Hagia Sophia

By the time I hit day 4 of my time in Istanbul, I decided that I need to step up my game if I wanted to leave the city feeling like I had seen what I wanted to see. I always have these grand plans of waking up early, working out, sightseeing, getting home at a reasonable hour, being productive, and going to sleep at a time that allows me to wake up the next day to do it again without feeling like I’m dying. As you might expect, things rarely go this way. Usually I have one day where I wake up, work out, sightsee… and then end up meeting people and hanging out and getting back late… and then either passing out or staying up late to get work done. And the next day, the plan falls apart before it even starts.

As much as I love routine and being productive, I’m making a huge effort not to skip out on opportunities to spend time with people because that’s always what I remember the most about my trips. I have so many awesome friends that I never would have met if I had stayed in my comfort zone. My comfort zone, by the way, is a place where I never talk to strangers or put myself in a position where I’m uncertain about the outcome. Comfortable, yes. Boring, also yes. So yeah, things didn’t go exactly according to the grand plan, but I think they turned out even better.

Point of that tangent was that by day 4, I still had a lot to see. Since I just needed to get moving on SOMETHING, I picked the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) as my destination for the day and was off.

We learned about the Hagia Sophia in my architecture history classes in university, but heck if I remember anything from those. That’s not true, I do remember a few things, but apparently not the historic details of the Hagia Sophia because I felt like I was going in blind again. No problem! I had a written guide from the internet, and with no expectations, you’re setting yourself up to be amazed.

Top of a column (capital) from the second church

The current Hagia Sophia started out as a church, built in 537AD by the Byzantines. There were two churches previously built on the same site. First, the Great Church was built in 360AD and destroyed in 404AD during riots that took place in the city. A replacement church was built in 415AD and destroyed in 532AD during a revolt that burned down half the city. When the last structure was built, Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Istanbul was emerging as a center of Christianity.

There are a few remaining parts of the second Hagia Sophia predecessor from Theodosian times

I assumed this was a ceiling coffer, but I could be wrong

You can see how massive the space is

The main dome of the structure is 182 feet tall and 104 feet wide, and at the time of its construction, it was the largest dome in the world. It held that title for 900 years until it was overtaken by the Florence Cathedral (fun side fact: construction on the Florence Cathedral was started before anyone knew a way to complete the dome. They figured that was a problem for the future generations to figure out – since building a church took an eternity – and the final solution was some brilliantly engineered machinery that no one besides the inventor thought would work). The entire Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris can fit inside!

The Crusaders took over in 1204, and for almost 60 years, it was under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Shockingly (not), during this time, many of the riches inside were stolen and sent to Italy, though the golden ceiling mosaics were left mostly untouched. I guess those are slightly harder to steal than other things.

When the Ottomans took the city in the 1450s, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. This involved covering or removing any images of living beings, and the mosaic ceilings were plastered over and forgotten about. Despite this unfortunate redecorating, the conversion to a mosque kept the building safe and maintained. Four minarets were added to the outside, and the prayer niche was moved to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem.

The minarets were added when it was converted to a mosque. You can see that they don’t match the rest of the building.

Fountain for washing before Muslim prayer

Close up of the fountain

At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was closed and converted into a museum. The golden mosaics were rediscovered beneath the plastered ceilings and were in generally good condition. Now, the building is a clear mix of Christian and Islamic elements with many of the furnishings remaining from the mosque, including giant, calligraphed medallions, and the original Christian architecture and décor.

View of the main dome

I had no idea what to expect, I had no idea how long it would take me to visit, and I definitely went a bit later than I should have… oops. It wasn’t a big deal though because I wasn’t in Istanbul at a terribly busy time, so waiting in the line to get inside only took maybe 40 minutes. I people-watched to entertain myself, and before I knew it, I was inside.

