For me, travel is as essential as breathing or taking a shower! And I am gleeful that this has successfully rubbed off on my husband, and off late, my son as well! Now there are trips, and there are TRIPS, and this one I have to say exceeded everything I had ever imagined. So here are 5 days in Istanbul, a city that crosses over 2 continents – Europe and Asia, and successfully combines the romance and mysticism of the east with the efficiency and modernization of the west.

Note that we visited in February, which is off peak season and hence not as many tourists as the summer which is the busy season. It was a little less cold than New Jersey which meant we still had to pack our sweaters and thick jackets, hat and gloves.

 

Day 1:
We left Newark on a Friday evening, and landed at Ataturk International Airport at about 10am on a Saturday, and went directly, via taxi to our hotel which was in the old city, in the Sultanahmet district. The charm of this part of town is unbelievable. Cafes and shops nestled in comfortably between hotels and old monuments give it such an exotic look. After lunch and a nap, we left to see the best and most famous landmark of the city – the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque.

The mosque is situated in the Sultanahmet square which used to be the site for the Hippodrome – a sporting and social center in ancient Constantinople. Now the only evidence for this structure are the two obelisks at the entrance of the mosque – the walled obelisk and Thutmosis’ obelisk, which has survived nearly 3500 years in good condition.

So called because of its blue Iznik tiles, and blue paint in the interior, the mosque has 6 minarets and is a perfect example of a blend of Ottoman and Byzantine architecture. It is carpeted throughout and everyone is required to remove their shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided, through the visit. In addition, women must wear a scarf or shawl over their heads. The atmosphere inside was absolutely serene.

Once we were out, we walked around the courtyard and Adi insisted on trying the warm chestnuts and corn that were being roasted almost in every corner. They were quite delicious on a cold winter day! After a delicious dinner, we called it quits for the first day.

Tip for kids : Wear shoes that are easily removable with velcro straps and not laces whenever you’re planning to visit a mosque since that will ensure quick entry/exit.

Day 2:
The day began with a visit to the other most well-known monument, the Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya. There was a line queuing up at the entrance, which moved very quickly. We got our tickets and audio guides and took the 2 hour self guided tour through the impressive landmark. Initially a basilica, converted to a mosque and finally a museum, it is famous for its massive dome, and is an epitome of Byzantine architecture. During the initial conversion, the main features of the church such as the bells, the altar and the mosaic tiles were removed and prominent Islamic features such as the mihrab and the four minarets were added. The audio tour of the gardens and the interior were very helpful.

We then proceeded to the Basilica cistern, one of the many ancient cisterns located beneath the city, built during the reign of Justinian I, the Byzantine emperor. The cistern provides a water filtration system for the palaces well into modern times. Adi had to go for the audio tour of course, while we were content to explore on our own. The striking feature of the cistern was the two faces of Medusa, one upside down and the other sideways on the bases of two opposite columns.

After all these morning exertions, it was time for a traditional Turkish lunch which for me, was meze while the boys had kebabs. Followed by some coffee and of course, baklava!

For the afternoon we decided to do something away from the area. We walked to the port area of the city and crossed the Galata bridge to the other side of the Golden Horn. We then took the funicular tram to the top of the hill to Istiklal Street. This is the main shopping area for the locals and while we did not shop, we walked the entire length of the street till Taksim Square. The square houses the Monument of the Republic which commemorates the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, following the Turkish war of independence. On our way back we took the nostalgic tram ride that crosses the entirety of Istiklal Street for shoppers’ convenience and the funicular back down – Adi’s idea of fun.

Tip for kids: Take the tram as much as possible in the old city, its a fun experience. The tram pass is available at newspaper stores. Also get children attracted to museum outings by getting them audio tour guides, they will have fun spotting the exhibits.

Day 3:
This was nearly an entire day devoted to the Topkapi Palace. It was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. It was also a venue for state occasions and royal entertainments. Now a major tourist attraction, it houses very important Muslim relics including the Prophet’s cloak and sword.  The palace is a fine example of Ottoman architecture and contains large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, shields, armor, miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, as well as a well-visited display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.

Once you’re in the palace grounds, you also have the opportunity to visit the Imperial Harem. This requires a separate ticket/audio guide and is worth a look. It occupied one of the sections of the private apartments of the sultan and contains more than 400 rooms. It was home to the Sultan’s mother – the Valide Sultan, the concubines and wives of the Sultan, and the rest of the family, including children, and their servants.

Our feet were tired walking the entire area of the palace, but we still decided to take the tram and visit the Grand Bazaar. This is the largest covered marketplace in the world, spanning over 61 streets and includes over 3000 shops. Keep your wallet intact, literally and figuratively. Pickpockets are known to roam around waiting for the unsuspecting tourist. And you may be tempted to buy a LOT of things – but don’t do so without bargaining. In the end a good bargain may turn out to be not such a good one at all – start really low!

