Apparently Istanbul has increased by millions since I last visited in 2010, and this influx of people was terribly apparent. Still, despite large crowds, impending panic attacks, and red flags the size of giraffes hanging far and wide, we had so many highlights while there! Here are my top five.
1. Shopping in Taksim
The first day was just us girls (Shawn was to join us from New York the next day), so we dedicated it to shopping, peeking into stores we only get in Europe, exploring the neighborhood and its attractions, and pausing for Turkish coffee or tea (we did a lot of this to help sustain us through our sightseeing!).
2. Turkish Bath
Last time in Turkey we didn't go to a bath, so I was really set on it this time around. We went to the Cagaloglu Baths, which are very well-known thanks to being listed on "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" and Kate Moss's photoshoot for W Magazine. While there were many international people there, it wasn't very crowded at all.
We had heard we had to "get the bubbles," and not knowing what that meant, went ahead and requested them. We're given a key to our own changing room, Turkish towels, and the most ill-fitting little wooden planks of slippers that make my feet look like two decidedly unappealing sushi rolls. Doubled over in laughter, we attempt to walk through the hamam teetering on these death traps.
We head to the hot-as-all-hell sauna, gawking in amazement at the details of the hamam around us. We could only take photos in our minds (based on the water splashing everywhere and abundant nudity), so here's an online photo just to give you an idea of its magnificence:
Finally, after sweating off half our body weights in the sauna, it's our turn for the main attraction. We each have a sturdy Turkish woman in what can only be described as a wrestling singlet taking care of us. We shed our towels, lay down on the raised platform in the center of the room, and begin our bath. My lady introduces herself as Goo (I'm sure it's not spelled like that and short for something much cuter, but this is how it will always be remembered by me, as it brings me great joy), pours water down my body and starts scrubbing me all over, first the front, then the back, and finally she sits me up to do my arms. Then she grabs my hand and leads me to the wall, where the faucets are, to rinse me with several shallow bowls of water before taking my hand and guiding me back to platform, where we begin part two.
This time around it's a massage, first front, then back, then seated. I'm marveling at how much I feel like a vulnerable child (and don't mind it), how beautiful it is to shed all abandon (and cotton), how I'm getting to share this amazing experience with close friends, and how spectacular the ceiling looks with the light pouring through the cutouts. At this point I'm picking up on the process and know to grab her hand and head to the faucets.
Next up, we arrive at the third, the final: the "bubbles" round! Basically, a bucket of super-sudsy water is brought in, and Goo digs into it to reveal an apparatus that is old-witch's-broom-meets-horse's-tail covered in, yes, bubbles! She slops it onto my body from head to toe and it feels weirdly wonderful, sudsy and scrubby and soft all at once. We do our full rotation, her massaging me with the occasional slop of bubbles, and then she declared it's time to wash my hair, which I hadn't been expecting (let's be real, I went into all of this pretty blindly, making it all the more fascinating). So I let her guide me back to the faucet's ledge, where I sit down, arms wrapped around legs, feeling so naked and infantile, until she starts in on my hair. To Goo, this was achieved by taking my head and pressing it into her bosom so she could really get the leverage to scrub. It was an intimate hour with Goo, let me tell you.
If you ever go to Turkey, don't let any insecurities hold you back from this experience! It was absolutely one of my favorite experiences of the trip, and such a great lesson in letting go and just being.
3. Visiting the Mosques
On our first day with Shawn, we revisited the main hot spots, including the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern. Brittany had never been to Turkey, and it's hard to imagine a trip to Istanbul without seeing these sites each time. We also visited a mosque I hadn't been to on the last trip, called Rustem Pasha, which has incredible tile work. The Blue Mosque and Rustem Pasha are still active places of worship, but the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church turned Imperial mosque, is now a museum that showcases its various layers of history. A highlight of the day was Shawn having to wear a skirt around his bare legs to enter one of the mosques.
The Blue Mosque
Pretty sure there were some expletives from Shawn about just letting him take the picture already
Rustem Pasha Mosque
Hilarious photo bomb
4. Shopping for Pottery in the Grand Bazaar
We spent many hours browsing the bazaar: tasting Turkish delight, selecting between different trinkets, and enjoying the creativity of the salesmen's tactics:
"Princess! For you, everything is free!"
"We have everything...but customers."
"You have a great smile...do you work at Colgate Company?"
Walking through the bazaar, I had my sights set on one main thing: pottery. I secretly (maybe even to myself) wanted to buy something significant but was trying to figure out how I would fit it in my luggage. I have many weaknesses, and one of them is ceramics. I inherited this from my mother-she practically has tiny dessert plates coming out of her ears!
I found a very nice lady in a shop that escorted me through the labyrinth to their full inventory, where I fell in love with far too many things, including this pomegranate-shaped ornament and colorful vase, both of which I purchased and spent the remainder of the trip lugging around with me, covered in 4 layers of bubble-wrap! It was worth it.
5. Turkish Meze in Taksim
I had been itching to return to Taksim's vibrant nightlife, where just sitting down for dinner at a bustling outdoor table can be a thrill, and Gio knew exactly where to go. We got to pick our meze, which are basically like tapas or appetizers, from an example tray the waiter brought around to us. Relishing our eggplant, cheese, yogurt, fish, and more, we spent hours people watching, chatting, and trying to choke down our raki, an anise-flavored aperitif ubiquitous in Turkey.
The food was yummy, but it was the charged pulse of the street and the Euro characters shuffling by our table that made it my favorite meal out while we were in Istanbul!