The building is under construction, but it doesn’t even matter. I mean, I’m sure it would have been great if half of the main hall wasn’t filled with scaffolding, but even with it, you could see how impressive the space is. The ceiling looks like it’s miles away, and since there aren’t big, bulky columns or anything crowding the dome, it seems even bigger. I spent my first 20 minutes staring at the ceiling and trying not to walk into anyone.

The place is so big that even though it was crowded, it didn’t feel like it was. It was probably loud too, but sound had a way of just getting lost. Sometimes I like to sing worship songs when I’m visiting churches (what can I say? They get me in the mood), but I don’t want anyone to hear me… so spaces like that are perfect. I sang to myself, and as soon as the sound left me, it was lost to the open space and the murmurs of the people around me.

So many chandeliers!

From here, I’m going to use the photo captions to give you a mini-tour… I think that will work out the best.

Entrance and ceiling mosaics

Mosaics in the exit corridor

Doors supposedly made with a wooden core of wood from Noah’s Ark. I’m sure it’s true…

This mosaic is the “Donation Mosaic” showing Mary with baby Jesus. Constantine is on the right offering a model of the city, and Justinian is on the left with a model of the Hagia Sophia

One of the most interesting things, in my opinion, was the variety of marble that was used in the construction. It’s kind of like they went to the marble warehouse, couldn’t decide which one they liked best, and decided to leave with one of everything.

Funky, right?

Weeping column. I’m not sure which is right, but I’ve heard two different stories about what you’re supposed to do here. First is that you stick your thumb in the hole and spin your hand counterclockwise. If you make it all the way around, your wish comes true!
The second is that the column was blessed and sticking your finger into the hole can cure your sickness… though I assume it probably just ended up spreading sicknesses because I can’t imagine they ever cleaned it.

The Mimber, where the Imam stands during Friday services.

The prayer niche, adjusted to face Mecca instead of Jerusalem

I’m obsessed with all of the detailing

The Omphalion, where Byzantine Emperors sat during the service and also where their coronations took place

Golden gates because why not?

Going upstairs…

Ramp to the upper gallery

Leave no surface un-mosaic-ed

Mary holding baby Jesus and sitting between Byzantine Empress Irene and Emperor John II (ruled from 1118-1143AD)

Jesus with Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX (ruled 1042-1055AD) and Empress Zoe.

Jesus with Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right. This was made at the end of the Crusader occupation of the church.

Casual ceiling paintings

Booo construction scaffolding 😦

In the upper gallery

View of the Bosphorus

Blue Mosque from the window

Baptistery basin

Buttresses added during Byzantine times

Basilica Cistern

One of the negatives and also sometimes positives of extended travelling is that you don’t necessarily have time to do a lot of research. I make sure that I hit the major sights (thank you, tripadvisor) and put a LOT of trust in the people working reception at my hostel to tell me what I should go see. Sometimes, that means that you know you should visit something, but you have no idea what it is… and then you go there and learn about it and are like, “DUDE! THIS IS SO COOL!”


For me, that happened with the Basilica Cistern, or Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish (Sinking Cistern). The “basilica” part of the name comes from the fact that there was formerly a basilica on the site. I had no idea what it was, but I saw a bunch of tour groups going and the self-guided walking tour I was following mentioned it, so I figured I should check it out. I know, all of this makes me sound like a complete idiot, but sometimes the best way to learn about something is to just go and experience it (things I tell myself that may or may not be completely true… sometimes it’s probably good to have a clue, but that’s not the way I’ve been operating recently).

The Basilica Cistern was constructed during the Byzantine days, between 527-565AD by Emperor Justinianus I. It’s a ginormous underground water cistern, 140m x 70m and with 9m tall columns. The capacity is around 100,000 tons of water which translates to 26.5 million gallons. There are 336 columns total, placed in 12 rows of 28 columns. These are joined by arches and vaulted ceilings that carry the weight of the city above. The brick walls are over a meter thick, and they and the floors are plastered with a thick layer of special brick dust mortar for waterproofing.

