First and foremost, I must begin with the disclosure that my experience is a bit different from most, in that when Jackie, Yesenia, and I planned this trip, we failed to realize that one of the biggest Muslim holidays of the year was set to coincide with the dates that we had selected. For us, this meant that the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market were closed, and many Turkish citizens were on holiday, visiting their families as well as the numerous mosques, palaces, and monuments around Istanbul.
(Editor’s note: you can find a much more compact version of this post at the bottom of this page)
Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of the Sacrifice, is the second of two holidays celebrated by Muslims around the world each year, the first being Eid al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast that concludes the month of Ramadan. The Feast of the Sacrifice is a four-and-a-half-day commemoration of the faithfulness of Ibrahim to obey Allah’s command to sacrifice his son.
The first day of Eid consists of prayers and sermons, for which one is required to wear their best (and ideally new) clothing. A sacrifice is performed on an animal known as an aḍḥiya, which is usually a cow, but can also be another type of livestock, depending on the region. The sacrificed animal is then typically divided into three parts: one part for the family, one part for friends and relatives, and one part for the poor and needy, although the family may decide how or if they wish to split up the aḍḥiya. The intention of the donation is to ensure that everyone has a chance to partake in the celebratory feast during the holiday. Following the sacrifice, many citizens spend the rest of the days visiting family and friends and enjoying God’s greatest gifts.
Arrival: First Impressions
Although we did not witness any sacrifices or blood-filled streets (we were told by fellow travelers in our hostel that that is a common sight in smaller Turkish cities), the Feast had a definite impact on our visit. When we first arrived, we hopped off the tram at the Grand Bazaar to grab some döner. After our dinner, which was nothing if not memorable due to the pushy owner, we walked around the perimeter of the Grand Bazaar to get a feel for the city. What we encountered was not at all what we expected: despite having arrived in a city with a population of over 14 million, we walked up and down street after street, greeted by none but cats hoping for scraps of festival treats.
Outside the Grand Bazaar, which contains over 3,000 shops and dates back to the 15th century, are hundreds more shops, but I can only guess at their wares, as their mats were rolled up and lights turned off. The narrow cobblestone streets twist and turn, following no definite pattern, and the elevation changes constantly, instilling curiosity as to what might lie below the ancient stones. The streets and their sidewalks were strewn with debris, and I am not sure if this is due to celebrations relating to the Feast, or if it is a common sight to see after a long day of haggling and handshaking. Dozens of cats with beautiful multicolored coats watched us from doorsteps and streetcorners, seemingly aware of our unfamiliarity with our surroundings.
At length we made our way out of the maze of hauntingly empty alleyways and back onto the main street that runs alongside the railway. Nearly every shop along the main street was open, so we did a bit of browsing, and quickly learned the basics of Istanbul markets. When one looks very much like a tourist, as we did with our backpacks, and when one speaks English, one is extremely likely to be assaulted by the aggressive vendors. Jeans, shoes, lamps, scarves, and perfume were all confidently recommended to us as we walked, consequently encouraging us to continue our journey on to the next stall. We began speaking in German whenever we were within earshot of someone who might overhear our discourse, which was quite effective in preventing unwanted shouting from vendors. I practiced a bit of haggling that night, because there is quite an art to it, and I wanted to hone my skills before I actually bought anything. But more on that later.
Once we had had our fill of sightseeing, we hopped on the next tram toward Karaköy. After about 15 minutes on the tram, we made it to our hostel, where we checked in and were delighted to find that we had the room to ourselves.
Day 1 – Thursday: Haggling, Simit, Asia, and Entrails
The next day was very much unscheduled, as we had realized by that point that most museums and mosques would be closed for most of the day. Finding a spot for breakfast was an adventure in itself, as many restaurant owners had closed up in order to enjoy the benefits of a national holiday. After a savory meal and some delicious tea at a small restaurant facing the Bosphorus, we headed down to the Galata Bridge in the direction of Eminönü, which houses the Spice Market.
I had read in a guidebook that in earlier years, one could visit a fishing boat docked along the Galata Bridge and purchase a piece of bread with a hunk of freshly caught fish. This morsel of knowledge had my mouth watering, as in southern Germany, fresh fish is a luxury. Today, however, there are no boats docked along the bridge, but there are dozens of restaurants from which to choose, each boasting a plethora of seafood that could rival the Wharf in San Francisco. The view from the bridge is equally commendable; on either side, easily accessible through tunnels under the roadways, are panoramic views filled with mosques, palaces, restaurants, and lowrises. The Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and in turn the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, sparkles with vigor, delighted to embrace such a vibrant city.
