Istanbul: Part I: The Old City

Early morning fishermen on the Bosphorus

It was our first morning in "The Old City" called Sultanahmet.  I kept pinching myself to be sure that we were actually here, really seeing these amazing views, and trying to break the surreal mix of virtual versus reality.

Knowing we had to push ourselves onto Istanbul time, P. and I left the kids at the hotel and went exploring at sunrise along the southern waters of the Bosphorus Sea.  Amazingly, the entire area was quiet and hushed. Only the local fishermen were out and busy with their morning routines, but there wasn't a tourist in sight.

1. Overhead of "Old City" 2. Galata Tower  3. Hotel window view 4. Hotel Valide Sultan Conagi

We  arrived the night before at the bustling Ataturk Airport, were whisked by car to our hotel in "the old city" and impatiently waited for morning to dawn.   The city, spread far and wide below us, dotted with one mosque after another, looked daunting.  I wondered if we would be able to figure out this massive city.  I feared all of my planning was in vain and this city would be too difficult to cover.

The doleful wailing of the morning prayers gently woke me up as a tinge of orange was perfuming the sky. I was pleasantly surprised at the softness of the prayers.  The voice was light, earnest, and drawn out as the morning prayers nudged the city to life.   As excited as I was, It didn't take much effort to get out of bed and swing open our large windows.  I relished taking in our first sights and sounds of this magnificent ancient city.

Not a cloud was in sight, a gentle breeze was blowing...and I gave myself another pinch to be sure this wonderful experience was real.

1. Seagulls 2. Many cats of Istanbul 3. Tea vendor on Bosphorus for fishermen 4. The Big and The Small, ships on the Bosphorus

The Turks must not be fans of the early morning hustle and bustle.  Many of the markets don't start buzzing until late morning.  At sunrise in this city of millions, the quiet was startling, peaceful, and unexpected for a city of this magnitude.  We walked quietly down the tiny bumpy cobblestone street that wound its way  to the water. The sweet smelling  jasmine that clung to the stone walls made the air light and fresh.  

Our footsteps echoed on the stones and it seemed as if the entire city was empty.  A trio of dogs rough-housed in the cool air completely ignoring our presence.  A few remnants of laundry from the previous day gently flapped in the breeze and they brought color to the neutral palette of the buildings.

Morning Sunrise on the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Along the shoreline, fishermen lined the rocky edge in brotherly fashion.  Rods quietly flung back and cast over head as they expertly went about their trade.  

I didn't realize it at the time, but this morning would hold such unique moments.  Never again during the week would we feel such a quiet and peaceful side of Istanbul.  Watching the fishermen cast their lines, listening to the waves roll over the rocky edge, and seeing the sun gently peek over the horizon presented a glimpse of what life might have looked like centuries ago when spice ships plied these ancient waters.  

1. Morning Sunrise (Bosphorus) 2. Cats at play 3. Fresh fish for dinner 4. Early Morning Fisherman 

Early Morning Fisher on the Bosphorus, Istanbul

Once we were down along the sea, we quietly walked  along the shoreline admiring the thick and lumbering ancient Roman walls that bordered Sultanahmet's "Old City".  An old man was preparing a large pot of hot water.  His tea pot steamed and whistled in the morning quiet as he prepared for the fishermen who would soon be looking for something hot to drink.  

Only when we approached the Galata Bridge did the line up of ferry docks abruptly bring more of a  hustle and bustle of people, cars, scooters, and tramways  into our quiet morning. 

Little did we realize we had walked about five miles and the anticipation of a hot cup of Turkish tea or coffee sounded like such a sweet reward for our tired feet.

1. Musician at Akbiyin Balikye Fish House 2. Ottomon Era artwork 3. Hooka Pipe 4. Faces of Istanbul

We planned to spend several days exploring the "old city" area of Sultanhamet before venturing out into the areas of Istanbul not so heavily travelled by tourists.  I broke our trip up into four geographic areas:

Part I:  The Old City: Sultanahmet
Part II: Crossing the Galata Bridge and The Grand Bazaar
Part III: Istanbul's Neighborhoods: Fatih and Istanbul Eats food tour
Part IV: Taking the Ferry:  Charming Karikoy

Aya Sophia at night

In an effort to keep ourselves awake the night before, we wandered around the Old City and were treated to the tourist sites lit up beautifully.  The market area was still open.  It is thrilling to experience this bustling area during the evening.  The Turkish lamps hang everywhere and twinkle with their bright mosaic patterns.  People, tired from the day, lounge around...some smoking the evocative scented steam pipes.  The simit venders call out "Simit!, Simit!, Simit!"

Whirling Dervish

There was the iconic "Whirling Dervish" demonstrating the important practice of this religious sect that originated during the Ottomon Empire.  His "whirling" represents man's journey through the spiritual mind and love to a spiritual state of "perfection".  

