As travelers we tend to overthink and over-plan, occasionally I find value in arriving in a country as a completely blank slate. No rooms booked, no tours scheduled, no train tickets purchased... And more often than not, it leads to unexpected friendships and awesome adventures.
Istanbul was a surprise. I knew from the start that I was going to see rich history and beautiful tile-work, but I didn't expect the hospitality and friendship that the Turkish people embraced me with. Due to a recent fall in tourism, the cobblestone streets that line the Golden Horn are nearly void of foreigners.
Given this drop in income, shop owners can be seen chatting up the few travelers they find to entice them inside to fuss over the prices of their gorgeous Kurdish carpets. I fell for this quickly, as my Canadian manners make it difficult to pass up a free cup of tea and a good chat about lavish items I can't afford.
While I knowingly walked right into the plot of these sneaky carpet salesmen, I have to admit that this experience only added to my trip as everyone I encountered was gracious, kind, and genuinely funny. A few hysterical marriage proposals later and I finally escaped the shop, no new rugs and a tummy full of hot tea on a rainy day.
However, five minutes later I found myself back in it... this time a different carpet shop, and the same sickly sweet cherry tea. At this point, I began to realize that my politeness was causing me to spend an entire day in shops instead of fawning over the grandiosity of Istanbul's mosques.
I decided to put my blinders on and bee-line to Hagia Sophia but was immediately overwhelmed by a flurry of guides at the door. One quiet man stood out in the crowd - eye contact was made and like that, I had my own private tour. Emin was incredible, he had a fantastic eye for details, a comforting sense of religious scrutiny, and a stutter that kept it all interesting.
The tour was amazing, and the Hagia Sophia left me hungry for more mosques.. but also lunch, beers, and shisha. Emin and I decided to keep the tour going and actually extended our wanderings around Istanbul for two full days... My time of being tempted into carpet shops was behind me, and this is when the real sightseeing began...
SULTAN AHMED "BLUE" MOSQUE
The most iconic mosque in Istanbul, by far. The Blue mosque does not disappoint. The architecture is a culmination of two centuries of Ottoman design that Incorporates Byzantine Christian elements of the Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture - it is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period.
If you want the best Blue Mosque experience be sure to plan! The mosque will be closed periodically throughout the day for prayer and this can create a rush of visitors eager to get inside. Try to be in the area well before or after prayer is scheduled to beat the crowd.
HAGIA SOPHIA MUSEUM
The Hagia Sophia is a testament to Istanbul's rich history; it is a tapestry woven by different religions and cultures. Originally built as an Orthodox Christian basilica, it later became a mosque, briefly traded hands and opened its doors as a brothel, and finally settled as a museum. When you enter her doors, you'll see massive gold caligraphic disks, as if painted by gods hands themselves. After taking a look around you'll begin to see the subtleties of Christianity and paganism in the symbolism around the room - If you look close enough on the second floor, you may even find some Viking graffiti scrawled in the marble banisters.
FATIH CAMII MOSQUE
Standing guard atop Istanbul's tallest hill, the Fathi mosque is grandiose. This mosque takes a bit of walking to reach but is worth the climb. The interiors baroque influence makes it stand out as unique compared to the Iznik tilings of other mosques. While the structure itself is stunning, the real appeal is the view you'll see looking down at the Bosphorus Strait. If you visit the Fathi Camii, take a few extra minutes to visit the Turkish coffee shop found in a stone courtyard to the left of the entrance.
TOPKAPI PALACE MUSEUM
It was my final day in Istanbul, my flight was leaving in a few hours and I realized I never found the time to see Topkapi. I flash back to a conversation I had with a young Khazak girl on the train who told me if I say only see one sight in Istanbul, it should be Topkapi. So I jumped aboard the speedy little city trolley and darted through the busy lines at the gate to see the museum as fast as possible. I was rushed and anxious about my flight, but my god was it ever stunning. She was right, Topkapi is another world. An intricately painted, tiled, and carved work of art designed only for the highest ranks of Ottoman royalty. The palace is a caligraphers dream - my wrist hurts just thinking about the countless hours poured over every inch of this space.
Do you want some tea? This isn't a question in Turkey, it's simply assumed... Get prepared to drink your bodyweight in the stuff because Turkey is one of the leading tea drinking countries. Want to poke around a local shop? Here, have some tea. Finished with your meal? A cup of tea will magically appear on your table. Tea culture is strong in Turkey and it's a lovely gesture that elevates the reputation of hospitality that Turks are known for.
Food in Istanbul was an experience. With my new host Enmin at my side, we took a culinary adventure towards the north. Starting with a cup of cinnamon topped Boza - a delicious fermented chickpea pudding, we then moved on to Gözleme and Turkey's classic gritty coffee. Our journey took us through a local market in a conservative section of town, very far from any tourists... Mountains of vegetables, olives, and fresh fish stood tall while small men and women peeked out from behind their towers of food and offered to let me try a taste. We walked past stores with window displays filled with Turkish Delight of every color, Baklava shining with dripping honey...
And after each stop - each bite and nibble here or there, a cup of tea always followed.