Hi friends – I’m baaaaack! I’ve missed you guys – thanks for sticking with me! Matt and I had an amazing vacation in Malta over the past 2 weeks – but before I recap that portion of the adventure, I wanted to share what we got into in Istanbul! We found really cheap flights to Malta (like, half the price of all the others and practically what it costs to fly to California) on Turkish Airlines, and the only catch was that we had an overnight layover in Istanbul on both ends. Sweet – sounded good to us!
Thank you to all of you who gave suggestions for ways to maximize our short amount of time in Istanbul! We basically had part of an afternoon, the evening and a morning there on each end, so we wanted to be sure to hit the main spots!
We stayed at a lovely hotel right in Sultanahmet (main touristy area) called The Premist Hotel – highly recommend it if you ever end up in Istanbul and want to be close to all the touristy highlights. We were able to easily walk to most of the stuff we wanted to see from our hotel, which was perfect for maximizing time! Here’s what we crammed into our time there.
We were totally exhausted when we arrived and checked into our hotel the first day, since we’d just taken an overnight flight and not slept much, but we wanted to make sure to stay up so we got over jetlag quickly! As soon as we checked in and showered we headed out to explore. We ended up walking all the way from our place over the Galata Bridge and back, with really nice views of the city.
There are restaurants lining the bridge, but they were pretty crowded/touristy so we decided to keep moving.
Random aside: street corn is apparently a thing in Instanbul. It was everywhere! We didn’t try it – hot, messy corn in hot weather didn’t really seem appealing… maybe next time. 😉
For dinner that night, Matt and I ended up at a place that cooked the food in a clay pot, then let you chop the top of the pot off before eating. Fun!
Tasty, too. 🙂
Post-dinner, we bought (and sampled) some baklava! We got a big thing of it to bring to our group house in Malta and share with the others. It was a big hit!
We were up bright and early the next morning thanks to a combination of jetlag and wanting to seize the day! We had until 11 a.m. when we would need to head to the airport for our Malta connecting flight and were determined to do some power sightseeing.
First stop: breakfast! Our hotel included a complementary Turkish breakfast in the room rate. Sweet!
My favorite was the menemen, which is a Turkish take on scrambled eggs (bottom right of the plate below) with tomatoes, peppers, and onions. So good! I love that they have olives and raw veggies and nuts at breakfast, too, in addition to lots of fruit.
Our next stop, at 8:30 a.m. right when it opened, was the historic Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles that adorn its interior. It was built in the early 1600’s and is still used as a mosque.
The inside was stunning!
Women need to cover themselves when entering, but they give you a covering garment at the entrance so no worries if you forget one.
We got latched on to by a random local guy who decided to make himself our (unwanted) tour guide and then press us for tips, which was a fail, but at least he gave us a little bit of history of the Mosque. We finally ditched him (with the assistance of a tip) before heading to our next stop, Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia reflects an interesting mix of religions. It was originally built in 537 (whoa) as a Greek Orthodox cathedral. From 1204 to 1261, it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1453, it was changed into a mosque. Finally, in 1935, it was secularized and opened as a museum.
The artwork inside reflects all the changing it has been through. Very cool!
Next up on our whirlwind morning was a quick stop at the underground Basilica Cistern, which is right by the Hagia Sophia. This cistern was built in the 6th century as a receptacle to hold water. It was really cool and kind of creepy since it’s so dark! Apparently it was used as a location in a 1963 James Bond film, and was also featured in Dan Brown’s book Inferno.
Two of the pillars have Medusa heads under them, which no one knows the origin of – or why one is sideways and other is upside down.
After our action packed morning, it was off to the airport! Sidenote: Turkish Airlines is pretty sweet. Their food is actually decent, and they even fed us a full meal on the 2 hour flight from Istanbul to Malta! Nice.
When we returned to Istanbul on the tail end of our trip, we had a tiny bit more time in the afternoon when we arrived, so we squeezed in a visit to the Grand Bazaar, which is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.
I was expecting the Grand Bazaar to be total madness – super crowded and with people harassing you nonstop to buy stuff – but it actually ended up being more low key, maybe because it was a Thursday and kind of random timing? Matt and I bought just a few things to bring back with us (we just had little backpacks because we checked our big bags through back to DC so we didn’t have to deal with them) – two pretty food prep bowls, two espresso cups, a pair of sandals for me, and some Istanbul guitar picks for Matt. 🙂
Sadly we did not take this cute kitty home with us!
For dinner that night, we had something fun planned: meeting up with my friend Jackie! Jackie and I met while teaching English in Prague, and have stayed in touch ever since; after Prague, she ended up spending 4 years teaching English in Istanbul. She’s back in the US now, but was randomly back in Istanbul for a visit that coincided with our final layover – awesome! Dinner it was.
Jackie met us at our hotel and from there we took the tram over to the medieval Galata Tower, which was also on our “to see” list – perfect!
The Galata Tower was built in 1348, and at the time it was the tallest structure in Istanbul.
You can pay to take an elevator to the top of the tower to see the views. Worth it!
After checking out the tower views, the three of us had dinner at a place called Kiva right by the tower; Jackie used to eat here a lot when she lived in Istanbul and highly recommended it. It was perfect because it had all sorts of little mezze dish options that you could go inside, look at, and pick from, so we were able to try a ton of different things!
Sooooo good. I loved all the savory yogurt dishes and the vegetables stuffed with meat/rice!
We all shared a bottle of local Turkish red wine, and Matt was brave and also tried Raki – a Turkish alcoholic drink that tastes like licorice. It’s made from twice-distilled grapes and anise, and you mix it with a little water and pour it over ice. Strong!
Cheers – or şerefe in Turkish!
So there you have it – how to do Istanbul in two overnight layovers! Stay tuned – I’ll share a few posts recapping our Malta adventures, too – coming soon. 🙂