Although the Spice Market was not open, the streets of Eminönü were bustling with activity. A few shops outside the Market stood wide open, offering coffees, teas, and spices, and vendors lined the streets in front of the markets, giving demonstrations on cigar rollers, Spirographs, and hand stitching devices. All sorts of clothing hung from racks, and table upon table was covered in wallets, belt buckles, cell phone cases, and more shoes. By walking quickly and speaking German, we managed to avoid most harassment by merchants hoping to make a sale, but the cacophony of voices and crowd of people wore at us quickly. We beelined out of Eminönü in the direction of the Spice Bazaar to find a reasonably priced currency exchange, and we found a few less-chaotic streets that offered items in which we had greater interest.
Before long, we had collected sufficient data as to the average price of items that we liked, and we had numbers in our heads as to what we would like to pay. I was chomping at the bit to flex my haggling muscles, so we entered a small bazaar off of a main street. Inside, we scored some beautiful scarves, and Jackie even got a great lamp for her dorm room. Further down the street, outside the bazaar, we worked a merchant down to half price for two plates, managed to get a great deal on some blended teas, and just outside the Spice Bazaar, I acquired my pride and joy of the trip: a Turkish rug that now greets me every time I walk through my bedroom door. I saved us a total of about 130 TL, and I definitely have discovered a new habit in which I will most likely indulge when the environment is appropriate. There’s just something satisfying about winning an argument and getting what you want that I can’t quite put my finger on…
After we dropped off our haul at our conveniently located hostel, we hopped on the tram towards Kabataş, where we would be able to catch a ferry towards Kadiköy, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul (bottom right corner of aforementioned nifty map). Before we embarked on our journey, I stopped at a simit stand for a snack. For those of you who have never heard of simit,
I’m sorry let me educate you. Simit, a sort of bagel, has been a staple for Turks in Istanbul for almost 500 years. It is bread dough twisted into a circle, covered in sesame seeds, and baked to chewy, savory perfection and sold for one Turkish Lira (about 0,30€ or $0.34). I don’t know if it was the delightful texture, my unhealthy obsession with bread, or the fact that the considerable amount of sesame seeds reminded me in a morbid way of my pet snake Palti (miss ya bub), but I could not eat enough of these things. Sooo good.
Anyway, we happily munched on simit on the ferry ride across the Bosphorus, enjoying the beautiful view of the Turkish skyline that stretched out before us. If you are ever in Istanbul, I highly recommend taking a ferry as opposed to a cruise. I think we spent around 10 TL (3,00€ or $3.40) for all three of us to travel across and back, whereas a cruise costs on average 30,00€ and only lasts about half an hour longer. Yes, you do see more on a longer cruise, but if you’re like me and would rather be walking around the city than looking at it, then a roundtrip ferry ride is more than enough.
Once we reached the continent of Asia, we looked around and set off in the direction that appealed to us most. The great thing about the girls with whom I traveled is that we all firmly agree that adventure lies in the unknown and unplanned, and so there were no issues with exploring whatever caught the interest of any of us as we strolled along. Our main goal in Asia was to explore the streets, observe the differences between the two sides of the city, and most importantly, enjoy a nice hot cup of Turkish coffee.
We certainly had our fill of streets as we wandered along, enjoying the views and following Jackie’s finely tuned coffee sniffer. After quite a while, we finally came across a corner café and cheerfully popped in to check out the menu. We were greeted by a friendly Turk who spoke very little English and even less German. He enthusiastically played charades with us, eager to serve such an interesting variety of foreign ladies, and finally pulled out a paper and pencil. I wrote down many variants of the word (coffee, kaffee, cafe, etc.) until he clapped his hands, ushered us outside, and set to work preparing our beverages.
Before long, he emerged with hot (and I mean scalding hot) mugs of…something. It smelled coffee-ish, and after it finally cooled enough to sip, we thought back and remembered one of his guesses during our game of charades: Nescafé. Ohhhh. Not Turkish coffee. Instant coffee. The flavored kind of which Elementary School Holly was so fond. Despite this, we were not at all put out, especially due to the wonderful conversation we had with our host. He proudly told us that he had been a teacher, and had studied a bit of English in school. I pulled out one of my guidebooks that I purchased at a bookstore in Horb, and we had a great time going through and translating all sorts of words from German to Turkish. “Lütfen, yes….ah, bitte!” “Banane. Ahh, okay, muz!” We also discussed things we had heard about before arriving in the city, such as little blue shuttles called dolmuş, which transport large numbers of people to a fixed destination (dolmuş translates to “stuffed” in English), which, as it turns out, had been driving before my eyes the entire time I was sipping my coffee. I suppose I imagined old, run-down vans, not roomy and almost comfortable-looking buses.
