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Learn about Istanbul, Turkey by reading Incredible Istanbul by Gary W. Bloom, WTA Member and Leisure Traveler/Writer. It features a mini, but thorough tour of the destination, plus all you'll need to know to plan your trip including how to get there, objective information on places to stay and eat, and things to do. At the end of the article, we've provided a summary of the contact information for your easy reference. Enjoy!

Istanbul, Turkey - Incredible Istanbul

by Gary W. Bloom, WTA Member and Traveler/Writer

Haghia Sophia

The haunting cries of the muezzins woke me at sunrise my first morning In Istanbul. Startled, I lay in bed, wide-awake, listening to their cries to come to prayer shouted from hundreds of minarets. I had never heard anything quite like it, and hearing it for the first time in a strange city was a little frightening. In an age of homogenized cities and people, I was suddenly aware that I was in a foreign land far removed from home.

I went to the window of the hotel room. The sun was just beginning to penetrate the haze and glisten off the Golden Horn. The solemn cries continued, as they have for centuries. There are few places in the world that conjure up images of intrigue, secrecy, and romance, as does Istanbul.

When taking a walking tour of this mysterious city surrounded by water, the Galata Bridge is a good place to begin. From this shifting bridge built on pontoons across the deep waters of the Golden Horn, old Istanbul can be seen to the south, the Pera district to the north, and the Asian continent to the east. The bridge is a convenient resting stop between the sites in old Istanbul and the Pera district, where most of the modern hotels are located. The bridge has two levels, with pedestrian traffic on the lower level, along with many seafood restaurants and shops. An evening dinner on the Galata, watching the fishing boats ply the Golden Horn and listening to the constant barter of the merchants and the muezzins cry from the surrounding minerets, is a once in a lifetime experience.

The mystical Istanbul of A Thousand and One Nights can be found in the Topkapi Palace. The Palace took 14 years, from 1465 to 1478, to build. Inside its gates is a cacophony of architectural styles that reflect each succeeding sultan's tastes. The one theme that predominates is the openness of the palace, with its many courtyards, fountains, and covered walkways.  The beautiful fountains and latticework were more than just ornaments. As an early form of espionage, the grated windows were an effective means of suppressing criticism of the sultan, who at any time could be listening from behind the latticework. And to keep others from listening in on him, the sultan employed strategically placed fountains whose tranquil sounds concealed his secret conversations.  The fountain near the entrance to the palace at the Gate of Salvation served yet another purpose. The chief executioner used this fountain to clean up after performing his grisly duties.

The Topkapi Palace is divided into small museums devoted to particular aspects of palace life. There are sections devoted to Ottoman weapons, the sultan's robes, sacred relics, silverware, and porcelain. Chinese porcelain held special significance for the sultans, since it was believed to expose poisoned food. The Treasury Section contains the famous jeweled Topkapi Dagger and the 86 carat Spoonmaker Diamond.

The area of the Palace known as the Harem has been the subject of countless novels and fantasies. Only a few of its 400 rooms have been opened to the public, but they provide a glimpse into what was once forbidden. Although some sultans required the company of more than a thousand women, there was one sultan, not particularly interested in girls, who wore nail-studded shoes to warn the concubines to get out of his sight.

The Author in Front of the Blue Mosque

You could spend weeks exploring the mosques of Istanbul, since there are more than 400 within the city. The Suleyman is one of the most famous, and is also the largest. Suleyman the Magnificent, a fierce warrior, led his army on 13 campaigns, extending the Ottomon Empire from central Europe to Asia and North Africa. The mosque took seven years to build. The extensive complex included a hospital, colleges, a soup kitchen, and numerous baths.

Istanbul is also a shopper's paradise, if you're willing to bargain. The Covered Market, also known as the Grand Bazaar, is the oldest and largest marketplace in the world, dating back to the 15th century. There are more than 50 streets and 3,000 shops beneath the calico patchwork of canvas tents. The street names, such as Yorgancilar, which means quilt maker, are from the days when guilds congregated along certain streets.

This wouldn't be Turkey without Turkish baths, and the Turks swear they're the best hangover remedy ever. The full treatment consists of a massage in the steam room and then a bath by an attendant who uses a course mitten to scrub every last remnant of the night before out of you. After being doused with cold water, you're ready again to face the world.

In an age when it's sometimes difficult to distinguish Madrid from Minneapolis, Istanbul continues to astound visitors. There were the Gypsies I encountered, posing for me with their two brown bears. There was the wonderful, exotic dinner at the Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote much of her novel, Murder On The Orient Express, and where the Mata Hari, the World War One spy, once stayed. As I left my modern hotel for the trip to the airport, an ox-drawn cart was lumbering down the street, one last reminder of this very foreign city of endless contrasts.


