A Week in Turkey: Istanbul

Our big international vacation of 2012 took us to Turkey and Jordan. The first week of the trip was spent in Turkey, primarily exploring the city of Istanbul, but also with a quick day trip to view the ruins of Ephesus.

Must-See Istanbul Attractions

The Hauntingly Beautiful Basilica Cistern

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 21, 2013

On our first morning in Istanbul, we headed into the city’s historic central core, the Sultanahmet District. After a stop in a café for a snack of Turkish coffee and baklava, we headed up the street to the Basilica Cistern. The cistern is a fascinatingly beautiful underground site, originally built in the 6th century as a water storage and filtration facility for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other neighborhood buildings. There are several hundred ancient underground cisterns in Istanbul, several of which are accessible to tourists. The Basilica Cistern is the largest, with a storage capacity of up to 100,000 tons of water. Eventually forgotten about, the Basilica Cistern was rediscovered in 1545 by Petrus Gyllius, who was told by locals in the neighborhood that they could lower buckets through holes in their basement floors to scoop up water and fish. Gyllius, who was researching Byzantine antiquities at the time, got curious and started digging around in the basements of houses, and found the massive 105,000 square foot cistern. Today, however, modern Istanbul visitors do not have to fuss with digging in people’s basements to access this amazing site, nor worry with the trash and corpses that the locals dumped there for many years after the cistern was rediscovered. Instead, a stone staircase conveniently descends from a street level ticket kiosk right into the cistern.

Upon entrance to the cistern, one leaves the noise, vendors, traffic, and bright skies of the Sultanahmet behind. The cistern is a dark, haunting atmosphere, where lights at the base of the columns reflect off the shallow water on cistern’s floor, and arched brick ceiling above. Tranquil music softly plays, adding to the atmosphere. Thanks to a renovation in the mid-1980s, the mud that once lined the floor of the cistern is long gone, revealing the cistern’s stone floors. Clear, cool, shallow water covers the floor of the cistern, and is filled with fish. Many years ago, visitors toured the cistern in boats, but today, wooden walkways create a trail throughout the facility, allowing access to the key points within the cistern, including the teardrop column and two columns in the rear of the cistern that curiously have Medusa heads as their bases.

The cistern is a forest of 336 columns, perfectly arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. At first glance, most of the columns appear identical, but upon closer examination, one realizes that they are, in fact, of many different varieties. Some are very intricately decorated, while others, quite plain. Archeologists have determined that the columns vary in age and origin, and were recycled from the ruins of earlier buildings. Three of these columns are highly unique; one is engraved with the eyes of a peacock, branches, and tears, and two use large Medusa heads, likely salvaged from an earlier Roman period building, as their bases. Multi-language signs point the way to finding these columns (the two Medusa heads are in the very back, and require walking down additional steps in an area where the water is more shallow), as well as explain their significance.

Visitors will also find a small café in the cistern, near the stairs, and gift shop. The cistern is open daily, and carried a small admission charge of approximately 10TL at the time of our visit in late 2012. The Basilica Cistern is located on Yerebatan Cd., near the Hagia Sophia, and just downhill a couple of blocks from the Sultanahmet metro tram stop.
Basilica Cistern
Southwest of the Hagia Sophia
Istanbul, Turkey

The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 28, 2013

One of the oldest locations in Istanbul, the Hippodrome of Constantinople was a large sporting venue in the middle of Constantinople. At one time, the location was the site of races, athletic events, and festivals. Today, not much remains of the original structure, and the space serves as the Sultan Ahmet Square, a public park just outside the gates of the Blue Mosque.

