Brian and I recently took advantage of an amazing $575 round trip fare on Turkish Airlines (airline review here) and headed to Istanbul for a quick 48 hours. We arrived in the city armed with a travel guide book and determined to see as much as possible in a short time. For a home base, we chose the Georges Hotel Galata, a boutique hotel located in the city’s charming Beyoglu district (hotel review here).
Upon arrival, we took a car service from Istanbul Ataturk Airport to our hotel. On a beautiful Saturday evening at dusk, we followed Kennedy Avenue along the coastline in heavy traffic. From our car windows, we saw families picnicking by the water, children romping on playgrounds, and young adults gathering at numerous bars and restaurants facing the Sea of Marmara. New construction sat beside crumbling stone walls built more than a thousand years earlier. At one point, we actually traveled underneath an ancient aqueduct. We were excited to get started exploring the city.
After settling into our room, we grabbed a quick dinner at a local cafe facing the Galata Tower, a medieval tower built in 1348 that dominates the skyline of old Istanbul. We dined on Turkish specialties like cacik, a refreshing yogurt and cucumber dish that is somewhat like tzatziki, and lamb kebobs (kebabi).
From there, we headed off to see some of Istanbul’s nightlife. We walked a very short distance (making one wrong turn in the process) up a steep and narrow cobblestone street to Istiklal Avenue. Istiklal is a pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of Beyoglu.
After our wrong turn down a deserted lane, we were surprised to encounter literally thousands of young adults filling up the 1.5 kilometer long avenue. For as far as we could see, fashionably dressed men and women filled the streets and alleys heading off to the bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops that lined Istiklal and the side streets. Several alleys were filled with club-goers sitting on curbs and sidewalks drinking beers bought from local shops. There was a palpable feeling of fun and excitement in the air. We both smiled at our good fortune of finding this street.
Here was something unlike anything we have in Washington, DC, or even New York City. The closest thing we could think of to Istiklal Avenue is Barcelona’s Las Ramblas (with Istiklal being much less touristy). We walked nearly the entire length of the avenue before finding a nice, quiet bar off a side-street. We enjoyed a few local, and reasonably priced beers–Efes Pilsners, the most popular beer in the country. After such a long day, we were exhausted and heading to bed, eager to get some rest for our next day.
After enjoying a delicious breakfast on the rooftop restaurant of the Georges Hotel, we headed out with an ambitious agenda to see the city’s major sites in one day.
From the centrally located Beyoglu district, we walked across a bridge over the Golden Horn river. Fisherman lined the sides of the bridge while car and bus traffic whizzed by. We briefly toured the Süleymaniye Mosque (top picture) and then passed through the campus of Istanbul University in the direction of the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia is Istanbul’s most famous and historic building. It is frequently cited as one of the seven wonders of the world. Dedicated by Emperor Justinian I in 537, the Hagia Sophia was the Byzantine Empire’s center of religious and political life, and following the decline of Rome in the 3rd Century, the center of Christendom for hundreds of years.
In 1453 when Sultan Mehmed captured the city of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was converted into the Aya Sofya Mosque. Today, the Hagia Sophia is secularized, having been converted into a museum in 1931.
Upon entering (cost of 25 TL), we were awed by the sheer volume of space inside the domed nave, decorated by a stunning combination of Christian and Islamic imagery. We spent nearly two hours exploring the building’s interior and snapping photos of Christian-themed mosaics–still vivid hundreds of years after their creation.
Following our tour of the Hagia Sophia, we enjoyed a short lunch at a cafe within the Hagia Sophia gates. Feeling refreshed, we crossed Sultan Ahmet Park in the direction of the Blue Mosque.