Istanbul, Not Constantinople
One of the things that’s interesting about traveling like this is that you get to experience so many historical and geographical connections between these inter-connected regions.
In February, we started our adventure in Paris, then traveled to Lyon, France, learning much about Napoleon in both places. While that is to be expected, I was surprised to keep learning about Napoleon in Milan, where he had himself crowned King of Italy in 1805. Then, when we got to Venice, we found out that Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) was created so Napoleon could have the most beautiful living room in Europe.
In Rome, we learned that it was Constantine who issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, decriminalizing Christianity and making it the official religion 67 years later.
A trip to Athens really should be combined with a Rome excursion, as the crossovers between culture, art and architecture are everywhere.
And then we showed up in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople.
A Brief History of Türkiye
Like most (all?) countries, Türkiye has a complicated history. It’s better if the experts explain it, so I’m going with one of my favorite sources, National Geographic Kids:
About 4,000 years ago, the Hittites created an empire in the central part of what is now called Turkey in Anatolia. They ruled for hundreds of years. The Trojan War took place when the Hittites were losing power.
King Midas ruled western Turkey around 700 B.C. In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great took Anatolia under Macedonian Greek rule until Rome took over and Anatolia became part of Roman Asia Minor. In A.D. 330, Constantine became the Roman emperor and formed a new capital called Constantinople. After the fall of the Roman Empire it became part of the Byzantine Empire.
The city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 and Turkey became part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the country was invaded by Greece, which led to the Turkish war of Independence in 1920, led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In 1923, the Turkish assembly declared Turkey a republic.
The city formally became Istanbul in 1923. Turkey became a secular country, meaning there is a separation between religion and government. Women gained the right to vote in 1934.
A Past Visit
I visited Turkey in 2021 with my friend Esther, who needed a fill-in travel companion for a pre-planned tour. I am a travel opportunist, so I jumped at the chance, even though I knew nothing about Turkey and had never even thought about visiting until she mentioned it.
Esther and I traveled more than 1,500 miles through Turkey with Gate 1 Travel, and I loved every minute of it (well maybe not the 7am start times). That’s when I first experienced the connection between cities and their histories as we visited Troy, as well as many Roman and Greek ruins.
We didn’t spend nearly enough time in Istanbul, so I knew I wanted to come back, this time with Clay so he could experience what I had been telling him about.
For the first two weeks of our visit, we stayed in Fatih, which is considered the central and historical district of Istanbul. It is 15.62 km² (a little over 6 square miles) and includes 57 neighborhoods. It has a population of 368,227 according to the 2022 census. That’s out of Istanbul’s population of between 15 and 20 million, depending on who you ask.
By the time Clay and I arrived in Fatih on a Friday, we were both exhausted (me more than him) after two months of traveling as digital nomads. Since we had three weeks in one place, we agreed we would chill out over the weekend while we got some rest. Of course, what that really meant was catching up on Wanderful Whirled stuff, so we knocked out videos and got the website current. However, I did stay in my pajamas all day, which was quite luxurious.
By the next day, I was ready to venture out, but doing something easy that didn’t require much brain power. I’d had a Turkish bath and massage on my first trip and I thought it would be fun to share that with Clay, so I called the number on the brochure in our apartment and made an appointment.
All Hamans Are Not created Equal
That was my first mistake as I know the importance of checking reviews and not relying on what the brochure says. I’m going to put this one down to being tired and a bit overwhelmed.
This particular experience came with a driver, who picked us up and took us to the haman. We should have used the tram as traffic is terrible in Fatih and it took twice as long getting there by car.
When we arrived at what was basically a Turkish strip mall, we were immediately accosted by a young woman asking us how we intended to pay. Though we had planned on using a card, she insisted that cash was better so we ended up doing a combination of the two (wiping out our lira reserve in the process).
We were brought downstairs and ushered into separate changing rooms, where I put my clothes in a locker and wrapped myself in a Turkish bath towel known as a peshtemal. I was then hurried into a salt sauna room, where I met back up with Clay. As nobody spoke English, we figured out what we were doing mostly through hand gestures. We then went to a spa and another more traditional sauna, before being brought to a couples bathing room.
In a Turkish bath, you lay naked on a marble slab and an attendant cleans you very thoroughly, with the entire process taking about an hour. It’s supposed to be relaxing, but I felt like I was getting washed by an angry mom and I was six. Clay’s experience was better.
After our baths, we were brought to a couples massage room, where we received substandard treatments, and I still felt like my therapist was angry with me. Part of our package included a mud mask, and after our massages (covered in mud and massage oil), I was told to get into my slippers and I was escorted back to the changing room. Keep in mind, I didn’t have my glasses on for any of this, so it was all a bit disconcerting. And slippery.
