Our last day in Istanbul was jam-packed with activities. We had plenty left to see in this ancient city and we were determined to get to most if not all.
We started our day with trip #3 to the Blue Mosque. The goal – to finally get inside! On the first day, the line was so long we decided to try later, and the next day we went too late (the mosque is only open to visitors outside of prayer hours and until 4:30 pm).
The third time was the charm though and, after taking our shoes off and putting them in a plastic bag to carry in, we explored the inside. Perhaps because of its proximity to Hagia Sophia, we were always tempted to compare the two. While the interior of the Blue Mosque was really amazing, I thought Hagia Sophia was just a bit more grand. Nonetheless, we marveled at the inside of the blue mosque for quite a while and seeing it on the inside was definitely worth the three trips!
Next, we took the tram across the Galata Bridge all the way to its last stop in the district of Besiktas, where, after a short walk, we got to Dolmabahce palace – the residence of the Ottoman household from the 18th century onward, once they moved from Topkapi Palace. This residence is right on the water with great views of the Bosphorus, and it was so grand, it could have easily been somewhere in France, I thought.
We had to wait in three different lines to get in – one to get through security, one to buy tickets and one to get inside, all due to the fact that the Dolmabahce palace was only available to visit through guided tours in Turkish and English. With a limited number of tour guides and many visitors, it was easy to see why we had to wait so long, and had we not already paid a good chunk of money for the tickets, we might have forgone the two-hour wait. However, i am glad we stuck it out because the inside of the palace is absolutely breath-taking. Opulence is the word that comes to mind when describing Dolmabahce. From the crystal chandeliers and lamps to the staircases to the intricate details on the ceiling, and because of the sheer size of the place, it all left us gaping with our mouths open.We were just floored when we got to the Ceremonial Hall, which contained the heaviest chandelier in the world – a crystal monstrosity that weighted 10,000 lbs. I could see why the sultan’s family moved from Topkapi to here, but I thought it was all a bit much and I preferred the authentic, ancient charm of Topkapi.
Afterwards, we took the funicular to Taksim square. This is considered to be the heart of modern Istanbul, and, appropriately, at its center sits the Monument of the Republic, commemorating the 5th anniversary of the creation of the Turkish republic in 1923.
This is also where one could catch the old tram, which runs the length of Istiklal street towards the Galata tower. This tram very much reminded me of the cable car in San Francisco! We enjoyed the views of Istiklal street as we rode the tram, and marveled once more at the many different faces of Istanbul, where you could enjoy world class shopping a stone’s throw away from an ancient mosque.
Once at the last stop of the tram, we took a short walk towards Galata tower. Built in the 14th century, this was the tallest building in Istanbul at the time it was built. We had a yummy lunch at a restaurant just across the square from the tower, and then headed back to our hotel.
After walking around in the city for hours, a traditional Turkish bath and massage sounded like just what the doctor ordered, and we decided to take advantage of that offering at the spa at our hotel. The experience was definitely unique! We were given pestemal – a traditional Turkish cotton wrap -then we relaxed in a dry sauna for five minutes (the “warm” room). After that we were taken into another room (called the “hot” room). We each got our own “hot” room equipped with four sinks where we were given a thorough scrub down by an attendant (called “kese”). If you ever do this, be prepared for an embarrassing amount of dirt to be “sandpapered” off your body, regardless of how often you shower! After the scrub down, my kese covered me with soap foam that smelled like roses to wash me off, then a heavenly 15-minute massage followed.Finally, she alternated pouring hot and cold water over me and with that, my first Turkish bath was done! Both Chris and I felt as clean as we never had before, but we discovered that our massage experiences were slightly different. While my massage was quite gentle and relaxing, Chris got “pummeled” by his kese. Poor guy was sore for two days after!
But we were not done experiencing the culture of Turkey! Before dinner, we had reservations to see whirling dervishes at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center. Whirling dervishes belong to the Sufi order, which was founded in the city of Konya in present-day Turkey by the followers of a famous Islamic poet and theologian. Their practice of whirling is a form of remembrance of god and is called a Sema ceremony. Although in its essence a spiritual ceremony, the Sema ceremony has been commercialized and can now be seen as a form of entertainment at restaurants and cafes. I felt that the cultural center where we saw the Sema ceremony tried to more closely keep to the original intent of it by not allowing photography or applause, yet the charge of 50 Turkish liras reminded me that it was still treated as a source of income. The ceremony lasted about an hour and for me, it was mesmerizing. As soon as the dervishes started whirling, I felt like I was being pulled by an invisible force and all my energy was suddenly gone, leaving me feeling like lifting even a finger was in impossible task. The whirling dervishes was so smooth, it seemed impossible they weren’t standing on a turntable, yet I could see their footwork from underneath their robes. The experience was even more unique due to the fact that the cultural center it took place in was a renovated 550-year-old hamam (Turkish bath). Unfortunately, I couldn’t take any pictures but a YouTube search should yield plenty of videos of whirling dervishes.
We celebrated our last night in Istanbul with another great dining experience at 360 Istanbul. We took a taxi there and our driver dropped us off around the corner because one of the nearby streets was blocked off. He told us to go down the street and turn left. He forgot to tell us that we then had to turn another left and the building would be on the right. We finally got the missing half of the directions from a hotel nearby and were somewhat surprised that we ended up on Istiklal street, but we still had a hard time finding the place because Turks seem to value discrete, barely perceptible signage. It’s as if the place is so exclusive and upscale, they make it hard to find lest you stumble upon it unintentionally. But once we found it, we had another great dining experience. We were once again seated by the window and could see both old Istanbul and the modern parts of the city up the Bosphorus. I decided to be very adventurous with my dinner selection and so I went for the octopus shish, which was quite delicious.
Our three days in Istanbul went by oh so quickly but they were magical. Istanbul is a city like no other, a unique convergence of East and West with so many distinct areas and neighborhoods, one would probably need weeks to explore them all. I certainly hope we return to Istanbul some day, as there are still many wonderful things left to see and do.