The original Hippodrome was built in AD 203, and renovated and enlarged by Constantine in AD 324. The facility contained a large U-shaped racetrack, viewing stands, and lavish decorations of gold and bronze statuary. In the center of the Hippodrome, a series of monuments acquired from all over the empire. Today, only a few of these monuments remain (by the mid-1400s and the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Hippodrome had fallen into ruin), serving as visible reminders of the location’s former importance in both the city and the empire. Today visitors will see the remnants of the Serpent Column, Obelisk of Thutmose III, and the Walled Obelisk. Of these remaining monuments, the 3,500 year-old Obelisk of Thutmose III is the best preserved, appearing almost new. It was brought in sections from Egypt in AD 390, and erected in its current location on a marble pedestal at that time. At the time that the obelisk was transported to Constantinople, it was already over 1,800 years old, and it has now stood for nearly half its life in this location. Less well preserved is the Walled Obelisk, which was originally covered with bronze plaques. Today, only the central stone core of the monument remains. The third ancient monument that survives, the Serpent Column, is even less a shadow of its former self than the Walled Obelisk. Originally this monument had a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl disappeared during the Fourth Crusade, and by the 1700s, the serpent heads had been destroyed (parts of them are on display at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum). Today a short section of the bronze spiral column that formed the base of the serpent column remains in the Hippodrome. All three of these monuments sit in holes, surrounded by protective fencing, as the current ground level is about 2 meters higher than the ground these monuments were installed on.

In addition to the three ancient monuments, visitors will also see the German Fountain, installed in 1900, and paving in the park that identifies the general layout of the racetrack. A few bits of the foundation of the curved end of the Hippodrome are also visible. More modern excavations have revealed additional portions of the original structure, most of which have been removed and displayed in several of the city’s museums.

The Hippodrome is located right outside the main gates to the Blue Mosque, and today is frequented by locals as a public park. For tourists, not a lot remains of the historic structure, but it is an easy spot to access, given its location, and the surviving ancient monuments are definitely worth seeing.
Sultan Ahmet Square/Hippodrome of Constantinople
Between Aya Sofia And Blue Mosque
Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 22, 2013

In a city known for its many domed mosques, one large one stands out as a "must see" attraction. That mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known to visitors as the Blue Mosque. The nickname derives not from the mosque’s exterior (it is not blue), but from the thousands of blue tiles that decorate the interior walls and ceiling of the building’s interior.

The Blue Mosque is not the city’s largest (that would be the Süleymaniye Mosque) nor is it the oldest (several mosques in the city were already well over a century old when the Blue Mosque was built), but it is the city’s most famous, and rightfully so. The impressive structure, with room for 10,000 congregants, was built in fewer than five years, opening in 1616. Given the structure’s immense size, nine domes, and the incredible detail evident in the building’s interior, it is almost impossible to imagine such a structure being built, by hand, in such a short period of time over five hundred years ago. But, that’s what happened, and a half-millennium later, the building is still an active mosque, with believers arriving several times a day to answer the call to prayer that echoes from the speakers mounted in the mosque’s six minarets.

Visitors to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque are welcome, but as this is an active place of religious worship, there are some rules tourists are asked to abide by. First, tourists are not allowed into the mosque during prayer times. This happens six times a day, and each closure is approximately 90 minutes in length. When we visited, we arrived shortly before a prayer service was beginning, and as a result, we had to wait until the mosque reopened for visitors. That was fine, as we used the time to explore the grounds, and take in a short presentation on Islam that the mosque was offering for visitors. Second, when entering the mosque, you will be asked to remove your shoes and place them in a plastic bag, which you will carry with you as you enter the mosque. Women will also be asked to wear a head covering, which is provided free of charge to those who do not have one. Finally, visitors are asked to speak in a whisper inside the mosque, and while photography is welcome, flashes are not.

So why should the Blue Mosque be on every Istanbul visitor’s list of places to see? It is quite simple, really. The mosque has one of the most stunningly beautiful interiors you will see in Istanbul, and there are a lot of beautiful buildings in the city. The walls, ceiling, and rotundas of all nine domes are lined with over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles. The mosque gets its popular name, the Blue Mosque, from these tiles, many of which have blue designs. Additionally, over 200 stained glass windows bathe the interior in colored sunlight. Low-hanging chandeliers provide additional lighting. Additional decorations include calligraphy of Qur’an verses, the marble mihrab, and beautiful carpets.

The mosque’s beauty extends beyond its interior. Outside, you will find a large courtyard with a fountain in the center, and arcades surrounding the open space. This space swells with faithful Muslims coming and going to prayer services in the mosque as each of the prayer times throughout the day occurs. Outside the courtyard, the mosque’s beautifully landscaped grounds extend toward the Hippodrome and Sultanahmet Parks. Some exterior walls of the mosque also house ablution areas, where ritual washing prior to prayer services is performed.

