A September 2003 trip
to Istanbul by billmoy
Quote: Istanbul is a unique and atmospheric city that straddles Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus but physically linked by the expansively majestic Bosphorus Bridge. Istanbul was formerly called Byzantium and then Constantinople.
I love Turkish food! It seemed very easy to find a good meal in Istanbul, with freshly grilled meats and tasty sides galore. The hot and puffy bread served at many restaurants is particularly delicious.
I find the touts and sellers in Istanbul to be somewhat aggressive, but very mild compared to those in Morocco. One pesky chap (associated with a carpet store, methinks) was attached to my friend like a barnacle for several blocks until he finally shed him inside the Blue Mosque. From what I hear, the vendors are pushier towards women than men.
There are various forms of public transportation, but due to the nature of the sprawling city, it seems difficult to link everything up. There are surface trams on tracks that can be followed along on foot as a navigational tool even if you are not riding the tram. Buses, trains, and ferries add to the network.
Thanks to my friend, Chicago architect Marius Ronnett, for sharing his fantastic images of Istanbul.
The management of this hotel offers a free pickup from the airport to the hotel. Our pickup lady met us at the arrivals area, and we waited about 15 minutes for the shuttle van to pick up my two friends and myself. The personal touch is extended in the somewhat aged van, as this seems to be a family operation. Our pickup lady has her two friendly kids in the back, and the driver/husband asks us typical questions and points out interesting sights along the way. The tail end of the ride in the old town is harrowing, with slow and seemingly blind uphill turns through narrow paths that can barely be called streets.
You step down to the main lobby, and the front desk staff is there to offer tour brochures and free postcards depicting the hotel. The sitting area is cozily lit, with comfy seats to read a local newspaper or magazine. The elevator has just enough room to fit three men and their travel belongings. Our smallish room was one level above the lobby, with three twin beds, telephone, and a small TV with lots of channels resting on a small refrigerator. You can either turn on the air conditioner or open the windows for ventilation. The bathroom had a shower stall with an aging shower curtain, sink, Western-style toilet, and a small basket of generic soap and shampoo. The towels are large but a bit rough.
Many Istanbul hotels and restaurants have a sundeck, and the Obelisk is a player in this category also. The breakfast buffet is served on the top level indoors, and you can choose to sit here or on the outdoor deck, which has some decent views of the Marmara Sea. A few guest rooms on the higher floors have similar sea views, while lower floors may have a direct view of a tree. The free buffet is very diverse, with a few hot items like eggs. There are various breads that go great with the incredibly gooey cherry and apricot jams. The cornucopia of fresh fruits is very good, with selections like watermelon, honeydew, peach, grape, apple, and orange. Cereals, cheeses, olives, and dried fruits complement the spread. Beverages include orange and cherry juice, milk, tea, and coffee.
Besides the breakfast terrace, there are two restaurants in the hotel. The hotel advertises its own Turkish bath, but we did not have time to enjoy this amenity.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 28, 2004
Best Western Obelisk and Sumengen
Mimar Mehmetaga Caddesi 17-19
90 212 5177173
A welcoming host is usually there to greet you at the entrance, or in front of the restaurant during a slower moment. The glass counter on the main floor displays the range of desserts you can order later, and they all look scrumptious. A walk up the stairs to the rooftop is interesting. The floor above the entry level has tables with patrons who do not wish to dine on the roof. One more floor up takes you past a circle of Turkish men, all sitting inwardly and enjoying tea, smokes and conversation. This informal men's club included only local men, so no travelers and no women. One more floor up and you will now have an appetite to enjoy some great Turkish cuisine!
Before you get your entree, a pleasant waiter brings you a slab of fresh and hot bread to start things off. This stuff is great and one of the distinctive pleasures of most dine-out meals in Turkey. Tear off a tasty piece, crispy and topped with sesame seeds, and you will cringe at going back home to your loaf of white bread. The soups are popular on a fall evening tinted with a cool breeze.
