Every time someone asks me about my trip to Istanbul, my words are always the same: “Magic, the only thing missing were sparkling lights in the air”. Maybe because it was one of my lifelong dreams mixed with my anticipation to the cultural and history boost I was about to experience.
Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque
These are two of the many must do’s in the city. Facing to each other the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque see the sun come and go every day. These two constructions hold the perfect compendium of the religious transformation in the history of Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia materializes the word “transformation”. It is a gorgeous monument both for Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. This structure started its days as a church, then turned into a Mosque, and now is a museum. On the walls of Hagia Sophia, visitors can appreciate the tremendous contrast between the Islam and Christian believes. There is a display of half covered Christian images and Islam writings on the walls.
Maybe my excitement towards this city was because during my university years, Civilizations History class was one of my favorites. This lecture made me develop a very strong interest for certain religions. In this sense, I consider myself an Islam enthusiast, but still being a devoted Catholic. So now you tell me about expectations and dreams coming true!
The Blue Mosque or Sultanahmet Mosque
Now, stepping out of Hagia Sophia and crossing Sultanahmet Park, we find the Sultanahmet Mosque, best known as The Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles inside. This building receives its original name because it was built during the rule of Ahmed I. Even though this mosque has become a very important touristic attraction in Istanbul, unlike Hagia Sophia, is still used as an actual mosque. This explains why is closed to non-worshipers during the five daily prayers.
Now, anecdote time! Guess who spend a million hours in Hagia Sophia and forgot they had a Flight to catch at the other side of the city? You guessed it, us! When my two friends and I recovered from the Christian-Muslim ecstasy, we rapidly crossed to the Blue Mosque. As soon as we stepped into the gardens of the mosque, it started, The call to one of the five daily prayers. Great, now the place is closed! The worst timing on Earth, we thought.
But little did we know that we would find a little angel in disguise. While we were walking towards the entrance of the mosque, there he was, “Shiggy”, one of the mosque’s volunteers. He was handing flyers promoting a mosque tour to inattentive visitors. One of my friends received one of his flyers and told him about our rush and concern of not being able to see the mosque.
At that very moment, his eyes brightened up and asked us to put on our scarfs. He walked us to one of the side entrance of the mosque, then talked to one of the guards at the door, and just like that, we took our shoes off and got in! While the rest of visitors waited outside, we could witness the prayer! Shiggy explained, and translated us everything. Not happy with that, after answering all our question, he walked us to the airport bus at the Asian side of the Bosphorus and pay for the three of our bus tickets! If that is not an angel, then I don’t know what an angel is.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the most visited places in the world and for those who love shopping, this is your spot. Here you will find jewelry, textiles, gorgeous carpets and turkish ceramics galore! Bare in mind Turkish people love a bargain, so be sure to take your best negotiations skills with you. To all my girls out there, here is a little piece of advice: smile, a lot, that will make the price drop almost immediately. Oh! And probably will get you several marriage proposals.
What I will highly recommend is try to be friends with one of the owners. He will not only guide you through the endless halls of the Bazaar but will also send you to his colleagues and ask them to treat you well. This is translated into lots of turkish tea while in the store and good prices in every purchase.
The food and the locals
Istanbul is frenetic and noisy, not only because of the usual chaos of traffic, but also because of how the locals drive themselves. Since I am Colombian I am kind of used to the latino’s extroverted and overreacted ways. In downtown Istanbul people will always be outside their shop and restaurants inviting you to go in. To me it was just funny but it can also be intimidating for some people. In general, the locals are always very welcoming, generous, open to serve and guide you, unlike other European cities. You can feel they want you to have a good time in their city.
When it comes to gastronomy, in the turkish food you will find a very wide range of options. I recommend the “manti” a turkish ravioli, or the “Galata Simitçisi” a crispy type of bread you will find in every street in Istanbul. If you are a beer enthusiast you must try Efes, the golden turkish beer with a very light and refreshing taste. But if there is a highlight in my culinary experience is “Baklava”. *Angels singing*. Your visit to Istanbul is not over until you satisfy your sweet tooth with the finest turkish dessert made with different types of nuts or pistachios.
In sum, I would say my visit to Istanbul was a dreamy experience. The streets with this tireless, energetic vibe and its people with their special charm will make you feel under a love spell. Just like it happened to me.