We spent two days in Istanbul, Turkey in the summer of 2011 while on a Celebrity Equinox Eastern Mediterranean cruise and it was one of the most interesting cities that I have ever visited. When I was selecting an itinerary for a Mediterranean cruise it was a priority to have a stop in Istanbul included so I was thrilled to find this cruise that docked there overnight.
Istanbul, which was historically known as both Byzantium and Constantinople, is the largest city in Turkey with a population of over 13 million people. Istanbul is located on the Bosphorus Strait making it the only country in the world to straddle two continents as one side of the strait is in Asia and the other in Europe. Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city that was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010 and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for travelers. The vast majority of its residents are Muslims and there are around 3000 mosques in the city which has led to it being referred to as the City of Spires for the many minarets that dominate the skyline.
Early in the morning of our first day in Istanbul a loud band arrived to greet our ship and the passengers who had started to disembark. As our rooms were on the side of the ship that was alongside the dock this precipitated a great deal of grumpiness as the sleeping kids didn't appreciate being awakened by the boisterous musical performance. They soon came around though and we prepared to leave the ship and meet our guide. We had decided to book a private tour for our family on our first day in Istanbul so that we would have a guide to show us the main sights in the historic part of the city at our own pace.
Day 1 in Istanbul was spent with our tour guide Cennk from Ekol Travel who met us at the cruise terminal with his driver and took us to Sultanahmet, the historic area of Istanbul. Emma and Cennk developed a fast friendship in a very short time and I spent the rest of the day watching her walking ahead of us hand in hand with our outgoing guide.
Our first stop was Hagia Sophia (also known as Aya Sofya) which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The building was first used as a church, then a mosque and is currently a museum. The first church on this site was built in 360 AD and was destroyed and rebuilt, as was the second. The present structure was built in the 6th century on the orders of Emperor Justinian I who wanted it to be the grandest place of worship ever built. It was the largest cathedral building in the world for a thousand years (until St. Peter's in Rome was built) and continued to be used as a church until 1453 AD when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmet II, conquered Constantinople. The church was converted into a mosque and the four minarets were added to the building after that. In 1935, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk, had Hagia Sophia transformed into a museum.
The interior of the dimly lit Hagia Sophia with its magnificent dome is stunning. Candelabras hang low over the heads of visitors providing light in the vast space. Climbing to the upper gallery provides a great view over the main floor. The upper gallery is also where visitors will find a display of mosaics. These mosaics had been plastered over in the 16th century by order of Süleyman the Magnificent because Islamic law forbid the portrayal of human images in a place of worship. The covered mosaics were discovered when the mosque was converted into a museum.
When leaving Hagia Sophia it's important to turn back and have a last look as there is an incredible mosaic (Mary, the baby Jesus, and the three gift-bearing kings) over the exit which our guide told us most people miss seeing.
STREET FOOD SNACK BREAK - SIMIT:
We weren't in Istanbul very long before our guide insisted that we stop and try a simit which turned out to be a very tasty example of street food. We had finished at Hagia Sophia and were walking to the nearby Blue Mosque when Cennk decided we should stop at one of the ubiquitous red carts and try Istanbul's most popular food. Simits vary by region of Turkey, however, they are essentially a circular bread made from salty dough and covered in sesame seeds prior to baking. A simit may be eaten plain or with butter, jam or a cream cheese-like spread. The simit is a tasty, filling snack so they are quite convenient for families sightseeing in Istanbul.
The Sultanahmet Camii, which is known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue-tiled interior, is located just a short walk form Hagia Sophia. This mosque was built in the early 17th century during the rule of Ahmed I and combines Islamic architecture with Byzantine elements similar to Hagia Sophia. The mosque features a central dome, eight smaller domes and 6 minarets - the higher the number of minarets, the more important the mosque (the only other mosque with 6 minarets is at Mecca). The mosque was intentionally built bigger than Hagia Sophia in order to demonstrate the dominance of Islam over Christianity. In the interior of the mosque there are more than 20,000 blue handmade, ceramic Iznik tiles and 260 stained glass windows which result in a beautiful, light-filled interior which was also an intentional contrast intended to demonstrate superiority over Hagia Sophia.
It is a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul, however, it is also a functioning mosque so it is very important to dress and act respectfully when visiting. When entering the mosque, visitors must remove their shoes and will be handed a bag for carrying them. Scarves are also handed out for women to cover shoulders and arms. I wore capri pants on the day of our visit so that my knees would be covered and although I was wearing a short sleeve t-shirt, I was given a scarf to further cover my arms. Katie hadn't wanted to wear long pants because of the heat so we brought along a long skirt and a sweater that she pulled on over her dress before we entered the mosque in order to be properly covered. I took lots of photos in the mosque, however, none of them can even come close to representing how truly beautiful it is.