The combination sampler plate is a great way to experience several taste sensations during one meal. The cooks pack bites of grilled meats (lamb, chicken, minced kofte) along with miniature pides (Turkish versions of pizza) with cheese and minced meat, tomato-tinged rice, plus colorful and fresh tomatoes and medium-hot peppers. Less adventurous palates may want to go with the chicken kebab, which is a slightly smaller plate than the combo but delicious nevertheless. Every bite tastes fresh and delicious, and the portions all seem just right. I say this because you will want to try one of the wonderful dessert items. Selections include rum baba, perhaps the best treat of them all, round honey-soaked dough balls that are not overwhelmingly sweet. The version of baklava served here is like round disks, not too flaky but still densely layered with delectable chopped pistachios, honey and phyllo. The "Turkish delight" is not quite the typical nut-filled gummy candy cubes, but is akin to eating a slab of crunchy chow mein noodles drenched with honey.
Cap off your dinner with a small glass of cay (pronounced "chai"), the Turkish word for tea. Exotic flavors include apple, orange and kiwi. My first sip of the kiwi brew, tinted the color of mouthwash, was rather bland. However, once I dropped a sugar cube into the glass, the strong fruity flavor was released and the cay became memorably delicious.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 28, 2004
Sifa Hamami Sokak 13
+90 (212) 51715 88
There is a menu sign in front to lure you into the premises. The entry level has a glass display of desserts and a seating area, though it seems no one usually eats here. A climb up a few levels of stairs takes you to the prerequisite rooftop terrace. In a nod towards the tourist crowd, piped-in music is Western pop, but Turkish music would have been more interesting. The waiter presents you with a menu that has helpful photos and listings, and you are welcome to take one home with you as a keepsake. Then tear off a piece of freshly baked flatbread laced with sesame seeds. Their full flavor is seemingly released here and you want to enjoy every last seed.
You cannot go wrong with the mixed grill plate, with a mouth-watering variety of meats (lamb, chicken, kofte), mini-pides, grilled vegetables, and rice cooked in tomato sauce. It is equivalent in quality and quantity to the combo plate served at Doy Doy, so that means every bite is delicious. The long spicy peppers add a kick to the fresh and juicy meats. Otherwise, order from the regular selections of kebabs, pides and salads.
Dessert selections are introduced to you as the waiter brings out one of each. If you like what you see, he will set the plate in front of you. I chose the honey-soaked cake, a small golden cube cake that has a wonderfully moist texture thanks to the honey. It is similar to tres leches cake, if you are familiar with that dessert, only a bit lighter. You can also pick from baklava and rice pudding.
Sifa Hamami Sokak 15A
90 (212) 5181511
Attraction | "Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)"
The Hagia Sophia evolved into a museum in 1934, as it is no longer an active mosque. The main entrance is off the Aya Sofya Medyani square, a hub for buses, taxis, ATM's, souvenir hawkers, and more. The entrance fee is a steep 15 million Turkish lira (about ten US dollars during my September 2003 stay), but your ticket is a nice little souvenir card. Admire the complicated exterior, whose overall design is not as cohesive as newer mosques like the Blue Mosque but is the established prototype for future structures. Additions to the red-and-gray exterior through the years included minarets and buttressing.
There are plenty of tour groups visiting, but you will hardly notice because of the cavernous spaces. Go inside and have a look upward at the variety of details. The magnificent central dome (100 feet in diameter, 180 feet high), primarily supported by four huge piers, 40 stone ribs and a system of half domes, vaults and buttresses, still is partially supported by a large scaffolding deck that now looks like part of the fabric of the structure (supposedly the scaffolding has been there for over a decade). Climb the ramps to the upper level for a closer look at the brilliant mosaics, which are slowly being recovered from the banishment of years of plaster covering. The impressive marble interiors are a bit dark; so try to use a high-speed film if you are trying to capture these glorious images. The interior columns are crowned by capitals, none of which are alike in design. Peek through some of the windows for intimate views of nearby fountains and domes. Look downwards and marvel at the spaces across and below. The interiors were revamped by a major renovation in 1847-49, which added a delicately gaudy imperial kiosk.
