Here are some photos and treasured memories from my 5-day trip to Istanbul, Turkey, with my mother back in 2013. I didn’t have a blog back then, so you figure I added all this much later. Dates of the trip: 28th of March till 2nd of April, 2013. The camera I had during this Istanbul city trip was still my first compact camera, so excuse the quality of the pictures. I returned to Istanbul in 2014 solo and in 2021 together with Jonas.
- 1 Istanbul City Trip Background
- 2 Day 1: Flight to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport
- 3 Day 2: Sultanahmet Neighborhood
- 4 Day 3: Cisterns, Aqueducts, and More Mosques
- 4.1 Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
- 4.2 Turkish Coffee (Türk Kahvesi) + Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Tomb (Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Mezarı)
- 4.3 Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii)
- 4.4 Aqueduct of Valens (Valens Su Kemeri) + Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii)
- 4.5 Ayran + Kariye Museum (Kariye Müzesi)
- 4.6 Ayvansaray Pier (Ayvansaray Iskelesi) + New Mosque (Yeni Cami)
- 4.7 Sultan Ahmet Mosque Visit #2
- 5 Day 4: Kız Kulesi + Taksim/Galata + ‘Asian’ Side
- 6 Day 5:…
- 7 Day 6: End of Istanbul City Trip
- 8 Conclusions about Istanbul in 2013?
Istanbul City Trip Background
My mother used to take my sister or me on a city trip each year. In 2013, it was my turn and I chose Istanbul. We had done such a city trip to Copenhagen, Denmark before in 2011. As I became a professional hobo in late 2013, you can see how this tradition didn’t last very long with me, the younger sibling.
My mom found a hotel for €40 per night, which I found way too expensive. Having backpacked a little for the first time in 2011 and for real in 2012 after I learned how to hitchhike (thank you senpai), that amount of dough seemed ridiculous. I knew hostels often also had private rooms, so I found one on Booking.com and suggested that for the both of us. She agreed.
She didn’t know yet that I was a smoker, so I had to either not smoke for the duration of the trip or come out.
The flight went from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW). This was technically my second visit to Turkey; my dad and stepmom had taken the family on a one or two-week all-inclusive resort trip to Kuşadası, south of İzmir. But we never really left the resort during that time, which is why it doesn’t count.
Day 1: Flight to Sabiha Gökçen International Airport
28th of March
My mom and I went to Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to fly out to Istanbul. Besides the plane tickets and the place to stay, we hadn’t fine-planned the trip yet.
I’d taken a short trip to Tbilisi from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol back in December 2012/January 2013 to visit my friend Ani for new year’s. Since it’s in a similar ballpark of the world, I knew flight time pretty well. What I didn’t expect is that the flight to Istanbul would be an intercontinental flight; there’s a full-body scan instead of a good ol’ metal detector for security. That’s a big yike from me.
Upon arrival in Istanbul at this airport on the ‘Asian’ side, we queued for immigration. The queue was long and by the time we made it to the booth, a guy told us that Dutch people need a visa. He pointed to another queue and we walked there and it said vize. First of all, how did we not know this? And secondly, what the fuck?
This was my mom’s first time in Turkey, but technically my second time. But back when I was 14, I didn’t manage my own passport. Needing a visa was someone else’s problem. And I’ve never needed a visa before, so what the hell is this thing anyway?
The visa at the vize office turned out to be a simple stamp-sized sticker that cost us €15 per person. It would be valid for 1 year and allows us to stay in Turkey for 90 days out of each 180 days. An irrelevant math problem, thank you so much for that.
Once we were stamped into the country, we needed to find our way to the Sultanahmet neighborhood of the ‘European’ side of Istanbul. And outside there were no buses. We asked for a metro or a train and the answer was also no. I’m not sure what choice we made exactly back in 2014 out of these sub-ideal options, but it was probably a taxi (ETA: my mom says she arranged a taxi van from the airport, perhaps a shuttle). That’s more than 40 kilometers through dense traffic just to arrive at the hostel. I think that there’s a good chance I (or we) assumed we’d arrive at Atatürk Airport, which is much closer than Sabiha Gökçen.
I’m not sure if we ate this meal at the airport (that’s what it looks like) or in the city, but this is the only picture from our arrival day. A 19:30 meal of Turkish tea with a baked good.
