Here's my must-do list for a visit to Istanbul. Some -- or maybe even all -- of these are obvious. Istanbul is full of things you must-do and for good reason. 1. Aya Sofya This is quite possibly the most incredible building in the world. Don't be deceived by its exterior - it's the interior where the marvels reside. But when you see Aya Sofya from across the Bosphorous, the warts aren't as visible and its overall shape becomes quite beautiful. 2. Topkapi Palace (Harem tour) Don't miss the extra Harem portion of the Topkapi palace. Although the rather flawed Lonely Planet book suggests that the (required) guided Harem tour is only conducted in Turkish, our guide spoke English. That doesn't mean you should opt out of the self-guided audio tour. I couldn't hear anything over the tourist din in the cavernous spaces, and the things the tour guide said didn't make much sense to me. 3. Gallata tower For all the seven hills in Istanbul, it's hard to find a good vista. The Gallata tower gives a 360 degreee panorama of the city complete with questionable railings. Well worth the 10 YTL. Take note of just how narrow the spit of land that Sultanahmet resides really is. 4. Grand Bazaar / Spice Bazaar Of course you aren't going to miss either of these. 5. Hamami Don't miss a visit to a hamami. It's a welcome break after an afternoon in the Grand Bazaar. Full of ritual, and undoubtedly full of tourists. Be sure to opt for the full scrub and massage. 6. Food Go nuts. Lokum. Bahklava. Doner. Kebaps. Medye. The food in Turkey is awesome and the dining experiences are fun and convivial. Be sure to hit a lokantas or bufe around lunch time. Don't miss a visit to a meyhanes at night (you'll need to be over near Taksim for this). 7. Bosphorus cruise A great way to get a sense of the layout of the city. You wouldn't miss riding on the Staten Island ferry if you visited New York, would you? Take at least a ride on a Ferry in Istanbul, either. Optional maybe-dos. 1. The full on Topkapi walking tour There are tons of things to see. It's all cool. But it takes a long time. At the very least, walk to the end of Topkapi and see the Marble Terrace with the awesome views of the Golden Horn and Bosphorous. When I build my ultra-exclusive luxury hotel, it's probably going to be right there. Please stop in and see us. 2. Blue Mosque. You've come all this way, you might as well go inside the Blue Mosque. If you are pressed for time, skip seeing the inside. Seriously. It's more intimate than the Ay Sofya, but nowhere near as impressive. The most memorable views of the Blue Mosque are to be had either in the evening when it's alit or from across the Bosphorous. 3. The Sultanahmet fish market 4. A belly dancing demo A lesson, perhaps.
After an early work day from 3 AM to 1 PM, I'm already feeling pretty beat. And the last day visiting a new place is always a bit manic for me. Will I ever be back here? What have I missed that I may never have the opportunity to see or do again? What things left a mark that I'd like to experience one last time? Finally, the sky has partially broken open. There's some middling mid-day light so I dash up to the Blue Mosque to snap some photos and hear the battling muzzein announce the afternoon's adhan -- call to prayer. Listen to a bad recording I made from my laptop; the echoes are from adjacent mosques). Next, a run across the street to the Basilica Cistern, a "not-to-be-missed" sight right on the Aya Sofya / Blue Mosque square. A bit pricey at 10 YTL for a simple walk through a cave, but it is artfully lit and inspires the imagination about Istanbul's storied history. The cistern had been discarded, turned into a dump and makeshift morgue until being rediscovered and reclaimed in modern times. Down the street to an Ishekender for lunch. More eggplant, mixed vegatables, a Turkish goulash of sorts, and of course -- not tea -- but a Fanta. I brave one last trip into the Grand Bazaar. I love shopping when I travel, but I rarely buy anything. I like to think I'm bringing back memories but as I get older, I'm starting to think I might need totemic reminders. I start up a chat with a shopkeeper about some rugs. All I want to do is learn about them. I have no place for a rug, I don't want to buy one. The shopkeeper's store is "busy" but they have another around the corner. I walk in to meet someone who might be the owner, Hasan. He's quite nice, we sit for some tea, and look at various rugs that are absurdly expensive. Hasan drops his prices quickly from the absurd to the merely unaffordable. I still haven't made any counter offers. That's when he starts in with affable witticisms like "The tea is best tasted when hot" and "Look in your heart. Why do you want to think about it? How much for you to buy this today?". He's good. He's *really* good, and I'm starting to think I want a rug, a really expensive wool/cashmere rug. It's then I realize that I'm powerless and I must escape before another cup of tea. I duck out with a vague promise to return after clearing my head. To do that, I hit the Cemberlitas hamami (Turkish bath), right around the corner from the Grand Bazaar. The steam room is beautiful and -- it's packed with both tourists and locals. I lay down on the giant marble slab in the center of the room until a masseur finishes up. This guy scrubbed and kneaded me into a pulp. Leaving the hamam, I no longer had any desire for carpets or the Grand Bazaar. Shit. It's perfect golden afternoon light. Of course, the last day. I run around like mad trying to get a few last photos. They all suck, and that's when I resign myself to the fact that this photo safari, this first venture into Turkey is offer. Might as well have some Raki and relax.
What started out as a promising day quickly turned cold. Up absurdly early again to put in a day's work before the day even begins. Grueling. Ran up and over Sultanahmet proper and down to the ferry terminal at Eminonu. Grabbed a ticket (roundtrip 10 YTL again!) for the Bosphorus sightseeing cruise to Anadalu Kavagi, a town on the cusp of the Black Sea. It's a full house, complete tourist crush, but well worth it as the views are spectacular. I sit outside towards the back of the ferry. I like to hear and feel the roar of the motors. The trip up the Bosphorus is beautiful - warm and sunny. Stunning views of the various points of land that comprise Istanbul: Sultanahmet, the Golden Horn, Asian side, etc. We make several stops along the way, each of which looks interesting in its own right. The final stop is the little seaside town of Anadalu Kavagi, just shy of the Black Sea. I quick walk up to the top of a hill leads to a ruined castle. The grounds are ruined, too, with trash strewn absolutely everywhere. At any rate, it's easy to see why a castle would have been situated here. There are views all the way to Istanbul to the south; to the north the mouth of the Black Sea. Huge ships loaded with flatbed truck containers cruise by at a steady clip. Lunch of fried midye (mussels) and patlican kizartmasi (eggplant and tomatoes) seaside. The ferry departs back for Istanbul as ominous clouds and a cold front blow in. An hour and a half later, I'm thoroughly frozen, having toughed it out and remained outside the whole time.
I've gotten to experience the daylight saving time shift *twice* this year. Since the US pushed ahead the onset of DST to early March, we're now out of sync with the rest of the world. Imagine. Turkey just switched over to EET, so now it's UTC+3. Good thing my computer automatically updated to the new time. I was wondering why I was feeling so tired this morning!