Istanbul, Jewel on the Bosporus.

I was in Turkey back in the 80s but never really hit any of the major cities. Wandering around the deserts in the East made me want to return. And, after 30 some years, I finally managed to do so.

Obviously, Istanbul was an absolute must-stop destination. So many different travel segments have been done on the city that everybody I know who travels has either already been there or just sighs and says that they’ll get there one day. It’s that amazing o a place. And, it turns out that it’s actually all true!

Getting to Istanbul.

Getting to Istanbul is pretty easy. Most all major airlines fly there. The international airport is pretty new, vast, and requires some walking to navigate. Rolling through customs isn’t tricky, and language skills aren’t required. Everyone speaks enough English for you to get by. Getting from the airport to the city is another matter altogether. The new international airport is like 40 miles west of the city. There is no train service to it, at this point. It does have a bus service of some variety that you can use, but I wasn’t tempting fate. There are several different hotel transfer services that do a brisk business. I utilized one that I found online while still in Crete. I’m pretty sure it was called Kiwi Taxi. They took all of the hassle out of the situation. Probably the most productive $40.00 I spent while I was there. I highly suggest the hotel transfer service. Also keep in mind that the old airport on the eastern side of the Bosporus is still open and active. It is closer, but in a different direction. Check and make sure you understand what direction you are entering the city from. I flew into the new airport and out of the old airport, which caused me some temporary logistical problems.

Stop! Know the details in advance.

A word of caution: check your paperwork. The Near East isn’t Europe. Before i left the USA, I had made a whole spreadsheet with all of the information I needed about each country I thought I would visit. It had common currency, type of electric plugs used, transportation options (whether I was flying in/out or using the train), weather, and oh ya, entry requirements. I left the spreadsheet at the house, so it slipped my mind that I might need a visa to get into Turkey. Ugh! As I was laying on my hotel bed in Crete looking for hotel transfers, I happened to stumble on a website headline announcing visa requirements. Needless to say, that grabbed my attention. Fortunately for this story, it turns out you can get an almost instant eVisa, if you have a digital passport photo, a credit card, and a good internet connection. 2 or 3 hour crisis finally averted. That was, until I clicked on the US State Department website. The state department informed me that it was unwise to travel to Turkey at this time. It was highly suggested that I change my plans and don’t go. If I was to get in trouble in the eastern half of the country, they would not be coming to help me. Yes, you read that right.

Yup. The State department said don’t go. But I’ve already bought the plane tickets and reserved the room. I mean seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

Turns out…You can have a fantastic time!

The Old City of Constantinople.

The Sultanahmet neighborhood on the western side of the Bosporus is the area holding most of the old city gems. From a hotel in this area you can explore the must-see tourist items on foot or with a short tram ride.

Things to See and Do.

In a city the size of Istanbul, you are overwhelmed with things to do and see. You can spend every waking hour out in search of the once-in-a-lifetime must-dos, or you can just chill, and enjoy being in Constantinople. I chose the latter. It was definitely a good decision. The following is a list of things that I did while there, and very much enjoyed.

The Hagia Sophia Museum

Hagia Sophia Museum. Brownell. 2019
The Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul. 2019
Script in Hagia Sophia. Brownell. 2019
Islamic script in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. 2019
Christian iconography inside Hagia Sophia. Brownell. 2019
Restored Christian iconography inside Hagia Sophia, in Istanbul.

I confess, the reason I fly to Istanbul was to visit this church/mosque/museum. A defining piece of architecture, the Hagia Sophia is the model upon which every other great church is constructed. It is in remarkably good shape for its age, and actually looks better in real life than it’s depictions in some movies.

Now a museum, most of the masses seem to treat it that way. The go-to destination for day trippers and cruise shippers, the Lines you stand in to enter are exasperatingly long and unfriendly. But, once inside, you’ll be overjoyed that you suffered through the wait. The Hagia Sophia is magnificent! That is not an overstatement. Well maintained over the years and retaining the Islamic influences from its time as a mosque, the building is larger than life. You seem to get swallowed up in it as you look around. In the upper levels, preserved and rediscovered Christian mosaics let you feel its original spectacle. It’s hard to put its age and beauty into words that do it justice.

You won’t regret going to see it.

The Blue Mosque

Blue mosque. Brownell. 2019
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. 2019

Where the Hagia Sophia has long been a museum, and is treated as such, the Blue Mosque is a living and working religious structure. It should be approached with some reverence.

