Like many nerdy boys of my generation, I was introduced to Istanbul by the popular They Might Be Giants song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”.
The song taught me that unless I was Turkish, the name change was none of my business. So the place existed only as a lyric for many years of indulging candy and video games.
It was wasn’t until AP art history nearly a decade later that I began to learn about about
ConstantinopleIstanbul’s rich and interesting history. New Amsterdam might be a “melting pot,” but this Bosphorus-straddling megalopolis is the crucible you melt melting pots in.
We arrived on Monday for a weeklong visit. After terrorism and scam warnings the day before, we were on guard the moment the plane landed. Our first task was getting a cab, but it went well except for J getting her jacked stuck in the door and the high speed ride.
Our AirBnB was in an old (and likely condemned) building in the Beyoğlu neighborhood. The building was only accessible by pedestrian stairs inhabited by a variety of sick-looking stray cats. All of the third floor windows had beautiful views of the Bosphorus and its busy boat traffic. The rooms were quirkily decorated with vintage objects and furniture.
The host was very helpful in explaining the apartment and neighborhood. Unlike any of the other AirBnBs, he actually lived there between guests. The upside was fast internet and some consumables. The downside was the scent of imbedded cigarette smoke.
On the roof deck of the building in front of us, a cute labrador wanted our attention. I desperately wanted to pat him, but was unwilling to try any James Bond moves to get to the other rooftop.
As we looked out the window at the boats crisscrossing the water, we decided that our first walk would be up the hill in search of coffee.
Looking across the Bosphorus at the Asian side of Istanbul.
Our lonely lab.
I was surprised by the amount of stray cats in the neighborhood. Literally every block had 3-6+ cats on it. Bowls of food and makeshift sleeping areas had been prepared for them. Some cats looked healthy, others sickly. I tried patting a few of the healthier looking ones.
There were a few stray dogs too, all larger size, and all sleeping.
We reached Taksim Square and wove through the masses of pedestrians on İstiklal Road. I bought two kinds of simit from one of the numerous carts (1TL each).
On the walk back, we stopped at a tiny hipster coffee shop for hot, filtered coffees. A dusty neighborhood cat wandered in and sat on J’s lap.
We ate dinner at the apartment and watched Asia get golden.
Guardian of the stairs.
Can you spot the cat?
Holding a spot with a canister of pickles.
We are all living in a cage.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
The constant crowds of İstiklal Road.
Colorful phone call.
Turn around and face the catwalk.
Turkish Fiat and lounging cat.
Crusty rainbow stairs.
J internet lounging.
Distance walked for the day: 9km/5.5mi
Tuesday morning, we walked along the water to get Turkish breakfast at Namli Gurme Karakoy. We tried Turkish coffee for the first time, but didn’t enjoy the dregs at the bottom.
Our pedestrian only pathway.
When nature calls, don’t pick up the phone. It just sounds like heavy bear breath.
Happy skull and cross bones.
Turkish breakfast. Not pictured: coffee.
We crossed the Galata Bridge lined with its iconic fishermen. Next, we explored the L-shaped spice mark market and its colorful displays of spices, soaps, and desserts. The vendors were persuasive, but we bought nothing.
We walked through more shop-filled streets to the nearby Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. Despite how touristy it feels, you can feel the history of the place. In the past, it must have been dirtier, smokier, and much more exotic.
Sad man and ferry.
Fish in a jug.
Turkish private security.
My teeth are ready.
Tea drinking dudes.
Headscarf fabric district.
Baby bling fist bump.
Grand Bazaar interior.
The main hall.
This mosque may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.
Since we were in the area, we decided to visit more of main tourist sights.
First, we entered the Basilica Cistern. Located under an unassuming assortment of buildings and roads, the chamber is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. It was built in 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.
The queue for tickets (20TL) wasn’t very long, though it was crowded underground. The slippery pathways above the water offered beautiful, moody views of the old columns and clear water. Large koi barely had enough depth to swim.
They charged an extra fee for tripod use, but nothing stopped me from using the floor as my tripod.
Where is Gomez?
It was always my dream to see the Hagia Sophia, and it didn’t disappoint despite the crowds, entrance fee (30TL), and the massive scaffolding installed in half of the main chamber. It’s amazing that this massive building, hundreds of years older than even the discovery of America, can still be standing.
The largest volume of scaffolding in the world.
Intricate stone work.
Looking out from the gallery level.
Mo’ money, mo’ problems, mosaic.
The Blue Mosque seen from the windows of the Hagia Sophia.
After an overpriced and unmemorable lunch, we took off our shoes and visited the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque).
Looking up inside the mosque.
Lost in piousness.
Missing an ending.
Heavy wind and light drizzle followed our route home along the waterfront. The boulders along the path were the domain of sketchy fisherman and stray cats.
Traditional wooden house overgrown with vines.
Another wooden building.
Ménage à paw.
Old dog and the sea.
I cooked dinner of pasta with pistachios, with carrots and spinach on the side.
The lab had dug out a few planters and pooped on the deck. He was acting out.
Distance walked for the day: 18.5km/11.5mi
We slept in on Wednesday, then walked to Kabataş Station to catch a ferry to the Asian side of Istanbul (4TL per token). After a short ride, we disembarked at Kadiköy Station.
The neighborhood around the station was food heaven: produce and fish market, all sorts of coffee shops, bakeries, and sit down restaurants. Our destination was Halil Lahmacun, a tiny place that only makes two dishes. The namesake is a Turkish pizza made on a paper-thin round of dough topped with a simple mix of ground peppers, lamb meat and spices. It’s served with fresh parsley and lemon juice that are applied before rolling it all up. Delicious, fresh and super cheap (4TL per pizza).