1. Megara Palace Hotel 2. Megara Palace Entryway 3.Neighborhood kitty 4. View from hotel window

We wandered up and down the streets of Sultanahmet in our hazy jet-lagged state, marveling at the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.  We knew that this part of Istanbul is concentrated with tourists.   For us, it was impressive to watch the tourists from all corners of the world that were milling about with us.  We heard french, chinese, arabic, spanish, and russian to name a few.   But it was the dress, the mannerisms, the conversations of the many cultures that captivated us as we watched families stroll about and take it all in.    

1. Tea Vendor on the Bosphorus shoreline 2. Trade Ships on the Bosphorus 3. Fresh Catch for dinner 4. Hamsi (Sardines)

We ended up choosing a seafood restaurant for our first restaurant experience.  Akbiyik Fish House drew us in with their display of fresh fish, upbeat lively music, and sweetly twinkling lights to welcome guests.  

I'm glad we didn't check TripAdvisor before choosing this restaurant.  It has very mixed reviews.  However, we were delighted with this choice.  The waiters were gracious and accommodating, the music was soft and soulful, and the seafood was delicious.  

A huge tray of mezes (little appetizer plates) were brought to the table.  We sampled the anchovy wrapped olives along with our first sip of Turkish wine.  We enjoyed the pink lentil soup and the crunchy fried squid.  The sea bass we ordered was moist, flaky and spiced well and accompanied by roasted vegetables, potatoes, and rice as well as a pomegranate/mint yogurt sauce.  The waiter patiently explained that we could order freshly caught sea bass or frozen sea bass for two different price options.

1. Meze/ Sardine wrapped olives (appetizers) 2. Meze Options 3. Musician in Sultanahmet 4. Sea Bass for dinner

We quickly learned that the Turkish restaurants love to put on a show for their guests.  Instead of a simple candle for the table, a formed swan figure was lit up and adored the center of our tray of prepared sea bass.  

We knew this was all for the tourist trade. We expected it,  we laughed at the creative energy of it and thoroughly enjoyed the fun of it all.  We knew we would have plenty of opportunities to taste the more authentic food of greater Istanbul soon.

Better yet, with our hotel only a few blocks down the quaint street our very tired feet thanked us for choosing to stay in the "old city".  Getting used to the miles and miles of walking we did each day on the bumpy stones and pavements of the city took its toll.  But by the third day, we were hoofing it around with no problem.

1. Simit (Bagel-like) street food 2. Mosque spire 3. Blue Mosque 4. Puffed Dinner Pita for Hummus

We started our tour of this area with the Topkapi Palace of the sultans.  This vast palace area was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465-1856) of their 624-year reign.  The palace grounds have several unattached building that showcase life during the Imperial Era.  Our favorite rooms were "The Arms Collection" and "The Imperial Treasury Room".  

The line to buy tickets at the Topkapi Palace was very long.  We learned that if we buy a "museum pass" at the Archeological Museum, the line is short, the pass is good for 3 days, and it is a good value.  This was very good advice and we saved lots of time that would have been spent in very long hot lines.

1. Windows of Sultanahmet 2. Stained Glass in mosque 3. street scenes of Sultanahmet 4. Seagulls at breakfast

After picking up a few lamb kebabs wrapped in pitas, we rested our feet in the square overlooking the Blue Mosque.  The people-watching here is terrific.  It's all tourist watching but they hail from all over the globe.   

Sorry to say, I was disappointed by the Blue Mosque.  It is huge.  It spans the skyline of Istanbul and certainly is the most beautiful of the mosques.  My expectations were immense. We shuffled into it slowly.  I had no idea how uncomfortable I would feel once I wrapped  my head with a scarf.  I wrapped another scarf around my shoulders and began getting overheated within minutes.  It was hot and taking photos with the head scarf and shoulder scarf irritated me.  I am very much respectful of all religions but had no idea how uncomfortable the scarf wrapped around my head and shoulders would feel.  

In addition, we were pressed body to body with hundreds of others.  I'm afraid the smell of hot bodies and bare sweaty feet was a bit overwhelming for me.  The area for viewing is limited and the amount of time inside the mosque took about 10 minutes.   

No was nothing a cup of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from one of the many street vendors couldn't cure. 

1. View from hotel window 2. Market Knick-knacks 3. Turkish lights 4. Sultanahmet Köftecisi

One evening, we sampled one of the recommended restaurants in the "old city" from the guide "Istanbul Eats"...Tarhini Sultanahmet Koftecisi.  This was a fun stop and we sat overlooking the Hagia Sophia lit up at night across the bustling street Divan Yolu Avenue (or Cadessi) which is the main avenue that runs through the Old City.