I wasn’t sure if I was actually done, so I went to the bathroom and walked back out to ask, and I was shooed back into the changing room. There may have been a shower in there, but I didn’t see it, so I cleaned off the mud and oil as best I could, got dressed and went back out to find Clay. His changing room had a shower, so he didn’t have bits of mud stuck to his face as we climbed back into the car for our ride back to our Fatih home.
Sometimes I lean in so hard on an activity outside my comfort zone that it takes me a bit to realize it was, in fact, a bad experience
It was the next day that I went back and read the reviews and realized I was not alone in not appreciating the experience we had at the first place. Through those same reviews, we found the Cağaloğlu Hamam.
three centuries of Customer Service
Cağaloğlu was established in 1741 and they have used every one of those 282 years to perfect the art of customer service. When we arrived, we were greeted by a doorman, who told us where to go to check in. There were several professional men at the front desk, who explained in English what would happen and that we would go to separate areas for our treatments (we had also been informed of this when I made the reservations). Though we also paid up front at this place, it was handled much more professionally.
I was escorted to the women’s side, where I was greeted by Ozlem, who took me to a private changing room and told me to change into my peshtemal and a paper g-string-like thing. I know this is TMI, but what a great idea, as I never know if I’m supposed to strip all the way down for a massage.
After my massage, she took me out to a ladies sitting area, where I was given a delicious pomegranate drink, as well as fruit and nuts to enjoy. Once I was refreshed, I received a delightful pedicure from Donsel, who also spoke minimal English but communicated with gestures and smiling eyes. Note: I don’t expect people in other countries to speak English, as it’s my responsibility to understand their language when I’m in their country. I’m just very spoiled in that most people do.
Since we’d already done Turkish baths, we decided to stick to massages and our monthly pedicures at Cağaloğlu. I was told to leave my glasses in the changing room and Ozlem took my arm and gently led me to the massage room, where I received one of the best aromatherapy massages of my life. It was obvious she was a trained therapist and she knew exactly what to do to help with the shoulder and arm pain I was experiencing from working at non-ergonomically correct dining room tables for the last few months. Though she knew very little English and I knew even less Turkish, we were able to communicate quite effectively.
After my pedicure, she and I went out into the general area, where we found Clay (who had received an exceptional massage from Adam) so she could give him his pedicure. Though she didn’t voice it, I could tell she was amused when he asked for a color, rather than the clear gloss I’m assuming she gives to most of her male clients.
All freshly scrubbed, with new toes, we started to head out to find a place for lunch, when we found out there was a restaurant on-site. We enjoyed some of the best kebabs of our trip, as well as eggplant salad and pita.
Here’s the thing, the haman didn’t cost that much more (maybe €10) than our first try at it..
Now completely satisfied, inside and out, we headed home to start our work day. Since the massage was pretty inexpensive and the experience was amazing, we agreed we’d go back the following week and do it again. When we went back, they remembered us and thanked us with even more goodies and another fantastic experience. I cannot stress this enough — visit Cağaloğlu and sign up for the whole Turkish bath experience. It is something everyone should try at least once.
Exploring Old City
Okay, lest you think we spent all our time in Istanbul getting massages, it’s probably time to start talking history.
A few days after we arrived, we enjoyed exploring Old City with our guide Selahattin and a lovely couple, Sarah and Arthur. In a weird coincidence, they live in a small town between Paris and Lyon, the only two cities we had visited when we were in France.
The Sunken Palace
This might have been my favorite part of our Istanbul visit. The Basilica Cistern (aka the Sunken Palace) was closed for renovation when I was there in 2021, so I was able to experience this engineering and artistic masterpiece for the first time with Clay. Its unassuming exterior did not prepare me for the majesty we saw as we walked down the stairs to this underground palace.
Built in 532 AD under the rule of Emperor Justinian, it was one of hundreds of cisterns in the city, designed to bring water to the residents. I don’t love being underground, but I never felt any form of claustrophobia as it’s huge, about 9,800 square meters (105,000 sq ft) – capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters (2,800,000 cu ft) of water.
There are hundreds of columns and pieces of art in the Basilica Cistern. Though I’m guessing this was not a goal at the beginning, it has outstanding acoustics, and it is currently being used for live performances and art shows throughout the year.
If you come to Istanbul, be sure to visit. If you want to see a small bit of it for yourself ahead of time, you can see it in 1963’s From Russia with Love or 2016’s Inferno, plus plenty of other films in between. It’s easy to see why directors want to shoot in such a unique setting.
Book a guide so you can better understand its history and skip the lines, which are massive.
