After spending a few lazy days in Antalya and Bodrum, I headed to Istanbul to finish off the Turkish leg of my round-the-world adventure. All the guidebooks will warn you about experiencing extreme culture shock upon arriving in Istanbul; stepping into the streets of the huge city, you’re immediately greeted with people in every direction, chaotic traffic, and a hundred different smells and sounds.

The hustle and bustle is everywhere, an elaborate and beautiful symphony combining millions of layers of Turkish daily life together with thousands of years of history. Instead of sensory overload, I actually found myself missing New York City. I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but to me the two cities have a very similar feeling, and I was immediately enthralled.

I stayed on the European side of Instanbul in the old part of town, Sultanahmet. I’d chosen this location due to its proximity to the tourist sites (I was looking forward to being able to walk everywhere) but if I had to do it over I’d instead choose to stay across the Golden Horn in trendy Karaköy. While I initially loved the rampant hospitality of the Turkish people after arriving in Cappadocia, after two weeks I was tired of telling people all day where I was from, how long I was visiting, that no, I didn’t have a boyfriend, and no, I wasn’t looking for one. Only briefly dallying near a shop or restaurant you’ll be offered a cup of Turkish tea and, after your fourth or sixth cup, even politely declining can turn into an epic battle of will. Unlike in Sultanahmet, which is overrun with tourists and the people that cater to them, Karaköy is a relaxed up-and-coming neighborhood full of locals relaxing with friends at the cute cafes and shops sprouting up across the former warehouse district. For those familiar with San Francisco, Karaköy is to Soma what Sultanahmet is to Fisherman’s Wharf. While the major mosques and museums are across the water, they’re accessible by a 40 minute walk or, even better under the hot Turkish sun, a 4₺ tram ride (about $1.40 USD).

For me Karaköy will forever hold one of my favorite memories from Turkey: years ago in Seattle circa 1992-1995, I went to elementary school with the sweetest, warmest, funniest girl, Zeynep. We were very close friends, having sleepovers, giggling over boys, and sharing a mutual love of anything related to Archie Comic Books. When Zeynep eventually moved back to Turkey with her family we were crushed, but kept in touch over the years through letters, emails, and later Facebook and Instagram. Finally, after more than 20 years, we met up again in Karaköy! It was so good to reconnect, and not for the first time I was grateful for my love/hate relationship with social media.

As for tourist sites, those who know me won’t be surprised to learn my favorite pastime in Istanbul was visiting the Grand Bazaar. I couldn’t stay away, and ended up visiting three times in two days. Not even there to shop, I loved getting lost amongst the labyrinth of alleyways and taking in the offerings of the 550 year old building. Built in 1461, the bazaar still retains its original colors and archways, spread out over 61 covered streets and more than 3,000 shops.

Located down the hill from the Grand Bazaar next to Eminönü station is the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market. A much smaller scale market, here you can find all kinds of tea, flavors of Turkish Delight, or types of baklava to enjoy during your stay or to take home to friends and family.

Besides the Grand Bazaar, my other favorite site in Istanbul was the mysterious Basilica Cistern. While the streetlevel entrance to the cistern is rather unassuming, after entering and descending 52 steps you’re greeted with the most amazing view:

Rows and rows of columns, 336 in total covering 105,000 feet, illuminated and surrounded by water offer an eerie yet magical sight. While there are several hundred ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul, the Basilica Cistern is the largest. Built in the 6th century, it’s remarkably intact including two pillars of Medusa’s head, inexplicably built both upside down and sideways. Like something out of a Dan Brown novel, this site is definitely worth a visit.

Next on the itinerary was visiting the famous Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Mosque as referred to by locals. Finished in 1616, the mosque is known for the blue tiles used in its interior and is still popularly used as a place of prayer by locals.

When visiting a mosque as a tourist, many things have to be considered, especially for a woman. First, tourists must be mindful of timing their visit so as not to coincide with the timing of the five daily prayers. Tourists must enter through a separate entrance, and are not allowed to enter the prayer area but must instead stay back in a tourist area. Additionally, in accordance with Muslim law, women must cover their heads, as well as their arms and legs. In recent years Mosques have graciously started providing coverings to tourists, including everything from skirts to full-body gowns.

Probably the most popular of all of Istanbul’s sites is the wonderous Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, pictured below.

Built between 532 and 537 AD, Hagia Sophia was the Christian seat of Constantinople until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered the city and converted it to a mosque. Centuries later in 1935 it was coverted to a museum under the secular Republic of Turkey. Its massive dome covers what was for over 1000 years the largest enclosed space in the world.

After its completion it’s said to have changed the history of architecture and walking around and taking it in, it’s easy to see why.

I’d saved Topkapı Palace as the last site to visit since I wanted to end my trip in Turkey with a bang. I’d long seen pictures of its beautiful grounds and knew I’d need a few hours to stroll around.

The palace was the primary residence of the ruling Ottoman Sultan for almost 400 years, from 1465 to 1856. Besides being a royal residence, the palace was also a place where meetings of state were held. Nowadays it’s a beautiful museum enclosing multiple buildings surrounded by four main courtyards. Besides being fascinated by the holy Muslim relics held within the museum, I couldn’t get enough of the beautiful artistic detailing throughout. The tiles especially were amazing to see.

I unfortunately ran out of time, but could’ve easily spent an entire day at Topkapı Palace. Especially for a long trip like mine, it’s important to take some time every now and then and kick back so as not to burn out. This would be the ideal setting for an afternoon of relaxation and wandering.

So there you have my brief visit to Istanbul. This is another city that could easily take a week or more to explore and even then barely scratching the surface. Definitely worth an extended visit.

All in all, if I were to plan my time in Turkey again, after Cappadocia I’d forego my days in Antalya and Bodrum (which didn’t merit their own posts) and instead spend a few days aboard one of the Turkish gulet cruises along the Mediterranean coast before heading back to Istanbul for a few days. As I mentioned earlier, Turkish hospitality can be somewhat exhausting, and adding a few days within my itinerary to swim and relax would’ve been a welcome respite from playing tourist!

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie