For some people, April 1st is a day where you have to worry about being pranked. That was not the case for us, as we were going to get acquainted with the city as a whole. Thankfully, I’d booked a free walking tour in advance, which turned out to have been worth more than we could’ve imagined!
After eating breakfast in the small hotel cafe, it was time for us to head out. Our tour was scheduled to begin at 10:30, but the email said to arrive around ten to fifteen minutes in advance. Being situated in the heart of the old historical district, the walk to get to the meeting point was a straightforward fifteen minutes walk. It also was useful for us, as our guide was standing at the Sultanahmet Fountain, which is between Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, aka two of the country’s main tourist sites. Outside of checking in with the guide and waiting for everybody else on the tour to do so, it didn’t take long before we embarked.
Our first stop was around the area, given how it would have been a crime not to discuss that history. We didn’t go in either the Hagia Sophia nor the Blue Mosque, but Pinar our guide gave us a brief overview about the respective histories. In addition to that, we were informed about the smaller buildings around both of these mosques, which pretty much functioned as private rooms for men and women alike to perform their religious rituals. We didn’t linger around too much, as there were more things to see, but it was nice to have a quick introduction to the variety of buildings around. One thing that we were shown was the remains of the Byzantine empire, as it would have been remiss not to start off with that. Not much remained, for obvious reasons, but it was a neat little glimpse into the pre-Ottoman era.
From there, we walked down the street to swing by the entrance of the famous Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans from the 14th century up until 1856. Even just being around in the gardens made you realize how fancy it was, and in that moment my mom and I knew we’d be coming back shortly to see everything for ourselves. After walking around for a bit there, we moved on. Everything was interesting, but for some of the parts we went to, it was fascinating to see how much Istanbul absorbed from the old Constantinople and what changed over the years. Like, we all knew about the long history of the Ottomans, but seeing it was some next level stuff!
One thing that was interesting to note was to see how passionate our guide was, not that I was complaining. She knew her stuff, but she did add some of her thoughts about the current Turkish government, and I did appreciate that candor. At times some of the group was a bit nervous about the fact that she was saying that stuff in public, but she reassurred us that she was okay because the Turks around us didn’t speak English. Her disdain for the current state of affairs was, in her own words, due to the fact that her family is originally from a minority from the eastern part of the country. We all collectively left it at that, but it did add more to the tour. After all, having somebody who not only had gone to university to study being a tour guide was fantastic, but the jokes and width and breath of the knowledge made it that much better. I especially liked it how she quizzed us on our knowledge of history from time to time on breaks, as it made me dig a bit deep for stuff I learned back in high school and college. Basically, if you’re ever on the free walking tour with Pinar, know that you’re in for a good time!
After the walking tour ended, we went across the street for a great lunch. Kebab is ubiquitous, so that’s what we had, and while the one served might not have reached the lofty heights as the previous night’s one, it was still pretty damn good. Desert followed this, and the baklava also hit the spot. Courtesy of Pinar, we were told that the secret tip is to flip it over to allow all the honey to be better distributed; this aboslutely made a world of difference!
With food in our stomachs, it was time for the second part of the day: the boat tour of the Bosphorous! This wasn’t part of the walking tour, but Pinar and her company offered this extra service, paid of course. One awesome thing about the Fatih district of was that it was already by the river, meaning it took us maybe about twenty minutes to mosey on over from the restaurant. Unlike quite a bit of the vacation, the weather was bright and warm enough, if not a bit windy, so being able to meander a bit was a treat. When we arrived at the small dock, we had to wait as another tour group was already there in anticipation of their boat. Fortunately, our turn came shortly after and we were able to hop on. Pinar told us to sit around the side for two reasons: we’d have better seats, and there was a second group that would shortly be joining us. There’s not much to say in particular, but cruising on the water made you realize how much more there is to Istanbul than a mere walking tour can show you. In particular, Pinar and the other guide (who led the Spanish version) were giving us some heads up about certain districts, including where all the rich people lived–this tended to be in the Beşiktaş, and some of the homes were incredible. A few even had funiculars to get to the street!
Here’s Dolmabahçe Palace. This is where the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived.
Once we disembarked on the Asian side of the city, we still had a little bit left to do. On our walk along the promendade, Pinar gave us some recommendations for what to eat. What stuck out, though, was the Turkish ice cream stands. You might be asking what’s the difference between that and “regular” ice cream, and it tasted a bit thicker and more natural. Compated to the stuff you can find back home, Turkish ice cream, known as dondurma, is smoother. Pageantry plays a large part, too. As with this particular stand, it’s a game where the vendor teases you and sees if you can grab the cone from his big stick, and he even rotates it to try and confuse you. My mom played the part of this, as she earned her treat after the guy selling her ice cream got very fancy with the rigmarole, but I guess it’s an unofficial rule to go through it. Hey, it’s part of the culture and it attracts crowds! Some other people on the tour got their own ice cream (sans the entire procedure), but all that happened after that involved us getting a few free pieces of food, thanks to Pinar and her charisma in dealing with friendly restauranteurs. With that, we reached the end of the promenade and were told that it was a good spot to watch the sun go down, albeit in an hour.
So, left to our own devices, my mom and I first got food. We backtracked to the main square by the pier, where we noticed a lot of people were queing up for bread to break their fasts. Again, it was an interesting reminder that going during Ramadan was ongoing while we were there, but we just rushed to get to the area across the street where are the restaurants were. It honestly didn’t take us too much time to decided on something, as I spotted a place offering fish sandwiches. Not that hunger played a part in chosing it, but I’d read in advance about them, and since they were so recommended, it was a no-brainer. The restaurant was basically a hole in the wall eatery, but fortunately nobody was there yet, so we had the whole place to ourselves. We got our food and finished it quite quickly, and once that was over, it was time to walk the ten minutes back to see the sundown. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy to take an Instagram’able pic, but as you can see below, it wasn’t shabby by any means. Once we admired it for a bit and rested up, it was time to walk back to the metro to head back to our hotel. The entire day was exhausting, but I can safely say that it was a fun one, and it really helped open up Istanbul for us!
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Walking tour: https://www.viaurbis.com/en/free-tour-in-istanbul/