From the moment we arrived in bustling Istanbul, we were mesmerized and amazed at the beauty, the charm, the pristine splendor of this remarkable country. Istanbul claims the unique title of being the only city in the world that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia – connected by the Bosphorus Strait. If you love ancient history and antiquities, Istanbul has some of the oldest, best preserved and most impressive offerings, such as the stunning 4th century cathedral Hagia Sofia, which Constantine used as a model for other cathedrals across Europe; or the magnificent Blue Mosque, from which you can pause to hear the haunting call to prayer over loud speakers throughout the city at key times. You might want to take a stroll underground and explore the Basilica Cisterns that provided fresh water to the area for centuries, dating back to the early sixth century. It might look familiar to James Bond fans since “From Russia with Love” was filmed there.
Of course, if shopping is more your vibe, Istanbul is home to two noisy sensory smorgasbords known as the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, established in the 14th century with over 4,000 stalls where you can literally buy just about anything, from intricately painted colorful ceramics and beautifully crafted rugs (perhaps a magic carpet?) to delicious hand-crafted sweets like baklava and Turkish delight. Local people still shop here on the regular, so a visit to these top-rated tourist attractions is not just about souvenir shopping, it’s a glimpse into how locals have shopped and lived since the Ottoman empire was at the height of its grandeur.
Beyond Istanbul, there is no shortage of things to see and do. If history is your thing, there are breathtaking archeological sites such as Ephesus, where you can walk the paths of historically significant people like the apostle Paul. Or perhaps you’d enjoy seeing the ancient city of Troy to explore ruins that date back to 3,000 BC and take your picture in the replica of the mythical Trojan horse.
If natural exotica is your cup of tea, trek to Cappadocia with its captivating geologic formations and undulating hills that inspire literally a half million people per year to take hot air balloon rides in order to experience the wonder and beauty of this amazing natural phenomenon. One of our personal favorite spots was the “cotton castles” of Pamukkale and nearby Hieropolis which can be traced back to the seventh century BC. Pamukkale actually means “cotton castles,” the name being derived from the iconic travertine terraces that draw thousands of visitors, local and international, every year. The natural hot springs were a popular retreat location over the centuries for historic folk like Mark Antony and Cleopatra. The crystal clear pools that are still open to the public today are strewn with columns from the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
As far as food (we are wannabe foodies), Turkish food tends to run similar to Greek or other Mediterranean cuisines, with lots of fresh vegetables, especially zucchini (the fritters are awesome) and eggplant, which is sometimes pureed into an amazing dish that rivals the American classic mashed potatoes, but better. Meats (primarily lamb or beef) are usually skewered on kebabs or stewed in savory gravies, but you can also find fish and chicken in most restaurants. Of course, the classic food most people think of when Turkey is mentioned is baklava – which is definitely NOT to be missed!! Paper-thin phyllo dough is layered with pistachios or walnuts, butter and then drenched in a simple syrup of sugar, water and lemon. Unlike its heavier Greek counterpart (which generally includes a honey and cinnamon spiced syrup), Turkish baklava is a pleasantly light sweet that is almost guilt-fee! There is also Turkish Delight, covered in powdered sugar, which usually consist of chopped dates, pistachios, hazelnuts or walnuts surrounded by a gel-like confection often perfumed with such exotic flavors as rosewater or bergamot orange. And do not miss the afternoon apple tea, or “elma cai,” which you can find literally everywhere, served hot in tiny tulip-shaped glasses perched on equally tiny saucers. Turkish people absolutely love their afternoon tea, and it is charming to see folks of all ages taking some time in the mid-to late afternoon to stop their busyness and enjoy this traditional beverage, usually served with a hefty dose of sugar or honey.
These are just a few reasons to visit Turkey, but probably one of the best reasons is the people you will meet there. From friendly tour bus drivers to shy but enthusiastic school kids to elderly artisans in traditional garb selling their beautiful handicrafts, we were greeted with smiles and warmth everywhere we went. Below are some photos of our wonderful trip to Turkey – I hope you enjoy and I hope that you will be inspired to explore this amazing country for yourself. You won’t regret it!
The Hagia Sophia – it means “Holy Wisdom.”
The Blue Mosque
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar
Some of the offerings at the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market:
Temple of Diana at Ephesus
Replica of the Trojan horse
Cappadocia “fairy” castles and Pamukkale “cotton” castles:
Faces we won’t forget: