Istanbul, Turkey (Part 2)
After a full day of site-seeing the day prior, we had an open schedule and just planned to walk around and explore. It was raining and a bunch of the street cats found shelter around the corner of our apartment building. I’m sure Minh and Connie were tired of my excitement over all the cats everywhere by now…I just can’t help it!
Upon leaving our apartment, we heard a huge demonstration going on and we could hear the shouts and chants from outside our door. Turns out our apartment was located directly behind the Russian Consulate, where a bunch of SWAT team looking armored soldiers and trucks were posted. We happened to be in Turkey a week after the unfortunate Paris bombings, and political tensions were high due to supporting/opposing national relations with Syria. We decided to walk in the opposite direction, away from where the protest was going on, and checked out some of the cute boutique shops.
There was also more colorful and interesting street art to check out.
Because it was Sunday, most of stores were closed and there wasn’t much for us to do, so we ended up buying a bunch of snacks (which, to our delight, are really affordable!), and stayed in and caught up on The Walking Dead and other shows.
The next morning we met with Connie’s friends, Duygu and Jeff, who both live in Istanbul, for a traditional Turkish breakfast. Our breakfast spread consisted of a wide variety of things to choose from – lots of bread, jam, cheese, cucumber, tomato, and egg.
While at breakfast, we mentioned the protest near our apartment, and we asked Duygu if she feels like it’s safe in Istanbul. As she tried to truthfully but diplomatically answer our question, our waiter overheard and exclaimed, in a half joking matter, “Ha! What is considered safe?!”
Istanbul has had many more unfortunate attacks since we visited, and has really put into perspective some of the First World problems that people complain about back home. It really makes you appreciate the things we take for granted.
We finished off our breakfast with a traditional Turkish coffee, where someone attempted to read our fortune in our coffee grounds (results = inconclusive…lol).
From breakfast, we headed to Topkapi palace, which was once a place of residence of the Sultan during the Ottoman empire, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site converted to a museum.
Given that it was once a palace to several sultans and the royal family, this complex is pretty large, with 4 courtyards, each with large, luxuriously detailed buildings.
After exploring the palace, we parted ways with Duygu and Jeff, and hopped on a Bosphorus cruise. This is another must-do on any visitor’s list to Istanbul – taking a ride on a boat between the European and Asian side of Turkey.
There are various Bosphorus cruise options you can take ranging from quick transport only to full day cruises. We opted for the 90 minute cruise that departs from Eminonu, goes to the Fatih Bridge and turns around to drop you back off at Eminonu. If you’re interested in taking one of these cruises, no need to make an appointment. As you’re walking along the port, you’ll hear lots of people calling for passengers to hop onto the next departing boat – which is exactly what we did.
It ended up being perfect timing as we hopped on right before sunset, so we started off the cruise in daylight, and watched the cityscape light up as it got darker.
As we were approaching this building, all the lights turned on (as if they knew we were coming!), and the whole boat exclaimed with lots of “OOhs” and “Aahs”.
To keep the ride interesting, there’s also a pre-recorded message that plays through the overhead speakers of the boat with tidbits of information on notable landmarks.
It’s pretty unique to know that you’re traveling between two visible continents – on the left is the European side of Turkey and on the right is the Asian side! I’d definitely recommend hopping on one of the cruises to get a different point of view of the city!
After returning to the dock in Eminonu, we were ready for a snack and went looking for a good doner kebap. Since there are so many vendors to choose from, I came up with some criteria on what to look for when choosing a good place (mainly driven by the rule of thumb of following where the crowds go).
Tiff’s list of things to look for when choosing a yummy Kebap:
- The spit should be rotating fast – If it’s rotating fast, they’re going through the meat really fast because lots of people are ordering, and the newly exposed layer of the spit needs to cook quickly to fulfill the next order.
- All engines firing – If all the burners are on, it also means they’re going through their meat really fast, because if nobody is buying it, the meat would just get dried out rotating with it on full blast. (There’s countless kebap places with the spit rotating slowly, with the fire on very low just to keep it warm, and of course, no customers waiting to buy!)
- The meat should be glistening – Definitely means you won’t get a piece of meat that has been dried out and has a rubbery texture. It will be juicy and delicious!
- (Bonus) If they have that little electric handheld machine to cut the meat off the spit – It means they need to shave off the meat with speed and efficiency to keep up with the customer demand for their delicious kebaps!
This is all something I just made up to convince myself (and Minh and Connie) that we wouldn’t end up with a disappointing kebap and it seemed to work, because we found a place that met all the criteria and it was sooo delicious! So if you’re ever having trouble picking where to get a kebap from, keep the above things in mind (and let me know if it works for you!) 🙂
On our way back, we ran into another mussel street vendor and, of course, had to stop and buy a couple. Connie had not yet tried it, and she was eager to try for herself, since we raved about it and were always on the lookout for one. She enjoyed it as much as we did!
It was our last day in Istanbul and Connie and I had an appointment booked at a Hammam spa (Turkish bath) nearby. I wasn’t sure what to expect at the Hammam spa and read about it online before going in. I’m glad I did, as it’s not a traditional soothing and relaxing type of experience you think of when you hear the word “spa”.
A Turkish bath traditionally involves a hot bathing room and a full body scrub (note: Turkish baths are communal spaces, so you’ll need to be comfortable with wearing bottoms only in front of others while getting your treatment done). For our experience, we were first given a cold drink and directed to change and then upon entering the spa, lied down on a giant, hot marble slab.
Next, was the full body scrub portion. I would describe it as a frantic scrub down and massage combination that leaves your skin feeling extra smooth afterwards (because they basically scrub an entire layer off!). The woman who did my treatment wasn’t too rough with me, but, Connie said at some points during her treatment, hers was really rough. After we were essentially scrubbed raw to expose our new baby-soft skin, they soaped us down with the softest pillowy suds that are made from what looked like a giant pillow case of bubbles! I had to resist the urge to make fun Santa beards and play with the fluffy looking foam..hehe.
After that, we were rinsed off and you can choose to relax on the marble slab again, or grab a towel and relax in the lounge area.
It was a memorable experience, and was glad to have experienced it. As long as you’re prepared to get roughed up a bit (literally), you’ll leave feeling rejuvenated and refreshed!
Since this was our last night in Istanbul and Turkey, we went out for drinks at a place called Istanbul 360 on Istikal street, not far from our apartment. It was a very trendy and swanky restaurant bar with a great view of the city. It was a nice way to end our time in Turkey together as Connie was headed back to New York, and we were on to the next country!