Oh look, now’s the perfect time for you to start planning a trip to Istanbul next spring!
It was almost one year ago that I first contracted another bout of serious wanderlust, and began daydreaming about my next big adventure. I had been toying with the idea of visiting Istanbul already, and when I found out about the annual Istanbul Tulip Festival that takes place throughout the month of April every year, I just knew right there and then that I had to be there for it 😀
Fun fact: did you know that tulips first originated in Turkey? Yeah, the Netherlands’ most famous icon is an import 😉 Tulips were originally wild flowers found in Central Asia, and were cultivated by the Turks from as early as 1,000 A.D. That’s where they got their name – ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word for ‘turban’! The flowers only ‘officially’ bloomed in the Netherlands in 1594, after botanist Carolus Clusius got some tulip bulbs from the ambassador of Constantinople, Oghier Ghislain de Busbecq, and planted them in the Hortus Botanicus of Leiden, the oldest botanical garden of Europe.
Although the Netherlands have officially taken over the title of ‘ultimate tulip guys’ now, but Istanbul is definitely giving them a run for their money with the Istanbul Tulip Festival. Every year, millions of tulip bulbs are planted all throughout the city, and the result is just happiness. Happiness, everywhere you go, in April. The place that is considered THE best spot for tulip-viewing during the festival is Emirgan Park, because this:
OH MY GOD RIGHT SERIOUSLY.
Unfortunately, Emirgan Park is a little further from the tourist central of Sultanahmet, and therefore slightly harder to get to, so I didn’t quite have the time to squeeze in a visit to the park. However, all is not lost because the beauty of the Istanbul Tulip Festival is that you can see tulips just about everywhere. Like along the streets:
All around iconic Istanbul landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque:
And throughout the grounds of the Topkapi Palace as well!
This part of the palace grounds was obscured from view, behind one of the buildings, so I wasn’t expecting to be suddenly presented with this view when I turned a corner! I literally stopped in my tracks and gasped when I saw it, because it was my first time seeing a whole gardenful of tulips, and it was just sooooo damn beautiful.
There are people everywhere gawking over the same things you are!
If you’re dead set on seeing tulips in a garden, but can’t make it all the way to Emirgan Park like me, don’t worry – the nearby Gulhane Park is great for an afternoon of tulip gazing as well!
Gulhane Park is literally just steps away from Topkapi Palace, because it was originally part of the palace’s grounds. It has since been separated into its own park though, and you can’t walk directly from the palace to the park, but it’s no big deal as it’s still really near anyway. If you’re coming from anywhere else, just take the tram running through Sultanahmet and stop at the Gulhane station!
Enter the park, and you’ll be welcomed by a wide, pedestrian-friendly pathway, with tulips along both sides for as far as the eye can see.
You can go crazy and start snapping 500 pictures per second all as you make your way down the pathway…
…or take a seat on one of the many benches by the side, and just take in the beauty that you’re surrounded by.
But you’ll wanna keep walking after a while, because there are just so many things to see. So many tulips of colours you never knew they had.
As you get further into the park, you can see where the walls of Topkapi Palace meet Gulhane Park!
Go a little further up, and you can get a glimpse of the Bosphorus beyond the park, and also this spot where it looks like someone spilled a whole bunch of tulip bulbs everywhere and left it just because they could:
AMAIGAT MULTICOLOUR TULIP CARPET
Psst: come in the evening, because tulips look really pretty in the evening light 😉
One last photo of sunset at Gulhane Park, because it would be gorgeous even without the tulips 🙂
I really hope I can make it back again someday for the tulips, and I’m not leaving until I see them in Emirgan Park the next time. If you do decide to go for the Istanbul Tulip Festival someday, try to time your visit to be in the first half of the month. Don’t wait until the last days of April to visit, because the tulips might all be wilted by then!
So that about sums up my tulip craze in Istanbul. It’s not the end of my adventures in Turkey yet, but up next, a break from Turkey for a few posts from my recent trip to Thailand!
