Istanbul in 2 Days
Markus Muhs - Jul 16, 2019
Okay, one more Travelblog and then I’ll get back to blogging about personal finance.
My Jordan TravelBlog posted last month happened to become one of my most visited blog posts and elicited a number of positive e-mails from clients.
When my father and I decided to add a side trip to Jordan to our Rotary International Convention in Hamburg we found the cheapest Germany-Amman connection to be via Istanbul, and it wasn’t an easy one day connection on the flight down. So, instead of spending a whole day waiting for a connecting flight at Istanbul’s brand new airport--the largest and worst airport in the world (more on that later)--we decided to tie on an extra day to visit Istanbul’s historic old city.
One restaurant draws in patrons by offering free WiFi, as well as access to a 4th century Byzantine palace unearthed directly below.
What other city in the world has as deep, important, and diverse a history as Istanbul? The Greeks founded the city of Byzantion, lost it to the Persians for a while, then regained it until it eventually joined the Roman Empire in the first century BCE. Trying to compress a few thousand years of history into one paragraph here, the city was once capital of the whole Roman Empire, as Nova Roma, capital of the Byzantine Empire, as Constantinople, the center of Greek Orthodoxy, until conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century and renamed Istanbul.
Today, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe with well over 15 million people living in a city whose boundaries stretch over two continents. It has seen its population nearly double in the past 20 years and more than quintuple over the past 40. The cityscape one witnesses on the long drive in from the new airport is one of rolling hills covered in densely packed apartment buildings. You drive through this sprawl for quite a while until you get to the city center.
Istanbul being such a vast city, there are practically multiple completely different cities within Istanbul where one can stay and have a completely different experience. As is well known, Istanbul is bisected east/west by the Bosphorus strait dividing Europe and Asia. The European side is bisected again north/south by an inlet known as the Golden Horn.
The Golden Horn (Constantinople on the right)
South of the Golden Horn is the old walled city of Constantinople, where we stayed and spent most of our time visiting historic attractions. This area has sort of an old European town vibe to it with many small independent hotels, a few super-luxury brands like The Four Seasons, and no shortage of street cafes. The area north of the Golden Horn had a more contemporary European feel to it. It looked and felt like any Mediterranean European city and here you’ll find every manner of modern hotel chain.
While we didn’t visit the Asian side (only saw it from a boat), word is that it is generally more modern, less dense, more suburban than the European side. A glance over to the Asian side from the European side reveals Istanbul’s largest mosque, the massive and brand new Çamlıca Mosque (imagine a mosque with the capacity of Commonwealth Stadium) next to the Küçük Çamlıca TV Radio Tower, whose interesting design is a controversy among the locals. The purpose of the tower, you can guess, is to replace the forest of other tv and radio towers uglying up the top of one of Istanbul’s highest hills that you can see below.
Asian side of the Bosphorus, Çamlıca Mosque, new TV tower just out of frame to right.
I specifically titled this blog “Istanbul in 2 days” to give a good overview of what one can see if one only has two days to spend in Istanbul. I think I could have easily spent the better part of a week to see everything, so this is really just a taste of what there is to see in Istanbul and far from a comprehensive travel guide.
Day 1: Constantinople
Officially the area is called the Fatih district and the use of “Constantinople” waned in the early 20th century, but I can’t help but feel I’m at the center of the Byzantine Empire when I’m there.
The whole area is surrounded by 26km of city walls with sections ranging in quality from original rubble (destroyed over the centuries by Ottoman invaders and earthquakes) to fully restored multi-walled sections that reveal just how impregnable Constantinople's walls once were. It was only when unsurmountable numbers of Ottoman forces with gunpowder cannons sieged the Byzantine city that it eventually fell.
At the center of Constantinople, all within relatively easy walking distance you can visit most of Istanbul’s famous attractions. We spent a full day here, going from place to place. Apparently tickets to the various attractions can be purchased in bundles, but due to either language barriers or mistrust that we were actually dealing with an official vendor of such passes, we opted to just pay the entry at each individual attraction.