After leaving the Blue Mosque, we stopped to have a brief look at the remains of the Hippodrome and the Egyptian Obelisk before continuing our walk through Sultanahmet. Our guide suggested that we stop at a ceramics store to see a pottery demonstration which we agreed to. When the demonstration was completed, the assembled group was asked if anyone would like to try their hand at the potter's wheel. When nobody volunteered Emma asked if she could and was soon having her very own pottery lesson and one of the more memorable experiences of our trip. Emma doesn't generally like to get her hands dirty so I was quite surprised at how eager she was to get her hands in to the messy clay. After the demonstration, we had a tour of the showroom and I purchased a beautiful ceramic bowl to bring home as a souvenir of Turkey.
The Topkapi Palace was built as a royal residence by Mehmet II starting in the 1450s on a hilltop overlooking the Bosphorus and was the seat of Ottoman rule until the middle of the 19th century when Sultan Abdul Mecit moved to Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus. In the 16th century, accommodations for wives, concubines and children were added to the palace and this series of private apartments became known as The Harem. The palace is now a museum complex and visitors can wander freely through the public areas and pay a fee only to see the exhibits.
It was a gorgeous, sunny day when we visited and the lovely grounds of Topkapi seemed to be a popular place to relax and enjoy the summer weather. We entered through the main gate past Turkish soldiers and immediately spotted "sultans" posing for photos so we had to stop for Emma to have a picture taken with one of them and we also paused for a musical performance that was taking place in one of the courtyards. There is an extra charge to enter The Harem but it is well worth the charge to see the private apartments of the Sultan. We also joined the grounds touring The Treasury to see the Topkapi Dagger made famous by a Hollywood film.
We lunched outdoors at an Istanbul café (Otantic Karaca Kardelen) on a delicious meal of Turkish salad, chicken kebabs and pita bread.
THE GRAND BAZAAR:
After lunch I found a Starbucks near the Grand Bazaar and was able to have some caffeine fortification before entering the chaotic marketplace. We also stopped for the mandatory carpet making demonstration, however, I had no interest in purchasing a carpet on this trip.
Kapali Çarsi which is widely known as the Grand Bazaar (or sometimes the Covered Bazaar) is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 lane ways and more than 4000 shops. The market was built by Mehmet II after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 which means that trade has taken place in this bazaar for more than 500 years. The Grand Bazaar is one of the must-see attractions for visitors to Istanbul.
The market is sprawling, maze-like and crowded and it would be far too easy to lose track of young children here so it's important to hold on to them at all times. When we entered the market, our guide took Emma by the hand and headed off into the crowd quickly outpacing the rest of us. Katie was clinging to me as she was afraid of getting lost and I was yelling at my husband that he wasn't to let Emma out of his sight. All in all, it was too crowded and chaotic for my liking and we didn't end up doing much shopping although I was glad to have seen it. I'm sure that it's a different experience when it's not high season for tourists and if we had just been browsing on our own then I could have enjoyed it more. As it was I couldn't enjoy shopping as I was too worried about being separated from Emma and Cennk with no idea of how to find them again.
Our tour finished at the Grand Bazaar and our driver picked us up to drop us back off at the ship after a busy day of sight seeing. We had some time before dinner to relax in our staterooms and enjoy the view from our balcony which was directly across from the Galata Tower. We had planned to climb the tower for the panoramic views of Istanbul, however, we were too tired after the end of day one and ran out of time on day two. As we sat on our balcony at the end of our first day in Istanbul, the calls to prayer echoed across the city and I was mesmerized by the beauty of the muezzin's voices as they summoned Muslims to the mosques and reminded that Istanbul was different than any place I had ever been.
After dinner that evening, my husband and I went for a walk over to the Galata Bridge and back to see the city after dark and happened on another Starbucks alongside the Bosphorus just a short walk from our ship.
We hadn't made plans ahead of time for our second day in Istanbul thinking that it would be better just to play it by ear. We decided that a cruise of the Bosphorus was our priority and opted to book the cruise through the shore excursions desk on the ship. Katie preferred to stay on-board and sleep in so my husband, Emma and I went on the cruise without her. It was a beautiful morning to spend on the water admiring the sights as we sailed along the Strait of Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, and crossed from the European to the Asian sides of the city. Having spent our first day in Istanbul exclusively in the historic district, it was interesting to see the more modern parts of the city while on our Bosphorus cruise.
After the Bosphorus cruise finished the tour dropped us off at the Spice Bazaar for some free time. We chose to abandon the tour at that point so that we could explore the market on our own and then walk back to the ship via the Galata Bridge. The Misir Çarsisi (known also as the Egyptian Market or Spice Bazaar), is located near the bridge and is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar has always been the centre of the spice trade in Istanbul, however, shops selling t-shirts and trinkets are now starting to replace some of the spice stalls. We spent about half an hour browsing the stalls along the outside aisles of the bazaar where there are enticing displays of spices, dried fruit, candy and "Turkish Viagra".
After finishing at the Spice Bazaar, we walked back to the ship past the many fishermen on the Galata Bridge and along the waterfront. We stopped to purchase a box of tasty baklava before getting back on the ship and heading to a top deck to say farewell to Istanbul as we sailed away.
Istanbul was one of the most unique cities that I have ever visited with it's unique blend of east and west and one that I would have appreciated having a bit more time to have explored.
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