I hadn’t planned on doing a cruise down Istanbul’s Bosphorus, but I decided to take one on a whim to fill up an afternoon without plans… and I ended up on one of my favourite city cruises yet!
Istanbul is a gorgeous enough city to explore by foot, but as it turns out, it sure looks damn pretty from the water as well. 🙂 One of the popular things to do is to take a cruise along the Bosphorus strait, the body of water that divides the European side of Istanbul in half. I wouldn’t say it’s a must-do if you don’t have a lot of time to spend in Istanbul, but it’s not a bad choice if you’re there for at least 3-4 days.
I’ve done my fair share of city cruises, but the first thing that hit me about the Bosphorus was that unlike the murky River Thames of London, or Paris’ Seine, the waters of the Bosphorus are a brilliant turquoise on a sunny day. Which I was not expecting, because seriously, who has waters that clear running right through the middle of a city of Istanbul’s size?!
As you would expect, there are a lot of companies offering cruises along the Bosphorus, with various options ranging from a simple ride on a boat to fancy dinner cruises and the lot. You can either Google around for something you’d like, or just stand around in the middle of Sultanahmet and wait for someone to offer you a cruise (it won’t take long), or browse around the travel agencies’ offices when you get there. I just got mine bundled together with a whole bunch of other bus tickets/tours I was getting at one of the travel agencies!
Istanbul has many sides to it – there’s the glitzy, the gritty, the old and the modern all mashed together, and the glamourous side is definitely the side that you’ll be seeing on the Bosphorus cruise.
There are quite a number of sights you can see along the banks of the Bosphorus, which your guide will point out to you, and it becomes obvious that the Bosphorus has, and probably always will be, the playground of the rich and the famous 😉
Case in point, the Dolmabahçe Palace! The stunning palace is one of several built right at the edge of the Bosphorus, and is one of Istanbul’s most well-known sights. The Dolmabahçe Palace replaced Topkapi Palace as the Sultans’ primary residence when they started digging the European style of architecture, and is supposed to have immensely opulent interiors (which I hadn’t had the opportunity to see for myself).
Another pretty palace along the Bosphorus! …which I can’t remember the name of, sorry.
Other than palaces, the banks of the Bosphorus are also home to some of the most expensive hotels, the Four Seasons, and Ciragan Palace, a former Ottoman palace which is now a five-star hotel of the Kempinski Hotels chain. My photos didn’t turn out so well, so knock yourselves out with the links 😛
Another interesting sight on the Bosphorus is the Galatasaray Islet!
It’s not very obvious from this picture, but it’s basically a tiny, man-made “island” that is now the property of Galatasaray SK, one of Istanbul’s most famous sports clubs. It’s pretty cool – there are restaurants, bars and even swimming pools on the island! I wouldn’t mind having an evening cocktail there 🙂
A little further up the Bosphorus is where some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods are!
Hello big houses and private boats!
Yup, that looks like a view worth big bucks for sure.
Life is good when you get to zip by gawking boatfuls of tourists on your own sweet yacht 🙂
Other than getting a glimpse of the good life, there are a couple other things you can see along the Bosphorus, like the Bosphorus bridges.
This is the Bosphorus Bridge, also known as the First Bosphorus Bridge or simply the First Bridge, one of two suspension bridges across the Bosphorus strait. It lights up at night in pretty colours!
You’ll also be able to see the Rumeli Hisari fortress during the cruise!
After a leisurely round trip of about an hour on the Bosphorus, we set off for a side trip to Pierre Loti Hill, which was also included in my tour.
If you’re thinking that “Pierre Loti” sounds awfully un-Turkish, you’d be right. The hill was named after a French naval officer and novelist who was a big fan of Istanbul (and that hill in particular), and named one of his novels after a Turkish woman he fell in love with. It is also where the Bosphorus “ends” inland, and you can enjoy some pretty awesome panoramic views of the bay!
There’s also a cafe up there where you can enjoy the view from for longer if you’ve got the time.
