Türkiye: From Istanbul to the Turkish riviera
Updated: Jul 16
We had long wanted to visit Istanbul, the largest city in Türkiye, so it made sense to hop the short 1.5-hour flight from Bucharest to check out this interesting country. We were thrilled to explore this diverse place which sits at the intersection of Europe and Asia and is a melting pot for many different cultures. Off we went!
Istanbul is a large and ancient city that spans two continents (Asia and Europe) - how many places can say that? Its history dates back to 6,000 years B.C., and over the centuries and many conquests, it was ruled by various governments. Is it Istanbul or Constantinople? Well, both! It was famously ruled by Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great (hence the original name Constantinople) until the conquest by the Ottoman Empire.
Subsequently it was ruled for centuries by many generations of Ottoman Sultans until the end of World War I, when the Republic of Turkey was founded. Incidentally, in case you were wondering about the spelling of Türkiye and missed it in the news last year, the government of Turkey officially rebranded the spelling to Türkiye from the former anglicized spelling of Turkey. This place is fascinating and bustling and beautiful and chaotic, truly unlike any city we've ever visited.
On our first morning in Istanbul, we awoke at 4:53am to the Adhan (call to prayer) emanating from the minarets of the Mosque directly across the street from our hotel. This was our first time visiting an Islamic country, so this was a new experience for us.
Five times a day, the entire city comes alive with these calls, beckoning the faithful to come to the mosques to perform their prayer duty. It's quite an experience as every one of the nearly 3,000 mosques across the city begin and end the Adhan at virtually the same time, echoing and reverberating from all directions, audible no matter where you may happen to be. Listen for yourself in the video.
It is both eerie and beautiful at the same time. The mosques are gorgeous works of art and architecture, with most being centuries old.
The inside walls and ceilings are beautifully designed and ornate, with contrasting stark, vast, open floors carpeted and without seats, ready for worshippers to kneel and pray.
Unfortunately, the famous Blue Mosque was closed during our visit, so we were unable to go inside. But this early 17th century structure sure is beautiful from the outside!
Our hotel was in the old town, the historical heart of the city. We were walking distance to the most famous landmarks and also the renowned spice and merchant's markets. With a population of over 20 million, there is a buzz in the city unlike any we had ever experienced. Everyone is hustling... our first walk around the area started with a shopkeeper stopping us on the sidewalk and asking, "How can I take your money?" Good prep for the days to come, when every person we encountered wanted to know the same thing! There are shops, restaurants, and street vendors everywhere you look, and unless you are certain you want to buy what they are selling, keep walking and looking straight ahead or you won't be left alone.
On our second day in the city, we took a tour of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. This amazing structure has quite a history. The building was erected three times by the Eastern Roman Empire. The present Hagia Sophia is the third, built in 537 AD. It was an Orthodox church until the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, then a mosque until 1935, then a museum and then from 2020 a mosque again. Like all mosques, shoes are not allowed, and women must wear an appropriate head covering.
While walking nearby the Hagia Sophia beside the Obelisk of Theodosius, a friendly local man approached and offered to take a picture of me. I cautiously engaged with him and politely declined the pic. He continued and started to explain some of the ancient sites that we were photographing, and his knowledge was amazing!
I tried to ignore, thinking he must be about to ask me to give him money for an impromptu tour, but he was very kind and warm, assuring me that he had no agenda, wasn't a tour guide, and was simply passing time during his daily fasting period (we arrived in Istanbul during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting). He continued on, and asked Jennifer and me to follow him as he pointed to a few more sites up ahead. He casually mentioned that it might be nice if we stopped in to his family shop around the corner.
We didn't think much of it, he was very informative and charming and so what if we felt compelled to buy a drink or a trinket? Next thing we knew, we were walked into a Turkish rug store (there are lots in the city), introduced to the very friendly uncle, and walked upstairs to the roof deck of the building for amazing views and photos of the Blue Mosque. We were having a lovely time, and then the uncle suggested that we couldn't possibly leave without sitting and socializing over some Turkish tea with them.
How could we refuse their hospitality? We didn't even notice that we were the only ones drinking tea (in hindsight, they were fasting!). We were having a nice conversation when suddenly a full-on rug sales presentation unfolded in front of our eyes! The rugs were gorgeous, but by now we are pretty seasoned travelers who can always spot a scheme targeted at tourists. They couldn't possibly be targeting us to purchase a handmade Turkish rug! The whole experience was so smooth and not high pressure, but maybe they were! Jennifer and I looked at each other briefly, and then I quickly interrupted the pitch to inform them that they had found the only two American tourists who had sold their home and all of their possessions to travel the world! What are the chances? They thought we were just making excuses and asked a lot of questions, trying to overcome our objection before finally realizing that we were legit. We had nowhere to put a beautiful rug. The warm and friendly tea gathering ended abruptly but amicably and we bid farewell to our new friends. They surely chatted afterward about doing a slightly more thorough pre-qualification of the tourists that they invite to their shop.
