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Lost in the Grand Bazaar

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With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I’ve ever been. It’s one of the world’s largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.

Main Entrance Grand Bazaar

In the Grand Bazaar, it’s not so much “whether” you become lost but “when”. The jam-packed streets curve confusingly and the shops all look the same. There’s no sky or sun to point the way, and the mad jumble of people, whether they’re shoving by or trying to win your business, will spin you around until you’ve lost your bearings. Enter a store, engage in a bit of haggling, spend too long admiring an oil lamp, and it’s already too late. Good luck trying to remember the direction you came from, or where you were going.

Immediately after the Conquest of Constantinople, the victorious Ottomans set about Turkifying their new capital. The Hippodrome was razed, churches became mosques, and the Grand Bazaar was established near the newly established university in Beyazit. Despite recurrent earthquakes and fires, the bazaar grew and thrived, and was soon famous across Europe as the Mecca of shopping.

Today, an estimated 400,000 people visit the market daily. Over 27,000 people are employed within its walls. The bazaar, in almost every meaningful sense of the word, is a city unto itself. There are restaurants, barbers, banks, a police station, even a mosque — everything a decent-sized town of nearly 30,000 might need to sustain itself.

Souvenir Shopping Grand Bazaar

We love the Grand Bazaar, and invent an excuse to dart inside anytime we find ourselves nearby. Of course, in the wrong mood, or on a Saturday when the number of visitors increases dramatically, it can be stressful. And though the great majority of vendors are respectful, a few are unbearably pushy. True bargains are very hard to find, if they exist at all; we found identical nargiles in nearby Tahtakale for less than half the price as in the Grand Bazaar. And if you’re not proficient in the art of haggling, you’ll leave with either empty hands or an empty wallet.

But somehow, none of that subtracts from the experience of visiting. You don’t have to buy anything to have fun, and we almost never entered the gates with the intention of shopping. We’d go to explore the hans, have lunch, watch gold-makers and silver-smiths ply their trades, and lose ourselves in the maze. Photo opportunities are everywhere, and many of the shopkeepers are happy to chat even if you’re clearly not planning on buying. We were once invited to try some çiğ köfte one guy’s wife had made for his lunch. And a carpet seller took us to the top floor of his shop for a view of the roof. Turkish people, in general, are friendly and welcoming to strangers, and this seems to be even more the case within the Grand Bazaar.

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June 9, 2013 at 8:37 am Comments (7)

Karaköy

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Found at the northern end of the Galata Bridge, the rough and tumble neighborhood of Karaköy is mainly visited for the purpose of transiting to other, more desirable areas. But with some nice spots to eat and a boisterous local atmosphere, there’s good reason to spend a little time here.

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Karaköy welcomes visitors who are (a) arriving by ferry, (b) tram, (c) exiting the Tünel funicular, and (d) walking over the Galata Bridge. So its normal state of being is commuter chaos, with plenty of street vendors and charlatans on hand to capitalize on the confused pedestrian traffic. We had been through Karaköy a hundred times, but never paid it much attention until one of spring’s first sunny days.

There aren’t many famous attractions in Karaköy, so we were forced to be a bit creative in our sight-seeing. To view a mosque, for example, we ventured below the surface. The Yeraltı Camii, or Underground Mosque, is thought to occupy the cellar of the long-gone Galata Castle. Packed with pillars, neon lights and tombs, this morbid little mosque is among the strangest places we encountered in Istanbul, and we weren’t sure whether to be impressed or creeped out.

Emerging from the underground, we were swept back into Karaköy’s frantic pace. The area east of the Galata Bridge is increasingly popular, and boasts a couple excellent places to indulge your sweet tooth. At Karaköy Özsüt, we were introduced to kaymak: a thick, almost butter-like cream covered in honey. (The waiter accidentally short-changed me, and was so horrified upon realizing his mistake, I thought he might start crying). And at Karaköy Güllüoğlu, one of the most popular pastanes in Istanbul, we gorged ourselves on various sorts of baklava.

Yes, that’s right. Two dessert shops in one afternoon. What, are you keeping track?

On the western side of the bridge, Karaköy becomes a totally different neighborhood. We walked through a lively fish market, and sat down in a large garden. A kid materialized at our side with a tray of tea, as though from a magical oil lamp. I have no idea where he came from or where he went to. He was just suddenly there with tea… and then gone. He appeared again when it came time to pay. With great views of the Galata Bridge and Eminönü across the Golden Horn, this is a popular hangout in the summer.

On the way back toward the Tünel entrance, we walked down streets populated by cats and hardware stores. It was all very picturesque and, by the end of the day, Karaköy had won our approval. Though it’s a difficult neighborhood to recommend for sight-seeing, it definitely has its charms.

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June 6, 2013 at 11:44 am Comments (3)

The Bosphorus Villages of Arnavutköy and Bebek

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They’re side-by-side on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait, but the towns of Arnavutköy and Bebek couldn’t be further apart in spirit. One we loved, but the other we couldn’t get away from soon enough.

Arnavutköy

Arnavutköy and Bebek. One of you has the charm of a sleepy fishing village, with narrow alleys, affable residents and a peaceful seaside atmosphere. The other is an obnoxious mess of playboys tooling around in Porsches. One demonstrates the subdued and tasteful application of accumulated wealth, while the other flashes its bling like an insecure rapper. One is Katherine Hepburn, all easy grace and effortless beauty, and the other is Kim Kardashian.

Sorry, Bebek, but you’re the loser in this pageant. From the moment we arrived, we took a disliking to this town, where an atmosphere of glitzy, egotistic chaos reigns. The streets are bumper-to-bumper with honking SUVs, and the sidewalks full of silicon-lipped lady jerks wobbling along in high heels. Getting down to the Bosphorus is almost impossible, as the shoreline is dominated by upscale restaurants and mansions. If you want to enjoy the water, expect to pony up for a ridiculously-priced cup of coffee. Clad in jeans and sneakers, we felt horribly out of place in this superficial town, and wanted to leave immediately after arriving.

Compared to Bebek (a name which translates to “Baby” by the way, in case you didn’t think it could get more annoying), Arnavutköy is a breath of fresh air. There’s money here, too, but you don’t notice at first. Instead, you’re lured in by the town’s humble charms. With strong Armenian, Jewish and Greek heritage, and a name which translates to “Town of Albanians”, Arnavutköy is proudly multicultural, and its winding streets are neither overly crowded nor empty. It’s comfortable and fun. The yalıs along the shore are lovely. The boats anchored in the water, impressive. The restaurants, tempting. Prices, reasonable.

We were as thoroughly won over by Arnavutköy as we were repulsed by Bebek. Maybe if we’d visited them on different days, our opinions would have been different. But based on our experience, if you only have time for one of the mid-Bosphorus European neighborhoods, the choice is clear.

Locations on our Map: Arnavutköy | Bebek

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May 30, 2013 at 12:30 pm Comments (3)

Büyük Çamlıca: Istanbul’s Biggest Hill

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As anyone who’s spent time walking around Istanbul will know, it’s a city of hills. Giant, soul-crushing hills which suck the very life from your legs. Although we had been dreading our ascent up the tallest hill in the city, the Büyük Çamlıca, we were also excited to be done with it. After this, it couldn’t get any worse!

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Istanbul is big, but it’s hard to grasp exactly how big until you’ve seen the view from the Büyük Çamlıca. From here, on a clear day, you can see for miles in every direction. And what will you see? Istanbul: for miles in every direction. Istanbul stretching out infinitely to the north, the west and the east. And to the south, as well, until it’s mercifully cut short by the Sea of Marmara.

Besides the view, the park has a pleasant tea garden, and is a great place to spend a lazy couple hours. Taxis drive all the way up the hill, so taking in the bird’s eye view of Istanbul doesn’t really require any effort at all. If you’ve got some extra time, and want to see the true extent of this gigantic city, definitely make the trip out to the Büyük Çamlıca.

