I spent the second part of my vacation in Istanbul, Turkey! If you are looking for a cheap yet equally exciting and exotic destination with decent weather during the winter, I highly recommend Istanbul!
With sun and an average of mid-fifties (Farenheit) weather, I really enjoyed my trip to Istanbul at the beginning of March 2014. I traveled with one other American woman; we flew with budget airline Pegasus from Marseille to Istanbul, and arrived within less than three hours. Leaving on a Sunday and returning on a Friday, we had two travel days as well as 4 full site-seeing days, which for this city was more than plenty, although there are countless things to do and see in this amazing part of EurAsia! I learned, saw, and experienced so much during my stay in Istanbul!
Istanbul is really and truly an East-meets-West city, and is a perfect introduction to the Middle East as well as a great way to spice things up in regards to a completely different culture and atmosphere when traveling within Europe. Have I mentioned that Istanbul is also both apart of Europe and Asia, depending on where you place yourself within the city? One of the biggest surprises to me was just how big Istanbul actually is. My friend and I found ourselves in many different corners of the city but still feel as if we only scratched the surface!
Anna and I rented an apartment during our stay from HouseTrip.com, which I would highly recommend and would do again. For 25€ a night, we had a two-bedroom place with a kitchenette and living room, equipped with TV, WIFI, and a clean shower (sometimes the water was not hot, and the plumbing made our apartment smell a bit musty. Word of advice, just make sure you look at the reviews and recommendations from past renters to make sure it is legit!) Our host was wonderful, and he even chewed out the taxi driver for attempting to rip us off the first night, followed by taking us to dinner. Our apartment was about a three-minute walk from the hustling and bustling Taksim square. Every morning, Anna and I would make our way down Taksim and past Galata Tower, the oldest building in the world. On our way, we would browse in the various shops and choose a different juice stand from which we would buy fresh squeezed fruit smoothies. Yum!
Every morning we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge (which is lined shoulder-to-shoulder with fishermen on both sides). It was amazing to view the iconic Istanbul skyline, admire the impressive and breathtaking Mosques (quite the change from France’s cathedrals), and listen to the city-wide call to prayer.
The Blue Mosque was by far my favorite monument in Istanbul. It’s vibrant colors and detailed architecture was absolutely fascinating. Built between 1609-1617 (yes, only seven years!), Sedefkar Mehmet Aga commanded its construction at the age of nineteen. Known to most Turks as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the name Blue Mosque comes from Westerners who adorn the infamous blue tiles inside (there are more than 21,000 on the walls.) When entering the Mosque, tourists must use the visitors’ entrance as to not disrupt prayer. Shoes must be removed in order to maintain the carpet’s cleanliness (Islamic prayer includes touching one’s forehead to the ground.) Additionally, women must cover their heads and knees (men must also cover their knees if they are wearing shorts.) if you do not have your own headscarves or wraps, there are some provided for you!
The Hagia Sophia faces the Blue Mosque. From a cathedral to a mosque to a secular museum, the interiors are thought-provoking; seeing both the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus next to the various Arabic symbols of Allah and his descendent is a very interesting perspective. Unfortunately it was under construction on the inside.
The Grand Bazaar and The Egyptian Spice Bazaar
Talk about sensory overload! The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops and attracting between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. This is where you go to practice your bargaining skills as well as buy anything from scarves to jewelry to tea to spices to glass to hookah to shoes to purses, and more! I learned after the first day that any legit interaction will begin with Apple Tea. Interested in buying something or making a deal with the vendors? Ask for some apple tea. Or see if they will offer it to you. In one jewelry shop, we were offered tea, coffee, kebabs, and then more tea before bartering and making our purchases. It was crazy! To be honest, as much as I enjoyed my experience in the Grand and Egyptian Bazaars, it was quite overwhelming for me at times as a blond female. All of the vendors are men, and they do not ever leave you alone. Do not think you can just stop and look at a product without being hassled. Just be prepared to be firm, to know when to keep walking, and above all, have fun!
This was probably one of my overall favorite activities from Istanbul. After three days of site seeing and sensory overload I needed a break, so Anna and I found relief in one of the oldest Hammams in the city (it has been up and running since 1481.) Turks usually engage in this practice once a week, and after experiencing it myself, I completely understand why. After leaving the Hammam, I felt completely free and relaxed, with super soft and rejuvenated skin.
