Friday, October 6, 2017

Istanbul: Best in Class Tourism

I'm in Istanbul, Turkey, one of the most visited cities in the world. It's easy to see why tourists love Istanbul. It has an inexpensive subway and fast-moving bus system; wonderful cafes; incredible pastries and food; let's repeat this again--wonderful food, especially puddings and sweets; and a blend of religious sites not available elsewhere because few other cities have experienced so many conflicts while also having rulers who chose to preserve rather than destroy. 
Lots of different bread options. I call the one in the background "puffy naan." 

Have your pastries with a drink called "sahlep"
or some tea/çay, pronounced "chai."
Great-tasting chocolate, 
esp the bittersweet or pistachio-infused pieces. 
Sweet shoppes are everywhere. 
I can see why C.S. Lewis's nephews & nieces loved Turkish Delight so much. 
Istanbul is the kind of city where you'll see a nondescript, empty restaurant, walk in, eat something you've never had before, love it, and order three more. 
Was it carrot pie covered in syrup? No idea. It was awesome.
(Update: I think it was pumpkin.) 

Don't know what was in this spread, but I ordered three.  
It had a pleasing pepper kick. Only 3 TL each. 

Here's a basic rundown of how to approach Istanbul. Think of it as divided in two sides by a body of water called the Golden Horn, with one side called Europe and the other side called Asia. (Although I didn't hear anyone actually use those specific terms, apparently the European side is more developed than the Asian side.) 

Starting on the upper left of your visual map and working your way down, you'll see Chora Church, Suleiman Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, and the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. On the right side, you'll start at the top again with Taksim Square, Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, and Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Palace Museum is a must-see). You can see these sites in three to five days. 

Some tourist books include the Basilica Cistern and Maiden Tower (at the Bosphorus Strait) as major attractions, but I didn't like the Basilica Cistern--it's just a small underground cave with a few pillars where water used to be stored--and I didn't bother visiting the Maiden or Maiden's Tower. Some tourists may enjoy the Istanbul Archeological Museum, but I skipped that one, too. (Another site list is linked here, from Lonely Planet.) 
The quickly-expiring museum pass is in vogue. I hate it.
Why pressure guests by allowing only a few days to see your best sites rather than a more reasonable two weeks?
Also, stop charging for "special exhibitions." If I buy a ticket, I should be able to see your entire museum. Ok, rant over.
Let's straighten out some names first. Many sites use English and Turkish names that aren't intuitive, and like "Firenze Santa Maria," it's not always easy to realize you're looking at Florence.

Within the Sultanahmet area, which includes a Sultanahmet tram stop, is the Hagia Sophia, a former church, also known as 
Ayasofya Müzesi. 

Right across from the Hagia Sophia (not Haga Sophia, as it's often misspelled) is the Blue Mosque aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built by Muslim Ottomans after conquering Constantinople and re-naming it Istanbul. The reason it's called the Blue Mosque is because of its blue tiles, but don't look around for a brightly-colored blue dome, because you won't see it (though I thought I saw a subtle blue light around the mosque at night). 

Depending on whom you ask, the Blue Mosque is the largest mosque in Istanbul, but others say the Süleymaniye Mosque aka the Suleiman Mosque (named after Suleiman the Magnificent) deserves the honor. 
Suleiman Mosque

Around the Suleymaniye Mosque are also two tombs with beautiful wall tiles. Personally, I thought the Suleymaniye Mosque was the most interesting mosque. I was able to see all three Abrahamic religions represented within it, though I still have unanswered questions about the specific items in the dome itself, which appear to be amber, flowers, and a plump version of the fleur-de-lis, which may be Turkey's native tulip. (By the way, if you see an aerial photo of a mosque, cover the minarets with your hands. What do you see? I see a Byzantine church design, indicating the Ottomans preserved most existing religious sites.)

Other than the mosques (aka camii) mentioned above, I particularly enjoyed seeing Mihrimah Sultan Mosque; Kalenderhane Mosque; and especially the Emniyet Evler Mosque 1970 (Emniyetevleri Mahallesi, Akarsu Cd., 34413); Laleli Mosque (located at Kemal Pasa Mahallesi, Ordu Cd., 34134); and the Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque. 
Pertevniyal Valide Sultan Mosque

Chora Church is also known as Kariye Muzesi. As of October 2017, it's under major reconstruction, so if you are a devout or Orthodox Christian (am I being redundant?), check its status before visiting Istanbul. For now, you'll be able to see only a few interesting and unique mosaics and frescoes. You'll notice several depictions of people holding three fingers, apparently to represent the Trinity; however, I saw some artistic renditions with just two fingers, not just in this church but other places, and no one could explain why only two fingers are being shown. One person suggested the two fingers represent Jesus's mother and father, but other Orthodox artwork highlights only Mary and John the Baptist, with "papa" Joseph nowhere to be found. 
Giving you the fingers?