When we weren't dodging people trying to sell things, we were dodging dogs. Not that they were chasing us, in fact quite the opposite. There are countless dogs lying on the sidewalks and parks and, strangely, they are all old and very large, really, really large (we affectionately called them the Mega Dogs of Turkiye). No little yippy dogs here. Not one. Just large, old, sleepy dogs.
We also visited Topkapi Palace, built in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.
This incredible structure served as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries and home to its Sultans. Now a museum, we strolled through the buildings to see where a small city of staff, workers, servants, cooks, and even the Sultans' concubines resided.
A short walk away is the beautiful Gülhane Park, an urban oasis of flowers and Istanbul's oldest public park. It is notable as the place where the edict Gülhane launched the Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire, which modernized the empire and included changes such as the equalization of all Ottoman citizens, regardless of religion. The park was being enjoyed by both tourists and locals on the beautiful spring day of our visit.
Because Istanbul is so vast, we decided the best way to see the entire city was to take a bus tour. We'd totally recommend this on one of your first days because you get a great overview of the city (and even crossed over the Bosphorus Bridge to Asia).
We were able to see so much, including Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the mid 1800s by the Ottoman Empire's 31st Sultan, Abdülmecid I. This palace is much more contemporary and opulent than Topkapi palace and definitely worth a visit.
One morning we took a long walk away from old town and crossed the Galata bridge to the other side of the city. Fishermen were lined up with rods tossed over the side of the bridge waiting for a catch - more than 64 tons of fish are caught at the Galata bridge every year! It's worth the walk to see them in action and explore the other side of the city, including a walk up to Galata Tower. This 200 foot tall tower has been standing since the 13th century when it was constructed on one of the highest points in the city and served as a watchtower for centuries. The views from the top of the tower are incredible as you can see across the entire city in all directions. The Bosphorous Strait, which separates Europe from Asia is spectacular from up there and the countless mosques throughout the city come into view everywhere you look. We even found a rooftop bar, Fireuzende, to enjoy cocktails and a spectacular view right next door to the tower. You can learn how to make the delicious cocktails we enjoyed with the recipes at our Worldwide.Cocktails on Instagram.
Of course, when in Türkiye, one must...have a Turkish bath! Jennifer took one for the team, and did this alone. She described it as: Part water torture, part being roasted on hot ceramic tiles. I think having a naked man with only a towel on perform the bath ritual was a little jarring, as well as her own required un-robing, but she did say it was relaxing (if super warm) and she would do it again. Although she returned squeaky clean, I'm not rushing to try it any time soon!
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. These places are just crazy! The Grand Bazaar is a vast, seemingly endless maze of streets that are packed by hundreds of shops selling everything you could possibly imagine. The shops are all organized by the type of items they sell. If you are looking for headscarves, you'll find 10 headscarf shops all together in one section. Need hardware? A dozen shops are all together. Hookah pipes? Counterfeit sneakers or purses? It is all there, grouped together for your convenience. We even encountered currency traders shouting in one hallway as they competed for deals - so cool! Just outside the bazaar there is more shopping, and the shops are also very specialized. There are power tool shops. Fencing material shops. Ladder shops. Toilet shops. And yes, be prepared for the shopkeepers to try to pull you in and sell you things.
The nearby spice market was a feast for the senses. Spices from all over the world, in every color, flavor, and smell are all available from dozens and dozens of shops at bargain prices. The smells are luscious and almost overwhelming as you walk by the spices piled high in front of every shop.
There is no shortage of sweets in the city, with shops featuring Turkish delights, Turkish taffy, and one of my personal favorites, baklava. The baklava is made fresh throughout the day, in a variety of styles. I made it a point to try as many as I could. This flaky pastry with the sweet flavor of honey and delicious pistachios is really out of this world! They have been making it here for hundreds of years and they have perfected it!
There are so many mosques in Istanbul, but one we highly recommend visiting is Süleymaniye Mosque - you can't miss it! Built on top of the third hill of historical Istanbul, it's one of the biggest mosques in the city, in fact, we spotted it when we were on the opposite side of the river and just followed the domes until we reached it. We were fortunate to be there when the call to prayer occurred and it was amazing to stand beside this gorgeous place of worship and watch the people arrive for prayer.
