The third and final leg of our honeymoon was in Istanbul. Though I have a soft spot for London, Istanbul was my favorite part of our trip. The city felt alive and vibrant, with an undercurrent of mystery. For me, Istanbul feels both old and very new. Just outside our hotel room were two ancient mosques and an old word bazaar. Yet, carving it’s way between the mosques and temples, was a clean and modern tramway, and a thriving tourist industry. The city was loud and noisy, yet clean and friendly. It felt like it had been dusted off and slapped with a fresh new coat of paint. Just below the pristine surface lingered something layered and dark, giving the city an alluringly magical quality.
We stayed in the Sultanahmet area, which is touristy and not known for great food, but is extremely convenient. Each day, we awoke (often to the beautiful sound of the call to prayer), got dressed, had a huge Turkish breakfast at the hotel, and strolled around out neighborhood to see views like this.
The Blue Mosque, built in the early 1600s remains jaw-droppingly impressive even today.
Our first day in town, we decided to do some exploring and check out Istiklal Avenue, a major shopping street in the Beyoglu area of the city. We took a tramway across the Galata Bridge and then a cable car up to Taksim Square. I didn’t get any pictures of the tramway, but it was a pristine, above ground light rail that was cheap, convenient, and utterly ideal for the wide-eyed tourist. We used it multiple times per day during our stay in Istanbul.
For reference, Istanbul stretches across two continents, Europe and Asia. We stayed on the European side, which is broken into two pieces connected by the Galata Bridge. You may find this map helpful to get a good visual.
The Galata Bridge, lined with fishermen and crowded with shoppers, is definitely something to see. It’s also a great place to eat inexpensive, freshly caught fish. I’ll get into that a bit more later.
Once we crossed the Galata Bridge, we stopped in Karakoy for an early morning snack of baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu bakery. It was recommended by a friend and located only a few steps from Galata Bridge. It was definitely worth the stop.
The baklava was the best we tasted in the city. Every country seems to do baklava its own way, but Turkish baklava is made with pistachios, is extremely delicate, and sticky sweet. It pairs deliciously with a cup of strong Turkish coffee.
Next, we caught the cable car up to Taksim Square. The car inched up the crowded street to the drop off point, swarmed by shoppers on all sides. A few teenagers jumped on the back of the car for a free ride. The driver wasn’t too happy about that.
The cable car dropped us off at the top of the hill, at Taksim Square, and we made our way down through the shopping district.
The shopping scene was intense and somewhat claustrophobic. It just so happened to be a four day holiday so Istanbul was probably a bit more crowded than usual.
Along the way, we popped into this highly recommended sweet shop for some Turkish delight.
It was the best we had while in Istanbul and made excellent and easy-to-pack gifts for friends and family.
After we got through the crowds, we headed to the Galata Tower to get an aerial view of the city. Our guide book recommended skipping the pricey entrance fees of the tower and getting a coffee at the rooftop bar at the neighboring Anemon Galata hotel just opposite of the tower. It was a gem of a recommendation. Check out the view.
Afterward, we headed back to the Galata Bridge for a fresh fish sandwich. The bridge was lined with fishermen and seafood just pulled from the water. Look at all those fishing lines!
You could buy fresh fish and mussels to take away or eat on the spot.
At the base of the Galata Bridge, there’s a takeaway fish sandwich vendor, Tarihi Eminonii Balik Ekmek, that sells fried fish sandwiches fresh from the water, at 5 TL a pop (about $3). It seems that everyone eats there- locals and tourists alike.
It’s one of the most authentic and unusual dining experiences I’ve ever had. Just look for the covered boat rocking wildly off shore and follow the crowds. You may have to stand in line for a short while.
Delicious fried fish sandwich dressed with lettuce and onion.
Later that night, we headed back to Beyoglu, for traditional mezze fare. Our guidebook recommended eating at any place along the Nevizade street for authentic mezze that locals would eat. Mezze is sort of like tapas- small dishes for the table that can be shared. Mezze offers a selection of both cold and hot dishes which are relatively inexpensive with plenty of choice for vegetarians. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any shots of dinner that night. Sometimes, you need a break from shooting to enjoy a good meal.
The next day was a full one. We headed over to the Hagia Sophia museum- originally built as a Christian basilica, later converted to a mosque, and now a museum.
This little guy greeted us outside.