Before you visit, download the app Trafi, which lists subway and other public transportation times and stops. Its GPS programming is a work in progress--a near but incorrect metro stop was chosen as closest to me--but it's still useful for orientating yourself with various metro names. I could not clearly understand the labyrinth ways to get around--there are trams, transfer tunnels, buses, and subways--but luckily, Istanbul is eminently walkable, taxis are everywhere, and Uber, BiTaksi (an app that calls a taxi to your location), and Careem are allowed. 
Definitely get a subway or Metro card, which can also be used on buses (but not the short ones, which look like shuttles and accept only cash). When first using the old and confusing metro card machines, choose the third/last option on the menu, which represents a new Istanbul card. When re-loading, you just have to hold up the card to the card scanner/slot, deposit money, and confirm your selection on the screen after the machine accepts your bills. I put in 20 TL (Turkish lira) to start, but I should have put 50 TL to ease my mind about catching a subway or bus over a five day period. 
Metro Pass
Where should you stay? I like the Taksim, Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, and Karaköy areas. Karaköy is the most touristy of the four, but some people might appreciate its convenient location. If you want to be around lots of good cafes and restaurants, definitely stay in Beşiktaş near Türkali Mahallesi. I would stay in either Taksim (touristy, but well-done and enjoyable) or Beşiktaş near Türkali Mahallesi (I'm writing this post there now, in a cafe called Baracca Coffee). No matter where you are, you'll probably be around 20 to 30 minutes away from wherever you want to go, assuming you're near a metro stop and don't mind walking. 

What to do, besides see the beautiful mosques and other popular sites? A uniquely Turkish experience is a hammam, where you pay to enter a central room and wash yourself with a bucket of water and soap bar, or pay a little more to have someone of the same gender wash and scrub you as you lie down. The traditional hammam experience begins when you go to a nondescript room, strip down to your underwear, wrap yourself in a towel, exit the small room, lock the door, take the key with you, and find your way to a large room. Inside the room, several faucets dispense warm water. You'll lie face down on a centrally-located marble-like slab, your forehead resting on a rectangular piece of plastic wrapped around a small towel.

Your masseur will fill a bucket with water, soap you up, and intermittently splash warm and increasingly warmer water on you to wash away the soapy film and bubbles. Then he'll use a scrubbing pad to get you really clean. At some point, you'll turn over, and he'll prop your leg on his knee and massage your leg muscles. More soap and water will be used, and when you're done, you'll get your towel and go outside, where another towel will be wrapped around your head while you wait to dry before going inside a small sauna room or your locked room or locker. (Don't forget your key!) Some people swear they've found religion during this experience, but I had a thinly-built masseur and might not have gotten the soapy thrashing others received. (I continue to prefer Chinese-style reflexology.) 
On my way to the main bathhouse room.
The dome in this one was exquisite and allowed sunlight in.

Istanbul's other unique features are 1) its youthful population, which seems to be out en masse every night, cigarettes and beer in hand, at the lively restaurant and cafe districts in Beşiktaş or Taksim; and 2) its rug-making exhibits, which tell stories of a once-popular trade that flourished in many cities outside of Istanbul, especially Konya. Many of Turkey's best rugs are featured in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Turkve Islam Eserleri Muzesi), a must-visit. 
I haven't seen all the popular sites. The Jewish museum near Galata Tower was closed when I showed up, and I didn't make it in time to go inside the baroquely-designed Dolmabahce Palace, but I'll end with this: Istanbul is a city for the young, but it manages to tolerate the old. If you ask me, 'tis a fitting description for a city incorporating each century's madness and creativity into one splendid domed, cobblestoned, and tiled package. The most beautiful mosaic isn't on the walls of the Chora Church, not really--it's everywhere you look in Istanbul.

Bonus: I'd avoid Blue Istanbul Hotel Taksim (in Beyoglu). Worst hotel experience I've had so far in Turkey. Please do not confuse this hotel with the similarly-named but totally different Blue Istanbul Hotel in Sultanahmet.

Bonus: Use a VPN connected to a European server for your best bet in accessing websites that may be blocked in Turkey. 

Bonus: I visited the Jewish museum on another day. It was very informative and definitely worth a visit. 

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