Our week in Istanbul had come to an end and it was time to explore an entirely different part of this interesting country - the Turkish Riviera. We were off to Bodrum, a one-hour flight south. But our departure was not without one more adventure. We arrived at Istanbul Airport in plenty of time for our early morning flight, but when we couldn't find our flight listed on the departure board, we both had a sinking, deja-vu-esque feeling. We approached the airline desk to ask the whereabouts of our flight, and quickly learned that we had done it again! Yes, that's right, we went to the wrong airport! We went to IST, the primary international airport on the European side of the city.
Our flight departed from SAW, Istanbul's Asian airport! What started out as plenty of time quickly turned into not enough time. Ugh! It would take us more than an hour to get there. We'd never make it. If you've read our Dumb Travel Mistakes: Belgium blog, you know that this is not our first time arriving at the wrong airport. We swore we learned our lesson the first time! Okay but really, this is the last time!! We have really, definitely learned our lesson to make absolutely sure we know if there is more than one airport, and, importantly, which one we are departing from! Well, after a bus ride to Asia and a nine-hour delay, we finally got on a flight to Bodrum, and although we arrived in the dark, the view from our apartment the next morning made us forget all about our travel nightmare.
Bodrum was a welcome respite from the bustle and crowds of the big city. It is a beautiful, coastal tourist town on the Aegean Sea, with Greek islands in view just a couple of miles away.
It was early in the season, with many of the beach bars and resorts in their first week of operation, and some still preparing for an opening in the coming weeks.
So, things were a bit quiet, which was just fine with us. Strangely, the quiet was broken every night from about 11pm to 2am when the night clubs along the strip came to life with spiraling spotlights and loud music with thumping bass echoing across the water. It was odd because we didn't know where all these partiers were coming from since it was so quiet during the day.
We decided to explore the area on a boat cruise around the peninsula and to several small islands. We visited Black Island, which is home to Cleopatra's bath, a thermal hot spring on the edge of the sea. Legend has it that Mark Anthony gave the bath to Cleopatra as a wedding gift. We continued along on our cruise through the gorgeous turquoise water with stops for swimming and snorkeling and a tasty lunch prepared on board.
The sightseeing was fabulous and one of our favorite sights was the ice cream boat that approached in the same way an ice cream truck would arrive on your childhood street, music playing and tasty treats calling your name. Of course, we enjoyed a frozen treat under the hot Turkish sun! Bodrum Castle was also along the way and the Greek island of Kos glistened in the distance.
From our apartment we could see across the water to some large stone windmills set high atop a hill. We learned that the windmills of Bodrum were used to grind flour from the 18th century all the way until the 1970s! We decided to set off on a hike to explore the hills by the windmills and discovered a gorgeous hidden cove, perfect for an afternoon relaxing by the water, enjoying the views, and a picnic lunch. Up close, the windmills were in ruins, but the herd of sheep and goats at the top of the hill and the wonderful ocean views made for a memorable afternoon.
On one of our last evenings in Bodrum, we wandered down the backside of the peninsula to discover a different section of town with many bayside restaurants and shops. We gravitated toward some tables that were parked right on the beach and sat down at Pescador Bodrum with our toes in the sand to enjoy cocktails, fresh fish, and a beautiful sunset over the Turkish mountains.
Our time in Türkiye had come to an end and it was time for our next adventure. As expected, the experience was very different from our prior European travels. The food, the culture, the sights, the history - from the chaotic crowded city of Istanbul to a quiet beach town beside the Aegean Sea. Totally unique and very special. One of the most memorable things was the friendliness and hospitality of the people. Everyone we met along the way was warm, welcoming and just delightful to interact with.
From the rug shop owners who give us tea to the airline representative who found us a flight nine hour later and the Bodrum restaurant owner who greeted us by name every day, the Turkish people are wonderful. Our few weeks in Türkiye were one extreme to another and it made our experience all the more memorable. Even the airport mistake that had us killing nine hours after a missed flight couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for this country (after all, it was completely our own fault). That said, we made triple sure we knew which airport we were departing from to fly to our next stop, Cairo.
We got to IST airport with plenty of time to spare, happily spotted our flight on the departure board, and enjoyed a vast airport lounge as we waited for our flight, complete with a small orchestra to entertain us. It was only fitting that an experience that started out with crowded streets, overzealous rug merchants, and mega dogs ended with the sounds of various instruments coming together to make beautiful music - kind of like the country itself.
Enjoy a taste of our travels with drink recipes on Instagram - Worldwide.Cocktails.