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Our First Hamam: The Kılıç Ali Paşa

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It’s hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.

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Contemporary Turkish hamams find themselves in a difficult position. For centuries, these public bath houses were an integral part of Ottoman life. Islam places great significance on cleanliness, and hamams were the only place to go for a hot, soapy bath. They were buildings of such importance to society, that the empire’s greatest architects were often employed to design them. But then came the advent of indoor baths with hot water, and the primary function of the hamam vanished. Sure, they were still pleasant communal areas to meet friends and catch up on gossip, but for day-to-day life, taking a hot shower at home was a lot more convenient.

What to do? These are buildings of great architectural beauty, and you can’t just let them sit around empty. Luckily, hamams generate a lot of interest from visitors. For many, a trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without experiencing the famous Turkish bath. So in order to survive, many of Istanbul’s hamams have reoriented themselves to serve tourists.

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Built in 1583 by the master architect Mimar Sinan, the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı is incredible, all domes, white marble and water. After decades of neglect, it was purchased privately and beautifully restored by its new owner, who was intent on returning it to its original purpose. The interior bathing room is stunning, with a large marble stone in the center, bathed in rays of light. Looking at it, I could hardly wait to get my clothes off.

And I soon did. While I was heating my body on the stone, hypnotized by the star-shaped holes in the ceiling, an assistant came to fetch me. He sat me down at a sink, grabbed my wrist, lifted my arm into the air, and began to scrub me with a rough sponge-glove. After scrubbing the dead skin off every inch of my body, he soaped me up with something called a “loofah”: basically a cloth sack that’s pulled tight to produce an unbelievable amount of foam. He remained silent throughout the procedure, and was extremely thorough. Hamams are not for the modest. Or ticklish.

Eventually, he finished, and I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more clean. I was helped into a big, comfy robe and then led into the lounge area to relax with sherbet and tea, before my massage. For 25 blissful minutes, my back and legs were worked by strong, professional hands. At the end of the session, after being cleaned, rubbed, scrubbed, and massaged, I was amazed to find myself hovering in the air. I floated out of the hamam, up the hill to our apartment and settled slowly onto our couch, like a leaf falling onto a patch of soft grass.

The Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam – Website

Location of the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı on Our Map

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May 7, 2013 at 9:00 am Comments (3)

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.

Climbing-In-Istanbul

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 Quick Eats: Kumpir, Çiğ Köfte & Soggy Burgers

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Hustling from mosque to mosque, museum to museum, climbing steep hills, darting across traffic to catch the tram, or leaping onto an Asia-bound ferry at the last minute, you can work up quite an appetite while navigating Istanbul. While on the go, we’re often in the mood for something more substantial than a simit, but have no time for a real meal. Luckily, Istanbul has plenty of cheap ways to fill up on quick energy. Here are a few of our favorites:

Kumpir

I think we can all agree on the tastiness of the classic baked potato. Perhaps a dollop of sour cream, and some chives. Go ahead and add some bacon bits, since you’re feeling so crazy. That’s a good American-style baked potato, but in Turkey it’s merely the start.

The first time I ordered a kumpir, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The cook marched over to what I had mistakenly believed to be the salad bar, and began piling everything imaginable onto my potato. Until I could no longer even see the potato. Olives! Tomatoes! Sausage! Peppers! Pickles! Couscous! Onions! Potato Salad! Yes, that’s right: potato salad on top of a potato! Why not?

By the time my kumpir was ready, I felt almost as deranged as it looked, and could hardly wait to get my hands on it. From the first bite to the last, this monstrosity was wonderful. How could it not be? Every type of food I enjoy was on top of it.

CigKofte-Istanbul

Çiğ köfte is another popular quick meal — joints specializing in only çiğ köfte can be found on almost every corner of Istanbul. “But what is çiğ köfte?” you might ask. Who cares? It looks delicious, and everyone seems to love it. “We’ll have two, please!”

[Munch munch] ohh, mmm… delicious! Thin bread generously smeared with some sort of dark red substance, then garnished with fresh lettuce, drizzled with pomegranate syrup and rolled up for easy consumption. For less than two euros! “Hey there, Jürgen, what’s that you’re googling?”

“The Translator says that çiğ köfte means ‘raw meat’. And Wikipedia says ‘Çiğ Köfte is a raw meat dish in Turkish cuisine’. And Image Search returns… ”

At this point, he abandoned further research due to sudden dry heaving. I would have assisted him, but already had both hands halfway down my throat, trying to provoke vomit. The other guests in the shop watched us huhrking and hahking until a girl who could speak English guessed at the reason for our panic, and helped calm us down. “Don’t worry! It’s illegal in Istanbul to serve raw meat. What you’re eating is a vegetarian substitute made of walnut paste.”

Taksim-Wet-Burgers

Before arriving in Istanbul, we watched Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the city. It’s an entertaining episode, and well-worth forty minutes of your time. Of all the incredible food he sampled, there was one dish that lodged itself unshakably into our minds: tiny, soggy hamburgers.