Seemingly endless

The cistern was in active use until the Ottomans conquered the city. They preferred fresh water as opposed to sitting water, so the underground reservoirs went mostly unused with the exception of feeding the nearby Topkapi Palace gardens and a few homes. In the 1540s, a Dutch traveller visited Istanbul in search of Byzantine monuments. When he noticed residents pulling water out of their floors, they directed him to a staircase that led into the reservoir. He explored it using a small boat, took measurements, and published his findings in a book that piqued more Western interest in the cistern.

There were repeated renovations in the 1700s – early 1900s to reinforce various part of the structure, and it wasn’t until a major 1985 restoration that the complete scale of the cistern was discovered. After removing 50,000 tons of mud (and probably trash and bodies and who knows what else), the full height of the columns was visible.

You can see that the column capital (the thing at the top) on the closer column is different from the column behind it

The columns are all made of different materials and are of different architectural styles because, in classic ancient fashion, they were swiped from other structures. They always say that it was from ruined structures, but I like to imagine that there was a big column-pilfering problem in ancient times and sometimes people would wake up in the morning to discover that the columns on the local temple were gone… and then they would go steal some others and so on until someone finally sucked it up and just made some new ones. Estimates are that it took 7,000 slaves to construct the cistern, and that doesn’t even include the workforce required to build the 12-mile long aqueduct that fed it.

Check out those ceilings!

Tear column

There are three columns of particular interest. One is carved with the images of eyes and tears, paying tribute to the hundreds of slaves who died during construction. (It’s a good reminder that all of this amazing ancient stuff usually came at a high human cost.) The other two are normal columns, but the bases are two big Medusa heads that scholars think came from the Temple of Apollo near Ephesus (another city in Turkey), but no one knows for sure. One is sideways and one is upside down, a configuration explained by scholars as showing the change from pagan religion to Christianity. Other legends say that they were placed there for protection and are oriented that way to keep them from turning people to stone. I think that they were just so tired of moving them that they said, “This is close enough, we’ll leave them like this.”

Hey, Medusa

The girl who took this for me definitely thought I was a weirdo

Upside down selfie!

First view when walking down the stairs

Now, there are walkways for tourists to tour the cistern, unfortunately replacing the boats that were formerly used. That would have been awesome.

As I took the steps underground, my jaw literally dropped when I got my first look. It’s huge. I know, like duh it’s huge, but when you see it in person and realize that you’re underground, it’s unbelievable! And it was chilly down there which I suppose would have been nice if it wasn’t also chilly outside. My brain couldn’t even imagine the whole thing filled with water, and with no lights down there it would have been CREEEEEPY. Eek. Imagine going in there while it was full, with no clue what you were going to find in a little boat in the darkness with just a lantern. No, thank you. It probably smelled weird too.

I’m obsessed with this brick work

Anyway, despite the fact that I didn’t get to ride on a boat, it was spectacular. The space seems to go on forever, and when you think about the logistics that went into actually constructing it, it’s mind-blowing. All of that. Underground. Over 300 huge columns. So. Many. Bricks. And the ceilings are super high which means they had some sort of scaffolding. And then the aqueducts to feed it! Geez!

After wandering around much longer than anyone else and in a constant state of marveling, I made my way to the exit. Then, if you aren’t already aware of the expanse of the thing by the time you leave, you pop up on the surface, blocks away from the entrance. And it’s bright outside and noisy and bustling and you’re like, “WHAT IS HAPPENING?” because you just emerged from this underground cave and now you’re in the middle of the city. The whole transition was very confusing, and I felt like a time traveler or something.

In conclusion, the Basilica Cistern is super cool, and if you’ve ever wanted to feel like a time traveler, it’s the place for you. Except now that I’ve warned you, maybe you’ll just go and not feel it and think that I’m insane. Maybe I am.

Exploring Old Town

Nutritious lunch

In case you were wondering (or worried), no, I didn’t fall off a cliff. I’m alive and well and just very, very far behind on writing. I’ve been keeping up my journal at least because if that’s a sloppy mess, no one besides me is going to read it… which is good because more than once, I’ve fallen asleep while typing and woken up to unintelligible nonsense on my computer screen.

