to make sense of all the structures we had seen in passing earlier on our morning stroll. In the Byzantine period, this was a gathering place for citizens and they could even watch chariot races (more on wikipedia).
The German Fountain – a strategic git from Germany.
Other significant monuments in this area included the Serpent Column, Obelisk of Thutmose III and a Walled Obelisk. It was really cool to see the Egyptian influence here and how Istanbul (Constantinople) was and still is, such a diverse city with so many cultural influences.
Peace and quiet in the morning with only a dog for company. In its heyday, this square would be teeming with people.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque)
Very iconic, beautiful piece of architecture!
This mosque is featured prominently in many travel magazines and action movies and is significant because of the 6 minarets. At the time of construction, the only other mosque that had 6 minarets was the Ka’aba in Mecca, so it was considered an insult to try build something that would challenge the grandeur of Mecca mosque. The architects’ plans then, were rejected and he even disappeared for several months! When he came back, he announced that he had travelled to the mosque in Mecca which now had 7 minarets! So now, construction could proceed with 6 at the Sultan Ahmet mosque!
I could have read this information in a book, but hearing our knowledgeable and passionate guide Ahmet describe this while we were in there in the flesh, and seeing everything right in front of us, was so much more impactful!
Since this is an active mosque, women are required to wear head scarves and cover up. If you don’t have your own cover up, they can provide with scarves and wraps. They also have plastic bags to store your shoes so that you don’t need to keep them at the entrance. This was only place we went on our travels to that required these restrictions.
After exiting the Blue Mosque, we simply crossed the street a couple of hundred meters over to head towards the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia is absolutely stunning inside! I found the Blue Mosque more striking on the exterior, but there is no comparison when in comes to their interiors.
It’s famous for so many reasons, including the presence of both Christian and Muslim artwork. It was originally a church that was converted into a mosque, and finally a museum.
The original Christian paintings and pieces artwork were all covered up when it was converted to a mosque. This act actually helped to preserve it art and is why it remains here today.
There was a funny hole in the wall on the first floor that came with a backstory: supposedly touching this area healed one of the kings, so now people line up to put their thumb in the wall, twist in a full circle, and then make a wish. Very funny and peculiar how superstitions start.
Alison and I were feeling the heat and were excited to discover these misting fans that cooled us off with air and water!
This was the residence of the sultans and Ottoman royalty for hundreds of years until they moved to the property along the Bosphorus (seen in my Bosphorus cruise the previous day). The palace grounds are divided into 4 quarters with many buildings and at its prime, housed as many as 4000 residents living here.
We walked in and out of all kinds of treasuries, armories, opulent chambers and other fine examples of Ottoman architecture. Ahmet would point out small details like how the water faucet next to the confession room was purposefully constructed so that passerby’s couldn’t overhear secret conversations.
The palace grounds were incredibly vast and some of the buildings had large terraces with superb views of the water!
Intricate and detailed tile work decorated the building walls.
We had covered so much ground and were getting really tired, so we skipped out on one of the buildings and did stretches on the grass instead! Sitting down on this bed of cool grass felt like a million bucks.
We had been on our tour for over three hours now and food was our next stop! All the food was included in the tour – you just had to pay for your own drinks. I’m pleased to say that throughout my whole trip in Turkey, I never bought a drink at these lunches. I was on personal a mission to save money so I made sure to drink water and liquids before and after these lunch excursions.
The traditional kebab.
After lunch, we were technically finished our tour. I was really excited to see the Basilica Cistern though, so Alison and I split ways.
This is my biggest piece of travel advice/lesson learned when traveling with friends: it is perfectly OK to do different things!!
On a few occasions we decided to do separate activities which allowed us to pursue our own interests, without feeling like we were sacrificing our precious vacation time to do something we didn’t actually want to do!
The basilica cistern – an underground water storage system which was haunting and beautiful at the same time. Also, a wonderful reprise from the heat!! Cool water would drip from the ceilings and there were large pools of water with fish swimming around – not sure which one is creepier!