Once our cups were empty, we gathered our things and stood, pulling out our coin purses. The man refused to take payment from us, saying that the conversation was wonderful and he enjoyed our company. We were taken aback by his generosity, and after thanking him with our new vocabulary (teşekkür ederim) we set off towards the market in the direction he indicated.
Once back in Europe, we headed back to Karaköy and beelined for a coffee shop that Jackie had had her eye on earlier. Here, we enjoyed some authentic Turkish coffee (I don’t know anything about it other than that it’s fancy and was served with Turkish Delight, so don’t ask me). Afterwards, we visited a restaurant on the water and pointed at dishes on the menu that looked interesting, taking turns trying each others’ food after it arrived. We spent the rest of the evening wandering around some more, and found a great part of Karaköy that offers some awesome restaurants and nightlife, and if we weren’t planning on getting up with the sun the next morning, we would have stayed there a bit longer. As we passed a restaurant, we looked over the menu, and had a fun discovery – Yesenia’s odd-tasting meal earlier that evening turned out to be grilled sheep intestines.
At the hostel that night, we enjoyed a beer up on the roof, and were joined by several other hostellers, as well as two of the staff members who had the evening off. One of the staff baked a cake, consisting of chocolate, cinnamon, Nutella, corn flakes, and other random items from the kitchen, and we snacked on that while we swapped stories of our adventures in Istanbul and elsewhere. If you haven’t stayed at a hostel before, I highly recommend it, and do your best to get to know your neighbors! I can almost guarantee that you won’t regret it.
Day 2 – Friday: Palace and Mosque Tour
Although we only stayed up until about 1 am, we were exhausted the next morning. We had arranged for a tour of the Sultanahmet, which contains such legends as the Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and the Basilica Cistern. Our tour was awesome and informative, and we saw more ruins and historical structures than we could comprehend. Topkapı Palace was beautiful and expansive, sprawling atop the hills overlooking the flow of the Sea of Marmara into the Bosphorus Strait. We walked along the same hallways and stood on the same terraces that the wives, girlfriends, concubines, and servants of the sultans used to walk, and as I admired the ornate designs laid into the tiles, fountains, doorways, and balconies, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like four or five hundred years ago for those who resided there.
After the Palace was the Basilica Cistern, an astonishingly large underground water storage system built in the 6th century. The fact that this exists is mindboggling enough, but knowing that it was built before paper was even a thing made it difficult to take in my surroundings. After it was constructed by a team of over 7,000 slaves, the Basilica Cistern employed a water purification system to supply water for Constantinople, and continued to remain in use after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and further into more modern times. Today, it is (thankfully) not in use, but it is still in excellent condition.
We emerged just outside the Hippodrome, where we saw the Million Stone, which is part of an archway that was erected in the 4th century to measure distances of the roads to the cities of the Byzantine Empire. Apparently the Million disappeared sometime in the beginning of the 16th century, but some fragments were unearthed below houses in the area, ergo Million Stone.
After we broke for lunch, we entered the Hagia Sophia. I did not know much about the Hagia Sophia before we arrived, other than that it was completed in 537 AD originally as a Christian patriarchal basilica, then converted into a mosque in 1453 by Mehmed II, and finally was converted into a museum in 1934. Before we entered the Hagia Sophia, however, our tour guide informed us that this is actually the third Hagia Sophia: the first, called Megale Eklesia or Great Church, was built in 360 AD and destroyed during riots in 404 AD, and the second was built in 415 AD and burned down in the Nika revolt of 532 AD. It was called the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, meaning Holy Wisdom, around 430 AD.
The interior of the Hagia Sophia is impossible to capture with words. My jaw dropped as I walked further towards the center of the central dome, which is 55.6 meters (182 feet 5 inches) from the ground floor, with a diameter of around 31 meters, or 102 feet. The original Christian mosaics were covered during the conversion, but efforts are being made to uncover these, so there is a unique and marvelous combination of artwork. I cannot accurately put into words how incredible this structure is, and I do not want to fall short, so I will simply say that I highly recommend a visit to the Hagia Sophia if it is possible.
After the Hagia Sophia, we reached our final destination: the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Camii. Completed in 1616 AD and usually referred to as the Blue Mosque, it remains an active mosque, which means that visitors must respect the Muslim traditions and remove their shoes and cover their shoulders and legs, and women must also cover their heads. This mosque was incredibly crowded, although very beautiful, with over 20,000 hand-painted tiles with over 50 tulip designs. The Blue Mosque is, as its name suggests, very blue, with low-hanging chandeliers and over 200 stained glass windows. This mosque is probably best seen before the Hagia Sophia, as we were still recovering from the overwhelming experience and could not fully appreciate this smaller, newer, and less-ornate mosque.