Istanbul offers a number of mosques that are open to visitors. However, if you see only one, it should be the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. A visit to this site is a critical part of the Istanbul experience.
Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Istanbul, Turkey
0212 458 0776

Wandering the Maze of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 27, 2013

No trip to Istanbul is complete without visiting one of the world’s largest and oldest indoor marketplaces – the Büyük Çarşı, or Grand Bazaar. This immense shopping experience involves over 60 covered streets and more than 3,000 merchants, and on a slow day, over a quarter million shoppers (and on the busiest days, double that). If there is any place in Istanbul where a visitor can willingly get lost in a maze for hours without complaining, it is the Grand Bazaar. For North American and European travelers, this is perhaps the city’s most exotic destination for self-immersion in a place that feels completely foreign.

Dating back to 1455, the Grand Bazaar is a combination of covered and uncovered streets housing thousands of small shops and stalls. The bazaar of today has evolved greatly from the original design; several earthquakes and a dozen fires have ravaged the complex, and following each of these calamities, the bazaar has been rebuilt. This continuous evolution through the centuries has led to the bazaar we see today. The Grand Bazaar is almost a city unto itself, containing two mosques, several hamams, and multiple cafés and restaurants, in addition to the shops. Shoppers in the bazaar can purchase almost anything they can imagine, with many vendors selling home furnishings and decorations, antiques, jewelry, collectibles, and textiles. Even if you buy nothing at all, just spending a few hours wandering through the crowded passages inside the covered bazaar, and through the streets of the uncovered portions, is an excellent way to experience the magnificent history of Istanbul as a critical trade point, where multiple cultures collide. Architecture buffs will also marvel at the various buildings, hans (corridors), and fountains that make up the bazaar.

As with most shops in Istanbul, prices generally are not displayed, and are negotiable. Many shops in the bazaar are cash only, so be prepared to not use a credit card for your purchases. There are several ATMs scattered around the bazaar, but it is generally easier to find one outside the bazaar. Additionally, restrooms are basically non-existent within the Grand Bazaar. Visitors can access the Grand Bazaar via tram (Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı tram stop), or via a nice walk from Sultanahmet and Sirkeci.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)
Kalpakcilarbasi Street
Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia – 1,500 Years of History in One Package

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 22, 2013

Turkey is known as the place where the East meets the West, and Istanbul, straddling both Europe and Asia, exemplifies this notion both culturally and geographically. But if there is one place in Istanbul where a visitor to this city can really feel the merging of different cultures, it is the Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya, as spelled in Turkish). This imposing structure in Sultanahmet was already over 1,000 years old when its larger neighbor, the Blue Mosque, was built. In its nearly 1,500 years of history, it has witnessed the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, a change of the city’s name, served as the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church, performed a short stint as a Roman Catholic Cathedral (57 years is a nothing in a 1,500 year old building), was converted to a mosque, and finally, since 1935, opened as a museum. Very few standing buildings in the world offer as much history from such varying cultures and religions as the Hagia Sophia, making it one of Istanbul’s must-see destinations.

The current building that visitors see is actually the third church built on the site. The first church opened in 360, but in 404, it was destroyed by fire during rioting. Nothing remains today of this building. It was not long before a replacement church was built on the site, which was completed in 415. Visitors to the Hagia Sophia can view marble blocks that remain from this church in the courtyard while waiting in line for admission to the Hagia Sophia. The second church lasted a bit longer than the first, but it also succumbed to a similar fate as the first, burning during a revolt in 532. It was only a month later that Emperor Justinian I ordered a third basilica to be built on the site, which would be the largest of the three. Apparently the third time was the charm, because that building, completed just under six years later, still stands today.

For nearly 1,000 years, Hagia Sophia was the central church of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the place where many Byzantine imperial functions took place. During these years it also was severely damaged by several earthquakes, but repaired after each of these. Latin Christians eventually sacked the cathedral when they took Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, and during their occupation of the city, the Hagia Sophia became a Roman Catholic cathedral (1204-1261). Once the Byzantines retook their city in 1261, the building returned to its former position within the Eastern Orthodox church, which it maintained for nearly 200 more years, undergoing more restorations to repair the damage of additional earthquakes, as well as the toils of time, war, and neglect. This period was short-lived, though, for in 1453, the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople, ransacked the church again, and then declared that it be converted to a mosque. This conversion created much of the building’s current interior appearance, as Christian mosaics were either removed or plastered over, the altar removed and replaced with the mihrab, and eventually, minarets were constructed on the building’s exterior. The building’s current appearance was essentially set during renovations in the mid-1800s, which repaired crumbling plaster, replaced the chandeliers, installed the large medallions with Islamic calligraphy, and repaired the remaining mosaics that had not been removed or covered up. Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1931, when it was decommissioned and closed to the public.