We ordered the famous Istanbul "meatballs", or "Izgara köfte, and enjoyed them with a fresh white bean side salad, roasted peppers, and spicy red pepper sauce.

The waiters, apparently taken with our bumbling attempt to order our entire meal in Turkish, brought a complementary dessert to our table.  It was a dessert called "Irmik Helvasi".  The dish is made from cooked semolina grain that is mixed with honey, butter, and pinenuts.  It was delicious and had a taste that was simple but good.

Jasmine tea (market finds)

Within the historical "Old City" there is a market area that I didn't expect.  Several blocks are lined up with shop vendors selling everything from spices, tea, ceramics, leather, souvenirs, and trinkets.  I was actually impressed with the quality of the items for sale.  I thought it would be all cheap trinkets for children, but there were some nice items on display.

We strolled down this area in the evening as the Turkish lanterns twinkled all around us.  Think of this area as "training ground" for The Grand Bazaar and The Egyptian Spice Market.  Don't be offended by the heavy-sales approach of the vendors.  A quick smile, a shaking of the head, and a pleasant "Iyi aksamlar" (Good evening) quickly ends the sales pitch.  Most sales people were shocked when we attempted to speak Turkish and a huge grin and a grateful expression crossed their faces.  

I told my kids, "Don't be rude if you feel they are pushy."  Think of yourselves as ambassadors of your country.  This is a different culture and they have heavy competition for sales. Be gracious and kind as opposed to irritated and short."

1. Spices of Istanbul 2. Blue Mosque 3. Street Light 4. Market Ceramics (Sultanahmet)

A Little "Sultan" at the Hippodrome

This "little sultan" had a marvelous time and was completely captivated chasing the pigeons in the Hippodrome.  He was a delight to watch as he flailed his white cape out and ran from one end to the other.

1. View across Galata Bridge 2. Turkish History 3. Obelisk of Thutmose III 4. Many restaurants of Sultanahmet

The Hippodrome is a large square alongside the Blue Mosque.  This area marks the sporting and social center of the ancient Romans where chariot races took place when the city was called Constantinople.  Adorning one end Hippodrome area is a  3500-year-old Egyptian granite Obelisk of Theodosius, brought to Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius in 390 AD.  

390 hard to imagine!

1. Playing Backgammon, popular pastime 2. Kitty Cuteness 3. Roasted Corn (Street Food) 4. Strolling Couple

Roasted Corn on the cob, Simit (sesame bagels), fresh watermelon, and pomegranate juice were the street foods of the Old City.  Even on the tramway and all over the rest of Istanbul, people enjoyed feasting on the roasted corn.  Quite a sight to see!

The iconic shoeshine man of Istanbul's backstreets

We enjoyed the sights and sounds of the Old City tremendously.  We were prepared for the "tourist draw" and with that in mind, we embraced the chance to be dazzled, entertained and eased into greater Istanbul for those first few days.

1. Candy making fun 2. Playing in front of The Blue Mosque 3. Family Snuggles 4. More Candy making fun

The tramway was easy to use, convenient, and a welcome relief from the miles of walking we did each day.  We tried hard to find the "akbil" card that can be purchased but the source of its purchase eluded us.  It is a card that can be loaded with liras and just swiped every time transportation is used in Istanbul.

The token machines were so readily available at each stop as well as the ferry terminals, that we just inserted our coins, received a red plastic token and hopped on the tramway and ferries.

Tramway at Sultanahmet Stop (easy, cheap, and useful)

1. Rose Tea at market 2. City scape view 3. Breakfast view 4. Tour Groups of Sultanahmet

Breakfast at our hotel is worth mentioning.  We are definitely breakfast people.  Our hotel's breakfast choices pleased us and it was wonderful to begin the long day with a nice slow full breakfast and a gorgeous view over the Bosphorus Sea.  I'm sure there are more luxurious breakfasts out there at other hotels but the hot tea (çay) and strong coffee as well as cheeses, olives, eggs, sausages, simit, yogurts, dried fruits, honey, jams, and halva (yes...halva at breakfast!) was filling and  put us on the right footing for the long day ahead.  

Our hotel staff at Palace Megara Hotel were delightful, funny, and helpful.  We are a family of four and needed two rooms.  Our hotel was clean, sufficient, and extremely well situated to all the sights.  The interior decor was suitable, nothing unique, but for the price of the rooms, view, breakfast, and convenient location, we (and our budget) were pleased.

Breakfast Morning view of busy Bosphorus (Sultanahmet)

Each day, we added more words and phrases to our limited vocabulary and the smiles that lit up the staff faces were reward enough for the effort.

We learned to say our room number in Turkish as well as simple greetings like "Gunaydin" (Good Morning) and "Nasilsiniz" (How are you?)