For dessert, we went to a few other places for yogurt and honey, rolls, and coffee.
On the ferry ride, we had passed an ornate building on the water. We decided to walk to it through a busy station packed with full size busses and an army of stubby local buses. I have never seen so many busses before.
Haydarpaşa Gari train station was deserted.
I have a feeling a bird is up there.
The old train station.
All the lettuce.
Street gangs of Kadıköy.
Tea cups are left everywhere and picked up by a man with a tray.
I don’t think this construction wall is working.
Cat apartment outside human apartment.
We took the ferry back from Kadiköy, but ended up at Eminönü. This time we crossed on the lower level of Galata Bridge. A lot of smelly fish restaurants wanted our business.
For dinner, we tried to eat at a recommended restaurant near Taksim Square, but it was full. We walked aimlessly until stumbling upon a busy restaurant called Hayri Usta.
J ordered a lamb shish kebab on a thick wrap, and I got a deluxe beyti platter with seasoned lamb kebab in thinner crust with faro and yogurt in the middle and tomatoes and peppers on the side. This same meat was getting served intact in other dishes, and the long shank of meat looked like a long poop.
They served ayran yogurt drink in metal cups. The food was very cheap and delicious.
Do you think my shoes are red enough?
The little red balloon.
Distance walked for the day: 17.5km/10.75mi
Thursday, we decided to rest. Our only walk was to Hayri Usta for lunch and back.
Mr. Hurl strikes again.
Me and my simits.
Distance walked for the day: 4km/2.5mi
Friday, we started a long walk northwest. The area got pretty slummy and full of construction, and I felt uncomfortable leaving my camera out.
We diverted to a main street lined with mannequin and restaurant supply stores. We found Kasımpaşa Station and waited for a ferry that would take us closer to our destination.
Another AC cat.
Old boat ramp.
We passed under the massive highway bridge and sections of the old Galata Bridges that were towed upstream. The water had a lot of jellyfish in it.
Next to Sütlüce Station, we ate lunch at a waterfront cafe. J had a platter of fried stuff. I had decent chicken shish kabab. We didn’t get all of our change back from paying the bill and I walked off feeling confused and grumpy.
Our walk passed by the massive police presence at the convention center. We had to detour up into the neighborhood to get around it, but eventually arrive at our destination: Miniatürk.
This miniature park is one of the largest in the world and covers a total area of 60,000 square meters (650,000 sq ft). It contains 122 models of structures from in and around Turkey, all done in 1:25 scale.
Miniatürk was packed with hyperactive kids. We spent two hours in the park and were thoroughly exhausted by the sun. A card with a barcode activated English narration from the sign mounted in front of each model.
All tile everything.
Pedestrian path along the inlet.
There’s a pharaoh in there, a little one.
Miniature Blue Mosque.
The outdoor lighting creates realistic shadows at any scale.
After the park, we walked up the slums to check out a Mosque surrounded by rubble.
Walking up to the Mosque.
The oblivious goat outside a dark garage full of sheep.
The local teens asked me to take their photo.
On the ferry back, we spotted a pod of 5 dolphins. Their tight grey meat made us hungry, so we stopped for an early snack dinner at Namli Gurme Karakoy. We tried Turkish tea for the first time. It’s just piping-hot black tea served in neat little vase-shaped glass with sugar. In theory, the tea is grown in Turkey’s Rize Province.
Dinner snack platter.
Distance walked for the day: 17.5km/11mi
On Saturday, we walked north along the Bosphorus towards Ortaköy Mosque.
We stopped for lunch at a popular döner kebab restaurant called Tarihi Karadeniz Pide. J had hers on pita; I had mine on french bread. We had two pre-packaged ayrans to “wash” it down.
Splish splash I got an inadvertent bath.
Cruise ship docked near our apartment. It was fun to watch them come and go every day.
The Istanbul tulip budget is off the hook.
Window washer, second floor.
Shooting bbs into a crowded waterway.
All the meats.
Near the mosque it was baked potato city. Numerous permanent vendors sold baked potatoes loaded with a variety of exotic toppings, and we were surrounded by people eating potatoes. It felt surreal and unsettling.
We sped out of the spud zone, under the onramp to the Bosphorus Bridge. The neighborhood was hilly and a transitional mix of shanties, rubble, and shiny new buildings.
Turkish bay windows.
Water pipe store.
The Bosphorus Bridge.
House on the side of the hill.
The fancy part of town.
Missing a piece.
We arrived at the sparkling Zorlu Center thirsty and tired. This massive mall was the newest building we had been in on the trip and it was infested with different classes of security guards. We stopped for coffee, to admire the architecture, and test the weird Turkish keyboards in the Apple Store.
All hail Zorlu!
A long network of underground tunnels led us to the subway line, and we took the crowded train to under Taksim Square.
We made our own Turkish snack platter for dinner.
Distance walked for the day: 17km/10.5mi
Sunday was rainy and windy, so we rested in the apartment and watched the dark clouds roll by.
That evening, we walked across town to meet a friend of mine for dinner. By coincidence, he and his new wife were in town for the start of their honeymoon. Either that, or he is stalking me.
Distance walked for the day: 7.5km/4.5mi
Istanbul is a fascinating place, and for a city of fourteen million, I’ve generally felt safe and welcome. It’s easy to imagine all the boats and people that have crowded its waterways and narrow streets. The smells of cigarette smoke and spices can’t be all that different from the past, nor can the variety of languages in the markets, or the frequent yelping from the minarets.
While the history has been a long time gone, the city is still a Turkish delight on a moonlit night.