In 1935, Hagia Sophia was reopened as a museum. At this time, restorations removed carpets, revealing the marble floors, and plaster over the Christian mosaics was removed, allowing these beautiful works of art to be seen for the first time in centuries. Ongoing preservation and restoration efforts have created a unique balance between the Christian and Muslim faiths, with remaining icons of both faiths displayed, in some cases, side by side. A delicate balance has been struck to allow the decorations of both faiths to be displayed, as many of the Christian works were covered by equally important Islamic works of art, meaning that uncovering the Christian decorations means destroying the Islamic ones. Despite this, both faiths are well represented. Visitors to Hagia Sophia will find a vastly complex building, clad in marble and gold, with countless mosaics. The dimly lit nave is punctuated by streams of light that filter in through the small windows in the dome above, creating a mystical atmosphere. Above, the upper galleries allow access (via a series of switchback ramps) to view the nave from a higher vantage point. The upper gallery also contains some of the best preserved mosaics, and unique architectural features such as the marble door.

Hagia Sophia does have an admission charge (25 TL at the time of our visit), and there are often lengthy admission lines. However, once visitors have made it past the lines, the experience of visiting this important historic structure is unmatched. And, due to the very large size of the Hagia Sophia, the crowds disperse quickly inside, allowing for free movement that never feels constricted within the building.
Hagia Sophia
Sultanahmet Square
Istanbul, Turkey
+90 212 528 4500

Home of the Sultans – Topkapi Palace

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 28, 2013

Located on a large plot of land in Istanbul’s historic core, the Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans from 1465 to 1856. This large royal residence, with its massive courtyards and multitude of buildings, serves as a museum, chronicling the history of the Ottoman period. Visitors may tour many of the buildings, and see collections of Ottoman treasures, jewelry, and weapons. The site, with its prominent point on a hill overlooking the city and water, also offers sweeping views of much of the city, the Golden Horn, the mouth of the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara.

Access to the palace is usually gained through the Imperial Gate, located near the Hagia Sophia. Inside this gate is the First Courtyard, the first of four. Visitors may gain admission to the First Courtyard without paying an admission charge, but the main ticket booth for the palace is located within the courtyard. After passing through the First Courtyard, the Gate of Salutation, known for its pointed towers, leads to the Second Courtyard. Passing through this gate, visitors will have their tickets scanned and pass through a security checkpoint. Directly behind the gate, the sultan’s imperial carriages are displayed. Several buildings in this area that are often open to visitors include the palace kitchens, the imperial council, treasury, and tower of justice. Collections of weapons and porcelain are also displayed in the Second Courtyard buildings.

The next gate, the Gate of Felicity, leads to the Third Courtyard. As visitors move from one courtyard to the next, the importance of the buildings escalates. Within the Third Courtyard is the Imperial Harem, a building of more than 400 rooms that served as a portion of the sultan’s private apartments. The Harem is one of the highlights of a tour of Topkapi Palace, and requires an additional ticket and admission charge, available at a small booth outside the entrance to the building. Inside the Harem, visitors may see a portion of the complex’s rooms, nearly all of which are lavishly decorated with colorful tiles. The Harem also contains several smaller private courtyards. The most impressive sections of the Harem are the queen mother’s apartment, the baths of the sultan and queen mother, and the imperial hall, where the sultan’s throne is located. Unfortunately, several of these sections were closed to visitors on the day of our visit, and we were not able to see them in person.

The final section of the palace, the Fourth Courtyard, contains several more beautiful buildings that are open to the public. Several of these are in the form of small kiosks, such as the Circumcision Room, Yerevan Kiosk, Baghdad Kiosk, Terrace Kiosk, and the Grand Kiosk. A mosque is also located in this area.

