Thick sour cigarette smoke welcomed me at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport and it was umm….not welcome. Trying to escape the fumes, I ducked behind one offending smoker and instead met an invisible wall of bus and taxi exhaust. After traveling for nearly 24 hours, I simply wanted a fresh salad, a hot shower and a tasty adult beverage – and not necessarily in that order. But the assault on my senses meant that fresh air quickly jumped to the top of my Want List.
Soon I arrived at my hotel and was relieved to breathe the fresh air that drifted in from the Sea of Marmara. Located just across the street from the water’s edge, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant is the perfect place to unwind from the red-eye flight. It overlooks much of the neighborhood in Sultanahmet where the ancient Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are beautifully lit at night.
When it was time to explore, I knew I would not learn all the rich (and lengthy) history of Istanbul, but I would appreciate all the beautiful architecture, mosaics and art. First came Byzantine church architecture, Byzantine Empire history, and Byzantine gold mosaics. Then came Ottoman Empire history, Ottoman opulence, and Ottoman antiquities. Visiting places such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Spice Bazaar, and Hippodrome provided a good history lesson that I summarized as too extensive to master! I visited about 112 of the 5,000 shops at the famous Grand Bazaar – founded as a simple marketplace in the Byzantine times and then upgraded in the Ottoman times. It flourishes today with often over-priced carpets, scarves, food, ceramics, leather goods, shoes and purses. Shoppers are expected to haggle.
Not far from Galata Tower, which provides a great ariel view of the city from about 50 meters high, friends wandered into Taksim Square and enjoyed “participating” in a mild protest/demonstration. My Turkish guide, Shilo, told me that demonstrations are often peaceful and seemingly scheduled, so it is not uncommon to see a special interest group set up a table and hand out pamphlets for a few hours.
Istanbul is a busy city, thriving on more than its fair share of Byzantine and Ottoman history. The locals seem friendly, the streets have the most uneven cobblestone I have ever walked across, and the prices for the good food are reasonable. The sites I see and the stories I hear fall into the “wow” category and I cannot pick a favorite. If shown a map of Istanbul, I will simply close my eyes, point to different areas of the city, and aptly say Byzantine This, Ottoman That. It will be fitting.