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May 29, 2013 at 11:18 am Comments (2)

Ortaköy: The Middle Village

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Midway up the European side of the Bosphorus, Ortaköy literally translates into “Middle Village”. Not the most enthralling of names, but this neighborhood does boast one of Istanbul’s most eclectic populations. Turk, Greek, Jew… hipster, playboy, fisherman. Everybody has a place in Ortaköy.

Ortaköy Istanbul

The weather was foul on the afternoon of our visit; grey, rainy and cold. Disembarking the bus (#25E from Kabataş), we popped open our umbrellas and trudged into the jumble of cafes and shops which make up the neighborhood’s heart. Here, we were met with another disappointment: the gorgeous Ortaköy Mosque was completely covered up for renovation. Just underneath the Bosphorus Bridge, this is normally one of the city’s most picturesque mosques. Hmph… the weather was too poor for pictures, anyhow, but this was not a good omen for our day in Ortaköy.

The bad luck continued at the neighborhood’s popular Sunday market. We’d heard a lot about this market, with its original art works, unique gifts, and cool bohemian vibe… so, when it turned out to be chiefly chincy trinkets, cheap sunglasses and bead jewelry of the sort you can find anywhere, we were severely disappointed. There was a row of second-hand book dealers, and a couple stands with some interesting artistic creations, but overall this market wasn’t anything special.

Despite the rain, the construction on the mosque and the boring market, Ortaköy managed to charm us. Since Ottoman times, this has been one of Istanbul’s most cosmopolitan areas, with a healthy mixture of religions and ethnicities living in harmony. That diversity is still in evidence today, with a couple Armenian churches, a synagogue and a Greek Orthodox church joining the neighborhood mosques. And there’s a nice mixture of bars and cafes, catering to everyone from hungry locals on a budget to more upscale joints with views over the Bosphorus.

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May 25, 2013 at 3:19 pm Comment (1)

A Day in Zeyrek

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The lively neighborhood of Zeyrek, just north of the Aqueduct of Valens, was one of our favorite spots in Istanbul. It’s difficult to reach with public transportation, and lacks any well-known sights, so very few tourists bother to visit. Not that we mind; it just leaves more Zeyrek for us!

Hoca-G%c4%b1yasettin-Cami

Zeyrek is one of the four spots designated by UNESCO as “Historic Areas of Istanbul” (the others are Sultanahmet’s Archaeology Park, the Suleymaniye Complex and the Theodosian Walls). This ancient neighborhood still conserves some original wooden housing, and its mosque has a wonderful location overlooking the Golden Horn. Unfortunately, though, the Zeyrek Mosque has been added to another, less desirable UNESCO list: “Endangered Monuments”.

Which perhaps explains why it was closed for restoration during our visit. Originally built in the 12th century as the Church of Christ Pantokrator, this is the second-largest Byzantine-era religious complex in the city, after the Hagia Sophia. It was frustrating to be locked out, but that gave us more time to lounge on the terrace of Zeyrekhane: an upscale restaurant in the shadow of the mosque, which boasts a fantastic view over the neighborhood.

Me-And-My-Lamb-Leg

Walking from the mosque to the Roman aqueduct, you enter the heart of the neighborhood. Life in Zeyrek seems to be lived on the streets, with markets opened out onto the sidewalks and people going busily about their days. This is a boisterous place, and there’s no escaping the pull of local life. One minute we’re passing a meat shop, and the next thing I know, I’m on my knees with a baby lamb suckling my fingertip. Meanwhile, Jürgen is taking portraits of butchers, and then we’re both shaking their bloody, carcass-encrusted hands.

And now the peanut-seller wants to chat. Really, you lived in Germany? Auf wiedersehen! Çiğköfte sounds good for lunch. And then tea. Yes, Mr. Baklava Seller, of course we’ll sit down! Oh, look at this group of kids, who want to practice their English. “Huh-low! Bye-bye!” Now, more tea and a round of backgammon, and then… wait. Where have the last three hours gone?! And that’s how trips to Zeyrek tend to go.

