Top 5 Things to Do in Istanbul
1) Get Scrubbed to the Bone in a Turkish Bath
Ok, now before I experienced this, it was both a “can’t wait to do this” adventure and a “what the heck am I getting myself into?!” feeling. Traditionally, men and women are separated into totally different areas (yes, that meant separating from the one person I knew on the continent and putting myself into the trusting hands of… old women who scrub you down while you’re naked? And they’re just staring at you and laughing in a language you can’t understand). Yes, daunting to say the least.
So, Jeffrey and I took the wimpy way out and voted to go to the one “touristy” Turkish bath (called hamams in Turkey) that was co-ed. Why? Because that last Trip Advisor review that claimed things got a little rape-y scared us both.
That being said, we arrive at the Turkish Bath and are immediately given scraps of clothing to replace our clothes that we wore on our backs. Once changed, we were led into a sauna area made entirely of marble and stone and then told that they’d come and get us after a while. Well, seconds crept by and the amount of ‘glistening’ we both did was a bit more than we bargained for. After I thought I might die of a heat stroke (yes, this is before I tried Hot Yoga so I couldn’t imagine something worse…there is), two strapping young Turkish men came to find us. From there, they rinsed us with cool water (from heaven) and began massaging, rubbing and pounding out all of our tense muscles. I kept trying to sneak a look at Jeffrey on the other side of the bath to see how he was reacting to this.
Soon, though, we emerged onto the streets of Istanbul feeling refreshed and invigorated…but most of all thankful that it didn’t get the least bit “rape-y” in there.
We used: Süleymaniye Hamam, one that dates back to the 12th century.
2) Take an early morning tour of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul – a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, it’s both steeped in history…and tourists. There’s so much to see inside, from the golden Arabic letters to the portraits on the walls, it’s all breathtakingly gorgeous. And, so different from any European cathedral or other architecture you’d see outside of the Middle East. It’s the main attraction in Istanbul and worth spending a long time making sure to ooh and ahh at every nook and cranny of gold. That being said, you surely won’t be the only tourist inside and, if you go at midday, you’ll wait in lines longer than the snack shop at fat camp. But, if you head in first thing in the morning, when the crowds are still not large, it’s almost magical.
3) Climb to the top of Galata Tower for a 360-degree view of Europe-meets-Asia
Once the tallest building in Istanbul, this nine-storied tower was built in 1348. Climb to the top (or take the elevator) to see a view of Old Istanbul and its beautiful skyline, filled with rounded mosque tops for as far as the eye can see. It’s also fun to snap a picture of the river dividing the city into Europe and Asia. Then, once you’re back on solid ground, grab a tea from next door and keep on truckin’.
4) Get a picture taken in traditional Turkish clothing at the Basilica Cistern
Ok, admittedly, this is the most tourist-y thing we did. But, we just couldn’t help ourselves. You can find these photographers set up in the Basilica Cistern and it’s only 5 Euros for a photo. You can dress up in any color you want … and it’s something you’ll keep forever. Usually, we just breeze right past these tourist traps, but I’m glad we stopped at this one.
Please excuse Jeffrey’s caption…what a joke.
5) Get lost in the Grand Bazaar. And haggle with a booth keeper for some great handmade dishes.
The Grand Bazaar is a bit overwhelming – understandably, as it one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 4,000+ shops! But, as a lover of street stalls, I couldn’t have been much happier than when we went into the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar. Jeffrey, on the other hand, stayed mostly on the edges and you could see the fear in his eyes. I went from stall to stall looking for the best bargain, but most of the fun is in talking to the stall managers and finding out about each unique piece – from jewelry to leather goods to ceramics. I finally found a set of hand-painted plates that I just couldn’t live without, so Jeffrey helped me bargain them down to the very lowest price (we hope).