Istanbul is a bustling, energetic, noisy and full-on city with a population of about 15 million people (but likely to be higher). It was my second trip to Istanbul and I thoroughly enjoyed it second time around.
Avoid the masses of people by getting up early and arriving at the main sites before the crowds start lining up – otherwise you’ll be waiting for hours. First stop was the Blue Mosque, a functioning mosque that was built between 1609 and 1616. It contains Ahmed I’s tomb, a madrasah (educational institution) and a hospice. Gorgeous blue tiles adorn the mosque’s interior walls but unfortunately scaffolding was up when I visited the second time. At night the mosque is lit up blue as lights frame the five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. My hotel overlooked the mosque so the breakfast view was incredible (breakfast was also incredible!).
5 minute walk away is the Hagia Sophia which has been a Byzantine Christian Cathedral (537-1054), Greek Orthodox Cathedral (1054-1204 and 1261-1453), Roman Catholic Cathedral (1204-1261), Ottoman Mosque (1453-1931) and finally a museum. The Hagia Sophia is an impressive building and was the world’s largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. It is impressive to see the mix of Islamic and Christian religion in the symbols displayed (including the Virgin Mary and the central mihrab).
I had loved going to the Basilica Cistern the first time I visited but found this time it was just a bit too touristy. The Basilica was built in the 6th century is approx. 138m x 65m and can hold 80,000 cubic metres of water! 336 marble columns 9 metres high support the ceiling. It was refreshingly cool after a hot day in the Turkish sun! Keep an eye out for Medusa’s head. You could also get a tacky picture with some “traditional” Turkish clothing and sit next to a dressed up local in the Cistern….
The Grand Bazaar is giant and you definitely have to be in the mood for it. It is one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets – 61 streets, 4,000+ shops and between 250,000 – 400,000 visitors per day. Be prepared to haggle and to receive some creepy vibes – I bought some gorgeous Turkish lights from a young man who was the first one not to say anything inappropriate so he was winning in my book. I got there when it opened and there weren’t many tourists at all. You’ll find anything from dried fruit to mirrors, clothing, jewelry and tea sets, carpets, bags, counterfeit goods and random assortments. Well worth a visit but keep your eyes on your wallet at all times!
One of the highlights of my time in Istanbul was having dinner cooked by a Syrian national for an NGO (Small Projects Istanbul). We were met by Jen (Aussie) in central Istanbul who took us by tram to the charity where we had a delicious dinner and listened to a Syrian refugee discuss life in Syria and then tell us about the charity. You can also support the charity by purchasing jewelry, clothing and bags made on-site. It was a fascinating evening.
Didn’t make it to any of the Turkish baths but did have some excellent Turkish food. My highlight was when a Turkish man said I had excellent English – good to know that’s not slipping!
The locals love kiwis and I had many “welcome home” and “kiaora Anzac” – there was also a huge appreciation for Jacinda Ardern so that made Turkey even more of a winner in my book!