I remember that checking into our hostel was quite alright. We had a very small private room with (I think) a shared bathroom. We apparently had to sit on the bed in order to close the door. My mom wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but it was definitely €25 or less per night. And the hostel was in a very bustling area.
Day 2: Sultanahmet Neighborhood
29th of March
In the morning I went to the rooftop of the hostel to check out the view over Sultanahmet. It was really close to the Hagia Sophia museum and the Blue Mosque. But there was also a construction site nearby and other stuff that would obscure the vista. It was so central that I could even catch a peek of the Bosporus strait when ignoring all the laundry.
Topkapı Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
Our first sight of the day was to the Topkapı Palace. That place had very cool maps and golden compasses. The decor inside the chambers was very intricate and like nothing I’d ever seen before. Thing Arabic calligraphy as a decorative form, geometric shapes, and golden-detailed spires on top of buildings.
Domes and archways in endless repetition, fountains and mosaic tilework in every nook. It was a lot like the trips I’d taken in high school to Rome and before that to Greece, except everything was a lot shinier.
Gold paint wasn’t spared. The Arabic calligraphy in particular looked like nice but ultimately meaningless scribbles to my illiterate ass. And there were so many cats hanging around. But back then, I wasn’t much into petting cats.
We walked to a viewpoint that faced the Galata area, the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, etcetera. The gardens were nice and they had tulips in them, which people often consider a Dutch symbol, but they actually originate from Turkey.
The Golden Horn metro swing bridge hadn’t opened yet and was under construction. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I asked my mom to take a selfie with me, it ended up being one of the few photos we have together. Very precious.
Right when it was time to leave, it was time for the Zuhr prayer. At Topkapı Palace, they had a muezzin who did the adhan without loudspeakers from the balcony of the small minaret. Really cool to see and hear that. Then we walked past the Hagia Irene museum to a place that would feed us.
We had lunch at Aloran Café and Restaurant.
Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi)
Followed by a visit to Hagia Sophia museum. Luckily for my tired feet and brain, there wasn’t much ‘museum’ about the place. It was just a very large and impressive historic building which was the object of fascination itself instead of the shell. I do not remember if we paid to join a tour, but we did visit the upper gallery (the first floor). There were many obvious details of this building’s history as a church, such as the mosaics depicting Christian folks. The interior of the Hagia Sophia was undergoing a big renovation. Despite the abundant scaffolding, there was plenty of space not under renovation to enjoy it.
What stayed me the most were the gigantic medallions in each corner of the former mosque that had golden Arabic script on a background of black. I remember someone (presumably a guide) told me that each medallion had the name of God written on it. But illiterate as I am in Arabic, I could clearly see that each medallion had different writing on them. So how do all of them translate to “God” if they all say something different? What a puzzling thing.
There were ‘God rays’ falling through the windows and onto the marble floors. It was honestly stunning. The previous most impressive building I’d visited was the Pantheon in Rome. But the Pantheon has nothing on the Hagia Sophia.
Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Right after, we visited the Sultan Ahmet Camii (aka ‘Blue Mosque’) across the outside courtyard. We made some stops at the Arasta Bazaar and I was a little fascinated by the street food snacks that were roasting on little carts. They were chestnuts—the edible kind. We got a small bag of them but I really didn’t like them back then because they were so dry.
Since this was a functioning mosque, we had to put on headscarves, take off our shoes, and bow under the low green tarp so we’d enter humbly. As we were deep into the afternoon by now, the call to prayer happened while we were wandering around there.
I think we might have had to cut this visit short because of the prayer. I don’t remember being asked to leave but that seems logical.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) + Hookah (Nargile)
As if this wasn’t enough for one day, we even walked from there to the Grand Bazaar past the Nuruosmaniye Mosque for a little bit. I think the wares on offer in the Grand Bazaar barely change. You can buy all kinds of ‘oriental’ stuff like colorful lamps, carpets, colorful dishwares, and endless hookah pipes (nargileh).
Speaking of Nargileh, without mom, I went to smoke shisha with some people from the hostel that evening. My mom rested at the hostel and did something for herself like reading a book.
