When most people plan a European vacation, cities that often come to mind are the likes of Paris, London, and Barcelona, among a few others. Turkey probably isn’t one of the first places to come to mind for most travelers. However, Istanbul, Turkey, is a destination that is not only filled with beauty and romance, but one that is culturally diverse with an ancient history that can still be felt in today’s modern world.
A visit to the old city of Istanbul is a great place to start and it is here that we got lost in the Grand Bazaar. It is the largest covered market in the world with 6000 shops filled with Turkish rugs, spices, and plenty of jewelry. Walking through the world’s first shopping mall makes you imagine what it was like for merchants trading their goods at this final stop on the legendary Silk Route. It’s the Blue Mosque, a short walk from the Grand Bazaar, which is the iconic symbol of Istanbul. The giant dome glimmers in the sun surrounded by six minarets reaching to the sky. The interior beauty overwhelms when you lay eyes upon the 20,000 ceramic tiles lining the ceiling.
It’s important to note that the Blue Mosque is a functioning mosque and when entering, you must follow Muslim tradition. Long pants should be worn and women must have their shoulders and heads covered. When we travel to more conservative countries, I always carry a scarf with me. Take off your shoes before entering and remain quiet while enjoying the tranquility.
Across the street is Aya Sofya, considered by many as the most beautiful building in the world. Formerly a mosque, Aya Sofya is now a museum where visitors can take a walk through time. We visited both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya at night when their beauty was magnified as both were lit up under the dark sky. While Istanbul is the land of mosques, the best place to view them all is from the Galata Tower, perched high on a hill on the East Bank. It was once a watchtower and a prison, but now a tourist lookout complete with elevator, restaurant, and balcony to watch the sunset.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t miss out on a hammam, which is Turkey’s version of a spa treatment.
Give yourself plenty of time to go sightseeing in Istanbul, but don’t miss trying out a Turkish bath, known as a hammam. Your bath begins in a hot steam room before you’re led to a marble slab to be scrubbed, massaged, and bent every which way until your skin is silky smooth. Leave your inhibitions at the door and give in to the ancient tradition, as clothing here is optional. Don’t worry, men and women are separated and you will only be massaged by your gender. You can tell them to go easy on you, but it’s more fun to leave yourself to the mercy of the experts and enjoy one of Europe’s most unique experiences.
The Bosphoros Straight in Istanbul
All the sightseeing and massages can work up an appetite. Olives are abundant in the region and make for a great pre-dinner snack. Most meals begin with soup and bread, followed with spiced dips and sauces, known as meze. Next comes the vine leaves or cabbage filled with meats and vegetables, which is known as dolma. But that’s not all. Just when you think you’ve eaten enough, the main dish arrives, often lamb, chicken sausage, or kebabs. We had the good fortune of eating with a local family where we witnessed Turkish hospitality first-hand.
Before the night ends, make sure to visit a Turkish coffee house to try your hand at sheesha. A sheesha is a large water pipe used for smoking flavored tobacco. Even if you are not a smoker (which we are not), it is fun to at least try. We went for the milder mint, which though still tobacco, felt like it was clearing our lungs, rather than clogging our arteries.
Istanbul is a fascinating destination where old meets new. It is developing rapidly, yet it is one of the few destinations where people still live as they have in the past. If you want a historic, yet exotic location mixed with a blend of contemporary comforts, Istanbul could be the ideal choice for your next vacation.
What’s your idea of experiencing the old and new of a city?