Not quite in Zeyrek, but nearby, is the Yavuz Selim Mosque. This is one of the oldest imperial mosques in the city, commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent in honor of his father Selim the Grim. The interior is simple but lovely, decorated with Iznik tiles and crowned with a shallow dome. But the Yavuz Selim’s main draw is outdoors. Like the Zeyrek Camii, this mosque offers an incredible view of the Golden Horn. A wooded courtyard faces out towards the river, complete with benches allowing people to relax and take in the panorama.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Zeyrek Camii | Yavuz Selim Camii

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May 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm Comment (1)

The Çarşamba Market and the Fatih Camii

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Çarşamba is a neighborhood in Istanbul, and also the Turkish word for “Wednesday”. Now, what do you suspect might be the best day to visit Çarşamba? You get one guess!

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Held since Byzantine times, the Wednesday Market (Çarşamba Pazarı) was already woven so immutably into the neighborhood’s fabric, that the conquering Turks just named the entire area after it. Today, Çarşamba is a highly devout section of Istanbul. The market occupies the narrow streets surrounding the Fatih Mosque, and brings the locals out in droves, the great majority of them covered women going about their weekly shopping.

The market concentrates on cheap clothing, household wares and food; nothing of touristic interest, besides the sheer spectacle of so many people. Jostling through the jam-packed streets, and getting mercilessly shoulder-checked by the no-nonsense, and surprisingly solid, local ladies, Jürgen and I were equally exhilarated and exhausted by the market. It was with a sigh of relief that we finally emerged into the courtyard of the Fatih Mosque.

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This massive complex is one of the great mosques of Istanbul, built on the destroyed remains of the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was raised 30 years after the conquest of Istanbul on the orders of Mehmet the Conqueror, who was less than satisfied with the result. Angry that the mosque’s dome was smaller than that of the Hagia Sophia, he had the architect put to death. You don’t want to disappoint the Conqueror!

We think Mehmet over-reacted. His mosque is a marvel, with gorgeous interior calligraphy and design, and a pleasant courtyard. We sat down inside to listen to a little preaching, and take in the atmosphere. The mosque was surprisingly crowded. A few kids were laughing and chasing each other around the carpeted room, while their fathers looked on in annoyance. There was a lighter, more frivolous atmosphere in this mosque than others we’ve visited, probably thanks to the shopping-festival just outside.

Walking around the grounds of the mosque, we found the mausoleum of Mehmet the Conqueror himself, his turban atop an absurdly large coffin. Many people were seated inside, reading from the Koran, and praying for the former Sultan. We were tempted to sit down, ourselves, if just for the excuse to spend some extra time in this beautifully-tiled mausoleum.

Location of the Fatih Mosque on our Istanbul Map

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May 14, 2013 at 7:59 am Comments (9)

St. Mary of the Mongols and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate

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We spent a long day walking along the southern coast of the Golden Horn, from the Atatürk Bridge to the ancient Jewish quarter of Balat. This is an older, quieter side of Istanbul that not enough tourists see, although it has a number of interesting sights, including some beautiful churches.

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It took a lot of effort to locate St. Mary of the Mongols, which was originally built in the 13th century. After hiking past the red brick facade of the Fener Greek Orthodox School for Boys at least four times, repeatedly up and down the same steep hill, and fruitlessly asking innumerable locals, we only found the right location after finally having given up. We were in standing front of something called the “Meryem Ana”, loudly insulting the “stupid f#&*@ng Mongol church”, when the door suddenly opened, and an attendant welcomed us inside. It turned out to be the right place, despite the different name.

The guy obviously hadn’t understood our blasphemy, because he was happy to provide a short tour. This is the only church in the city which has enjoyed continuous Orthodox services since Byzantine days. Hanging on a wall is the agreement signed by Mehmet the Conqueror guaranteeing religious freedom to Greeks in the newly-Muslim city. Also within the church is the mouth of a five-kilometer tunnel which, according to our guide, once led to the Hagia Sophia.

