Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Istanbul, Turkey: 24 Hours in the Queen of Cities - January 2016

Earlier this year my husband and I flew Turkish Airways from Dar es Salaam to Helsinki and chose to have an extended stopover in Istanbul on our way home. Having been to the city before, we didn't want to pass up the opportunity to take in a few of the sights and immerse ourselves in the welcoming Turkish culture.

With only 24 hours, we set out to experience the best of Istanbul's old town, Sultanahmet:

12:00 p.m. - Touchdown Istanbul Ataturk International Airport. We run through passport control, grab our checked luggage and wait in line for a Turkish visa.
1:00 p.m. - Excited to get a jump start on our abbreviated adventure, we flag down a taxi and make our way to the Armada Hotel Old City. Ideally located in the heart of Sultanahmet and just a stone's throw from the Marmara Sea, we are walking distance to all of the old town's major attractions.
1:30 p.m. - Walk the cobblestone streets from our hotel to Sultanahmet Square. Stroll past the various street vendors hawking roasted nuts and simit, molasses-dipped, sesame-encrusted fried dough, and make our way to a corner restaurant with dürüm on the menu. Dürüm is the standard doner kebab and makes for a perfect midday snack.
1:45 p.m. - Having filled our tummies, we set out to explore Sultanahmet Square. A lively center in the old town, the square is surrounded by some of the most famous and awe-inspiring sites in the city: Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Aya Irini. We leisurely enjoy the square taking photographs and fending off the persistent carpet peddlers.

3:00 p.m. - After enjoying the scenery and history of the square, we head into chaos. A short 10-minute walk takes us to the world-renown Grand Bazaar. Once within the walls of endless shopping maze, our senses are ignited, and we are engulfed in the mayhem: aggressive shop keeps shout for our attention and pull at our arms, wall-to-wall people navigate the dimly-lit, narrow alleys, and the market stalls themselves glitter with hand-painted ceramic tiles, lamps, scarves, carpets and jewelry. After not even an hour, we need to escape for air.

4:00 p.m. - A visit to Sultanahmet wouldn't be complete without a stroll through the Spice Market. Considered more of the locals' shopping area, the Spice Market has all of the goods from the Grand Bazaar but at lower prices, and also boasts an endless supply of candies, dried fruits and, of course, spices.

5:00 p.m. - As we exit from a side door of the Spice Market, we are greeted by the evening Islam prayer bellowing out over the loud speakers. The Yeni Cami, translated literally to mean new mosque, is illuminated and we quickly glance in before setting in on the steps to watch the crowds gather.

7:00 p.m. - After a quick rest back at our hotel, we set out to take in more of the Turkish culture. The hotel calls a taxi to deliver us to the Hodjapasha Theater. There we sit comfortably and marvel as the dervishes whirl and the bellies dance. The colorful and engaging show accompanied by classical instrumental Turkish music lasts about an hour.

8:30 p.m. - Across the street from the theater we see a string of quaint restaurants. We pull up a few chairs to an outside patio table and enjoy a late dinner of kebab meat, grilled vegetables and rice.

10:00 p.m. - By late evening we are back to have a cocktail on the hotel rooftop. We relax on the colorful couches, wave off our neighbors' cloudy apple-flavored hookah smoke, and admire the illuminated Blue Mosque in the distance.

8:45 a.m. - After a solid night's sleep we enjoy a buffet breakfast on the hotel rooftop. The spread spans an impressive three meters and includes jellies and jams, olives and cheeses, and fresh-squeezed juices.

9:30 a.m. - After repacking our suitcases, a taxi cab whisks us off to Suleymaniye Hamami for a Traditional Turkish Bath. The authentic hamam, or Turkish bath house, built in 1509 is the idyllic setting for a reinvigorating 90-minute Turkish massage. After the massage, we sip some Turkish tea and coffee, and are out the door.

12:00 p.m. - By noon we are en route back to the airport and ready to catch our flight home.

While 24 hours doesn't seem long, with a well-planned itinerary, we covered a lot of ground and thoroughly enjoyed our Turkish detour. For our next visit we hope to have time to further explore the history rich region near Izmir, the sandy southern coast around Antalya, or revisit the captivating lunar-like landscape of Cappadocia.

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