1. Aya Sophia at night 2. Light of Aya Sophia 3. Aya Sophia Interior 4. Mosaics uncovered

As underwhelmed as we were by The Blue Mosque, we were completely transported through history, captivated and awe-struck when stepping inside of the The Hagia Sophia.

We all agreed that this structure, its history, its massiveness, its beauty, and its mystique are beyond comparison to anything we have ever seen before.  The Hagia Sophia is not to be missed and if possible a listening tour is recommended.

Blue Mosque at Night

Scenes from inside Aya Sophia

Beautiful Cool Floors in Aya Sophia

In addition to seeing the sites, there are a few other food items we had fun sampling.  One in particular we enjoyed several times is called "icli kofte".  This is a savory appetizer that I loved.  It consists of a bulgar wheat shell that is either fried or baked.  The filling is ground lamb, onions, spices, and parsley.  I could make a meal out of these little nuggets.

Turkish Tile and Colors

The Basilica Cistern was a stop that was unintentionally timed well for us.  It was late afternoon, fairly hot, and we were getting pretty tired.

The line was short so we ducked into The Basilica Cistern hoping for a cool relief from the late afternoon sun.  The cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and is one of many underneath the city of Istanbul.The ceiling is supported by a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres (30 ft) high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each spaced 4.9 metres (16 ft) apart.

The Basilica Cistern (underground water storage for ancient basilica)

The Cistern provided a water filtration system for the palaces in the area.  The water came from the Eğrikapı Water Distribution Center in the Belgrade Forest, which lies 19 kilometres (12 mi) north of the city. 

It traveled through the 971 metres (3,186 ft)-long Valens (Bozdoğan) Aqueduct, and the 115.45 metres (378.8 ft)-long Mağlova Aqueduct, which was built by the Emperor Justinian.

The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, despite being virtually empty today with only a few feet of water lining the bottom.

1. Roasted Corn Vendor at night 2. Night Scenes around Sultanahmet 3. Hotel Megara Palace 4. Quiet streets of Sultanahmet after tourists depart

With all of the sites of "the old city" seen and appreciated for their immense size and historical, cultural, and architectural significance, we were ready to cross the Galata Bridge.  It was time to venture out into the current day Istanbul to experience how Turks live, work, and play in this modern time.

Each day spent in the city peeled back another layer of Istanbul's personality and culture.  We found aspects that delighted us, puzzled us, and dazzled us.  

The geographic location of this amazing city spans centuries of trade history that has been conquered and reconquered over and over again.  The unique opportunity to see the impact of those religious, cultural, and trade route effects on a city like Istanbul is one that we will never forget.

The Old City:  Restaurants

Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi (Istanbul Eats recommended)(specializes in köfte meatballs)
Divanyolu Caddesi 12
212 520 0566
11am to midnight

Akbiyik Fish House 
Mimar Mehmet Aga Caddesi No: 33/1A
Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey (Bosphorus)
0 212 458 28 68

Hotels: Sultanahmet (Old City)

Megara Palace Hotel (budget/very nice/super convenient)
Ishakpasa Cadessi No. 8
34140 Istanbul, Turkey

90 212 518 36 56

Hotel Valide Sultan Conagi (luxury)

Ishakpasa Cad. Kutlugün Sk. No: 1
Sultanahmet – Istanbul
+90 (212) 517 6558

Cankurtaran Mah. Ishakpasa Cad. Kutlugün Sk. No: 1 Sultanahmet – Istanb

Helpful Words for getting around:

Hello = merhabah
Good Morning = Gunaydin (gew-dahy-duhn)
How are you? = Nasilsiniz (Nahs-sui-suh-nuhz)
Please = Lutfen
Good Evening = Iyi aksamlar (ee ahksham-Lahr)
Goodbye = Allaha ismariadik (ah-lahs=mahr=lah=duk)
Thank you/thanks = Tesekkur Ederim or Sag (sowl) or mersi 
How much?  Kaç Lira?  (kahch lira)
Where is = nerede
Toilet/bathroom = tuvalet (too-vah-leht)
Yes = Evet
No = Hah-yuhr
I would like = istiyorum
I would like bill = asab istiyorum
My name is = adim (ah-duhm)
I'm lost = kayboldum
Excuse me = Pardon
Delicious = lezzetli

Foods/Dishes mentioned in this article:

meze - a tray of little plates of appetizers that is brought to the table before the main course
çay - turkish tea
simit - bagel-like street food with sesame seeds
Izgara Kofte - spiced meatballs grilled on a skewer served with roasted vegetables and pita bread
icli kofte - a savory appetizer consisting of bulgur wheat shell that holds filling of ground meat, onions, parsley, and spices.

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