Day 3: Cisterns, Aqueducts, and More Mosques
30th of March
Having slept a lot after such a long first day, we headed out after breakfast for another tour of the highlights of Istanbul. We walked between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
This was one of the most surprisingly fun things to do and I remember this fondly. I didn’t have much of an idea what to expect from this guided tour, but it was really good and interesting. And they even had a little water in it with little fishies that probably never see the light of day. The echoing place was really haunting. And the Medusa heads? Real horror stuff. But my poor pocket camera couldn’t really handle the lack of light.
Turkish Coffee (Türk Kahvesi) + Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Tomb (Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Mezarı)
Afterward, we sat down at a café for a Turkish coffee before heading out to a different sight from our guidebook. We paid a visit to the Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Tomb. I don’t remember why exactly, but it was probably on the way to somewhere else.
We walked past some carpet shops and came near the Beyazıt Tower (Beyazıt Kulesi).
Süleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii)
In this part of town, we wanted to visit the Süleymaniye Mosque.
I was very impressed once again and I really loved the big flat chandeliers that light up the spaces in a nice way.
Apparently, it was possible to stand on the walls nearby a renovation site to have a vista of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus with their bridges.
Aqueduct of Valens (Valens Su Kemeri) + Fatih Mosque (Fatih Camii)
From there, we walked past the Kalenderhane Mosque (Kalenderhane Camii) to the Aqueduct of Valens from Roman times. Next to the lower section of the arches, kids were playing with a ball in the street and I imagined myself a travel photographer.
I absolutely love aqueducts, so I’m going to dump all my mediocre photos here for posterity.
Next, we walked to the Fatih Mosque, which had the best courtyard I’d seen thus far.
Back then, I thought it was very strange that kids were playing in the courtyard of the mosque.
Ayran + Kariye Museum (Kariye Müzesi)
After that, we walked to some shopping area where we sat down for some ayran with a (kebab?) sandwich. I wasn’t much of a foodie back then so I wasn’t chasing any particular foods to try things out.
We continued past the Vefa Stadium (Vefa Stadı) to the Kariye Museum, which used to be a church and has been a mosque once again since 2020.
It has very beautiful Christian art things inside.
Ayvansaray Pier (Ayvansaray Iskelesi) + New Mosque (Yeni Cami)
After that, things get weird. We’re at a bridge that must be the Haliç Bridge (Haliç Köprüsü) but I don’t really recognize it in my pictures.
There are some small shipwrecks in the Golden Horn and a hazy vista of the Galata Tower for orientation.
There’s a ferry terminal here called Ayvansaray and we take a ferry from there. Aboard we buy some helva.
We take the ferry back to Eminönü pier, from which we have a good view of the New Mosque. We don’t go in. I think we have dinner somewhere in our neighborhood and return to the hostel to relax a little.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque Visit #2
As it’s the evening now, we pick up some grilled corn from one of those stands that also sells sweet chestnuts.
We try to visit the Blue Mosque once again. I guess our guidebook also said it’s good to visit it in the daytime and at night for a completely different vibe. Once we’re inside, I’m amazed at how humongous the columns are of this mosque. And since it’s dark again, the photos turn out as blurry as they were in the Cistern Basilica this morning.
Day 4: Kız Kulesi + Taksim/Galata + ‘Asian’ Side
31st of March
We take the T1 tram from Sultanahmet Neighborhood across the Galata Bridge to the Dolmabahçe Palace area. Quite some men are fishing on the bridge.
Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı)
We arrive at the Dolmabahçe Mosque first.
There are some photos of the palace from the outside and the First Istanbul Bridge (Boğaziçi Köprüsü/15 Temmuz Şehitler Köprüsü) in the background. I guess holding my camera horizontal was still a motor skill I was still developing at the ripe age of 21. The Dolmabahçe Palace must have either been closed or not on our itinerary, to begin with; the next photos are from a little boat on the Bosphorus Strait.
Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi)
We took the boat from (presumably) Beşiktaş Pier to the Maiden’s Tower.
This was definitely an organized tour and we heard the stuff about how it was featured in the James Bond movie, the legend behind it, etc.
The vistas were great as hoped.
Visiting this small island was also one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul. And I’m happy I did it back in 2013 because in late 2021 it’s not possible to do this (covid).