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St. Mary of the Mongols was impressive, so our hopes were sky high for the nearby Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which is the main Eastern Orthodox church in the world: the central place of worship for a congregation of over 300 million. It’s a little strange that it’s in a Muslim city; you’d think that once Constantinople fell, the patriarchate would be moved to another city. But Orthodoxy, apparently, isn’t big on change.

We were astounded by the silence and dreariness of this church. There were only a couple other people inside snapping photos, and I had to double-check our guide book to make sure we had the right place. In Orthodoxy, every church is considered equal, and too much importance isn’t given to any one place. But still, I expected the center of Eastern Europe’s dominant religion to have a lot more going on.

Earlier in the morning, we had paid visits the Rose Mosque and the Aya Nikola, making this an insanely long day of church-hunting. So, when we arrived at St. Stephen of the Bulgars, a white, cast-iron church set in the middle of a traffic island, I was secretly thrilled to find it closed for renovation. Jürgen, though, was genuinely upset, so I feigned disappointment. “The darned luck of it! Well, let’s go home”. And before he could react, or suggest going to another church, I had hailed a taxi.

Locations on our Map: St. Mary of the Mongols | Green Orthodox Patriarchate | St. Stephen of the Bulgars

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May 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm Comments (2)

A Walk Along the Land Walls – Day One

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Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years… until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.

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We started at the Marble Tower, marking the southern end of the walls at the Sea of Marmara. The tower provides a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the fortifications: impressive despite the ruinous state, and able to be climbed… although the piles of trash and human poop should discourage comprehensive exploration. The walls, with their towers and protected nooks and crannies, make attractive shelters for vagrants; they’re fine during the day, but we kept away from dark corners and would suggest avoiding the walls entirely after dusk.

From the Marble Tower, we crossed the busy Kennedy Highway to begin our journey north. Throughout the day, we’d have to cross a number of roads, and would switch from walking either inside or outside of the walls, depending upon where the most accessible sidewalk happened to be. Occasionally, the easiest path was on top of the walls themselves.

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The Walls of Theodosius II were originally constructed in 417, but destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake. Bad timing, since Attila the Hun was marching towards Constantinople at that very moment. In a panic, the city recruited everyone to assist in the rebuilding effort, and new fortifications were ready within two months. These new walls consisted of three separate layers and 96 towers and were unbreachable by 5th century military technology. Attila didn’t even try.

We had an incredible time walking along the walls, especially in the sections where we could clamber up to the top and gain a view over the city. There was plenty to see along the way. The old neighborhood of Yedikule, parks, mosques, ancient gates like the Belgrade Kapı, and museums.

West of the wall’s Silivri Gate, we found a path leading through a cemetery to the Zoodochos Pege, an old Orthodox Church that harbors a sacred spring. After exploring the courtyard, we followed marble stairs into the basement where the spring is found, complete with fish swimming around in the holy water. According to legend, a monk was frying fish in a pan, when he was told that the Turks had breached the nearby walls. Disbelieving, the monk scoffed that this was “as likely as the fish in my pan returning to life”. Which they promptly did, jumping from his pan into the spring where they remain to this day. To the Turks, the Zoodochos Pege is known as the Church of the Fish (Balıklı Kilise).

At six kilometers in length, it’s easy to walk along the entire length of the walls in a single day, but by the time we’d reached the halfway point at the Topkapı tram stop, we were exhausted, and decided to save the second half for another time.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Marble Tower | Belgrade Gate | Zoodochos Pege

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May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm Comments (4)

Istanbul’s April Showers

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We had been suffering through some rough weather for weeks, but spring finally arrived toward the end of April. The bad weather had us a bit of an emotional rollercoaster — overcast days are not normally our thing, but somehow the clouds struck a melancholic note appropriate to Istanbul.

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April 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm Comments (3)

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Lost in the Grand Bazaar With over three thousand stores and 61 streets, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is unlike any place I've ever been. It's one of the world's largest covered markets, and a visit is guaranteed to leave you exhilarated, frustrated and, above all, disoriented.
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