The Topkapi Palace is a very large, sprawling complex, where one could easily spend a full day. We spent most of an afternoon exploring the palace, and certainly did not see all of it. There are a number of services for visitors, including a café and restaurant, located inside the palace.
Topkapi Palace
Sultanahmet Square
Istanbul, Turkey
90 212 5224422

Spices, Nuts, Turkish Delight & "Viagra" at the Spice Bazaar

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 27, 2013

One of the best activities in Istanbul is shopping, and when you hear people discuss shopping in this city, inevitably, two places will be mentioned – The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, or Egyptian Bazaar. Similar in design to the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar is an enclosed shopping area, filled with nearly 100 vendors. Less maze-like than its bigger cousin, the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar is mostly contained within an L shaped building, with some additional shops that cater less to tourists and more to the local population located on a few narrow streets behind the main building.

The Egyptian Bazaar get its common name, the Spice Bazaar, from the focus on edible goods, particularly herbs and spices, that most of its merchants have traditionally had. Over the years, an increasing number of these merchants have become more tourist oriented, selling scarves, tourist trinkets, and jewelry. However, the majority still specialize in the market’s more traditional fare – mounds of colorful, fragrant bulk spices, piles of Turkish delight in every imaginable flavor, nuts, dried fruit and vegetables, and some meat and cheese. For those who love to cook, a walk through the Egyptian Bazaar is full of temptation, but even non-foodies cannot help but be fascinated by the colors and aromas of the place.

Shopping in the bazaar can be a bit of an adventure. We ventured into a couple of stalls with the goal of buying some Turkish delight to take back to friends and family back home, and maybe a few spices for our own kitchen. We sampled Turkish delight in a couple of stalls, before deciding on the shop we wished to buy from. Vendors are very eager to sell you more than you really desire to buy, and will continue to fill your bag with as much as they possibly can if you do not tell them when to stop. In addition to the two boxes of Turkish delight, we bought several herb and spice mixes, all of which were packaged into vacuum sealed air-tight bags for transport home. Many shops in the bazaar operate on a cash only basis, but some do accept credit cards. It is advisable to determine acceptable methods of payment before agreeing to a purchase, as well as to discuss prices, which generally are not posted on items. As it was, we still ended up with more candy and spice than we really needed, although the extra allowed for us to give more gifts to friends after our return. We were also encouraged to purchase a few items like herbal "Turkish Viagra," which one vendor said would guarantee spice up our bedroom; we said no to that purchase.

The Egyptian Bazaar is easy to find, located almost directly across Ragip Gümüşpala Cd. from the foot of the Galata Bridge in Eminönü, right next door to the New Mosque.
Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi)
Behind the Yeni Cami Mosque
Istanbul, Turkey

A Trip Up the Bosphorus

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 28, 2013

Our last afternoon in Istanbul was spent enjoying a cruise on the Bosphorus. Taking one of the many boats along the Bosphorus allows visitors to experience a unique view of the Istanbul skyline, view a number of historic sites and palaces from the water, and provides access to several ports of call along the waterway that stretches from the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Black Sea in the north.

A variety of options exist for cruising this waterway that bisects Istanbul, separating Europe from Asia. For a short cruise, as little as half an hour, a commuter ferry boarded at Eminönü, Kabataş or Beşiktaş allows for a fast trip of 30-60 minutes to one of the Asian commuter ports, generally Üsküdar, Harem, Haydarpaşa, or Kadıköy. The commuter ferries are also the cheapest option, costing only a few Turkish Lira. For a bit more money (around 10 TL) and time, a variety of options exist for 1.5-3 hour cruises from Eminönü or Kabataş. These generally travel partway up the Bosphorus, often to around the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, before turning back to their point of origin. Depending on the operator, these cruises may include commentary about the various sights you will see along the journey. Finally, the longest, and most expensive options (around 25 TL), allow for full day cruises of the entire Bosphorus, all the way up to the Black Sea. These tours run with less frequency, making several stops along the way, and allow for time to shop and dine at Anadolu Kavağı, the last port before the Black Sea.

Our original plan had been to take a full Bosphorus cruise, but a late start to the day (necessary after our whirlwind trip to Ephesus and back the prior day) nixed that plan. After a nice lunch of doner kebab and cake at a café on Istiklal Cd., we took the historic funicular from Tünel to Karaköy, and then walked across the Galata Bridge to Eminönü. There we boarded a soon-departing Bosphorus tour. We opted for a 90 minute cruise up to the second bridge and back to Eminönü, which cost around 10 TL. After taking seats on one of the outside decks, it was not long before the boat departed, sailing down the Golden Horn and under the Galata Bridge into the Sea of Marmara. We then turned into the mouth of the Bosphorus, and cruised across the water to a port on the Asian side to pick up more passengers, before starting up the Bosphorus for the tour.

