Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Istanbul:Turkey for Thanksgiving

Istanbul is exotic, positively energetic, friendly in every possible way, and full of excitement.  Our family trip to Istanbul was absolutely fantastic.  We planned this trip after talking to several of our friends that had recently done the excursion to this city that spans two continents.  Everyone was overflowing with incredible things to say about Istanbul.  I think though, despite having talked with so many people about it, we really had no idea what to expect from this trip, but we were extremely excited nonetheless.

I have to say, this was probably one of our easier family trips.  Big R was able to find cheap airfare on Turkish Airlines direct into Istanbul from Nuremberg.  Except for the handful of trips we've traveled to by car, all of our air and train travel has required us to drive to Munich or Frankfurt.  It seems the departure times have always been at an ungodly hour requiring an overnight stay or a ridiculously early waking hour.  Not this time.  Nuremberg is a simple and easy 45 minute drive from our house.  It was pure heaven for a family well-accustomed to the unneeded stresses that often comes with the "travel" part of our trips.  (Parking at the airport is a tad more expensive than we had anticipated, but overall it was worth it.)

So, after an easy commute to the airport and a positively exceptional flight on Turkish Airlines (we were served a gourmet meal for a 2.5 hour flight!), we landed in Istanbul.  We did relatively little planning for this trip in comparison to others.  Big R secured the flight and he found us a perfect hotel right in the center of everything with an off-season rate that can't be beat (only 40 EUR/night!).  Because we saved so much on the hotel, we decided to splurge for the car service offered by our hotel and not fight with the metro from Istanbul.  We had heard stories that it was an adventure to be had - we just were not in the mood for it to be had by us.  Aside from a minor glitch in us somehow missing the sign with our name on it, everything worked out fairly perfect.

We stayed in Sultanahmet, which is the Old City of Istanbul.  One of the things we absolutely loved about Istanbul was that despite it's enormity, many of the "sights" that draw visitors were all located within a short walking distance of each other.  I have no doubt there is so much more to see and experience in Istanbul than what we fit into our short stay there, but we never felt shorted.  Our hotel was a five minute walk from the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Bascilla Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar.  We didn't take long to settle in, and immediately went for a walk after sundown to take in the city.  As soon as we heard the muezzins voicing the call to prayer, we knew we were in a different place than we had ever been before. 

Minaret - a distinctive feature of a mosque - sends the call to prayer from the top of its tower

Here are some photographs to give you a flavor of the sites to see around the Old City in Istanbul:

My favorite picture of the Blue Mosque - just breathtaking!
Inside the Blue Mosque
Intricate details of the ceiling inside the Blue Mosque
All of the mosques had hanging lanterns as lighting - beautiful!
Little r and me inside the Blue Mosque
One of the entrances into Hagia Sophia  - built in 537 A.D.
Ornate details inside this 2,000 year old structure
Taking in the incredible details of Hagia Sophia
Ceiling of Hagia Sophia
View of Hagia Sophia
Entrance to Topaki Palance - we were welcomed by a rainbow
We were excited to visit this Palace used until very recently by the Sultans
They spared no detail on the walls, ceilings, floors...

View of the Bosphorous River and the Asia side of Istanbul from the Palace

Inside the Grand Bazaar - we were early and beat the crowds
A vendor selling lanterns that are common throughout Istanbul
Inside the Bascilla Cistern
The underground structure was ancient and wondrous...
The Cistern had a romantic yet spooky feel
The sites are most definitely something to see in Istanbul, but what we loved most about this city was experiencing the entirety of it.  It was easily one of the most friendly places we have ever visited. The Turkish people are so friendly it's almost overwhelming. Children can do no wrong, and little r was constantly the center of attention.  It did not matter where we were or what we were doing, little r was noticed and daunted over.  He loved it, and it put Big R and I at ease because we were not constantly concerned about whether he was behaving.  This child could do no wrong in the eyes of Turks.  You think I'm kidding.  We had no fewer than two complete sets of strangers ask to have our pictures taken with them, and he was practically adopted at every restaurant. At Hagia Sophia, a swarm of young girls just about attacked Big R while he was carrying little r just so they could see his sweet little face.  I had to get a picture.  The best part is, you can't see little r in the picture, so it looks like Big R has a young Harem!

Big R and his Harem - little r is in there somewhere - promise
We also LOVED the food in Istanbul.  Our usual approach of seeking out a place to eat based on atmosphere, feel, and affordability never led us astray.  We had the most incredible meals on this trip.  I'm still dreaming about them.  It was the end of November, and the weather was not exactly warm, however, we sat outside for most of our dinners because the patio seating was heated and cozy.  We never did take the time to chill with a hooka and a cocktail (for probably obvious reasons - haha), but that's something that looked like an experience I'd recommend to others that do not have a toddler in tow and are not expecting :) 

Freshly squeezed pomegranate and other juices were available at stands all throughout the Old City
Lighting at one of the restaurants
Common street scene full of cafes and restaurants 

My absolute favorite meal and eating experience we had in Istanbul was an impromptu stop at a very local, amazingly authentic cafe near the Spice Market along the river.  It looked amazing, so I grabbed Big R by the arm and pulled him inside.  It was crowded with metal plates as tables and small stools as chairs.  Everyone was cozy and enjoying their food.  It was clearly a locals favorite.

The food was cooked right before you on a large grill - this picture does not capture the small size of this cafe
It was absolutely delicious!
Heading into the Spice Market on a busy Saturday afternoon!
It was an overwhelming sensation for the senses!
Our Thanksgiving holiday in Istanbul was primarily unplanned and we had no idea what to expect.  We were happily surprised by how much we fell in love with the people, the culture, and the experience.  We visited the sights, ate as much of the delicious food as we could find, made friends with dozens of people including other Americans, Turkish families and restauranteers, and even folks from Montenegro.  We adopted at least half a dozen stray cats, and got cozy on the metro during a rainstorm that left everyone soaked.  I can't recommend this city enough, especially if you have children.  The weather was wet and cold (because that's how it always works out for us), but I think that visiting this city in an off-season is the best way to take it all in without the smoldering heat and crowds. 

Here are a few more photographs of our fantastic experience in Istanbul...

We bought little r a flute, and he played it the entire weekend
Outside the Blue Mosque (baby bump alert!)
A perfect place for a cat nap
Shopping was an experience unto itself in Istanbul
We made many furry friends on this visit - strays in Istanbul are as friendly as the people!
Delicious Turkish pastries near the Spice Market
We took a boat cruise down the Bosphorous - little r made many friends!
View from our hotel roof terrace during breakfast each morning
Our last morning in Istanbul - the sun finally came out
Family portrait in front of the Blue Mosque


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