An American in Istanbul

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Brett here, the husband of the wonderful Melanie! ;) Shortly after Thanksgiving, I took a solo trip to Turkey and Ukraine since Melanie was doing a girls trip with some friends of hers. Here is my adventure in the intriguing country of Turkey! Turkey has so much history to learn about, interesting cuisines to taste, and countryside to explore. Istanbul, Turkey's largest city, was in the top five most visited cities in the world but has dropped to number eight due to terrorism in recent years. I went on a solo journey to this historical city and enjoyed every minute of it. From touring the inside of Hagia Sophia to finding good deals in the Grand Bazaar with my new Russian friends. I was actually in Istanbul on two different occasions – before and after my trip to Kiev, Ukraine. The first time I stayed in the Sultanahmet area and the second time in the Yesilkoy neighborhood.

Sultan Ahmet Camii / Blue Mosque

1. The 20,000 blue tiles were made in Iznik, an area well-known for making high quality ceramic tiles, from the Ottoman Empire. These tiles contribute to the mosque's name.

2. There are exactly 260 windows.

3. This mosque is the only one in Istanbul with 6 minarets (the tall pencil like towers).

The first thing I went to see was Sultanahmet Cami, or more commonly known as Blue Mosque. It was built in the 1600s! While it is a popular tourist attraction, it is still a fully functioning mosque. There is no fee to visit. It was a Tuesday morning and there were hardly any crowds of tourists. Luckily there was barely anyone there, but later in the day the mosque was packed with tourists. The best time to go is in the morning. While I enjoyed visiting a mosque for the first time, it was a bit underwhelming especially since it is so well known. Don't forget to buy some sweet corn from the food stands outside the mosque!

Hagia Sophia

1. It has been a holy place for 3 different religions.

2. It was demolished twice by riots.

3. Columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus were used to help create this structure.

Before it was a museum, it was a place of worship. Initially, it was a church but was torn down only to be rebuilt as a church for a different religion. It eventually became a mosque and in 1935 became a historical and monumental museum. It was a place of worship for Greek Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Ottoman Islamic, and now is a museum for tourists. Beauty was around every corner in this timeless structure. It was definitely worth the $11! Instead of taking stairs to the second floor, you have to walk about a series of stone ramps. A person could easily spend 2 or more hours here.

The Grand Bazaar

I strolled down Istiklal Street finding somewhere to drink after my dinner at 360 Istanbul. I came across a sign advertising a rooftop bar, Smog. I went up to the top and was greeted by amazing views of the city. I sat and had beer and was eventually befriended by two Russians, Paul and Kseniya. He worked in marketing and she was a child psychologist in the city of Krasnoyarsk (the 3rd largest city in Siberia). After a long night of laughs and discussing each other’s home countries, we met up the next day to check our one of the world’s largest and oldest bazaars.

We walked through the massive maze of shops ranging from lamps to clothing to sweets to spices and herbs. I bought a cheap yet big bag of hot spices to bring back home. In my opinion, the Grand Bazaar could be skipped during one's stay in Istanbul. Every block or corner had pretty much the same stores but with different prices. The goods are cheap, but you can fetch better prices in shops near your hotel or Airbnb. However, you can find cheap knockoffs of luxury brands here if you want to ball on a budget.

We eventually stopped and had some Turkish coffee while we planned out our next stop. We decided to take the subway to the observation deck of the Sapphire Tower and have lunch in the skyscraper's massive mall. Due to the foggy and rainy weather, we couldn't see much from the lookout at the top. After plenty of food and laughs, my new friends had to depart for their plane back to the coastal town they were staying at, Antalya.

Turkish Cuisine

Meat lovers and vegetarians can indulge in all of Turkey’s spectacular foods. From cheap kebab to hearty lentil soup! Turkish people also pride themselves on their savory pastries. I'd recommend traditional Baklava. No matter how much I ate, I kept going back for more.

Things to try:

- Kurufasulye (stewed white beans, olive oil, onions, and tomato sauce)

- Dolma (vegetables stuffed with rice, onion, and spices)

- Bulgur Pilavi (wheat with onions, peppers, tomatoes, olive oil, and spices)

- Doner Kebab (like a sandwich served with lamb, chicken, beef, or falafel)

- Semolina Halva (semolina with ice cream)

- Baklava (pistachios, sweet syrup, and filo)

I did a dinner tour with an organization and I managed to be the only person who booked it. I met with my guide, Burak, in front of a Turkish restaurant on the street of Divan Yolu right by Hagia Sophia. As I followed him we chatted and got to know each other. We went off the beaten path for a little bit and eventually we stopped and he knocked on a window. We walked inside of a building and were greeted by Saray, the kind woman who cooked my meal. With it being a very religious family, I took my shoes off and walked inside to the living room where I sat down on the ground. Waiting for me was sliced oranges, bread, a type of yogurt, and a salad made of tomato and onion. As I snacked on the appetizers, Saray brought me a bowl and a plate. The delicious soup contained lentil, potato, onion, garlic, and spices. The plate had bulgur (wheat) and stew chicken. I felt bad asking for seconds but Saray was more than happy to bring me a second serving and was ecstatic that I enjoyed it so much.

After Burak and I cleaned our plates, Saray took them and brought us chai tea. Traditional teacups here don’t have a handle so you must hold the very top of the glass. I had two cups of tea while I enjoyed small cookies that resembled mini apple pies. With Burak being my translator, we all talked about food, Turkey, and life. After we said our goodbyes, Burak took me to a local shisha bar. He ordered us apple tea and apple flavored shisha. As we sipped and smoked, we discussed Turkish politics, immigration across the globe, our dreams, and so much more. Since midnight was approaching, it was time to part ways. After I thanked him for a very informative and memorable evening, I headed back to my hotel but not before grabbing two cheap beers from a small market.

Overall, it was an unforgettable experience. I recommend everyone visit at least once to see all that this fantastic city wields. You can explore all the history the city holds in the Sultanhamet area or wine and dine from a posh rooftop in the Etiler neighborhood. Historical knowledge, life-long friends, and a full stomach – Istanbul will always have a special place in my heart!