Unfortunately, time was what I didn’t have when I was on a tour, so we wrapped up the tour and took the cable car down to where our van was waiting after about 15 minutes up there. If I had the time to spare, I would’ve walked down the hill, which happens to a really scenic cemetery as well. Yeah, that’s my kinda thing 😛
Up next – my last post on Istanbul, and my reason for visiting Istanbul in the first place! 😀
“Would you like a Turkish carpet? How about a Turkish scarf? Do you want Turkish tea? HOW ABOUT A TURKISH BOYFRIEND?”
No kidding, I got that from one of the vendors in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, trying not to laugh too hard as I walked away from what seemed like the millionth carpet store in there.
If you love bazaars or markets like Malaysian pasar malams (or any other South East Asian markets), you’ll love the bazaars of Istanbul as well!
The salesmen in Istanbul are some of the most persuasive, aggressive ones I’ve seen in my life – if you’re a single female traveller, they’ll probably try to hit on you while selling you a carpet at the same time 😛 Unabashedly so, at that. Also, be prepared to be offered more tea than you’ll ever drink in your whole life. I don’t know how it happens, but there’s Guy A that ropes you in (“Turkish tea or apple tea?”), he yells at Guy B in Turkish, 5 seconds later Guy B appears out of nowhere with a tray of tea, and once they get you to sit down for a chat, you’re not leaving without a carpet. Or a lamp. Or an impossibly soft cashmere scarf.
It can get rather overwhelming sometimes, but it’s not all bad because most of the time, they’re just really friendly. It’s a Turkish thing. And even if you’re not particularly set on shopping, the bazaars are pretty awesome places to get lost in and get some cool photos too!
I managed to visit the 2 most well-known bazaars in Istanbul when I was there, namely the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar is Istanbul’s second largest covered market complex after the Grand Bazaar, and is pretty easy to reach. It’s located in Eminonu, right next to Yeni Camii (New Mosque), and a short walk away from the Galata Bridge. If you’re taking the tram, just get off at the Eminonu stop!
No prizes for guessing how the Spice Bazaar got its name!
The Spice Bazaar was, and still is, the center of spice trade in Istanbul, but you can also find a whole lot of other foodstuff there.
Wondering what love tea does? I… can’t give you the answer to that either. *sniggers immaturely*
There’s lots of Turkish delight to be found! It’s a little too sweet for me, but if it’s too your liking, they have some pretty high-tech packaging thingamajig methods so you can take some back for your friends with a sweet tooth.
There are some non-food-related stalls in the Spice Bazaar too, but to a lesser extent, it seems, as food is still the main focus of the Spice Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar feels kinda like the Grand Bazaar’s little brother – it’s not as big, the crowds are smaller, and it feels like people actually go there to buy stuff, as opposed to the Grand Bazaar, which feels like a flashy, grand tourist central, if you stay on the “main streets”.
But don’t let that put you off visiting the Grand Bazaar, because it’s absolutely an Istanbul must-do!
This is one of the many entrances to the Grand Bazaar. It is an absolutely massive complex holding over 3,000 shops, so you can bet there are a lot of those! The Grand Bazaar is pretty easy to get to as well, you can either head there on foot from the Hagia Sophia (there’ll be signs leading you), or you can hop on the tram and get off at the Beyazit stop.
Keep an eye out for these money changers outside the Grand Bazaar, or around the Sultanahmet area, because this is where you want to convert your currencies! If you’re trying to convert Malaysian ringgit in particular, this is your best bet, because trying to buy Turkish Lira in Malaysia is prohibitively expensive with ridiculous rates. It’s best to get lots of euros, and convert them to Lira at these money changers with minimal commission rates.
So yes, the Grand Bazaar!
Step into mayhem.
And colours. Lots of colours.
You can find anything, and everything, in the Grand Bazaar.
How about some wildly patterned ceramic bowls or jugs for souvenirs?
A nargile pipe maybe?
Bronze ladle things for your kitchen?
More friendly shopkeepers!
Pretty trinkets for your next night out?
Maybe just an evil eye talisman then, nothing too fancy.