Inside was spectacular.
After touring, we grabbed a few snacks from the vendors outside. The streets were packed with tourists and vendors with cheap eats.
We ordered some freshly squeeze pomegranate juice (squeezed right before our eyes) and a savory sesame pastry.
All of this cost around $2 and gave us enough energy to move on to the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque is a fairly quick stop, easy to pop in and pop out. It’s worth it to see the gorgeous ceilings, but you don’t need to spend a lot of time there. However, you do have to take off your shoes and cover your head (ladies) before entering. I recommend bringing your own head scarf.
Outside the Blue Mosque were more food vendors. One that caught my eye was a man making lollipops.
He had a tray of melted sugar in different colors and flavors. You could choose up to three and I think it cost less than a dollar for a pop.
He wrapped the sugar around a wooden stick, layering the flavors.
Making a lollipop, like so.
The lollipop was warm, and soft and very sweet. It seemed like mostly only children were eating these, and me of course.
I had been wanting to see the old Orient Express station, so we caught the tramway over. Sadly, much of it was under renovation and very little was visible. But from what you could see, the station was stunning and it was easy to sense how luxurious it must have been to travel on the Orient Express. How magical it must have been to pull into the station on the last stop on the most famous train in history.
Afterward, my husband got a kebab from a local kebab stand.
He said it was delicious. I took his word for it.
Later that night, we popped in Amedros for dinner . It’s a local place with good prices, tasty food and plenty of vegetarian options. It wasn’t my favorite meal of the trip, but solid.
We fed a few scraps to the skinny kitten under out table. She was so cute, we wanted to bring her home. During our trip, we saw lots of stray dogs and cats in the city. Many were tagged and shop keepers often left food bowls out on the sidewalks so it seemed as though they were being looked after.
On the third day, we cruised the Bosphorous. After days of being on our feet, walking for hours on end, this was a great way to see the city while comfortably seated.
Next, we made our way to Topkapi Palace which was once the residence of Ottoman Sultans. We didn’t budget quite enough time and found ourselves rushing to get through it all. A word of advice- give yourself at least 2 hours to see it all, though 3 hours would probably be best.
Then, we went to a little local place called Sar for a bite to eat. It was recommended in the guide book for cheap, tasty eats.
The food was served canteen style, so you pick what you want and pay for it at the end. I really enjoyed this style of dining because it allowed us to try a variety of dishes and learned what things were called. On the trip, we ate a lot of eggplant and cheesy Turkish pita which is kind of like a sauce-less pizza. We also ate lots of milk and rice puddings.
Later that night, we dined at the Pudding Shop (Lale Restaurant) in Sultanahmet- a similar canteen-style restaurant adored by tourist from all over the world. It’s nothing phenomenal, but solid and inexpensive with a great history. I highly recommend it for a quick, no frills bite if you’re in the area. They have great rice pudding and a delicious pudding-like dessert called Noah’s pudding (with figs, hazelnuts, apricots, raisins, and cinnamon- pictured below).
On our last day, we ventured over to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. We didn’t buy anything, but enjoyed strolling along the vendors and shop keepers. My husband and I noticed that nearly all the shopkeepers were men. When it was time to pray, many of the shops closed briefly while the men ran to the fountains for a quick wash and rolled out their mats to pray.
You could buy anything you wanted – spices, teas, nuts, cheese, sweets, ceramics, rugs, clothes, and all kinds of other goods. The markets were humming with vibrant energy.
After the bazaar, we stopped in Saray for some nourishment. Saray has two locations, one near the Spice Bazaar and another in the main shopping district near Taksim Square. It’s a restaurant so you can sit down and order, or you can do it canteen-style. They have incredible food and even better dessert. This place had the best rice pudding of all.
By this time, the weather had turned cold and rainy, and I felt completely frozen from the inside out. So I headed to a Haman (Turkish bath) to lie on a steamy, heated marble slab and then soak in a hot tub. I didn’t get the full-service scrub down, but chose self-service which was more relaxing and less expensive. It warmed my soul. I am forever grateful for that hour of steam and heat that restored my spirits and prepared me for the long journey home.
And then our honeymoon adventure was over. We flew out bright and early the next morning on a very long flight back to D.C. I was sad to leave, but happy to be back in the quiet routine of my normal life.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my honeymoon travels. Here are a few extra photos you might like.
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