Along the way, we passed a variety of historic sites along the water. Commentary was provided in English and Turkish via the boat’s PA system, but the speakers were garbled and difficult to understand, especially on the outside decks. We chose to ignore the commentary and instead focus on enjoying the scenery and snapping pictures. Several times during the cruise, a tea and snack service was brought around, offering Turkish tea, lemonade, and light snacks for purchase.

Our cruise sailed as far as the second bridge before turning around and heading back. We sailed down one side of the Bosphorus and back on the other, allowing us to get a close-up view of both shores. Approximately two hours after we departed, we sailed back under the Galata Bridge again, and into the port at Eminönü, ending our tour. While we would have loved to have taken the full-Bosphorus cruise to the Black Sea that we had originally planned on taking, the shorter cruise was still a highly enjoyable experience, and a great way to spend our last afternoon in Istanbul.
Bosphorus Tours and Cruises
Alemdar Mah. Divanyolu Cad. No : 22
Sultanahmet, Istanbul
+90 554 797 26 46

Steamed, Massaged, Scalded & Scrubbed… a Visit to a Hamam

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 22, 2013

On our last night in Istanbul, we decided to experience a hamam, or Turkish bath. Istanbul offers many options for a hamam, with some catering more to tourists than locals, and vice versa. We ended up selecting the Cağaloğlu, one of the city’s more famous hamams, partly due to its convenient location in Sultanahmet, and also because of the positive reviews we had read. At over 270 years old, Cağaloğlu is a youngster among Istanbul hamams; it was the last hamam to be built during the Ottoman Empire.

Upon our arrival, we were presented with a menu of services available. We selected a full-service option, which included a massage and then scrubbing. We made our payment (only cash is accepted, no credit cards), and then were shown to private changing rooms to change out of our clothes and into provided pestemal, a wrap worn around the waist while in the hamam. We were also given wooden sandals to wear, but after walking about three steps in mine, the attendant assigned to me quickly grabbed a large pair of rubber flip flops for me to wear instead, as the wooden sandals were terribly awkward to walk in, especially on the damp marble flooring of the hamam.

We were led into the main hot room, and then into a smaller steam room off the side of the main chamber. There we were left for 10-15 minutes to relax and sweat. From there, it was back to the main hot room, where we lay down on the göbektaşı, a large marble, raised platform in the center of the room, above the heating source. Each of our masseuses used some oil to lubricate his hands, and then began the massage, which lasted another 10-15 minutes. Following the massage, it was time for the bath. Bathing stations, each featuring a basin of steaming hot water (I swear, it was only a degree or two shy of boiling), encircle the hot room’s edges, and my masseuse led me through the steam to an empty station, where he began the bathing process. Water is scooped from the basin using a copper bowl, and the experience of having a bowl of this nearly scalding water being quickly poured out over my head and body at the start of the bath surely caused my heart to skip a few beats, and perhaps took a few minutes off my life. After a thorough rinsing with the hot water, out came the soap and a scrubber. My masseuse didn’t miss anything on my body, and while I had read many reviews describing the scrubbers as being about as gentle as coarse sandpaper, I did not find the scrubber to be painful or even all that harsh. During the bathing process, I was asked to change positions, sit up, lie down, and flip over multiple times, so that no part of my body was missed. The pestemal never came completely off, but was shifted around many times, staying in line with hamam etiquette that dictates one does not go completely nude while in the hamam. Finally, the soaping and scrubbing was complete, and the scalding hot water returned to thoroughly rinse all of the olive oil soap from my body and hair.

Once the rinsing was complete, the masseuse’s services were done. We were invited to spend as long as we wished in the hot room. My partner and I spent a few minutes relaxing on the göbektaşı, but it was not long before we were ready to escape the heat and humidity of the hot room and cool down. We headed back to our changing rooms, where cooler temperatures and a much drier environment awaited us. I elected to lie down on the couch in my room for a few minutes to cool down before dressing.