Getting there:

Airlines offering service from the US to Istanbul include American, Delta and Turkish Airlines, which have direct flights, and Northwest, KLM, United, Alitalia, Austrian, and Lufthansa, with connecting flights. As of April 2002, round-trip airfare from the US could be found for around $700. Shuttle buses provide inexpensive service from Ataturk Airport to Istanbul, a distance of about 15 miles.

Where to stay:

Pera Palas
Mesrutiyet Caddesi 98-100, Tapebasi , Istanbul
Tel: (90-212) 251-4560
Fax: (90-212) 251-4089
E Mail:
This four star hotel was built in 1892, as suitable luxurious lodging for those arriving on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie is among the many famous guests who have stayed here. Some rooms have views of the Golden Horn. Close to the British Embassy and US Consulate, and about 5 miles from the Blue Mosque. Excellent restaurant and bar, where spies such as the Mata Hari used to hang out. Doubles are about $150 with breakfast included.

Pierre Loti
Pierreloti Caddesi 5 Sultanahmet, Istanbul
Tel: (90-212) 518-5700
Fax: (90-212) 516-1886
This small hotel is located in Old Istanbul close to St. Sophia, the Topkapi, and other major attractions.  Restaurant and bar. Doubles are about $80.

Empress Zoe Hotel
Akbiyik Caddesi Adliey Sok. 10, Istanbul
Phone: (90-212) 518-2504
Fax: (90-212) 518-5699
A small boutique hotel near the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia, Empress Zoe is a restored Ottoman House. The terrace bar has views of the Marmara Sea. Double rooms are about $70 including breakfast.

Where and What to eat:

Shish Kebab, which had its beginnings with Ottoman soldiers cooking chunks of lamb on their swords over a campfire, is just a small taste of what Istanbul has to offer. Food experts rank Turkish cuisine right up there with French and Chinese. From seafood to lamb and chicken dishes to its famous Turkish delight deserts, Istanbul gives the visitor exotic foods to match its location.

Yakup 2 Restaurant

Asmalımescit Sok., 35/37, Tunel-Beyoğlu
Tel: (90-212) 249-2925
A smoky hangout for journalists and locals, this restaurant is known for its mezes. Prices are inexpensive, with most dishes under $12. Try their octopus salad or stuffed clams.

Pandeli Restaurant 
Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar), Eminonu, Istanbul
Tel: (90-212) 522-5534
Located at the foot of the Galata Bridge, Pandeli’s is one of the best restaurants in Istanbul in one of the best locations, with spectacular views of the Golden Horn.  Prices are moderate, with main courses under $15. Specialties include Bass Cooked in Papilote and Lamb Shank with Vegetables. Open only for lunch, 11:30am to 3:30pm Monday through Saturday.

Develi Restaurant
Balikpazari, Gumusyuzuk Sok 7, Samataya, Istanbul
Tel: (90-212) 585-1189
Develi is an excellent kebab restaurant located in one of the oldest quarters in the city, with a mesmerizing view across the Sea of Marmara. Its spicy specialties are from southeast Anatolia. Prices are in the expensive range, around $35.

When to go:

Istanbul has a temperate climate and the weather is relatively pleasant throughout the year, though winters can be cold and rainy. Late summer is the busiest. During the spring and fall the weather is nice, there are fewer crowds and hotel prices tend to be lower.

Getting around Istanbul:

Taxis are an inexpensive way to get around Istanbul. The taxi should have a meter running. If the meter’s “broke” find another taxi. Istanbul also has good bus and tram service. Ferries leave from around the Galata Bridge and are an excellent way to see the sights on both sides of the Golden Horn. Another interesting way to travel is by dolmus, which means “full” in Turkish. These are usually large vintage American cars with as many people as possible crammed inside. There’s a sign in the corner of the windshield with the destination and you can get off anywhere along the route.

Dollar value:

The Turkish currency is the lira, abbreviated TRL. As of April 2002, one USD converts to about 1,333,825 Turkish Lira. As these figures imply, inflation is a problem and the exchange rate can change dramatically. Exchange rates are generally better inside Turkey than at home.


Topkapi Palace , Sarayici, Sultanahmet , Istanbul
Phone: (90-212) 512-0480
Hours: 9:30am - 4:00pm daily except Tuesdays.
Entrance Fee: about $5.

DolmWTAhce Palace
DolmWTAhce, Besiktas, Istanbul
Phone: (90-212) 236-9000
Hours: 9:30am – 4pm daily except Mondays and Thursdays
Entrance Fee: $7 for Sultan’s quarters. $7 for Harem. Or $13 for combined ticket.

Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) Museum
Sultanahmet, Istanbul
Phone: (90-212) 522-1750
Hours: 9am – 5pm Tuesday – Sunday.
Entrance fee: $6

More Information:

Turkey Travel and Tourism Office
Turkish Embassy
2525 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20008
Phone: (202) 612-6700
Fax: ( 202) 612-6744

Notice: This information is current as of April 2002. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the websites above to determine any changes to the information.