It’s Saturday night in the old town of Istanbul. The sun has set beyond our vision, although light still reflects upon the buildings and sea. Hubby and I have just finished our dinner and stare out at the water from the rooftop terrace where we sit. Boats are anchored, shut down for the night, awaiting morning when they will be allowed passage through the Bosporus. No boats pass through the Bosporus strait – or Istanbul strait, as it is also known – during the night, it being too narrow to navigate when dark.
The Bosporus is the narrowest strait in international navigation and connects the Black Sea (think Russia) to Marmara Sea that leads to the Aegean Sea (think Greece) that then leads to the Mediterranean (think many wonderful places…Spain, Italy…).
We normally don’t travel to old town because (a) it is the main sightseeing area, so we have visited quite a few times already (remember the number of visitors we have had so far?) and (b) it’s an hour taxi ride from where we live. However, we won a free dinner at the school’s spring dance, and who are we to turn down a free meal? Granted, we had to pay for taxis, but they are reasonable here. Plus, it’s so lovely, eating on the rooftop terraces that abound in old town, walking along the brick-lined streets.
Which is what we do after dinner. The hotel points us in the direction of Sultanahmet and off we go, headed into the heart of old town, its streets beating with the hustle and bustle of life and leading us to sights that are the main feasts for tourists’ eyes and anyone else who appreciates majestic architecture.
As we stroll, we feel very safe and not out of place (my husband, who looks more Italian than Swedish, doesn’t stand out but is only sometimes taken for a Turk; I, on the other hand, seem to have an O+ face…one that works for any nationality…so I am mistaken for a Turk here; a Spaniard when I studied in Spain; a Hungarian when we lived in Budapest; a German when I worked in Germany; and a Russian when we were in Moscow…although I never am mistaken for a Swede…they can spot a bottle blonde a Swedish mile away…not to mention their small, sculpted noses, not exactly the description that would fit my more prominent olfactory organ, ahem).
Istanbul is a huge city (officially 13.5 million but probably much higher than that unofficially), however, it feels more like hundreds of neighborhoods connected. As I said, it feels safe. Comfortable. Of course, there must be bad areas and crime. Of course there must be gangs and unsavory characters. However, that is not the case where we are (or anywhere we have roamed, walked, run, or tripped). Kids tend to be held close by families, Turks being very social and family oriented people. We don’t see any loiterers. We only see people out enjoying their Saturday evening.
We stroll along the streets teeming with stores and restaurants with sidewalk seating. People are conversing, eating, smiling, and shopping (the stores are still open at 9pm). Couples walk hand-in-hand or sit side-by-side on the park benches along the way. The smell of kebab and a hundred more kinds of tasty fare waft across the air. We are invited to sit down by the different restaurants’ hosts and partake of their culinary offerings. We decline, saying we have already eaten, and they smile, say ‘next time’ and ‘have a good evening.’
We reach two of the main monuments, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. They are situated about a city block from each other, so one’s eyes ping pong between both, indecisive about which one to admire first. They are both softly lit up, and people meander about the park and hippodrome area that separate the two giants.
Hagia Sophia (below left), built in the 6th century, was used as a church for 900 years before Istanbul (Constantinople at the time) was conquered by the Ottomans. It was converted to a mosque and used as such for almost 500 years before it became a museum. It is spectacularly large and largely spectacular, a sight not to be missed.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (below right) has been coined the Blue Mosque for its blue tiles adoring its walls. It is smaller, newer (built in the 17th century) and still used as a mosque, although its beautiful interior of ceramic tiles, marble, stained glass, and other decorative flourishes makes it a popular tourist attraction.
Around the corner lies Topkapi Palace (below), a small city of buildings sitting on beautiful grounds that comprised home for the Ottoman sultans and their families (and concubines, servants, etc….up to 4000 people) until 1856 when a sultan eschewed Topkapi for the newly built, European-styled Dolmabahçe Palace. One can tour the buildings or just wander around the different courtyards and enjoy the grounds.
Close by are other sights, like the cavernous, fascinating Basilica Cistern or the Grande Bazaar. No matter where you roam in old town, the streets are peppered with tourists and locals alike, as well as sellers with food carts heavy with boiled or grilled corn, pomegranate juice, watermelons, roasted chestnuts, kebab, and other goodies. Plenty of fuel to see you through a busy day of touring.
And when you are done sightseeing, you are ready for my favorite pastime here, the thing we came down to old town to do: sit and relax in a sidewalk or rooftop restaurant and soak up good food, good wine, and good views.