This is not an experience if you do not like public nudity. Americans in general are embarrassingly prude, to the point where letting our toddlers run around naked during the hot summer months is considered offensive and people who walk around completely confident and stark naked are sort of threatening. Although my American habits always seem to reinstate themselves upon me stateside, I have no problem bathing topless in France and after experiencing public Japanese bath houses for two consecutive months, I am not foreign to being publicly naked.
You enter the Hammam through the doors according to your gender, select your treatment (I went with Full Treatment) and then strip naked. You enter the sauna-type room, bathe yourself with warm water, and lie spread eagle on the hot stone basin alongside the other people, allowing yourself to sweat. Then, your masseuse enters and begins scrubbing you with salts. Next, you are soaped up and given a suds-based massage, which feels amazing. Finally, you are taken to a stone basin and given a bath and hair washed. All of these tasks were completed by naked Turkish women. Afterwards you are allowed to hangout in the sauna, but are then given water and tea in order to relax. Make sure to tip your masseuse at the end!
The Basilica Cistern
Just southwest of the Hagia Sophia, this is definitely a must-see. This enormous underground cistern is wet, and was built between 527-565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian. You enter via descending 55 steps, only to be greeted by 336 giant columns and arches. There are also two Medusa heads, though their origins are unknown. Legend has it that because Medusa was beautiful, Athena became jealous of her love interest with Perseus, so she turned Medusa’s hair into snakes. Because of that, Medusa had the power to turn her onlookers into stone.
Located in the heart of the European side, Taksim was about five minutes from our apartment, and is a popular shopping and dining district for both tourists and locals. It is especially lively at night, and is a great place to have a drink or smoke hookah at the end of the day. It is just a fun and interesting atmosphere for people watching.
A large palace in Istanbul, Topkapi was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856). Today it is a major historical icon in the Muslim world, as well as the home of Muhammad’s cloak and sword.
One afternoon, Anna and I took the boat to the Asian side of Istanbul with her friend Ali (who is male), and who is living and studying in Istanbul. Asia is very residential and hipster, which surprised me. Ali informed us that it’s one if the most liberal parts of Istanbul, and it totally reminded me of parts of Milwaukee. We enjoyed an afternoon of coffee and tea, and seeing a whole different side of Istanbul. I recommend exploring the Asian side, but I’m definitely glad we had a local with us. On a side note, the times we with Ali (both in Asian and European sides of the country) were the ONLY times we were not hassled or catcalled by other men (we even tried wearing headscarves for a short while, too). It was eye-opening to know realize were officially being viewed as male property.
The Princes’ Islands
On our last day in Istanbul, Anna and I decided to venture to the four-chain Princes’ Islands in order to get away from the city. We took the boat for an hour and a half and arrived in the early afternoon. After a quick lunch, we rented bikes and explored the car-less, horse-drawn carriage-filled island. It was sunny and beautiful, and sometimes you forgot you were in Turkey. I recommend this as an off the beaten path destination while in Istanbul (though a Bosphorus tour is also a good option!)
I wasn’t a huge fan of Turkish coffee, but I think it’s something everyone should try. It is very thick, but it doesn’t taste much like coffee. It also has the power to tell your fortune; you tip the cup’s remains upside down inside your cup on the saucer, wait awhile, and then voila! A couple of the men who served us coffee at the Grand Bazaar told us ours. Mine corresponds slightly with my Halloween palm reading (though perhaps I’m just getting my hopes up.)
On the other hand, I absolutely loved the sweet apple tea, and ordered it every chance I had.
A few other treats…
Being Solo-Women in Istanbul
As much as I enjoyed and overall felt safe in Istanbul, and would recommend any female to travel there, whether it be alone or with a group, I will not deny that it was sometimes extremely overwhelming. The harassment, the haggling– it was a lot for me, and I wish I had better mentally prepared myself. However, do not let that stop you because it certainly did not ruin or change my trip or opinion of Turks. Whilst there, I met some extremely heartwarming, kind, and helpful people. It was amazing to say the least. On a cultural note, it was very cool interesting for me to see such a spectrum of women in Istanbul in regards to dress, from people like me with no head coverings, to simple scarves, to long dresses and tight head wraps, to complete hijab and veils.
Overall, Istanbul was an explosion of culture and colors all in one, and I enjoyed it very much! Have you ever been to Istanbul or Turkey? Would you like to go? Leave a comment.