Tip for kids: With the crowds swarming the palace and the bazaar, keep a very watchful eye on your kids. A backpack with a leash may be a good idea, though I kept Adi close by holding his hand throughout.

Day 4:
This was a day of adventure since Nitin had to go to work very early in the morning. Our day began slow with a leisurely breakfast, and I thought I’d take Adi to the pool in the hotel before I realized I’d forgotten to pack his swim trunks. So around noon we walked over to the Archaeological Museum complex, situated very close to the palace grounds. It consists of three structures, the archaeological museum, the museum of the ancient Orient and the museum of Islamic art or the Tiled Kiosk. Together they house over a million objects representing all eras and civilizations of world history.

The most prominent of the collections are the Alexander sarcophagus, a tablet representing the treaty of Kadesh, the busts of Alexander and Zeus, the oldest Sumerian love poem inscribed on a tablet, and artifacts from early civilizations of Mesopotamia, Arabia, Anatolia and Egypt. As usual, the audio guide came in very handy.

After a quick lunch, we took the tram to Kabatas and from there is a 3 minute walk to the Dolmabahce palace, the new residence for the Sultans, and situated in a picturesque setting along the Bosphorus. This palace only offers guided tours that last approximately 45 minutes. The palace served as an administrative center of the Ottoman empire from 1856 to 1922. Fourteen tons of gold were used to gild the ceilings of the palace. The design of the palace is a blend of European and Ottoman style. It has the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world.

Tour over, we decided to call it a day and return to the hotel early. We waited for Nitin to return and had a casual dinner nearby.  And no trip can be complete without a visit to Hafiz Mustafa, the oldest and most prestigious sweet shop in the city. We sampled and bought enough Turkish delight to last us a few weeks!

Tip for kids: Make sure, unlike me, you pack a swim trunk for the kids since most good hotels have a spa and a pool, and its a good way to unwind from the day.

Day 5:
This being our last day in Istanbul, and also Adi’s birthday (!) we had a great start with the super friendly hotel staff surprising us with a delectable cake during breakfast. We had a packed agenda to make sure we hadn’t missed anything and began the day with a cruise along the Bosphorus. The boat took us past the Bosphorus bridge to the narrowest point of the strait and back, such that you could see Europe on one side and Asia on the other! A very unique experience, and very kid-friendly.

That done, we wandered over to the spice bazaar – located very close to the port. What a sensory experience that turned out to be! Spices of all kinds, dried fruits and sweets were on a dazzling display that would tempt every shopper. After sampling from a variety of stores, we ended up buying Turkish saffron and lemon salt for a friend, and some more boxes of, you guessed it, Turkish delight!

The entrance of the bazaar is very close to the famed Yeni mosque that boasts  66 domes and semi-domes in a pyramidal arrangement as well as two minarets. The best part about this for Adi was the flocks of pigeons around the structure. Ladies selling grains were handing out plates of grains to passers-by and Adi took great delight in feeding the pigeons. It still remains one of his highlights of the trip!

Lunch at another kebab place, and then we were off to Miniaturk – a miniature park that displays all the famous monuments of Turkey, as miniatures. The park contains 122 models done in 1/25th scale. Seeing all these structures made us realize how little we’d scratched the surface of Turkey. The park also has a train running through which is a big hit with kids.

That done, we took a taxi back to the hotel (after a bit of haggling) and got ready for the highlight of the evening – the Mevlevi Sema ceremonial dance at the Hodjapasha cultural center. The Mevlevi order is a Sufi order founded in Konya by Rumi, a 13th century poet. They are also known as whirling dervishes due to their practice of whirling as a form of remembrance of God. The ceremony was stunning and even had Adi spellbound as he watched these devotees surrender to God in a trance.

For Adi’s birthday, Nitin wanted to make it extra special and had booked us reservations at the #1 rated restaurant in Istanbul – Imbat. Not only was the food delicious and the service impeccable, the views were extraordinary. The restaurant too “surprised” Adi with yet another birthday cake, and our birthday boy was beyond thrilled!

Tip for kids: Do not miss the ferry ride on the Bosphorus or Miniaturk. The hot chocolate available at the cafe in Miniaturk is simply mind-boggling!

Day 6:
There was nothing left to do but pack, check out and take our flights back to the US. Though I believe I’ve left my heart there (which Adi offered to go look for and bring back!). One trip to Turkey is hardly enough to suffice. Next time, Izmir and Cappadocia!

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3 responses to Five Days In Istanbul!

  1. Great article! Very timely for me as we are headed to Istanbul for spring break and I can’t wait. We will be going to Cappadocia as well. My focus is always the food any where I go.. and so I am looking forward to all yummy things that region has to offer!

  2. Thanks Monika, and have a great time! Its a beautiful city!

  3. Great article. Great tips on some places I haven’t seen while there and gave me something to look forward to when we travel again.

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