First and foremost, of course, was the reason everyone goes to Istanbul: to see the Hagia Sophia. We already walked up to it the night before, after arriving, just to marvel in its majesty. When it was initially built in the 6th century it was the largest building period. For most of its first thousand years, it reigned as the world’s largest cathedral, probably largest religious building of any type. This was the Byzantine Empire’s and Greek Orthodoxy’s Vatican; where Emperors were crowned.
Ongoing restoration seems to be scraping away plaster, added by the Ottomans, to reveal beautiful Byzantine mosaic art
The inside of Hagia Sophia is even more impressive than the outside, with layers of history and clashes of civilization on full display. Christian mosaics (restored after having been plastered over) are flanked by Islamic calligraphy, just as the exterior architecture features Byzantine domed architecture flanked by minarets. As a reminder that the Vikings were pretty much everywhere at some point, you'll even find an area where Vikings literally vandalized the place by carving Runic into the marble (probably "Olaf was here"). While Hagia Sophia is a full-time museum today, it did serve as a full-time mosque for half a millennium.
Across a large park, with trees and fountains, from the Hagia Sophia you’ll find an equally impressive mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka: The Blue Mosque). This was the first big mega-mosque built in Istanbul in the 17th century, somewhat derivative of the design of the Hagia Sophia, and ultimately becoming the model for all of Istanbul’s many other domed mosques. This mosque is also a big tourist attraction, though it is an actual operating mosque and is closed off during prayer times throughout the day. A travel tip on your Constantinople tour day: wear long pants if you’re a guy, otherwise you may be forced to borrow pants if you come to the Blue Mosque wearing shorts. For women, the Blue Mosque offers free headscarf rental to those entering.
Though not nearly as impressive as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is worth checking out if for no other reason than to experience the inside of a mosque, which in many other Muslim countries is off-limits to non Muslims (such was my experience in Morocco, anyway).
Just as many signs in Istanbul are in Turkish and English today, inscriptions below the obelisk were in Latin and Greek
The Sultanahmet square area also features plenty of other neat things to see, like the Obelisk of Theodosius, and after spending a morning touring Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque you’ll find plenty of restaurants to have lunch at.
Entrance to Topkapi Palace, literally around the corner from Hagia Sophia
Just a short walk past the Hagia Sophia you’ll find the entrance to Topkapi Palace, a massive complex within its own intra-city walls. As the former seat of the Ottoman Empire, it’s an absolute must-see as well. One museum pass gets you in to seeing more Byzantine-inspired Ottoman architecture and plenty of education around the history of the Ottomans. One whole section is even devoted to the history of coffee in Turkish society. You’ll even see an impressive collection of weapons, armory, and the religious “crown jewels” of the Ottomans (all of which I was not allowed to photograph under threat of angry Turkish security guard yelling at people with their iPhones out "no photo!").
Topkapi also features some of the best views of the city, from its location at the tip of the Constantinople peninsula, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus.
Exiting Topkapi Palace we just happened to pass the adjacent Istanbul Museum of Archeology, which at the time was undergoing some renovations to its main building. At first we found ourselves, and some other tourists at the entrance gate, wondering if it was even open during renovations. Turns out it was, and most of their displays were seemingly moved out of the main building and crammed into two ancillary buildings.
There are sideways and upside-down heads of Medusa under two of the columns in the Cistern. It is said they were oriented in such a way to avoid the direct glary of Medusa, which can turn a man to stone. It is also said that these were simply stolen from some enemy palace and then re-used as building materials, oriented the way they are for best fit.
We finished day one visiting the Basilica Cistern, a large underground cistern built by Justinian I in the 6th century to filter and supply much of the city’s water. Beyond its historical significance, the Cistern happened to show up in a few movies over time, including From Russia with Love, and more recently Tom Hanks was trying to prevent the release of a super-virus there in Dan Brown’s Inferno.
Day 2: The Bosphorus and Greater Istanbul
Our original itinerary had us heading to the airport on day 2 to continue on to Amman, Jordan but thanks to the 737-Max groundings (we suspect) Turkish Airlines had to shuffle some flights around and probably combined a few into the Airbus A330 that took us to Amman at 3AM the next morning.