After exiting, we browsed the streets one final time. I made use of one of the public foot baths in a small bazaar (due to the stares I received, I am not sure that women are typically permitted to do this, but I enjoyed it thoroughly), and we sampled some Turkish Delight in a shop that was not very happy to answer questions. Because it was our last evening in Istanbul, we spent our time wandering the streets, soaking in as much as we could. We went to bed that night exhausted and ready to head back home.
I have attempted to write this with less documentation of our activities, but that has proved to be quite difficult, so I’ve decided to touch on a few final topics that stood out to me.
For the most part, we had pleasant encounters with the locals, but we definitely had unpleasant ones as well, and there was rarely a middle ground. Many of the merchants we spoke with were incredibly pushy and insensitive, and they were not fond of answering questions or spending much time on us (one man even shouted angrily at Jackie to hurry up and choose something). We refused to purchase anything from people like this, and as a result, spent more time with more pleasant people, such as the man from whom I bought my rug, who was very amiable and talkative. It is my suspicion that this had something to do with the Feast, as the more cheerful (and successful) merchants were not in their shops, and instead enjoying time with their families.
Again, I think that if we were to go at a regular time of year, we would have tasted better food. Our first night, we were pressured into eating at an outdoor restaurant that served us glorified cardboard referred to as “yufka” along with a generous serving of irritating, rude, personal space-less Turk. Our other eating experiences (aside from a wonderful omelette breakfast on our first morning and, of course, simit) were nothing special. The sheep intestines were quite terrible (my immediate thought was of a farmyard upon tasting it), although to be fair, I have not tasted sheep intestines before, so I don’t have a basis of comparison. Again, I think the better restaurants were not open due to the holiday. Luckily, this didn’t have much of an impact on my overall experience.
Although around 98 percent of citizens in Turkey are Muslim, we did not meet any Muslims in Istanbul. Additionally, when the call to worship sounded from the minarets of the mosques, I did not see one person praying, nor at any other time of day. In fact, the only man I saw praying on his mat was in the airport in Stuttgart on our way to Istanbul. What’s more, when asking about the holiday, every vendor reported that they do not practice a religion or observe the holiday. This is easily explained by the fact that if they were Muslim, they would not be there at the time, but it is nevertheless an interesting observation.
Getting around Istanbul was an absolute breeze, which is amazing for our short visit, because no time was lost figuring out how to get around or losing our way. For the trams, ferries, and buses, one can purchase an Istanbulkart, which is pre-loaded at terminals located at each stop and scanned when passing through the turnstile. The Istanbulkart provides a discount on each trip, and each scan within a two hour period provides a greater discount, starting at almost 50% less at the second scan. The three of us benefited greatly from this, paying about 3,50 TL total per journey (tram or ferry), or about 1€.
If you are considering traveling to Istanbul (and I highly recommend it), I have a few recommendations for you. We stayed three nights at the Bada Bing hostel in Karaköy, and we had an excellent experience. The staff is friendly and super helpful, and there is always someone at the front desk, unlike at some other hostels. It is nothing fancy (or recently updated, particularly the bathrooms), but it is incredibly cheap (12€/night) and in an awesome location. We could easily have walked everywhere if we liked, but the cheap transportation was too good to pass up.
I also used a few guidebooks, and I highly recommend Lonely Planet, for Istanbul or elsewhere. It showcases the highlights of each area, along with tips on where to eat, shop, and spend your free time. It also includes information about the society, including historical and architectural information, along with maps and a detailed language section with translations. I accidentally bought the book in German (I wasn’t really thinking when I was in the bookstore), but luckily my language comprehension was good enough to use it appropriately, and I found myself referencing it throughout the trip. I also have a European travel guide by Rick Steve, but it doesn’t have a whole lot about Istanbul. He is a great writer though, and he provides some good tips, but his book isn’t as well-organized or well-informed as the Lonely Planet guide.
While you are there, I cannot say enough how amazing a visit to the Sultanahmet is, particularly to the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Topkapi Palace. I didn’t take many photos while I was there, so if those don’t convince you, then do some reading on the history; there is some incredible history there. Visiting the Asian side can be great, depending on what you’re looking for there. There aren’t historical structures like on the European side, but it is still interesting to get a comparison between the two.
Overall, we had an amazing time in Istanbul. We never felt threatened or endangered, and the culture and history is fascinating. It is difficult to come up with a well-based opinion after only spending two full days in the city, but from what I experienced, Istanbul is a great place to visit, as it is full of history, beauty, and culture, and is incredibly inexpensive. I have so much more to say about the trip, but I think I have written enough. You can ask me questions if you’d like, or go check it out for yourself. As always, thank you for reading!