Funicular to Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı) + İstiklal Avenue (İstiklal Caddesi)
Then we take the boat back to the other side. I guess we either take the T1 tram from Beşiktaş to Kabataş or walk there, because then we take the F1 funicular up to Taksim Square.
Up there, we see loads of yellow taxis (which have all but disappeared from Taksim Square in 2021) and see a minaret that looks like a space rocket.
On İstiklal Avenue, we get hungry immediately and sit down at Café Français Istanbul in the French consulate to sit down for lunch.
After that, we walk down İstiklal, run into a protest around a metal sculpture at Galatasaray Square, and spot the nostalgic tram.
We walk past that funny church (Sent Antuan Kilisesi). Of course, there are talented street musicians with interesting instruments that make the place lively. I eat coconut ice cream that’s called “Hindustani walnut” in Turkish.
Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi)
I didn’t remember at all that I’d already gone up Galata Tower. No memory at all of this place. I guess it was so-so because it was very busy and the vista wasn’t that great with the glass windows.
Ferry Eminönü to Üsküdar + Yeni Valide Mosque (Yeni Valide Camii)
Walk back over the Galata Bridge and I bother some fishermen. Then we hop on the ferry from presumably Eminönü (and not Karaköy) to visit the Asian side.
We visited the Yeni Valide Mosque. It has a nice little park right outside it.
After that, I guess we didn’t know what to do anymore on the Asian side, because we’re walking past busy construction sites back to the pier to take the ferry across to Eminönü again. According to the timestamps, we spent less than one and a half hours on the Asian side.
Gülhane Park (Gülhane Parkı) + Simit
We took the tram again. This time, I clearly remember being uncomfortable around the men on public transportation. It was very busy.
We walked toward Gülhane Park via the Sublime Porte (Bab-ı Ali). When we entered, there were loads of people having a picnic and chilling by the fountains. We got some simit to enjoy. There were also games with guns that looked a little too realistic. We really had a good time here people watching and relaxing.
We walked via the backside of Hagia Sophia to our hostel.
1st of April
We return to the Dolmabahçe Palace area and get a little further than before. We see some cool gates, the clock tower… it was again a very short visit basically only to get to the pier.
Heybeliada on the Princes’ Islands
We’re on the ferry out of the Bosphorus and onto the Sea of Marmara. There are seagulls following our ship and so many oil tankers and cargo ships also in
We have Turkish tea aboard the ship and I’m enjoying sitting on the outside leaning with my feet over the edge. These are my oldest hiking boots, by the way. By the time it’s 2021, I’ve gone through many hiking boots.
And the island we chose for this trip was Heybeliada. It’s funny because I thought I hadn’t been to any of the Princes’ Islands when I returned to Istanbul in 2021. I asked my mom about it and she also didn’t remember going there.
But when I visited all the publicly-accessible Princes’ Islands in 2021, when I hiked up Heybeliada, I told Jonas “This one feels familiar.” A few weeks later, I’m typing up this post and I see those pictures of a forested trail at the summit that has now been chopped down completely. And I met chickens at the same corner in 2013 and in 2021.
Anyway, we walked uphill and we got very tired. Apparently, the Princes’ Islands didn’t have their shiny electric buses yet. And the horse carts that you can take on a tour of the island? They only exist on Büyükada in 2021 but also existed on Heybeliada in 2013. By the way, don’t take the horse carts on Büyükada; they aren’t treated well and there is so much horse poop everywhere on the island where it’s nice to walk or bike.
From the summit, I even took some pictures of Yassıada. On the 7th of November of 2013, the government would rename Yassıada into Demokrasi ve Özgürlükler Adası (Democracy and Freedom Island).
Back to Sultanahmet: Rüstem Pasha Mosque (Rüstem Paşa Camii)
We re-entered European Istanbul in the Fatih neighborhood. There, we visited one last mosque, which was the Rüstem Pasha Mosque). Though it was beautiful inside, my camera just seemed very tired of taking photos indoors; I didn’t use flash, it would just be a blurry mess.
Outside the mosque, we had a chat with a congregant or Imam. He gave us one Qur’an (English translation) each free of charge. One of them became a very well-traveled Qur’an.
So from the masjid we went to the souk one last time. But before we even arrived at the building of the Grand Bazaar, the shops started to get a little weird and unwholesome. Like this gun shop.
