Turkish Delight: Visiting Istanbul

8:41:00 AM

Istanbul is a place I've always wanted to go.  It's been on my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember.  I think my interest in this city and this region is grounded in my fascination with its rich history and a diverse blend of cultural backgrounds.  It's European and it's Asian (sort of like me). As a graduation present (Thanks Mom!), my brother and I spent 9 days exploring the city.  Here are the highlights of our trip and recommendations of where to go, what to do, and of course what to eat.

On our first day in Istanbul we visited Topkapi Palace.  It was built in 1459 and served as a palace to Ottoman Sultans and their court until the construction of Dolmabahce Palace (a more "European style" palace on the banks of the Bosphorous).  Currently, Topkapi Palace is museum with impressive collections of Ottoman artifacts ranging from clothing and jewelry to religious relics.  One of the most impressive sections of Topkapi Palace was the harem: it was absolutely stunning.

Topkapi Palace

Tile work in the harem of Topkapi Palace

My brother and I in the Topkapi Palace Harem

The details are amazing

Topkapi Palace was definitely one of the highlights of our trips and I highly recommend visiting.  There is so much to see there so plan on spending the better part of a morning or afternoon exploring.  Tickets for entry are about 20 TL and Tickets for the Harem are an additional 15 TL.

After touring Topkapi Palace in the morning, we found a cafe near the palace for lunch. Hands down one of my brother and I's favorite restaurants during our trip.  The outdoor booths were perfect for people watching on the cobbled streets of the historic district.  The food was incredible too: we enjoyed some fantastic beef kebabs.

Graffiti near the Cafe

After a relaxing lunch, my brother and I wandered over to the Istanbul Archeology Museum.  Housed in a variety of buildings, this complex has an impressive collection of Ancient Egyptian, Ancient Greek, Ancient Roman, Babylonian, Hittite, Byzantine, Ottoman and Persian artifacts.  I recommend visiting this Museum before or after visiting Topkapi Palace because they are in such close proximity to each other.  This museum has a 10TL entrance fee.

I'm pretty sure these lions were on the cover of one of my history books in Middle School


One of our favorite Turkish specialties was Turkish Apple Tea.  We drank it at tea gardens, at restaurants, and at carpet shops. It was always served in these tulip glasses and on little dishes. I definitely recommend trying both the traditional Turkish and apple tea.  Some stores will give you free tea if you browse their wares (especially Turkish carpet stores).  If you do happen to stumble into a carpet store, enjoy the experience but know that if you buy something you'll probably get ripped off...

Our first stop on day 2 was the magnificent Aya Sofya also known as Hagia Sophia.  Quick refresher course on the history of this magnificent building: it was built by Emperor Justinian in 537, served as a legendary church until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, and was then turned into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror.  Since the 1930's, Aya Sofya has been a museum.  This historic landmark is world famous and is absolutely breath taking.  I highly recommend visiting.  Tickets are 25 TL.

Up next was the Basilica Cistern.  The entrance for this cistern is just a few blocks away from Aya Sofya in an unassuming building.  After paying the 10 TL entrance fee you descend into the cavernous underground structure.  Also built by Emperor Justinian in 532, this is one of the largest Byzantine cisterns. Walking on the raised platforms around the pillars made me feel like I was in "Tomb Raider" or "Indiana Jones".

Make sure you follow the path all the way through, you'll find two Medusa heads on the bottom of the pillars at the far corner.

by the Bosphorous Strait

My brother and I also spent some time along the Bosphorous Strait, the beautiful body of water that separates the East from the West.  Along the docks you can find a variety of seafood restaurants that are perfect for a view of the boats on the water.

On our third day in Istanbul, we finally visited the legendary Blue Mosque. It is such a prominent part of the Istanbul skyline and through out our stay we had seen the outside of the building from a variety of angles around the city.  When visiting up close and personal, we finally got a chance to walk through its impressive courtyard and admire the detailed tile work.  It's free to visit but remember that it is still a place of worship so cover your head, arms, and legs.  Ladies, I recommend bringing a scarf with you when you visit.  

Blue Mosque is an amazing structure.  If you visit Istanbul, it's a must-see!

One of my biggest recommendations is eating at Pierre Loti's Cafe.   The food at Pierre Loti Cafe wasn't fantastic but the rooftop views made our dinner experience exceptional.  The views of the city especially with the sun setting over the historic skyline were incredible.  I highly recommend eating at a rooftop restaurant to take in the sights from a different angle.

Everywhere you go in Istanbul, there are pop art blue and white eyes looking at you. Every shop and restaurant has them hanging near their doorways.  These are Turkish evil eyes, a symbol of protection.  I absolutely love the design of the evil eye as well as the meaning behind them.  I brought home a medium sized one to hang in my apartment. 

So many Turkish Evil Eyes

Another great place to visit is the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum.  At 10 TL per person entry fee, it is a great way to spend part of the afternoon enjoying an impressive collection of rugs, calligraphy, and ceramics

Details on a door at the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum

Serious rugs

A recommendation: try Turkish desserts.  Baklava and Turkish delights are commonly found in the tourist areas and are absolutely delicious.  Another personal favorite was sekerpare.  I also recommend trying revani, which is pretty similar in taste and texture to cornbread.  

Turkish Desserts

Our Feline Friend

On one of our last days in the city, we took the public ferries to Prince's Islands, a group of 4 islands in the Sea of Mamara.  Getting on the ferries was pretty easy and riding the boat to the Islands was a great way to escape the stifling heat in the city.  We departed from the Kabataş dock on the European side of the city and ended up visiting the big island: Büyükada.

On the ferry

Dream House on the Big Island

The most delicious fish kebabs

If you're craving seafood, definitely hit up the restaurants at Prince's Islands.  The majority are located right on the water with amazing views of the sea.  I personally recommend trying fish kebabs.  It was my favorite meal of the trip and probably one of the best meals of my life (no exaggeration).

No cars on Prince's Islands only horse drawn carts

Prince's Islands was a great place to kick back, relax, and eat some ice cream.  We also did a little bit of swimming and sunbathing.  If you're in Istanbul in the summer for more than a few days, I highly recommend the side trip to the Islands.

One of my favorite stops was the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.  It contains hundreds of stalls selling spices, teas, dried fruits, and Turkish desserts.  Even if you don't end up buying anything, it's a great place to explore.

Egyptian Spice Bazaar

Turkish Delight


Dried Fruits

 Turkish Coffee

If you go to Turkey, you have to try Turkish coffee.  It's a lot thicker and stronger than the coffee I'm used to, but after a couple of sips I was in love. 

Fresh Pomegranates 

Hope you enjoyed some of my pictures and recommendations.  Istanbul is an incredible city that I would love to visit again!

Photo Credits: Leah Elsmore 2012

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  1. Dude! Did you get a new camera?! These are so nice!

  2. Thanks! I did get a new camera and I'm really happy with it so far.