The grounds of Hagia Sophia are almost ignored by visitors, but they include tombs, fountains, a baptistery and a treasury. Once you are outside of the friendly confines of Hagia Sophia, you are fair game for vendors, taxi drivers, touts, etc.
+90 212 528 4500
Attraction | "Blue Mosque"
The entrance is free, but a donation is encouraged upon your departure via the main portal. Since this is a place of worship, visitors should try to be as low-key as possible. The entrance for visitors is tucked away within the spacious courtyard, and visitors are not welcome during prayer times. Shoes will need to be removed and placed in plastic bags for safekeeping.
The name of the Blue Mosque can be a bit misleading at first, as I expected to see interiors as blue as those of stained-glass windowed churches in France. The name is derived from the blanket use of over 20,000 blue (and white) Iznik tiles on the wall surfaces that do give the interior a subdued bluish effect. The grand interior space under the central dome (77 feet in diameter, 141 feet high) is inspirational indeed, with four gigantic piers (over 16 feet in diameter) supporting the dome. The interiors seem much brighter than those of the Hagia Sophia thanks to stained glass windows. The exterior also features a cluster of domes that lead the eye to the uplifting central dome.
The ablution fountains center the courtyard, and one can rest on the large step that rings the courtyard. The tomb of Sultan Ahmet, along with those of his wife and three of his sons, is outside the precinct wall.
As at the nearby Hagia Sophia, visitors may be surrounded by various touts and sellers after exiting the perimeter of the Blue Mosque. The assortment of nearby landmarks includes the ancient Roman Hippodrome, and the Hammam of Roxelana.
Aya Sofya/ Church of Holy Wisdom
Attraction | "Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)"
Walk up through the park to arrive at the palace, although the signage at the base of the hill can be a bit confusing upon first inspection. There are separate and substantial fees for visiting the palace, the harem and the treasury collections. If you are pressed for time, skip the gaudy imperial treasury housed in the pavilion of Fatih (with alluring items like the emerald-encrusted Topkapi Dagger and the Spoonmaker's Diamond) but under no circumstances should you pass up the opportunity to venture inside the Harem!
The Harem, marked by the Divan tower of 1825, can only be visited by guided tours that begin every half-hour. We did get a guide who spoke English, but that is not always the case. The crowd for each tour can make the spaces seem a bit confining, but there is enough room to see many of the remarkable interiors. You will only see a fraction of the 400-plus rooms, but that is good enough. Allegedly the general public still has never seen many of these rooms. Especially impressive are the grandiose Imperial Hall and the main bedchambers.
The palace consists of many buildings, gates, pavilions and courtyards, so it can be easy to miss something. Constructed for Murat IV in 1638, the delicate Baghdad Pavilion is worth a look. The Pavilion of the Holy Mantle is the home for various holy relics. The chimneyed kitchens are impressive in sheer scale if not in glittery surfaces. There is even a Circumcision Room built in 1642 (one can afford to have such a space if you have hundreds of rooms). There are fabulous views of the Bosphorus from the lookout, which includes a domed canopy dating from 1640. You can spot landmarks like the Galata Tower and the Suleyman Mosque in the distance.
The on-site restaurant has a display of thank you letters from visiting dignitaries and heads of state. Other than dining here, there are only a few snack carts in the vicinity with meager offerings of soft drinks and ice cream, so plan to eat before or after your visit here. The plateau of the palace may seem rather isolated from the rest of the city, and one could spend a whole day at the Topkapi.