Tea at the Grand Bazaar
Then I tea with mom at a place called Huzur Cafe & Restaurant (but not the one you can find on Google Maps), which is where she took a Facebook profile picture for me. I always remembered this place being inside the Grand Bazaar, but I tried finding it in 2021 and obviously couldn’t. Perhaps the business owner got so successful he managed to move his café and restaurant to a bigger venue. At least, that’s the happy answer as to why the business isn’t here anymore.
We walk past the Keçecizade Fuad Paşa Tomb and Mosque (Keçecizade Fuad Paşa Türbesi ve Camii) to the Walled Obelisk. After that, my mom sat down at the Marmara University Cumhuriyet Museum and Art Gallery while we figured out what to do next. I think we just went back to the hostel because Heybeliada was quite tiring.
Last Meal, Cat with Kittens on Carpet
I have no idea where we ate our last meal or what it was. We did meet this adorable cat advertising some comfy-looking carpets with her kittens (1 void, 4 anti-voids) that melted my heart.
As expected, one last photo of the Hagia Sophia before it was time to sleep one last night before flying back to the Netherlands.
Day 6: End of Istanbul City Trip
2nd of April
I just have these two photos:
A cheesy su böreği from the airport and a random picture of what was (presumably, hopefully?) our Pegasus airplane back to Amsterdam.
I do not recall what kind of special hell it was to return from Sultanahmet neighborhood to Sabiha Gökçen Airport. But I’m assuming was once again not easy. Perhaps we took the offer of an airport transfer from the hostel, perhaps we paid for a taxi, perhaps we hustled it. I do not recall. (ETA: my mom says she arranged another taxi van to the airport.)
What I do recall is that the overall trip was pretty great. Sure, I was 21 and ready to head out into the world by myself, but it was also great to still have this completely novel experience together with my mom in this part of the world.
Conclusions about Istanbul in 2013?
This post started with 456 photos to sort through. And wow, it’s been quite the trip down memory lane. These are some rather random takeaways:
- It’s remarkable how little I remember (or misremember) from some parts of the trip. For example, I thought I hadn’t been up the Galata Tower. And I was sure I hadn’t visited any of the Princes’ Islands (and my mom also didn’t remember when I asked her). So this is why you don’t travel with kids “for the memories”; not even when that kid is 21
- Not much has really changed in Istanbul regarding transit. We used pretty much the same methods of getting around in 2021 and 2013. Yes, there is the addition of the Marmaray, but if you’re in the wrong area it’s not very useful. If anything, the city became easier to navigate for foreigners
- Having a local SIM card and a good smartphone and a Google Maps app filled with useful data is an absolute gamechanger. No more asking for WiFi passwords and being without internet on the islands. And live conversation Google Translate between Turkish and English? Fucking A
- My food photography skills were horrible. Absolutely of these pictures look appetizing to me and I apologize for showing them to you
- Istanbul was less touristy in 2013. Even covid couldn’t stop the surge in tourism to this city and I don’t remember having any crowd anxiety back then. 2021 İstiklal Cadessi makes me want to scream
- Turkish people and Istanbulites are so dear considering the sheer size of this city. They do random acts of kindness even in jobs where you’d think they don’t have the energy to spare. That hasn’t changed at all over the last eight years
- Doing an Istanbul city trip versus living here for one month is a wildly different experience. We didn’t eat much Turkish food because we can get certain foods in Istanbul that we won’t be able to get in Karasu or Edirne. Immigrants opening businesses here to serve their community and a bunch of enthusiastic tourists like us really make Istanbul a world city
- Çiğ köfte is apparently vegan 🤯 I remember eating a meaty version in Ankara back in 2014 with my unofficial CouchSurfing hosts. Apparently, the Turkish ministry of health has banned raw meat çiğ köfte since 2008, so maybe I’m misremembering this again but I remember I was shocked that it had raw meat (and how good it was). Unlearning this has been a journey but now I’m eating çiğ köfte full-time
- Going over the old photos was better towards the end of my stay than if I’d done it at the start. After one month, I could completely visualize the 2013 itinerary and see where we took a sub-optimal route. I’ve been telling myself all month to go over the old photos but doing it towards the end just made the most sense. And now you have an enormous photo dump that poses as a blog post 🙂