I’m going to attempt to get back into the game because I’ve missed it! Writing about the things I’m seeing and doing forces me to learn so much more about them than I otherwise would, and that has added so much value to my travels. I know, I could just learn for the sake of learning, but when you’re learning to explain to someone else, you have to have a much fuller understanding of the subject. That makes me try way harder than I otherwise would to really get the complete picture.

During my morning run along the Bosphorus


So, excuse the side note, and let’s get back to Istanbul! My first few days were not the most sightseeing-efficient. Day 1 was a complete mess because I was so tired. It basically consisted of me eating, trying to keep my eyes open until my bed was ready, and taking a very long daytime “nap”… and then waking up from that nap, sitting in bed for a couple of hours, and going to sleep for the night. I kind of considered going for a walk during the “sitting in bed” time, but it was raining and ugh and instead I just sat.

I was determined to make day 2 better… and it was raining again. I told myself that the day would be counted as a success if I just managed to make myself leave the hostel (I know, this is not a realistic life I’m leading at the moment), and that was enough motivation to make me step outside. I attempted, and failed, to take a guided walking tour of the city (I couldn’t find the meeting point because I was still a mental mess), so I defiantly decided that I didn’t need a tour guide anyway and found a self-guided walking tour online.

My journey started in Old Town at the site of the old Hippodrome, center of the Roman Constantinople. The Romans always crack me up because they always have the same priorities when it comes to outfitting newly-conquered cities to the Roman standard. Essential parts of a city, according to the Romans: sporting facilities, aqueducts, baths. So fancy.


Obelisk of Theodosius

Of course, one of the first things to be constructed were baths because hygiene and what on earth are you supposed to do with your social life otherwise? And then, what is a city without a hippodrome for chariot races?? That was constructed near the beginning as well, and it was eventually expanded by Constantine to include stands for 100,000 people and epic columns and statues and gates to make it worthy of being the hippodrome of “New Rome”. This was the social and geographic center of the city from around the 200s-1450s AD when the Ottomans took control. It started to fall into disrepair and was eventually turned into a park, which is its current state today. Most of the Roman monuments are gone, but a few still live in the park: two obelisks and a broken column.

The first obelisk, the Obelisk of Theodosius, is covered with hieroglyphs and, like practically every single “Roman” obelisk, was stolen from Egypt. This one dates back to 1450BC! It was moved to the Hippodrome in 390AD, and only the top 1/3 of it remains which is completely insane because it’s still huge. The rest was damaged, they think, during transportation and re-erection… and my response to that is, DUH! What do you expect when you try to move a 60m tall piece of granite???

Base of the obelisk. It shows Theodosius crowning the winners of chariot races

Serpentine Column

The broken Serpentine Column is situated next to the obelisk. This was built in the 400s BC by the Greeks after a battle victory, and supposedly it’s made from the melted-down shields of the Persian soldiers who they defeated. It was 8 meters high, and the twists in the column are the bodies of three serpents, formerly with heads that held a golden bowl. Unfortunately, it was plundered 300 years ago, and this little stump is what remains, though they did manage to find a piece of one of the serpent heads.

Finally, the Constantine Obelisk sits on the other side of the column. It’s a bit sad looking now, and I’ll give you one guess why… That’s right, it was plundered! It seems like everything in the Roman universe is somehow tainted by theft. It was built in the 10th century by Constantine, and that sad stone exterior used to be covered with gilded bronze plates that depicted the military triumphs of his grandfather, Emperor Basil I. During the Crusades, these were stolen and melted down.

The very sad looking Constantine Obelisk

There used to be many other monuments in the Hippodrome. Many of them were probably stolen before they were placed there, and later they were stolen again to be placed elsewhere. The whole concept of stealing a monument still just baffles me. How? And why? And how?? “Ah, this million-ton bronze sculpture would look fantastic in my garden, right next to the million-ton pointy rock that I acquired in Egypt. Men! Load it up!” That’s how I imagine those decisions took place. That was the ancient way I guess.

