Istanbul Again

November 10, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

Istanbul, Turkey, has featured prominently recently in blockbuster movies and contemporary literature.  Its rich history, mosque-dotted skyline, and strategic Europe/Asia thoroughfare make it a popular setting in a variety of assorted media.  I’ve visited Istanbul before, but this time I was able to bring my good camera and I had 3 nights to explore its many layers.

 As a frequent business traveler I typically stay with the same hotel family to maximize my points.  Usually we stay at Marriott properties.  Recently Marriott acquired the luxury Ritz Carlton brand and we decided to give the Ritz a try in Istanbul.  In the picture above, the Istanbul Ritz Carlton is the tallest building in the shot.  Located a short walk from the Taksim shopping area, the first morning we started our Istanbul adventure in Taksim.

The Taksim area received some notoriety this year as the location of riots in May.  Taksim is the modern European-style pedestrian shopping area of Istanbul.  Flanked by both high-end shops and Turkish street vendors, Taksim seems like an unlikely riot area.  The protests originated in Gezi Park (small park at the end of Taksim) by people angry with the city’s plans to develop the park.  The sit-in turned into a full blown riot complete with tear gas and water canons.  Thankfully the tear gas had dissipated for my arrival (I make it a point to avoid tear gas in all forms) but the police presence was still very high.  Walking down Taksim we spotted dozens of police waiting in riot gear brandishing automatic weapons and several large vehicles sporting water canons.  Thankfully all was peaceful the day I was there.

I'm not completely sure, but I think this guy was selling lottery tickets:

Taksim is lined with restaurants:

Tourist shops selling various knickknacks:

and street vendors:

You can buy a Shwarma:

And wash it down with some fresh pressed pomegranate juice..

The Taksim streetcar is a common image in photography of the area.  We weren’t disappointed on our visit, and saw it pass by several times on our walk through the area.

The currency in Turkey is the Turkish Lira and the exchange rate relative to the dollar is about 2 to 1.  This makes shopping and bartering easy even after drinking a few Efes. (The local beer.)

I like to utilize public transportation when I can while abroad.  Most of the time it is quicker, more efficient, and by far cheaper than jumping into a cab.  To get from Taksim to the old town Sultanahmet area you take the F-1 Funicular (I had to look it up, too.  A funicular is basically a small tram that goes up and down a steep hill.) and then jump on the T-1 Tram.  Both take tokens that you buy from a machine for the reasonable cost of 3 TL ($1.50)  Sure the local buses/subways/tram often sport that authentic people smell, but it’s part of the charm of world travel.

Sultanahmet is probably the most visited part of Istanbul – at least by tourists.  The biggest sights are located there, so we set off to check them out. Our first stop was the Hagia Sofia. 

To learn more about the Hagia Sofia and its rich history you can click here.  I’ve written about it before, and I’m not going to do a big history lesson right now.

Right across the street from the Hagia Sofia is the famed Blue Mosque. 

We actually were going to check out the Blue Mosque (My coworkers hadn't been inside before) but we were there around noon and it's closed to visitors for their noon worship then. So we crossed another street and we did enter the Basilica Cistern.

Built over 1500 years ago to store water, the Basilica Cistern was featured in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love and features more recently in the latest Dan Brown book, Inferno.

I liked the way the builders recycled an old Medusa head they had lying around.

You can read more aobut the cistern here. 

By this time we were hungry, so we sat down at a local eatery for some kebab, hummus and maybe an Efes or two. While we were eating we saw local workers transporting some bread from a local bakery.

It seemed the best way to transport this type of food was on or around the head.

We also saw this dude selling brooms.

After lunch, we were well-nourished and maybe a bit sleepy.  We had no time for rest, however, we were right next to the famed Grand Bazaar.  Recently James Bond raced a motorcycle on its roof in Skyfall and Liam Neesen killed dozens of bad guys searching for his ex-wife and daughter in Taken 2.  While our experience wasn’t quite as extreme (I was a bartering machine, however) the Grand Bazaar rarely disappoints.

Just outside the covered bazaar we saw this guy – he’s either a traditional Turkish tea merchant, our a rocket-pack clad commando.

If it’s for sale in Turkey, you can find it in or around the Grand Bazaar.

Every kind of shop can be found amongst the arched ceiling of the Grand Bazaar.

I bought a quarter kilo of that Ottoman spice to take home and season my Southern Californa version of the kebob. 

I also picked up some tea:

After spending what Lira we had on us, it was time to board the tram and make our way back to our hotel.  We had another full day in Istanbul, so we had to save something for tomorrow.

The next day after breakfast and some strong Turkish coffee I set off with my camera charged and ready to go.  My first stop was the Galata Tower.

Here you can see the Galata Tower poking above the cityscape.  Okay, I know it’s a bit of a tourist trap.  I think it was built in the 1300s (although I’m guessing the elevator was part of some retrofit) and it cost 13 TL to go to the top.  There is a somewhat cheesy café on top, but the view is the reason I traveled to the tower.

There is an outdoor balcony that circles the tower and commands sweeping views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. 

I wasn't the only one taking photos from the tower:

I spent a good hour on the tower – the tower of power. (Okay, I’ll stop with the rhyming.) I wanted to walk across the bridge I saw from the tower. (I think it’s called the Galata Bridge.)

The bridge was full of fishermen and bait salesman.  We didn’t see anybody catching any large fish – in fact it was difficult to tell the difference between their bait and what they were actually catching. Of course I didn’t actually say that while I was watching them fish. (I didn’t want to do anything that could potentially let me see the inside of a Turkish Prison – or as they say in Turkey, “prison.”)

The area on the other side of the bridge is known as Eminönü. (I’m only about 7% sure how to pronounce it.) Eminönü is where most of the boats and ferries depart central Istanbul.  One thing I really wanted to do on this visit to Istanbul was a boat tour of the Bosphorus.  The Bosphorus is the waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara.  It is also the boundary between Europe and Asia.  While we were there Tiger Woods was competing in a local golf tournament and they kept showing him on TV hitting a golf ball on one of the bridges across the straight.  ANYWAY, I found a boat tour that left Eminönü for only 10 TL.

This is where our boat left from:

The boat tour hugged the European side on the way towards the Black Sea (it didn’t go all the way there) and the Asia side on the way back.  There wasn’t anybody on the boat describing what we were looking at along the way, but it was still interesting.

We saw our hotel during the tour.  (And got crapped on by seaguls.)

There was a castle:

And neat views of the city.

It was reassuring to know that if our boat sank or if we fell overboard the coast guard was always nearby to render assistance:

I really enjoyed this trip to Istanbul.  The highlights for me were the food, the spice shopping, the boat tour, and the views from the Galata tower.  Oh, and always, not ending up in “prison.”  I also liked petting the zillion cats that abound Istanbul - MEOW!


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