So, instead of a partial day we had a second full day in Istanbul. Having seen pretty much everything there was to see (other than the Grand Bazaar) in Constantinople, we checked out some travel agencies to see what kind of city tours are available. We opted for a combination boat and bus tour of the Bosphorus and “greater Istanbul”.
There are a lot of different Bosphorus boat tours available, and it just happened that this one stopped at Rumeli Castle only because some other attraction was closed that day. I highly recommend picking a boat tour that makes the stop at Rumeli in any case, instead of just a “float by”.
Other than being a cool castle to climb up, the significance of Rumeli Castle is that it was really a key (other than huge numbers and gunpowder) to Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in the 15th century; ultimately the end of the Byzantine Empire. The castle is located a good way north of the center of Istanbul, at the most narrow point of the Bosphorus (where it’s about the width of a large river, as can be seen above) and has a sister-castle on the opposite side. At a time when the Ottomans already controlled the Asian/Anatolian side of the straight, they made haste and built Rumeli in a span of just over 4 months, in order to then cut off Byzantine reinforcements coming from the Black Sea and ultimately lay siege on Constantinople.
Historic Kuleli Military High School, which has been closed since government clampdowns after the 2016 attempted military coup
Many other landmarks were pointed out to us on the trip up and down the Bosphorus including impressive palaces and mansions. Really, this is the super-rich part of Istanbul, where Russian oligarchs probably have their own version of the Riviera. The hills on the European side of the strait reminded me a lot of the Hollywood hills, filled with mansions, hotels, etc. The Asian side meanwhile reminded me of Malibu in that it is less dense, with even bigger mansions.
The bus trip brought us up to a great vantage point where I snapped the photo of the Golden Horn near the beginning of the post. It then continued around the old city and one got to see the city walls and various other neighborhoods.
With plenty of time to spare, after our bus trip we made our way via low-floor tram (the kind they're building in Edmonton) to the Grand Bazaar, because what trip to Istanbul is complete without checking that out? Think West Edmonton Mall meets Pike’s Place Market, that’s how best I can explain it. I now have more spices at home than I know what to do with.
Travel Tips (mostly a rant about the terrible airport)
For a short stay in Istanbul I cannot recommend more highly staying at one of the independent rustic hotels in the Constantinople area. Everything’s in easy walking distance (including the transit system to the rest of the city) and we managed to get a place fairly cheaply via AirBnB (in many countries independent hoteliers use AirBnB to market their rooms; only way they can compete against the big guys with their reward cards).
On that topic, Turkey overall is a very cheap travel destination thanks to their recent economic woes and devalued currency. At one restaurant the bill for two people came to the equivalent of $12CAD and even at nicer restaurants, with drinks, I think at most it ended up being $50, including a really big assorted meat platter that I got talked into.
We were there during Ramadan, but unlike Jordan, its observation was of no consequence to tourists eating dinner and having beers (almost every restaurant has Efes Pilsen on tap) during daylight hours. As an outsider it was neat to witness Ramadan and how locals observed it. Within a few hours of sunset the locals were already putting out their picnic blankets and bottles of water across the park at Sultanahmet square, awaiting the calling of Iftar, when they can break their fast. I managed to take this video from a rooftop restaurant of the big light sign on the Blue Mosque that lights up (seemingly all the major mosques have these light signs).
Language-wise we found that all people in the tourism industry spoke excellent English. Turkey also uses a latin-based alphabet that is spelled out pretty much phonetically, including “umlauts” that have the same effect on vowels as they do in German and the little tails below certain consonants that turn a “c” into a “ch” or an “s” into a “sh”. While you might not know the language, you can read the signs and actually pronounce the words pretty close to how they’re supposed to be pronounced. Where words are cognates, you can also figure out what signs mean, like “Tuvaletler” means “Toilets”.