The Hippodrome also contains a not-stolen and not-Roman gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II after he visited in the late 1800s. Eh. He probably stole it from someone. Anyway, it’s a fountain with a beautiful gold mosaic ceiling. I don’t know about you, but no one’s ever given me a gift like that. Also, what to do with it? “Thank you, Kaiser, for this wonderful gift. We will put it… uhhh… in the Hippodrome! Right in the center of the city and mostly because we have a bunch of open space there so why not.”

German Fountain. They built it in Germany, deconstructed it, shipped it, and reconstructed it here.

Looking up into the German Fountain

Constantine’s Great Palace was right next to the Hippodrome, and almost nothing remains… except for some amazing mosaics that were discovered in the 1930s underneath shops in the nearby Bazaar. More mosaics were found in the 50s, and they were brought together to form the Mosaic Museum. I’m personally a huge fan of mosaics, so I was completely sold on going. The most substantial mosaics formed the floor of a courtyard in the palace and date back to 450AD.

The Bazaar where the Mosaic Museum is located

They estimate that the floor used 75-80 million cubes with about 40,000 per square meter. They’re very small, about 5mm per side, and that allows for some spectacular detail. It also must have taken forever to make. The main part of the mosaic is composed of a series of scenes of varying subject matter: people hunting, animals fighting, mythological stories, pictures of rural life, etc. It’s pretty spectacular. I can’t even imagine seeing it in its original form with columns lining the sides. I bet you were even allowed to walk on it back then.

So tiny!

The grand mosaic floor

Check out the detail!

The surviving portion of the floor is about 250 square meters… and guess how big they think the entire thing was? SEVEN TO EIGHT times that size. That’s more than the area of 1.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. How do you even start that project? How do you make images that actually look how they’re supposed to look?? I thought that painting was hard on a large scale, but this is next level.

The Mosaic Museum

Some mythological creatures, some animals devouring other animals… the usual.

I seriously don’t understand how they made these

The main portion of the Grand Palace once stood on the site of the famous Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, when I visited, it was closed for renovations and I don’t want to think about it or I’ll be sad. The mosque was completed in 1616AD after only 7 years of construction! That may seem like a long time, but when you think about the fact that so many of the world’s epic churches took centuries to complete, it was basically finished in the blink of an eye.

There are six minarets, and this is what the Imams (worship leaders) used to climb to sing the Call to Prayer. Five times a day, right before the five Muslim prayer times (dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, night), the Imams sing to invite people to come to the mosque to pray. Back in the pre-loudspeaker days, the Imams would climb to the top to sing, but now they just use a microphone that’s connected to the speakers in the minarets. Kind of a bummer in my opinion. The five daily prayers each take about 5-10 minutes and are meant to purify the soul, teach discipline and humility, and remind you to think about God throughout the day.

With the construction, only the courtyard leading into the mosque was open. At least that was something. I’m sure the inside isn’t that cool anyway (lies I tell to myself. I’m sure it’s amazing).

Ignore this man who walked right in front of my picture

Ceilings around the courtyard

Between the Blue Mosque and another iconic structure that I’ll talk about in a later post, Hagia Sophia, is Sultan Ahmet Park. This is the site of the old Roman Baths of Zeuxippus (those Romans have to have their baths!), and there are Turkish bathhouses nearby that you can still visit today.

Sultan Ahmed’s tomb, located next to the Blue Mosque

It was under restoration when I was there, so I couldn’t go in, but you can see how crazy intricate even just the outside is

Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmed Park

More Blue Mosque

Me, kind of with but mostly in front of the Blue Mosque (this is what happens when you ask strangers for pictures)

Hagia Sophia

With my Old Town tour basically finished, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather (sarcasm… it was still gross out) and go on a Bosphorus boat cruise. Why? Don’t ask me. These are things that you should do on a nice, pretty, clear day. But sometimes opportunities present themselves at less-than-ideal times. I got a good deal on the ticket, so I went despite the weather. Enjoy the pictures and pretend that it’s not cloudy or foggy or gross.

