In August 2014, April and I departed Mykonos for the last leg of our four-part trip, to Istanbul, Turkey. Thankfully, we were smart enough to fly this time, although you’ll always have to connect via Athens when leaving the Greek islands.

Aegean Airlines to Athens at dawn. [20 euro cab ride.] Note: I bought that cute green roller bag in Athens on our first day there for 35 euro. What a piece of trash. Six days later, one wheel had bent inward, a seam had ripped and one of the handles was about to tear off. That’s what I get for buying from a street vendor.

Saw this in the airport. I love the consistently blatant “Smoking kills” labels.

ALERT: You need a Visa to enter Turkey. While in Greece, we paid $20 each to do this online, which was instant. We printed them out and packed them with our passports for arrival to customs in Istanbul.

This is my first view of Istanbul, from the cab on the ride from the airport.  What I saw was landscaping. Parks. Kids playing. Fathers teaching their kids to ride bicycles. On sidewalks. Yellow cabs. City employees. Real city life, which we hadn’t seen in a week. The body of water shown here is the Sea of Marmara (an extension of the Mediterranean) which lies completely within Turkey on all sides.

Our room, in the Avicenna Hotel.

Rooftop restaurant of the Avicenna Hotel.

Our hotel was located in “Old City”, which meant it was full of cobblestones but in walking distance of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. This is the view from the rooftop restaurant, featuring the Sea of Marmara.

As with the other cities we visited on this tour, there was no time to tarry; the Blue Mosque wasn’t going to see itself. After a 15-minute walk from the hotel, we could see the mosque, but the Hagia Sofia was closer, so we went there first.  
View outside the Hagia Sofia.

It costs 30 Turkish Lira to get into the Hagia Sofia and the line is very long. Luckily, it was a really nice day in Istanbul, about 78 degrees.

There was a female guard outside telling us to cover up–to wear a head scarf and cover the skin on our arms and neck. I obliged, but then removed my scarf before I started to sweat; do you see anyone else covering their skin inside the Hagia Sofia?
The Hagia Sofia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum. Built in 536, Hagia Sofia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek. Directional signs in Istanbul read “Ayasofya.”
It’s a beautiful place.
April was in there workin her green dress.
Then we headed over to the Blue Mosque. Let me take a time out to mention the Incessant Salesmen of Istanbul. Many of the men you see pictured above are clamoring to offer you a tour of the Bosphorus (more on that later), a tour around Istanbul, a map of Istanbul, a flute, a velvet hat, a ticket to see the whirling dervishes, or themselves. It was a neverending sea of yellow-toothed men, literally blocking your path to offer you something you didn’t want, every 15 feet or so. I’ve never witnessed this kind of harassment before and we couldn’t wait to get out of the tourist center. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof. I took photos while walking down this single pathway.

When I refused to buy this book about Istanbul, the man to the left offered me…the man to the right.
Anyway, where was I? …oh, The Blue Mosque!!

Contrary to my initial belief, there are plenty of blue mosques in Turkey. This one, Sultanahmet, is a historic mosque in Istanbul, popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I.
More stray dogs

Entry is free, but you must follow the rules. You must also remove your shoes and are provided bags to carry them. April and I were prepared for this.

The Blue Mosque was equally as beautiful as the Hagia Sofia.

There was a separate area strictly for prayer.

It looks like I’m smuggling stolen fruit from country to country.

Anyway, we needed to relax, so after the big landmarks were out of the way, we headed to this nearby bazaar. Not the Grand Bazaar, but a bazaar nonetheless. It was located about two blocks from our hotel and had nice leather goods, rugs, purses, luggage, ceramics, lamps, spices, etc.

The shop owners here took a page from the Incessant Salesman of Istanbul but only followed it halfway: they coax you to come into their shops, without following you down the street or standing in your way. Things were looking up.

We found dinner at a nearby restaurant, and there were many to choose from.

