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What I did during my second seven hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey.

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My first layover in Istanbul can be viewed here.

I landed in Istanbul at 4:30am on January 25, 2015. The visa from the first trip was still valid, so I quickly bypassed immigration and hopped on a taxi. Destination: Hagia Sophia.

It’s slightly scary. Nobody was around at that time, and the taxi driver didn’t speak any English. No data plan, no WiFi; the only thing I could count on were ATM machines and a pre-loaded Google Maps on my phone.

But that’s slightly the point of traveling: get lost in the city, find yourself, observe, reflect, and repeat. Minus the cheesiness.

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Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosuqe looked incredible in the darkness. With nobody around at 5am, I walked around the perimeter of the area called Sultan Ahmet Park.

Not ten minutes after arriving, the Blue Mosque emitted a Turkish chant from super loud speakerphones, which I’m sure could be heard over one mile away. It was summoning the locals for Sunday morning prayer. Little by little, I saw people walk towards the building. I followed suit.

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About a dozen seagulls flew around the Blue Mosque, as if they had made the pillars their home. Their presence gave a mysterious vibe. I followed three German tourists into the square.

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Turns out we were not allowed into the mosque at this hour – admittance for the general population was at 8am, and I wasn’t willing to stick around for two more hours.

So instead, I walked towards a square adjacent to the mosque called Mehmet Akif Ersoy Park. Alas, a restaurant was opening their doors! I stepped into Sultan Cafe & Restaurant.

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Fortunately, an ATM was available right next to the restaurant. The owners also spoke English, which made ordering food easy. Was starving and chose the most expensive item on the menu in hopes of landing an awesome meal (less than $22 USD). It did not disappoint, but I was hoping for a local dish.

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I ate breakfast while watching the sun rise, and wondered when I would see such a mesmerizing sight again.

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Istanbul is unique in so many ways. As mentioned in my previous trip, the city is surrounded by water on three sides and connects the historical East and West. The geographic location has inevitably helped the air quality, which felt immensely refreshing with each breath. I walked along the waters and was confronted by endless stray (but friendly) cats and dogs. They lived/scavenged right by the water, super perplexing.

Virtually all the dogs I spotted had colored tags on their ears. I later found out that the city caught all strays, neutered them, and released them back into the wild. The dogs are free to roam around the city as part of the culture, and their population is controlled by this means.

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If the waterfront had sand instead of rocks, I may have found a city that bests LA and Orange County beaches. Nothing is quite as beautiful as this city.

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The stroll lasted nearly an hour before I headed inland again. Walked myself through the busy streets…

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And the less busy streets…

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To finally the small inner city alleyways.

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Before I knew it, I found myself at the entrance of Topkapi Palace. The entrance resembled Wellesley’s campus, spacious and luscious green.

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Seeing the Turkey flag for the first time, I finally made the connection to the Turkish Airlines logo. I like the clean look of the flag, simple yet powerful.

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Photos weren’t allowed in most of the palace, so I was only able to capture snapshots of the scenic view of eastern Istanbul.

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It was 11am before I knew it. Six hours had gone by, and it was time to head back to the airport. Hailed a cab and managed to communicate my needs to the Turkish driver, who happily obliged.

I would love to come back for an extended period of time, perhaps rent a car, and explore the rest of the historic city.

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