Selahattin also took us to Hagia Sophia, (which means holy wisdom) considered one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. It was originally built as a church in 306 BC. It was burned down twice, and the current structure was built under the rule of Justinian 1 between 532 and 537 AD.
Since then, it has been a church, a mosque, a church again, a museum, and now a mosque. It was fascinating seeing the architectural and artistic elements of different religions coexisting in one building as people from all over the world, from different religions and cultures, came together to experience it.
Selahattin explained to us that for Muslims, the structure is primarily a place to gather to pray and it doesn’t really matter how it looks, so there are all types of mosques. While absolutely beautiful, none that we saw were nearly as ornate as the Catholic churches we visited in Italy.
Unless you love standing in line, hire a guide to take you through the Hagia Sophia. You’ll also want someone as knowledgeable as Selahattin to explain the architecture, history and artwork contained within this extraordinary structure.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque was closed for restoration when I visited in 2021 and it was still closed when we visited in 2023, though it should be opening back up “any day now.” As beautiful as it is on the outside, I would love to visit it someday as it earned its nickname due to the blue ceramic tiles inside the building.
Istanbul-Tourist-Information.com shares: “Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I, it was built by famous architect Sinan disciple Mehmet Ağa and opened for worship in 1616. The mosque has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 and is one of the most-visited attractions of the city.”
Non-Muslims are allowed to visit mosques, but they’re expected to respect the same rules — women’s hair must be covered and no shoes are allowed.
A Hidden Gem
As part of the hidden gems part of our tour, he took us to the Eresin Crown Hotel, a luxury hotel near the Blue Mosque. Selahattin explained that when they renovated the hotel, they found ancient historical findings from Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras. They worked out a deal with the government to incorporate the findings into the decor of this thoroughly modern hotel, creating a cool juxtaposition between old and new. If you don’t want to stay there, you can have a drink at the Column Bar to see it.
Historic Shopping Mall
In between introducing us to Turkish treats, Selahattin took us to the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t love the Grand Bazaar the first time I visited Istanbul and I loved it even less this time. To be fair, I’m not a big shopper, and while I’m willing to put up with big crowds to experience history, this was too much.
Having said all that, it is a must-see. Considered the oldest and largest shopping mall in the world, it was built under the rule of Fatih Sultan Mehme in the 15th century to support the Hagia Sophia. It includes 2,500+ storefronts, which attract more than 40 million visitors annually, most of whom were there when we were.
It’s a great place to purchase everything from jewelry, luggage and art to antiques, lamps and spices. The merchants will aggressively work to lure you into their shops, using different languages until they hit on the one you respond to. And they expect you to bargain with them — as to be expected, the more you spend the better deals you’ll make.
Not on Selahattin’s tour, Clay and I also visited the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. Built in 1664, it sits where the historic Silk Road joined the maritime Spice Route. While also stupid crowded, we had a much better experience. It’s smaller (6,000 square meters, or 64,583.46 square feet) than the Grand Bazaar, a little calmer and it smells really good. There are a ton of merchants selling all kinds of spices, from sumac to saffron and literally everything in between. There’s also tea, Turkish delight and all kinds of other desserts and goodness, at very good prices.
When I was there in 2021, I did much of my Christmas shopping in the Spice Bazaar, bringing home kilos of spices to friends, family members and clients. This time, since we’re living out of suitcases, so Clay only picked up a couple of small items to supplement our Airbnb kitchens.
If you’re planning a visit, look up Selahattin’s tour. He has studied extensively to be a tour guide and is incredibly knowledgeable about Istanbul’s history, politics and culture. He’s also very kind and willing to answer questions.
Street Food – Europe/Asia
We learned to love exploring cities through food tours in Lyon, and we have continued to book them in almost every city we’ve been in. We’ve found it’s not only a great way to learn about the local food, but also customs and traditions. We booked our Istanbul food tour with Erol and we were joined by a small group from the eastern United States.
We started with a typical Turkish breakfast, which is considered the most important meal of the day and is usually savory. Ours consisted of simit (similar to a plain bagel), which you can top with everything from cheese (goat or cow), salted meats, grilled olives (yum!), and all kinds of spreads, including creamy hazelnut (like Nutella, but better). We also had tea, which Erol explained to us was a part of almost every meal in Istanbul.
Though not as historic as Turkish coffee, Turkey has the highest per capita tea consumption in the world, averaging more than three kilograms (105.8 ounces) per person annually. He told us that to be a true Turk, we would need to drink five cups of tea per day. We gave it our best shot, but we weren’t able to accomplish this challenge.
After breakfast, we walked to the ferry and traveled to the Asian side of Istanbul, where Erol took us on a tour through Kadıköy (also our second home in Istanbul). We loved wandering through all the shops and restaurants, where we got to try mehmed (a scrambled egg dish), more olives, pickled everything (including juice), kokoreç (lamb intestines, which I skipped) and stuffed mussels (I also passed on these, but Clay loved them).
