It was a sunny Sunday morning, perfect for our first foray into Asian Istanbul, so we hopped on a ferry and headed over to Üsküdar. Originally settled by the Greeks as Chrysopolis in the 7th century BC, Üsküdar’s founding actually predates that of Byzantium.
The city is far easier to walk than I’d feared, and public transportation is cheap, quick and efficient (if crowded). Most importantly, most of the major sights are packed closely together in or near the historic center. On one of our first days, we walked along the tram line from Sultanhamet Square (next to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) to Beyazit: a short, straight walk during which we saw one historic treasure after the other.
Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
Hundreds of underground cisterns lurk beneath the surface of Istanbul, the largest of which is the Yerebatan Sarnıçı, or the Sunken Cistern. Built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century to provide water to his palace, it’s survived the ages in remarkable form.
At the last second, I nearly lost my nerve and ordered chicken. But I stayed strong and, in a confident voice, ordered the “Ciğer Şiş”: the Liver Shish Kebab. At least, I think I sounded confident. I might have whimpered a little, but if the waiter caught it, he didn’t let on.
The pedestrianized shopping street of İstiklal Caddesi boasts one of modern Istanbul’s most nostalgic sights: antique tram cars rattling along the mile-long street from the Tünel funicular station to Taksim Square.
The beginning of our stay in Istanbul coincided with the beginning of March, and the slow onset of spring. The temperature was still cold, but blossoms were starting to appear on the trees and every day was milder than the last. And on the streets, we could sense the optimistic, expectant energy which always goes hand-in-hand with the end of winter.
Standing 66.9 meters in height, the Galata Tower dominates the skyline of Beyoğlu and is one of Istanbul’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. Anxious for a birds-eye view on our first full day in the city, we visited the tower, showing up just in time for sunset.
Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, was going to be our home for the next 91 days. Minarets, mosques, harems, hamams, kebab, coffee, Turkish delights, towers, castles, islands, whirling dervishes, Greeks and Ottomans, hills, ferries, markets and music… it’s enough to make the experience-hungry traveler delirious. We knew we’d have to hit the ground running, because there was going to be a lot to do.