Having covered some of the main attractions on our first day, we decided to explore another one of Istanbul’s many faces on day two. The Bosphorus river cruise/tour was recommended not only by friends but also every guidebook we looked at. It’s a great way to see more of the city that ostensibly continues to expand beyond its boundaries.
We embarked on the 10:35am ferry out of Eminonu and settled in for the 1.5-hr long ride. The ferry made its way north along the Bosphorus river giving way to scenic panoramas. Istanbul’s Golden Horn and Galata neighborhoods receded into the background as we approached the two major bridges (Bosphorus and Sultan Mehmet). Along the way, prominent landmarks (palaces, pavilions, museums, summer residences of former sultans and heads of state, etc), caught our attention from both sides. Shi-shi neighborhoods sporting posh waterfront villas also rolled by in abundance including Galatasaray Islet – a recreation/entertainment islet just off the mainland (with restaurants, bars and swimming pools), now owned by the eponymous local sports club.
On approach to the final stop, the Yoros Castle and its vestigial towers came into view. Perched atop the highest point of the hill, the castle dates back to Byzantine times. The ruins of what once stood here enticed our imaginations, facilitated by breathtaking views. Particularly to the North where the Bosphorus spills into the Black Sea, a vast horizon of blue and dark green filled our view. After hiking up to the ruins, we enjoyed lunch with a view from a hilltop restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus while savoring the local sea-fare.
The river tour ate up a good chunk of our day after which we checked out the Galata Tower area in Beyoglu. The tower was built in 528 during Byzantine emperor Justinian. Brigitte was excited about capturing the sunset from atop the 180+ foot tower so we headed for the entrance attempting to join the back of the line. A man in a white shirt and black tie declared “closed” or “tower closed” as we approached. This baffled us since it wasn’t even 7pm and the tower’s hours were until 8pm. Not knowing whether he actually worked for the tower (and speculating that he wanted us to grease him up), we defied his order and stood firm in our position of entering the tower. Brigitte whipped out her guidebook and showed him the hours which stated 8pm as the close, although this didn’t phase him. He did manage to turn away everybody else and then agreed to let us stay (although in our minds he had just gotten the point – we wouldn’t be turned away). In the end Brigitte did capture the amazing sunset and our white-shirted black tie friend did actually work for the tower. So we can chalk this one up as a rare victory due to the language barrier.
From Galata we walked back to our neighborhood (Ortakoy), which apparently is a weekend hot spot. It was littered with young people checking out the bar/club scene. We grabbed a drink at one of the bars before heading home.
The next day (our last in Istanbul), we visited the Topkapi Palace complex. An extensive complex built in 1478 during Sultan Mehmet’s reign, the palace served as the primary residence of 26 (out of 36), Ottoman sultans over a 400 year period. It’s also the largest and oldest palace in the world. We wandered through various pavilions, halls and gardens, most of which exhibited artifacts and relics from Ottoman times. The treasury halls’ holdings were highly impressive – among the rare items exhibited were: The Spoonmaker Diamond, an 86-carat diamond (4th largest in the world), the Topkapi Dagger (which became the symbol of the palace), and other lavish gems and jewels and sultan thrones. Also on display there (and in the Weapons Hall), were numerous swords that belonged to the former sultans. Another highly notable gallery was that of the Islamic Relics, which comprised several possessions of the prophet Muhammad including his cloak, sword and bow, his footprint, a tooth and hairs from his beard. Also in that gallery was the staff of Moses.
Next we passed through the Baghdad Pavilion, the Library and the Circumcision Room, decorated with stunningly beautiful tiles and rich dome detail. These were some of our favorite parts of the palace – the acute level of “awe-factor” incited by the blue/green Iznik tiles was unique and we simply loved it all.
From there we checked out the Harem “a place forbidden” or the actual living quarters of the Sultan, his concubines, and fiercely loyal protectors (or blackchiefs – young African men from Ethiopia who were castrated). We made our way through various quarters including private rooms of sultans, the concubines courtyard and mother of the sultan’s flat. Again, the elaborate tile decor paired with the meticulous ceiling and dome detail were stunning.
The palace was ALL that and afterwards we made our way towards the old ramparts. These were inherited from former empires (initially built in the 5th century). On our way there we popped into a couple of smaller and more intimate mosques off the beaten path (Sokullu Mehmet Pasa Camii and Kucuk Ayasofya Camii), the latter which initially was a Byzantine church. The neighborhood these mosques were located in seemed less “touristy” and more authentic. We enjoyed making our way through and extending our walk past the new Four Seasons Hotel converted from the Sultanahmet Jail (which was featured in the movie Midnight Express). We kept on for another hour or so until we hit home.
After 4 nights in Istanbul (a city that each day grew on us more and more), it was time to move on.