I look at this picture below and imagine hearing music.
Some puzzling pieces of art included that one textured column above, and then the presence of medusa heads on their side and also upside down!
When important people were buried in ancient times, often they would be buried with treasure and valuables. Medusa heads were carved on their tombs to ward away thieves! Of course, the medusa head also signalled that there was something important inside, so looting happened despite the “warning”.
Back at the hotel – Best Friend Musings:
Alison: I’m still working on getting my luggage back. Ahmet has been helping me this whole time. He’s so helpful, as is his sister!
Me: Cool! But wait… I was with Ahmet this whole time at the Basilica Cistern..?! I’m thinking, “how is that possible?!”
That’s when we learned that Ahmet is one of the most popular names in Turkey! We would go on to meet many more Ahmets.
Alison suggested we take a nap, followed by baklava given our incredibly full day. I agreed, but countered that we should really only nap for 20 minutes. Well, 4 hours later, we awoke from our slumber!!
This afternoon nap thing would also turn into a reoccurring theme 😉 BUT I highly suggest naps because the eating and shopping can continue on through until midnight anyway, so you might as well rest in the afternoon and then enjoy the evening!
We went for a walk along the tramway down to the water where I was the previous day on my Bosphorus Cruise! Here we admired the waterfront view and continued on across the Galata Bridge.
Interesting street food:
The Galata Tower. I heard there were great views from the tower, but it’s crowded and the cafe there is not worth it.
In the darkness, the city lights created some romantic images.
These boats were rocking like crazy!
I found a restaurant online that “had a great view” of the city so I saved the location on my phone and navigated us there. Inside we enjoyed a few more things off my list of Turkish food to eat!
Such as this marinated artichoke, and an eggplant puree topped with marinated chunks of lamb. So very satisfying!
What wasn’t as satisfying, was this tea that came in such a tiny cup – it was smaller than the palm of my hand :'(
Following dinner, we headed on over to my favourite establishment, Hafiz Mustafa. I greeted them in Turkish and told them this was my third visit in as many days!
Probably due to a combination of my attempting Turkish and being friendly, and being a loyal patron, they surprised us with coffee and Turkish delight on the house!
We sampled several flavours of pistachio and pomegranate Turkish delight and bought a whole box of baklava treats. Still, we agreed that it would be wise to order one of their pudding desserts too!
What a fantastic way to cap off a packed day!
Stay tuned for my International Food Post on Turkey 🙂
Something I haven’t mentioned yet, was how excited (and sometimes in an aggressive way!) people were to take your photo or to take a photo with you! When I got back to Canada, Feyza (who gave me Turkish lessons) explained that this is a very Turkish thing! Her and her friends would often ask to take photos with tourists!
Since it was the end of the night, and we had a 4:00 am wake-up call planned to head to Cappadocia (land of fairy chimneys! Or officially, land of horses) we were a bit tired of taking photos.
We were even complaining to each other about all these photo requests when a man popped his head out of his shop and asked, “Can I take your photo!!?”
Oh man, the timing of his request right as we were complaining was just too good to be true!!
Also on our walk home, I was told that I had dropped something, so I frantically began searching and looking behind me on the ground.
“You dropped my heart”, said the guy!
Yes, I got fooled. But I was catching onto to local humour!
Soon we were back at our hotel where we tried to persuade our hotel concierge to make us breakfast personally, since we would be missing out on the amazing breakfast spread by leaving so early. He hinted at making us sandwiches.
“Do you know what “maybe” means?”
“Of course”, we answered.
“Well, maybe I will make you breakfast, maybe I won’t!”
That was a lot of humour for one day haha! With that, we packed up and prepared ourselves for 3 hours of sleep!
** End of Day 3 in Turkey, and my time in Istanbul **
View my Turkey Flickr Gallery (still in process of uploading all my photos 🙂