Pretending I’m not cold

Dolmabahce Mosque

Dolmabahce Palace

Hagia Sophia and the old city walls

Topkapi Palace

More city walls and palace views

Failed attempt to take a night photo with my phone camera

Istanbul History

Istanbul is one of those cities where, if you don’t understand the history behind it, you’re left scratching your head. Architecturally, it’s a huge mash-up that tells the story of the city’s past. Back when I was in university, we had a project in architecture studio where we made architecture collages. The first person got a blank board and a name of a building, and they built a model of that building. They passed the board to the next person who got another random building, and they had to find a way to integrate that into what had already been built. The board was passed again, and the last person had to add in another architectural component. The final result was weird and interesting because each collage was a confusing mix of different architectural styles, and if you didn’t understand the project, you would have stood there wondering what crazy person put the models together. Similarly, if you don’t understand the story behind Istanbul’s growth and development, the architecture of the city doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Let’s start from the beginning… If you look at a map, it’s obvious why Istanbul is located where it is. To the north is the Black Sea, to the south the Sea of Marmara, and right through the middle is the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Caucasus and southeastern Europe to northern Africa and the Middle East. It’s like a trader’s dream.

The Bosphorous!

The first inhabitants of the area may have arrived as early as 3000BC, but a true city wasn’t established until the 600s BC when Greek colonists settled there because of its location. They were led by King Byzas, and in typical, modest-king fashion, he gave the city its first name, Byzantium, after himself.

Rome conquered Greece in 149BC and moved into Byzantium soon after. The Romans started to build it up into a Roman city, complete with city walls, a Roman layout, a hippodrome, and monuments to various Roman battle victories. The Roman Empire was divided in two with Rome as the western capital and the newly named “Augusta Antonina” (really rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?) as the eastern capital.

Constantine came to power in 324AD, officially moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city, and renamed it “Nova Roma”. He wanted to rebuild the city and fill it with epic monuments like those in Rome. After Constantine’s death in 337AD, the city was renamed Constantinople in honor of him. (The people in that city must have had a serious identity crisis from all of the name changes.)

Examples of random things you can find around the city because of its complicated past: columns, probably from Roman times, half buried in the middle of a random park in the city.

In 395, the Empire was split into Eastern and Western halves, and after the Western Empire fell, Constantinople and the Eastern Empire were still going strong. Between the time of Constantine’s rule and the eventual conquest of the city by the Crusaders in 1204, there was a lot of action. The walls were expanded, aqueducts and churches were built, and the city resisted multiple attacks by Arab conquerors. There were various revolts in the city, buildings were destroyed and rebuilt, and the emperors continued to build ever more impressive and ridiculous buildings.

In 1204, Catholic Crusaders from Italy broke through the city’s sea walls and took control. During their brief period of control and in typical Crusader fashion, they stole all sorts of items from the palaces and churches and sent them back to Rome, where many of them remain to this day.

The Romans managed to push the Crusaders out in 1261 and reclaim control of Constantinople. They never reached the strength of their former occupation and were weakened further by the repeated attacks of the Ottomans. Finally, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II was successful in conquering the city, and Constantinople became part of the Ottoman Empire.


View overlooking the city

Over the next almost 500 years, the Ottoman Empire expanded its control across the region. The sultan was determined to rejuvenate Constantinople. He created the Grand Bazaar (a huge covered market), built palaces, mosques, bathhouses, and other public buildings, brought people from various religious backgrounds into the city to have a diverse population, and started the movement of the city towards its later status as a major cultural, political, and commercial center.


This is the Hagia Sofya. It started as a church and was converted into a mosque later. Can you see how the towers were clearly built at a different time from the rest of the building?