I mentioned the hustling numerous times on my Jordan blog. Istanbul is no different. On the street below, which was halfway between our hotel and Sultanahmet, were a plethora of restaurant choices, from authentic Turkish to an Irish pub. As you walk down this street you’re accosted from both sides by people wanting to show you their menus. We got a real laugh walking past one of the restaurants, where the obligatory menu-guy pointed our attention to a sign saying “hassle free zone” and beckoned us into his unique restaurant free of any hassling. Then there are the many stores selling rugs and other stuff, wanting you to buy their stuff.
Also a good example of the general look and feel of Constantinople
One other oddity I noticed while in Istanbul: Wikipedia is for some reason blocked entirely from the internet. This was inconvenient as I kept trying to look up the famous landmarks I just visited to learn more and couldn't.
Lastly, remember I mentioned the airport? The new Istanbul airport is the largest (in terms of building size) in the world, having cost something like the equivalent of $10 billion US to build. Unlike the old Ataturk Airport, which is in the city and connected to transit, the new one is 35km outside the city and accessible only by taxi. It is a monstrosity of an airport, bigger than it needs to be, meaning a lot of walking to get to or from your flight.
The airport also seemingly took all the worst ideas from London’s Heathrow and tried to top them, including announcing gates only a short while before a flight departure, making passengers wait in a central hall (surrounded by shops and not many seating areas) to watch the departure screen for their gate assignments. Gate assignments, which seem to be completely random, meaning for our flight back to Munich we couldn’t assume the Turkish Airlines flight to Munich would be in the same terminal as the Turkish flight to Frankfurt.
This video exhibiting the airport a few months ago, before its opening, highlights the business/first check-in area and the massive Turkish Airlines check-in area. All well and good, but what it means is if your taxi drops you off at the business/first entrance and you have an economy class seat you’re told (not so politely) to leave the building and use a different entrance; you can’t just walk through the building to the adjacent economy area. The actual economy check-in area has so many counters that they’re arranged in lettered columns and based on what type of passenger you are and where you’re flying, you have to check in at a specific column and only that column, even when other columns have no line ups (talk about Byzantine!).
The final strike that makes an awful airport the absolute worst is that the airport WiFi is only accessible by having an activation code texted to you. What kind of braindead idea is that in an airport that wants to be a major hub for travelers from around the world? We want WiFi because we don’t have a local SIM card to access mobile data (or texts)! I wasn’t able to find out the score of the Bruins game until I landed in Munich.
There is also a ton of security at the airport. When you enter the airport terminal you get subjected to a full and thorough security check, including pat-down. Then again after check-in, going through security as you normally would. Our gate to Amman was for some reason closed off from the rest of the terminal, so you had to go through a ticket check (and possible random security check) and then wait in a holding pen, not able to get a drink or anything from anywhere else in the terminal (there were vending machines though).
Holding pen for the flight to Amman. 2hrs before scheduled departure they had already announced the gate, but would not yet let passengers into the waiting lounge (which ended up being packed with a bunch of families with out of control children, and no escape even when our flight was announced as being delayed 2hrs)
Istanbul’s new airport currently is built to handle 90 million passengers a year and it’s planned to be expanded to handle 200 million a year. It is truly a megalomaniacal make-work project by a president whose reputation among local Istanbulites is about on par with Donald Trump's reputation in San Francisco, to the point where locals sort of laugh off and roll their eyes when they talk about how their perfectly functioning transit-connected city airport got shut down in favor of Erdogan’s vanity project.
One more protip: don’t take an Uber (which is available in Istanbul) to the airport. We had a private shuttle arranged by the hotel, but when he approached the airport departures drop off--clearly a driver with two passengers in the back and no markings of a taxi--he was pulled over by a couple of armed guards who interrogated him. After barking some stuff at the driver, the interrogator verified the driver’s story with us and when he was satisfied with our responses he let us know that Uber is illegal and that’s what they’re looking out for.
So, awful airport experience aside, the short trip to Istanbul was great, and I’d recommend it to anyone. Would I go again? Absolutely; there's so much within Istanbul that I haven't seen yet, and even more to see of the rest of Turkey! Hit me up if you have any questions or want to see more pictures.
All above pictures are my own