90 212 5224422
Attraction | "Other attractions at Topkapi Palace"
One of the few surviving Byzantine churches in Istanbul is Hagia Eirene, which is within the walled enclosure of the Topkapi Palace grounds. This edifice was built under Justinian in 537, the same time frame as the more famous Hagia Sophia. While its history may not be as illustrious, the Hagia Eirene did see service as an arsenal structure during Ottoman times and later as a museum with military and archaeological displays. It was restored in the 1970’s and is currently employed as a concert hall during the summertime Istanbul Music Festival.
Dating from 1472, the Tiled Pavilion (Cinili Kosku) is one of the few surviving structures from the original Topkapi Palace. Originally a hunting lodge, the pavilion was also a repository for various antiquities. Befitting the turquoise ceramic tiles and the blue and white calligraphy, this is now the Museum of Turkish Tiles.
The Archaeological Museum, located just inside the first court of the Topkapi grounds, was founded by preeminent Turkish archaeologist Hamdi Bey in 1881. Bey led the 1887 expedition in Sidon, Syria that produced one of the museum’s treasures, the well-preserved “Alexander Sarcophagus”. A new wing was added to the museum in 1991, but the complex is bursting with sculptures and antiquities from the Greek and Roman eras.
The Museum of the Ancient Orient, which is like a sister museum of the Archaeological Museum, greets visitors with two giant Hittite lion sculptures at the front entrance. While some may take a snapshot of this cartoonish pair and run off to the next site, it is worth it to check out the Anatolian antiquities inside. Perhaps its most famous relic is the Treaty of Kadesh, a clay tablet impressed by the Hittites and Egyptians and therefore recognized as the world’s oldest recognized peace treaty. If you like to see Hittite ruins and do not have time to see the related sites in central Turkey, this museum is for you. Ditto if you like Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Uraryian....
The design is derived from the famous prototype Hagia Sophia. Two half-domes and two tympanum walls buttress the central dome, which has a diameter of 85 feet and a height of 170 feet. Four great pillars support the dome inside. The layout includes four minarets, a typical number for a large mosque. The two taller minarets are positioned adjacent to the mosque.
Before entering the great mosque, hang around the colonnaded forecourt (avlu) and appreciate the beautiful exterior and how its elements react with the blue sky above. The ablution fountain centers this courtyard, which really does seem peaceful in comparison with tourist meccas like the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. The prayer hall measures as a rectangle with sides of 230 and 200 feet in length. Colorfully patterned Iznik tiles help to decorate the vast interiors.
Complimentary buildings like various schools, hammans, a hospital, and soup kitchen surrounded the mosque. The gardens behind the mosque also include the revered mausoleums of Suleyman and his wife Roxelana. Things seem a little quieter here, so the only touts you may run into here are youngsters selling packs of tissues. For those looking for the tomb of the architect himself, Sinan is also buried at a location just southwest of the mosque.
If you keep wandering down the hill in a southerly direction, you will come across the Istanbul University campus. Further along you will encounter the Grand Bazaar.
Suleyman Mosque (Suleymaniye Camii)
Attraction | "Grand Bazaar"
A good way to arrive at the Grand Bazaar is to walk west along the tram tracks from the Sultanahmet area until you get to the Beyazit stop. Then cut north to enter the complex through one of its eighteen entrances. It is fun to wander around aimlessly even if you do not want to purchase anything, as you will see bright red Turkish flags draped all over the cavernous archways. The origins of the market date back to 1455, and the complex had been rebuilt many times over after several devastating earthquakes and fires. Nowadays the bazaar seems rather modern and civilized in here. I have been to bazaars and souks in Morocco and they seem to me much more frenetic and perhaps a bit more authentic than this one in Istanbul. Still, it is very interesting to check out the colorful maze of storefronts and stalls.
The Spice Bazaar (also the Egyptian Bazaar or Misir Carsisi), between the Grand Bazaar and the Galata Bridge, is much smaller but more fragrant and perhaps more exotic than its big brother. Located next to the Yeni Camii, the Spice Bazaar has an L-shaped layout and six entrances. A stroll through here is quite an experience for the eyes and the nose. Both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are closed on Sundays.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on March 1, 2004
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)