Erol also taught us about Turkish coffee, which you order with sugar or without (no milk, as it would get mixed in with the grounds). They say you can read fortunes based on the remaining grounds in the cup. I tried my hand at it with Erol and one of the other guests and did pretty well.
For dessert, we enjoyed kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry in syrup), ye-mek (ground pistachios, cream, sugar and butter in filo) and goat milk ice cream, which doesn’t melt as fast as cow milk. We had our choice of tea or water — Clay went for the tea in his attempt to be a true Turk.
I learned about Whirling Dervishes on my first trip to Turkey. Members of the Suni sect of Islam (Muslim monks) use whirling as a form of meditation to talk to God. They raise one hand as a request to God and use the other hand to share their blessings with others.
For this trip, I booked a Whirling Dervish experience with Zeynap, an incredible young woman who has lived in Istanbul her entire life, and who promised us great food along with the Dervish experience.
She met us at the Sirkeci Train Station, which is also home of the Orient Express. Then she took us to see Ali Usta, who is famous on YouTube for his Çiğ köfte and making fools of tourists.
We enjoyed both, before having a bite of excellent Turkish Delight at Koska. Zeynap explained it was hand-made there, as opposed to many of the stores that get it manufactured in factories.
Once we had our snacks, Zeyrap took us to a local establishment for the Dervish experience. I will admit that sitting quietly in meditation is not my strong suit, but I leaned in and quite enjoyed being a small part of it as they transcended. I really liked watching Clay as he was already familiar with Rumi and his teachings, and this allowed him to experience them in real life.
We weren’t allowed to take photos of the Dervishes themselves out of respect for their ceremony, but you can see it here.
After the Dervishes, Zeynap took us to dinner where she promised us the best kebab in the city. We arrived at the same time as many locals who were breaking fast for the day (it was during Ramadan), as they all obviously also knew where the best kebab was.
In addition to delicious beef and chicken (which had been marinated in goat milk), we had eggplant salad, pita and much more deliciousness. Zeynap spoke truth about the quality of the food, which we quite enjoyed while also learning more about her, her ambitions and the two jobs she worked, including being a tour guide because she enjoys introducing her city to visitors. By the end of the evening, as we shared a cab back to the tram, we felt like we’d known her for years and have much respect for her bad-assery.
sOME REALLY EXCELLENT Timing
Through sheer luck, we have had some cool timing when we landed in new cities. We got to enjoy Fashion Week in Milan and we were in Florence when the David controversy broke. Much more importantly, we were in Istanbul during the Muslim holy month of fasting known as Ramadan. MuslimHands.org shares that Ramadan is: “A month of fasting and abstaining from things considered to be impure for the mind and body. Those partaking in Ramadan abstain from food, drink and impure thoughts between the hours of sunrise (Fajr) and sunset, allowing them instead to focus on prayer and connecting with Allah (SWT).”
Though Istanbul is about 90% Muslim, approximately 41% fast the entire period of Ramadan, while others will practice some variation of it.
The timing for Ramadan is different every year, as it falls in the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, which follows the lunar calendar, which rotates by roughly 10-11 days each year. This year, it ended on April 21, which is marked by Eid al-Fitr. During this three day celebration, friends and family members dress up, visit each other, give each other presents, and visit the graves of their relatives. One of our guides explained that almost everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, whether or not they fast during Ramadan.
We were on a tour the first morning of Eid al-Fitr, and nobody was out on the streets, a rarity in a city this size. Of course, that also meant most of the stores and restaurants were closed so we traveled the streets in relative quiet. It was an opposite experience by the afternoon when people were done with their visits and out on the town celebrating.
Sights and Sounds of Istanbul
It took me a while to figure out why I didn’t love our first Istanbul home, but I figured it out when we moved to Kadıköy for our last week. Even before we found our new Istanbul home, I appreciated the quiet and calmness of our new atmosphere, as well as all the cats and dogs we saw along the way.
After we settled in, I heard the call to prayer from our living room, something I wasn’t able to hear from our first apartment because of the traffic noise.
These were two of my favorite things about visiting Istanbul the first time. I love the civility of having cats and dogs living freely amongst people who take care of them as a community. And I really like hearing the calls to prayer throughout the day and using it as a reminder to center myself.
When we moved to Kadıköy, it was to a three-story house on a quietish corner and we got both of those things back. We found all kinds of other cool stuff in Kadıköy, which Clay talks about here.
If you’re planning a visit to Istanbul consider using our Turkey scavenger hunt!