Following its defeat in WWI, the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, and in 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born in its place. Within the new republic, the capital was moved to Ankara, and Constantinople started to decline. The population decreased, and parts of the city fell into disrepair.

Eventually, things started to turn around. In 1930, the city of many names became Istanbul. In the 1940s and 50s, the city’s structure was updated with the construction of new public squares and boulevards. Finally, in the 1970s, people were drawn back to Istanbul because of the many new factory jobs available on the outskirts. This led to the rapid growth of the city, turning it into a sprawling metropolitan area.

The city looks like it goes on forever…

Currently, it is the largest city in Turkey with a population of approximately 13.5 million people, and it enjoys the exclusive status of being the world’s only metropolitan area that exists on two continents (Europe and Asia).

Its complicated history makes it an even more interesting place to visit, and I had a lot of head-scratching moments as I explored and tried to figure out how everything fit together. I’ll do my best to spare you the same struggle!

Welcome to Istanbul!

Welcome to Istanbul!! I know, you were probably wondering if we were ever going to manage to leave Georgia, but we did it!

View over Istanbul

My flight landed in Istanbul after a solid 3 hours in the air… during which I was completely comatose, but it apparently didn’t make a difference because I was still exhausted when we landed. I hate feeling groggy while going through immigration and customs, but sometimes there’s only so much you can control. Before leaving the airport and attempting to navigate the long journey to my hostel, I tried to smack myself awake and pull it together the best I could (never underestimate the power of a quick face washing/tooth brushing in the airport bathroom).

From the airport, I had to take three modes of transportation. This trek was completely the result of my trying to spend as little money as possible. There are two airports in Istanbul, one on the Asia side of the city and one on the Europe side. I was staying on the Europe side, but I flew into Asia because it was way cheaper. Then, I could have gotten a pick up or a taxi from the airport, but I’m not made of money! And the less I spend, the longer I can take coming home… hehe just kidding (Mom, I’m just kidding. I promise!). Anyway, all of this led to three modes of transport: shuttle bus, funicular, and tram.

The shuttle was the longest leg of the journey, about 45 minutes, and I slept from the moment I sat down. That’s great, except then when we got to the end stop, I was completely disoriented and had no idea which way I needed to go. And it was raining, of course. I marched off confidently in some random direction until I could get oriented… at which point I turned around and marched off in the exact opposite direction. My approach to walking around strange cities: Always look like you know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing, even if you haven’t a clue.

Long story short, I figured out where I needed to go, how to buy a transit card, etc. with my eyes at least 50% closed, and when I got to the hostel, they showed me where to drop my bags (since I was there about 6 hours before check-in) and told me to help myself to breakfast. Ah, those words were like music to my ears after spending the night eating crackers, gummies, and a variety of other travel snacks that I love but that will also lead to my slow death-by-vitamin-deficiency.

Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with the details of my breakfast (but bread and chocolate spread were obviously involved because gotta get those essential vitamins!). Instead, here are my first impressions of Istanbul (admittedly collected in more than just the hour and a half journey from the airport):

  1. Mosques – There are SO many, and they’re everywhere. And they’re seemingly always under construction, but I’ll talk about that later. I’ve been to other countries with a lot of mosques, but the ones in Istanbul are generally very welcoming to visitors which was a huge difference from places like Dubai, for example.

    The Blue Mosque, one of many, many mosques in the city

  2. Public transportation – It’s so good! And there are more modes of public transit than anywhere I’ve been. There are trams and funiculars and ferries and metros and trains and buses and probably spaceships too if you know where to look. And they’re all nice and clean and on-schedule and easy to navigate.
  3. Food – This has to be one of my favorite places, food-wise. I think I said that about Lebanon too, though, so it’s definitely a Middle-Eastern-food thing. This is the most similar to the type of food I grew up with which made me feel at home. Kind of funny because I used to hate practically all of those foods, but hey, times change. I could eat kebab and lahmajoon for every meal for the rest of my life.