I have no idea why these were so appealing to us. They look hideous, like McDonald’s burgers that have spent a few hours bathing in a pool of sweat and grease. Maybe it was Bourdain’s groans of pleasure as he ate them. Maybe we’re just cursed to crave that which should repulse us.

It didn’t take long for us to appear at Taksim Square’s Kizilpaylza, and order up a couple of sloppy, soggy hamburgers. Each one takes about thirty seconds to finish off. Thirty seconds filled with nearly as much pleasure as shame. Istanbul’s mini-burgers are not the kind of culinary conquest you’re going to feel particularly proud about, but lord almighty, do they taste good.

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April 30, 2013 at 1:17 pm Comments (0)

Up the Coast to Kanlıca

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After visiting the neo-baroque Küçüksu Pavilion, we walked north along the Asian shore of the Bosphorus to the pleasant town of Kanlıca, where we treated ourselves to yogurt by the seaside, and then lunch at an amazing hilltop restaurant overlooking the strait.

Anadolu Hisarı

It took almost no time to walk from the Küçüksu Pavilion to the Anadolu Hisarı: a fortress built by the invading Ottoman forces in 1397. By connecting a chain from this fortress to the Rumeli Hisarı across the Bosphorus, the Ottomans were able to blockade Constantinople from the north. Today, Anadolu Hisarı is almost entirely in ruins; it looks cool, but there’s nothing to visit, unless you count the comfortable waterfront cafes which have sprung up in the fortress’s shadow.

We continued walking north, passing underneath the Fatih Bridge which, at nearly a mile in length, is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. We would have loved to walk across it, but the bridge is unfortunately closed to pedestrians in order to discourage suicides. But no preventative measure can thwart the determined self-killer! The day after our visit, there was another attempt. Luckily, the guy survived the fall and was fished out by policemen waiting in a boat.

Our walk along the Bosphorus wasn’t the most pleasant stroll we’ve ever embarked on. The traffic was heavy, and the sidewalks difficult to negotiate. Even worse, the views of the Bosphorus were consistently obstructed by fences protecting new townhouses and upscale restaurants. So we were relieved to arrive in Kanlıca: a cute neighborhood centered around a small port. Kanlıca is famous around Istanbul for its yogurt, which we sampled at the restaurant Asırlık; mine came topped with ice cream, and Jürgen’s with honey. It was the best yogurt we had in Istanbul, and provided exactly the energy boost we’d need for the final stage of our journey: a hike up to the Hıdıv Kasrı.

Set atop a hill just behind Kanlıca, the Hıdıv Kasrı (or Khedive Palace) was built in 1907 for Abbas II: the final Ottoman governor of Egypt and the Sudan. Today, the palace is owned by the state and used solely as a restaurant. Its location is magnificent, in the middle of a garden decorated by tulips of every conceivable color. We assumed that a restaurant set in a former palace might be out of our usual price range, but needn’t have worried. This was an affordable place to eat, perhaps because it’s run by the state. The food wasn’t memorable but worth the price, and the views over the Bosphorus were unbeatable.

Locations on our Map: Analodu Hisarı | Kanlıca | Hıdıv Kasrı

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April 28, 2013 at 8:32 am Comments (3)

The Kalenderhane & Şehzade Mosques

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Within the immediate vicinity of the Aqueduct of Valens are two worthwhile mosques: the ancient Kalenderhane and the enormous ?ehzade Mosque, built on the order of Süleyman the Magnificent in 1548.

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The Kalenderhane Mosque was originally a Byzantine church built towards the end of the 12th century. After the conquest of Constantinople, it was granted to the Kalender Dervishes as a tekke, or lodge. The Kalender dervishes are an Islamic sect whose beliefs demand a life of endless wandering, so it’s unsurprising that they eventually abandoned their tekke. Today, it’s been converted into another of the city’s mosques, popular with students from the nearby Istanbul University.

The Kalenderhane is small, and impressive for both its marble panels and its age. Inside, the oldest known painting of Saint Francis d’Assisi was discovered in 1966. The fresco, which depicts the saint preaching to the birds, is believed to have been painted shortly after his death in 1266, and can currently be seen in the Archaeological Museum.

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Near the humble Kalenderhane, we came upon the much larger ?ehzade Camii. A jaw-dropping structure, but that was a given. It’s not as though an “adequate” mosque was going to satisfy a sultan who calls himself “Magnificent”. The ?ehzade Camii (or “Prince Mosque”) was built to honor the untimely death of Süleyman’s oldest son to smallpox, and was one of Mimar Sinan’s first major constructions in Istanbul. According to a plaque outside, the master architect was unsatisfied with the result, calling it an “apprentice work”, but we think he was being too hard on himself. Unlike many of the larger mosques in the city, visitors here are allowed to wander here at will.

Location of the Kalenderhane | ?ehzade Mosque

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April 22, 2013 at 4:00 pm Comments (3)

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Our First Hamam: The K?l? Ali Pa?a It's hard to imagine that we could have found a better place for our first Turkish bath than the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. This historic hamam in Tophane is one of Istanbul's most beautiful, reopened in 2012 after years of restoration. We were invited to visit on a Sunday afternoon.
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