Our playful waiters. They had lots of jokes, and offered us food like sliced apples, apple tea, and pita while our meals were prepared.
There weren’t many customers yet, so this is what the waiters did in the meantime: sat across the street and smoked.
Stuffed mushrooms

Chicken casserole. It’s not much of a “casserole” but I liked all of the ingredients: chicken, vegetables and rice. I could eat this every day.

April’s shrimp casserole.

After finishing our meal, the manager surprised us with baklava. My first time trying it, and it was delicious! It would go great with ice cream.

Intent on saving our energy for the last day of the trip, we turned in early.

The next morning, we took a 15-minute walk to the Grand Bazaar. Why is this bazaar so grand? Well, it was built in 1455, and is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. What’s sold in the Grand Bazaar? I’m glad you asked.
Fake Louboutins, 380 Turkish Lira

Fake wallets and purses

Real electric lanterns

Fake sneakers [I assume]

Real ceramics

Plates. April even matched the ones in this store.
And clothes. This guy even had a “dressing room”.

The bazaar was cool, but after about an hour in there with more Incessant Salesmen of Istanbul, we booked it to the nearest tram, headed to Taksim Square, “uptown.”

The tram is a really cool way to get through the city because traffic is really bad. Each ride costs one token, or 4 Turkish Lira.
Completely forgot to tell you: currency in Turkey is the Turkish Lira, which was great. One dollar equals about 2.15 Turkish Lira. So everything we bought, I would just divide the value in half to calculate actual cost. If a dress cost 40 TL, it cost $20 in my mind (actually, a bit less). Our dinners were rather inexpensive (22 TL per dish, for instance).
View of the city, just off the tram. We got off the tram at Karakoy and decided to walk the rest of the way to Taksim Square. Big mistake. Behind these buildings are incredibly steep cobblestone hills, and we had to climb them in the heat to get to Taksim Square. We were covered in sweat once arriving at the top.

View over the bridge from Karakoy.
Near Taksim Square was a Georgetown-like shopping area, full of people. It is estimated that 2 million people walk through Taksim Square daily. This area reminded me very much of Amsterdam with hip stores, tourists, wifi-enabled cafes and a few street vendors.
I took this photo from the second story of a Mango store near Taksim Square.

Not sure why the riot police were out that day.

Later, we stopped for a snack at a small cafe near our hotel. They served something called “Green Water” to April. She didn’t like it.

I got chicken wraps and super crunchy fries. I did like it.

Clear Ketchup.

Waitstaff at the cafe, and the only man in Istanbul with white teeth.

Afterward, we got ready for dinner in Ortakoy 5 1/2 miles away. The cab ride to Ortakoy [35 Turkish Lira] took an hour, because traffic was just that bad. Watch April smile in the path of an incoming tram.
Crowds at Ortakoy.
Ortakoy is the site of another blue mosque and a beautiful bridge over the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is the straight that separates the European and Asian sides of Turkey. It is also the narrowest strait in the world used for international navigation, in which ships have to turn 45 and 80 degrees just to get through.

Dinner in Ortakoy, complete with chanting and fireworks!

 We returned to our hotel area after dinner and had to stop at an ATM for cash. What did we see?

A real, live Whirling Dervish.

The whirling dance of the “dervish” [someone treading the Suti Muslimic ascetic path, usually associated with extreme poverty] was not originally meant for entertainment, but has become a tourist attraction in Turkey. The dance is part of a formal ceremony called the Sema, which is performed to achieve “religious ecstasy.” [Wikipedia]
Although well after 11 pm, the shops near our hotel were still open. I took this picture in a dress I bought near Taksim Square earlier that day. I just loved it, and I loved how these lanterns from this shop lit up the street. [Sidenote: a man in a car yelled “Michelle Obama!” at me while I took this photo.]

Alas, it was time for us to leave Istanbul and return home. What did you think? Would you take a trip like this? Have you done it before? I’ve heard people say the could live in Istanbul, but I definitely don’t feel the same way. It has a lot of big city elements that I like, and your American dollar goes a bit further than the rest of Europe, but I don’t think I could live there. The traffic is just so bad and the lovesick men are relentless. And what’s up with the dental care?

Until next time,