Or maybe some lamps!!
Those cliche shots of lamps to represent the Grand Bazaar are not too far off the mark – they really are everywhere. And they are BEE-YOO-TIFUL. The lamp shops are without a doubt some of the prettiest to look at, because colours! And sparkly things!
Please help this man. He is drowning in lamps.
I spent a lot less time wandering around in the Grand Bazaar than I thought I would, because I got lost… but not lost enough, and started looking for the nearest “cikis” (exit) I could find when it seemed that the stalls were starting to repeat themselves (in terms of products sold). Turns out I totally missed out on the best parts of the Grand Bazaar. Bummer!
A couple of months after I returned, I happened to read posts from two of my favourite blogs – MessyNessyChic and For 91 Days – about what else, but the hidden secrets of the Grand Bazaar. I do have a knack for bad timing, don’t I?
MessyNessyChic and For 91 Days both blogged about the hans of the Grand Bazaar, which are basically medieval travellers’ inns, hidden within the Grand Bazaar complex itself. They were used by traveling merchants as places to rest, and also to do business as well. If you wander around enough (which I obviously didn’t), you could probably find one and almost enter an entirely different world, as not many people know about them, and they’re an oasis of silence from the noise of the bazaar crowds!
I really recommend checking out MessyNessyChic’s post here, and For 91 Days’ posts here and here. Just a little teaser of what you can expect: if you make it to one of these mysterious hans, there’s a chance you could end up on the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar. Yes, just like in the movies where the bad guys jump across the buildings and the good guys follow. WHAT.
WHY ARE PEOPLE JUST STANDING AROUND ON ROOFTOPS SO EASILY AND I’M JUST SITTING HERE JESUS
Okay maybe I am (really) jealous that I didn’t manage to find the secret hideaways. But all the more reason for me to come back again for another look at the Grand Bazaar! 😀
Up next, a leisurely afternoon cruise on the Bosphorus!
Or rather, 1 day of epic queues around Istanbul 😛
Sultanahmet is the historic old city of Istanbul, and where most people spend the most of their time in Istanbul, as there’s where all the major sights are. If you haven’t stood in line for something for a long time, you probably won’t be too fond of the place, because you can’t go anywhere without standing in line for at least 20 minutes. Not Disneyland standards, but still. But hey, these sights are overflowing with tourists for a reason!
You can visit most of the places in Sultanahmet on foot, because the attractions are all quite nicely packed within walking distance. Or even if you’re too tired, the tram line running through the area will get you to all the major sights quite conveniently as well! There are quite a number of attractions in Sultanahmet, but here are four of the most popular ones I visited in the course of a day:
1. Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
The Hagia Sophia is the ultimate icon of Istanbul, and for good reason. It’s had a pretty long history; this is the third time it has been constructed, and this version of the structure has been standing since 537 – that’s 1,476 years, in case you’re counting! It was originally a church, but was converted into a mosque about 500 years ago when the Ottomans were in power, hence the Jawi writing inside, and the minarets outside.
The Hagia Sophia is now a museum, and is open to the public every day except Monday. Expect huge crowds if you happen to be visiting on a Sunday or Tuesday, because everybody who didn’t get to go on Monday will be going then!
I’ve always wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia ever since I heard of it, and though it’s not quite as lavishly decorated as say, St. Peter’s in Rome, the interior is still a sight to behold. Unfortunately when I was there, a lot of things were under renovation, so… scaffolding 😦
I was heartbroken to discover only when I got home that the Hagia Sophia apparently has a resident cat named Gli!!
I didn’t spot any cats inside when I was there, but apparently a lot of people have – Gli’s even got his own Tumblr page. Please help me say hi to him if you ever see him 😦
Although I didn’t manage to see Gli, I saw something else just as lovely outside…
A cherry blossom tree! It’s quite the people magnet, as you can see 🙂 I was really lucky to catch the blossoms in full force, because when I went back a week later, they were all gone.
2. Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is another one of the iconic landmarks of Istanbul, and is literally a stone’s throw away from the Hagia Sophia.