    Kebab platter

    Soft serve. Yummmm

  4. Dessert – Yes, this gets its own number, separate from food. If you don’t understand already, it’s not worth my trying to explain it. Three words. Baklava. Icecream. Turkishdelights. (Okay, I should have said five words.) I usually don’t like baklava but there were a few fantastic baklava moments that happened. It’s very hard to disappoint me with ice cream, so the fact that it even exists puts it on the list. Turkish delights aren’t my personal favorite to eat, but they’re high on the list of my favorite desserts to look at.
  5. Nuts – This deserves its own number too. So much love for nuts. They’re everywhere and in EVERYTHING. Chocolate, Turkish delights, every other dessert whose names I don’t know. It’s almost impressive how many different ways they manage to use the same ingredient.
  6. Flags – There. Are. Turkish. Flags. EVERYWHERE. Honestly, it’s a little weird. Someone tried to tell me that there are a lot of flags around in the States, but this is like the U.S. on Independence Day x 100000.

    Flags. Everywhere.

  7. Flowers – I’m sure this is partly just a spring thing, but also landscaping. I have never seen SO many flowers and so many impeccably landscaped parks. I was completely obsessed because what’s better than flowers and parks? But it definitely takes a huge amount of work and maintenance for them to look like that. It’s amazing!

    Check out this park…

    They’re winning the landscape game

    This just looks so magical


    Apple tea, my new true love. There’s even a cinnamon stick in the bottom of this one!

  8. Tea – In general, I hate tea. I think it tastes like something that could maybe be good if it wasn’t so watered-down. Also, most typical flavors are kind of eh. In Istanbul, tea is a big thing, and I LOVED it. This is a significant statement coming from me. Apple tea is like ❤ ❤ <3. There are no words. It’s like drinking warm apple juice but better. And there’s definitely a pile of sugar in it, so that doesn’t hurt. I had some delicious pomegranate tea too, and I don’t even like pomegranates! Summary: they know what they’re doing when it comes to tea.
  9. Water – There’s nothing better than a city with a nice river… except for a city with an estuary and a strait AND a sea. You can take ferries like buses!

    On the water! On a boat!

    The estuary is coming in from the right, the Bosphorus Strait is on the left, and the Sea of Marmara is out in the distance

  10. History – Istanbul is an old and complicated place, and you can see it. There are old churches that were turned into mosques, palaces, the ruins of Roman aqueducts and city walls… the city oozes history.

I also quickly noticed that my chameleon suit worked very well there (that’s how I’ve started to think of my somewhat ethnically ambiguous appearance… often, it’s like I’m a chameleon that can kind of blend in, or at the very least can keep from standing out). I got a lot of, “You’re Turkish, right?” Thank you, chameleon suit. Which brings us to #11…

I got some Turkish ice cream which is very similar to Arabic ice cream (which I had when I was in Lebanon). It uses mastic (a resin) which helps to keep it from melting.
Also note my fake engagement ring. Hehe.

  1. Men – Aside from Ghana, this is probably the place where men have been the most forward on the street. In Armenia, other people had issues with this, but I walked around ignoring everyone, so I was generally left alone. I tried to apply my ignore strategy in Istanbul, and that just led to follow up questions about why I was ignoring them and promises that they were of good character (claims which, I would argue, were negated by the fact that they were disregarding my clear disinterest in talking to them). UGH. After about two days of it, I got so annoyed that I went and bought a fake engagement ring to wear when walking around alone. I don’t know if it made a difference, but at least it gave me a very easy “out” if someone tried talking to me, “Oh sorry, I have to go. I’m on my way to meet my husband.” I HATE having to use the “other man” shield because it’s a lie and saying “leave me alone” should be enough, but for sanity’s sake, there are some battles not worth fighting.

Okay, that’s enough for now. Get yourself excited for some history because next time, we’re going to learn alllll about just how much history Istanbul has.