Once dressed, it was time to finish up business with our masseuses. Tipping is expected, and there is no escaping it; masseuses hang out waiting for their tip, and will not let you leave easily without getting it, so be prepared to tip around 10-20% of the total you paid for the service.

Overall, we were pleased with our service at Cağaloğlu. There is no denying that the place is a bit touristy; their website proudly features photos and names of celebrities who have visited the facility, and they are quite proud of the fact that a scene in one of the Indiana Jones films was shot on the premises. However, the architecture of the hamam is beautiful, and while some of the hamams that cater to locals more than tourists are a bit cheaper, Cağaloğlu provided good service, and is easily accessible in a safe neighborhood, only a few blocks from the Hagia Sophia. It is an excellent choice for a hamam visit.
Cagaloglu Hamami
Prof. Kazi Gurkan Cad. 34
Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul Accommodations

The Istanbul Edition

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by ssullivan on August 21, 2013

Located in Istanbul’s bustling Levent District, the Istanbul Edition is one of the city’s newer hotels. The Edition was the launch hotel for a new lifestyle brand from Marriott in 2011, and remains one of the few locations of the brand. Despite not being located close to the main tourist sites of the Sultanahmet District, the Edition is still fairly convenient for a leisure trip to Istanbul, as it is located practically right on top of the Levent Metro station. The only downside to using public transit to access the city’s historic core is that two transfers are currently required to get there, although this inconvenience will eventually be eliminated somewhat as continued expansion of the city’s metro and light rail systems progresses. However, access to some locations of interest, including Taksim Square, require no transfer.

Upon arrival at the hotel in a taxi from the airport, we were met by a friendly porter who took care of our luggage while we passed through the obligatory security checkpoint that larger hotels in this part of the world have. We were then greeted by an enormous aquarium separating the reception desks from the hotel’s bar in the hotel’s stylish lobby. Reception was efficient and friendly, and then a porter showed us to our room.

The Edition is a high rise hotel, and most rooms offer expansive views. Our room faced west, allowing views of many of Istanbul’s newer suburbs; rooms on the opposite side of the hotel have a view toward the Bosporus and the city’s Asian side. Our large room was decorated in a very modern take on traditional Ottoman style, in varying hues of gold and brown. The room’s size was more than adequate for the king size bed, while still allowing for ample space for a spacious sofa under the floor to ceiling windows. We also appreciated the ample storage in the room, with plenty of drawers and closet space to store our clothing during our stay. One of the closets also included a safe that was large enough for at least two laptop computers, and provided plenty of space for our smaller items, including an iPad and our passports.

All rooms at the Edition also feature large, beautifully appointed marble bathrooms, and ours was no exception. Upon entering the bathroom, we were greeted with a large marble counter with a sink, a large tub separated from the bedroom by a huge window (with privacy curtains), and separate shower and toilet rooms. The spacious rainfall showered featured a shower head with over 100 jets mounted in the ceiling, as well as a handheld shower. My partner’s response to the shower was "Can we take this home with us?" And, certainly, we would have, should such a feat been possible.

The Edition is a five star, luxury hotel, and as such, rates and amenities are in line with that market segment. We were greeted in our room by a welcome snack of figs and tray of three kinds of nuts, along with mineral water, which was replenished daily. The room included a minibar, and other in-room amenities included both wired and Wi-Fi Internet access, high end bath products, and room service. The Edition also offers a gym, spa including Turkish bath, bar, and full-service restaurant. Keeping in line with the full-service nature of the hotel, items like Internet access and breakfast were only offered for an additional charge, although my Marriott Rewards Platinum status did allow us to access the Internet for free. Marriott Rewards members should be aware that the Edition brand does not provide complimentary breakfast for elite members of the loyalty program, so we were on our own each day for breakfast. We opted to find a local café each day, rather than eat at the hotel. Additionally, we were staying at the Edition on a Marriott Rewards award stay, and for a free stay, the luxurious Istanbul Edition was an excellent value.

For a luxurious stay in Istanbul, it’s hard to go wrong with the Istanbul Edition. It’s not a hotel for a value traveler, but for travelers looking for upscale accommodations in this city, particularly those with a large sum of Marriott Rewards points, it’s a great option.
The Istanbul EDITION Hotel
Buyukdere Caddesi No: 136
Istanbul, , 34330


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