Literally! This is the view of the Hagia Sophia across the grounds of the Blue Mosque when you stand at the entrance to the Blue Mosque.
One of the Blue Mosque’s most unique features is its six minarets, as most mosques usually have only four, two, or even one. There’s a funny story about that; apparently Sultan Ahmet I, who commissioned the construction of the mosque, requested for gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood by the architect as six (alti) minarets. When the mosque was finished, it resulted in quite a scandal because even the holiest of mosques, the Haram Mosque in Mecca, had six minarets. The sultan ended up solving the problem by sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret 😀
Another fun fact: the real name of the Blue Mosque is actually the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, in honour of the Sultan! However, it’s more popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the incredibly intricate blue tiles covering the entire interior of the mosque.
Close-up of the tiles! Look at the detail!
3. Basilica Cistern
Lying just about 150m away from the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, yet another one of Istanbul’s top sights. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, because the good stuff is all underground, but just spot the signs (and the queue outside), and you should be fine 😉
The Basilica Cistern is a huge underground structure built in the 6th century, by 7,000 slaves as claimed by some historical texts. It used to provide a water filtration system for buildings nearby including the Topkapi Palace, and could hold up to 100,000 tons of water, but now holds only enough to house some little fishies.
There isn’t much to keep you occupied in the Cistern; you can wander through the labyrinth of columns, and get your picture taken at a photo station somewhere in the middle, and try to take a photo of the eerie glow. But it’s hard to, because like everywhere else in Istanbul, you can’t bring a tripod in where you need it the most!
Another unique characteristic of the Basilica Cistern is the pair of Medusa heads at the end of the Cistern. (sorry for the ugly flash lighting!) It is said that the heads were recycled and brought in after being removed from some other Roman building.
4. Topkapi Palace
A little further away from the Hagia Sophia is the huge (and gorgeous) Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years.
Again, just follow the signs from the Hagia Sophia and keep walking until you see this… structure (I don’t really know what it is but it’s beautiful too), and behind that is the entrance to the Topkapi Palace.
The Palace consists of a few “layers” of courtyards, which obviously you have to keep going through deeper until you reach the inner courtyard where the Sultans lived. This is the First Courtyard, which is public – you don’t need to pay to get in here, which is nice! The brown building in the background is the Hagia Irene, which is not normally open to the public.
After going through the First Courtyard, you’ll reach the Gate of Salutations (the first photo of the Topkapi Palace I posted), where you’ll have to buy your tickets to enter. We need to go deeper! So after you get your tickets, you’ll pass through the Second Courtyard to get to the Third Courtyard, where you’ll see all the palace structures!
Just like the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace also serves as a museum now, and houses a vast collection of treasures belonging to the Ottoman dynasty. As you can see from the picture above, there are massive lines of people everywhere waiting their turn to see the various items on display, so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t feel like putting yourself through that. But really, if you’re not in a rush, just go with it and take a look at the treasures because it’s definitely worth a look! There are some pretty cool items in there, like the sword and mantel of Prophet Muhammed, the staff of Moses, and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a MASSIVE 86-carat diamond (!!) which is one of the largest in the world. Seriously, I can’t stress how big that thing was. Everybody who walked past the diamond let out an audible gasp, because it just absolutely blinds you when you see it for yourself.
And on to the Fourth Courtyard, the innermost one where the residences of the Sultans are! I can’t remember which building is which, but they were most definitely the most beautiful structures in the Palace.
Most of my pictures are of the exterior of the structures, because photography isn’t allowed in many of the rooms, especially the ones with the treasures inside.
But hey, the gardens are really pretty as well 🙂
If you visit the Topkapi Palace, especially if it’s towards the end of the day, do remember to visit the Harem section of the palace first if you want, because it closes a full hour before the rest of the palace! I didn’t get to visit the Harem thanks to my doodooheadness 😦 Oh well.
So that was the entirety of what I did on my second day in Istanbul! Up next, the bazaars of Istanbul 🙂