I can’t get over Istanbul and the fact that we are literally and figuratively on the bridge between East and West!

We’re staying on the European side, where most of the action is, but we plan on exploring Istanbul’s Anatolian (Asian) part too. I’m embarrassed to say that I had no idea before we got here that Byzantium and Constantinople were the ancient names for Istanbul. I’ve learned so much and it’s only been a day!

We’re staying at the Hotel Amira, not my first choice initially but now that we’re here, I couldn’t be happier. After we arrived, the concierge brought us up to the rooftop terrace for a drink and gave us a print-out of all the big attractions and how far a walk each is from the other. We’re walking a lot on this trip, which is a great way to see places in the city. Plus it’s easier to spot a cute item in a shop on foot than in a car or bus.

Topkapi Palace

We began our tour of Istanbul with Topkapi Palace, which we found out is the oldest and largest surviving palace in the world. As many as 4,000 people lived there at one time, so we couldn’t just zip through and even though we were there for half a day, we definitely didn’t see it all.

We started with the harem—what else? Before the tour, I had no idea what harems really were. It turns out the word “harem” means “private” and they were the private living areas for the family, which meant the sultan, up to four wives, and a maximum of 300 concubines (Can you imagine? Is it even physically possible?), assorted children, eunuchs, and domestic help.

The mother of the ruling sultan was the boss and decided on who got to “the honor” of being a royal concubine, not just a lady in waiting. The girls in the harem were all foreign slaves, sold by their families or “gifted” by conquerors. If they were lucky and pleased the sultan, they could eventually be granted freedom and property.

After exploring the harem, we went on a mission to find the treasury with all the jewels, including an 86-carat diamond. There was quite a crowd around it and by the time we inched our way forward, we just gaped. It is so gigantic that it looks fake; I like the other smaller jewels better and would be totally happy wearing some of those necklaces.

Turkish Food

After our palace visit, we were feeling pretty tired even after drinking super strong Turkish coffee, so we decided on an early dinner. The waiter recommended something called kumpir, which turned out to be baked potato stuffed with mayonnaise, ketchup, spices, and vegetables. It was delicious! Lisa then had eggplant and feta borek, a kind of turnover or pasty while the rest of us shared a plate of köfte (meat balls), and two balık ekmeks (fish sandwiches).

To toast our first evening in Istanbul, we all drank a glass of raki, or lion’s milk, the national alcoholic beverage of Turkey. I didn’t care for it, so I switched to the local beer, but the others stuck with it. Now it’s off to bed — must get some sleep before we go to the Grand Bazaar tomorrow!

Exploring Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar definitely lives up to its name! Like the palace, we barely scratched the surface, but we still got a taste of it. First of all, it is mind-bogglingly huge—it makes all the malls I have ever seen before seem puny.

Picture more than 4,000 shops, miles of streets, mosques, banks, restaurants, and workshops all under a roof. Honestly, I could spend three weeks there, but even I don’t want to miss everything else here in Istanbul. I knew I would have to move quickly and efficiently to achieve maximum results in such a short time.

We decided to split up but meet back for lunch at Burç Ocakbaşi, a place Lisa scoped out on the internet. I don’t know how the others felt when we first set out, but I was a tad intimidated by all the people. I was thinking about the scene in the James Bond movie, Skyfall, when James and Eve are trying to catch the bad guy and they tear through the Grand Bazaar running over locals and tourists. While I definitely wouldn’t mind running into Daniel Craig any time anywhere, it all felt so, well, foreign.

In a mall I’m in my element, but the bazaar is like nothing I’d ever seen, filled with people from all over the world haggling, sipping tea, and looking for everything from gold jewelry to carpets to the Turkish lamp you see here.

The Fine Art of Bargaining

Being an American unused to the art of bargaining, I knew I would only be putty in the shop keepers’ hands no matter what I did.  So I started by observing what was happening, wandering around and looking at the people as much as what they were selling.

Some of the shops looked like they had been there for hundreds of years and probably hadn’t been cleaned since they opened while others gleamed. After a while I made my decision: I would buy a new rug. I went to numerous shops, comparing prices and products until I spied the one I really wanted. Then the fun began.

I haggled. I walked away and waited for the man to beckon me back and offer me a cup of tea. I don’t know if I got a good deal in the end, but I am now the proud owner of an authentic Turkish rug that will look perfect on my porch. The only problem is that I have to figure out how to get it home!

Next: Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern with it’s Weird Orange Glow