Turkey – March 2013

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Recently, a friend and I took a trip to Istanbul, Turkey for a few days. Our main goal was to see and learn as much as possible about this city within the span of four days. We had a rough idea of what to expect, as a lot of our friends have already been to Turkey and constantly rave about the experiences they’ve had and the things they’ve seen. We’ve now learnt that they weren’t exaggerating.

Both of us live in Dubai and some of the things we saw in Turkey were very different to what we were used to in Dubai. We flew in, on a cold afternoon and after dropping our luggage at the hotel, headed straight outside to catch the sights. After spending some time trying to figure out where we were heading, we somehow ended up right in the middle of Istiklal street.

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Istiklal Street is a pedestrian-only street, about three kilometers long that is lined up with restaurants, bakeries, cafes, bookstores etc. on either side of the street. Over the course of the trip, we visited Istiklal street several times, usually to get some dinner or some Turkish coffee. This area was crowded pretty much anytime we were there.

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While on the subject of Turkish food, visit any street corner in Istanbul and you are likely to find one of these “Doner” shops that will serve you some hot doners and other local favorites, such as the Iskander Kabab and the Mixed grill. If you do visit one of these shops, don’t forget to try the Ayran, which is a cold, refreshing yogurt drink.

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And where there is excellent food, there is bound to be excellent dessert and pastries. Some of the pastries look like pretzels but actually tastes like pastries. I don’t think I need to mention it here, but if you’re in Turkey, obviously try out the Turkish delights.

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It got pretty cold on the first few nights we were there, with the temperatures dropping to 4ºC on some nights. Shisha places around town light up these fire pits outside their shops to entice people to get out of the cold and warm up inside their shop.

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A trip to Turkey wouldn’t be valid if you didn’t take the time to visit some of the famous mosques in Istanbul. We visited the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, The Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque. The first thing you notice when you see these mosques from the outside as you walk towards them, is the enormity of these mosques as each of the minerats reach for the sky. If you do visit these mosques, try and also drop by after sunset when these moques are beautifully lit.

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All of these mosques had courtyards behind them and even those were built with attention to the tiniest of details.

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The attention to detail is also echoed in the interior of these mosques. We used our cameras to zoom into very small pieces of the roofs of these mosques and you could see that they paid attention to the things we might take for granted. Every single curve and line was given extreme thought and attention.

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The Hagia Sophia was originally a church built in the year 360, and was later transformed into a mosque. You can still see details around the Hagia Sophia which reflect its Christian roots. This particular piece is called the Deesis Mosaic and you can read more about it here.

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These taps are located outside the mosques for pilgrims to wash themselves before attending their prayers inside the mosques.

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Most of the mosques in Istanbul are open to the public, but as a tourist, you are restricted to how far into the mosque you can go. Visitors are asked to remove their shoes and place them in plastic bags before entering the mosques.

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The streets in Istanbul are very different than what we’re used to in Dubai. Most of these streets are very narrow, cobblestone streets that are usually not even wide enough even for two cars to pass at the same time.

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Istanbul also has some very interesting cars on their roads. A lot of which are not commonly found in Dubai.

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While walking down Istiklal street (or almost any street infact), you’re bound to notice some of the Graffiti on the walls. In fact, you’ll even see them even on some alleyways, rooftops and even bathroom stalls.

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One of the essential places to visit for anyone coming to Istanbul should be the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 60 covered streets and over 3,000 shops. You can find everything here from souveniers, tshirts, leather jackets, shoes and even local specialties such as Turkish sweets and coffee. We’ve tried Turkish delight several times before, but the ones we ate here were out of this world.

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The Egyptian spice bazaar is located right next to the Rüstem Pasha mosque and has various kinds of spices, dried fruits, teas and nuts from all over the region.

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On the third day, we signed up for a tour of the Bhosphorus river. The tour involved taking a boat ride around the Bhosphorus sailing close to the European shore and then along the Asian shore before heading back to the European side. Boats are an important way to get around in Istanbul and are heavily relied upon for fishing and for commuting between the Asia and European parts of Turkey.

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Walk along any of the bridges in Istanbul around sunset and you’ll find men with their fishing gear trying to catch some fish. These fishermen are willing to bear the cold to catch their fish and usually attract a small crowd of onlookers and tourists.

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Of course, where there are fishermen, the seagulls usually hang around waiting for some fish.

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Under these bridges, you’ll find a couple of brightly-lit and stores selling random goods including toys, watches, shoes etc.

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While walking along side the Grand Bazaar we ran across this beautiful entrance to the Turkey University.

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One of the oldest structures in Istanbul is the Galata tower which is built in 1348. The top of the tower offers an amazing 360 view of the city. It was a bit cloudy when we visited the tower, but I think that was to our benefit, as it added a level of drama to our photos.

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Topkapi palace is a massive palace in Istanbul which was built around 1465 and now serves as a museum. One of the edges of the palace compound overlooks the Golden Horn and serves an amazing view.

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Getting around Istanbul was relatively easy and cheap. The trams in Istanbul takes you to most of the tourist destinations for about $2. You can purchase the tokens at the tram stations and the routes are fairly simple to understand.

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Graveyards are found in a lot of places and are more common in plain-view than we were used to seeing anywhere else.

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If you’re willing to travel a bit on foot, the Chora Church in the Edirnekapı area is a worthy stopover. Like a lot of churches in Turkey, the Chora church was also converted into a mosque at one point but still has a lot of its christian art still intact.

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The Basilica Cistern is a couple of meteres from the Hagia Sophia. When you enter the Cistern, you walk down a flight of stairs to a hall covered with pillars with an eerie red light filling the entire area. Its a bit hard to walk around since it was so dark and the floors are wet and slippery, so be careful.

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The Istanbul Archaeology Museums is close to Topkapi palace and consists of three museums. Two of these buildings are three stories tall and contains over a million pieces. We spent about 3 hours in these museums and we could have easily spent another 3 looking around. If you do decide to visit these Museums, I would recommend allocating half a day for this.

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Cats in Istanbul get a lot more respect than other countries that I’ve travelled to. They look much healthier and are fed a lot better. A lot of the tourists feed them quite well and so they are pretty friendly with humans. This cat just hopped on random peoples laps hoping for a belly-scratch.

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Even though we travelled in the off-season, Istanbul was very crowded. We managed to see most of the sights during the weekday when things were a lot less chaotic. During the weekends, every single tourist location got really busy and pretty impossible to get in to. You end up walking quite a lot in Istanbul, even though most of the popular tourist locations are pretty close by, so I would recommend you travel light. If you plan to take photos, it is a good idea just to take one camera and one lens with you. Carrying all of your equipment will make your backpack pretty heavy and can get uncomfortable. Also, forget bringing a tripod along with you. Most of the tourist places don’t allow you to take a tripod with you, and it ends up being a hassle to leave it with security and retrieve it later.

Overall, this has been the busiest trip I’ve been on. We spent every moment of our time in Istanbul outside, discovering the city. We got to experience the sights, the sounds, the food and the people and we still couldn’t get enough. We managed to find something to see or do no matter what time it was, or what the weather was like. We sipped on tea and ate pastries in the rain, watched fisherman fish in the freezing cold, ate the best Turkish delights, drank the strongest Turkish coffees, and listened to the call for prayer from the mosques. Give me an opportunity to go back, and I’ll be ready in a heartbeat.