It’s located almost directly across the open green space fro Hagia Sophia. You seriously have trouble missing it. However, it is surrounded by a low wall, so finding an entrance can take a minute.

Catching the mosque in-between the calls to prayer is your best and most-favored option. There is an entry fee into the building and the line doesn’t really seem to disappear. Externally, the building and courtyard are fantastic. Internally most mosques are pretty austere, so I skipped the line and surcharges. The courtyard was extravagant, so if you want to enter and check out the rest, don’t let that steer you clear.

The Basilica Cistern

Author inside the basilica cistern, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Author inside the basilica cistern, Istanbul. 2019

Yup, Dan Brown made another spot into a must-see travel destination. I walked in the footsteps of Robert Langdon yet again!

The cistern’s located just up the street from the Hagia Sophia. It has pretty standard hours and an entry fee that says they know you’re going to pay it to go in.

As a tourist attraction it doesn’t disappoint. The walk through the cistern is quite enjoyable. It’s a little hard to get good pictures in the low-light conditions, but you’ll take a bunch anyway, just as I did. If you track it down, Medusa’s head is right where it’s supposed to be.

Keep in mind, the Basilica Cistern get piles of traffic. Most of the entrants are guided tour day-trippers. The line can get huge! Try to go first-thing when they open. It helps to see it in a more peaceful manner.

The Grand Bazar

Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Grand Bazaar, Istanbul. 2019

The grand bazaar is another one of those must-do Istanbul locations. It’s definitely worth your time, but leave your street bazaar ideas from Middle Eastern countries at home. This isn’t that kind of place. Obviously built up over time, the bazaar is much more a covered shopping area these days. It’s still kitschy-cool. I bought some t-shirts. Go, take the walk, have a good time. You’ll have a shopping story when you return home.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Brownell. 2019
Entrance to the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. 2019

The Topkapi Palace is a staple on every top-ten list and a major chunk of The Sultanahmet neighborhood. Just like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Palace draws large crowds of tourists. Get there as early as possible.

Note number one, the audio guides will run out. They did the day I was there, literally the guy behind me got the last one they had. If you don’t want to have to wait around for somebody to return one, get there early.

Note number two, the entry price is NOT all-inclusive. You will pay extra for the harem access. Also the tower, which is a major visual draw inside the palace courtyard, is accessed through the extra charge harem area. Also, it was closed while I was there. Ugh!!

Other than those notes, GO THERE! This place is awesome. It’s no wonder that the Ottomans were an empire after seeing this place. The gardens are excellent. The inner courtyard is spectacular! The outer walls and the inner buildings are in immaculate shape, and are surprisingly airy considering their design and location. I’m not sure I can say enough good things about it. Seriously. Go there!

Bosporus River Cruise

Bosporus lighthouse. Brownell. 2019
A lighthouse in the Bosporus, as seen from the river cruise ship. 2019

Everyone should spend a couple quality hours sailing on the Bosporus. There are numerous options at numerous prices, but the majority of people leave from the ferry terminals on the north side of the Golden Horn, directly next to the bridge. There are several operators, all of which are about the same price wise, offering pretty much the same route. The boats are open-top ferry boats, holding a hundred or two each.

Some major sites are announced on the boats loudspeakers as you pass. The remainder of the trip is yours to look and wonder.

General note: since everyone on the boat wants to take pictures of the various sights, there is always congestion at the rails. Camera wielding tourists switch from one side to another as the boat goes up and down the predetermined route. If you not snapping pictures, there are plenty of seats in the middle to enjoy. The man selling tea will find you there.

Taking in the Joys.

I remember sitting in this rooftop hotel bar drinking a beer and looking out over the Blue Mosque. All the time this was happening I was pondering the idea that I was actually in Constantinople! A place so deep with history that you actually have to decide what you want to explore before hand or you’ll get lost in it all. You have to enjoy the experiences you have. If you don’t, why are you traveling? I intentionally don’t overbook my exploring, just so I know I have time to soak up some of the joy that comes my way. Sometimes, even from a rooftop bar.

Thoughts.

I am sooooooooooooooo happy that I went to Constantinople! Okay fine, Istanbul. It turned out to be a great experience, with amazing sites that I’ve been wanting to see for decades. If you use a little common sense and preplanning, you can have an excellent time. Just make sure you look at the logistics in advance. And, don’t forget about the visa! Now, get out there! Explore someplace new! Have a new experience … after the airports open back up post-corona virus.

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