When we decided to go to Portugal for our summer vacation, the cheapest flight took us via Istanbul on Turkish Airlines with an overnight layover each way.  It meant going out of our way, but the opportunity to spend some time exploring Istanbul seemed worth the extra hours on a plane.  We only had time to see some sights on our layover to Porto, but we took advantage of our limited time there.  We stayed at an awesome hotel, the Premist Hotel, in Sultanahmet, the old city of Istanbul.  The hotel was only 2 blocks away from the Hagia Sophia and all the main sites, and the best part was that they arranged transportation from the airport to the hotel, which was very welcome after a 10 hour flight and hardly any sleep.  When we arrived, the celebrations for the Conquest of Istanbul Day were taking place, so our driver expertly navigated all the closed streets and drove us down the backroads so we had quite the tour of Istanbul by the time we arrived at our hotel.  We also learned that Turkish drivers can be quite unpredictable with several people just randomly stopping their cars and getting out to walk around on the main highway during rush hour.  We were warmly greeted at our hotel with some Turkish coffee and advice on how to best make use of our limited time in the city and once we showered and changed, we set out to see as much as we could.

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We were very lucky to have most of the major sites at the end of our street–the Hagia Sophia, the tomb of Sultan Selim, the Blue Mosque, and Sultan Ahmet Park, and it was a gorgeous night for walking around.

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I had heard that the Blue Mosque was beautiful and enormous, but it was more striking than I had imagined.  Unfortunately, we arrived too late to go into the mosque that night, but Robin went to see it early the next morning.

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I had also seen photos of the Hagia Sophia, but only from the inside, so I had no idea it was this pretty pink color.  The park in between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque was full of people in the early evening–families taking walks, children playing soccer–everything was so lively.

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We continued our walk over toward the Karaköy neighborhood, which is across the Galata Bridge from Sultanahmet.  We reached the Bosphorus River right at sunset and took in the views.

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Once we crossed the bridge into Karaköy, we wandered around the tiny streets which were coming to life at night.  There was much more going on in this neighborhood than back in the main touristy areas.  It was fun to see people gathering and the interesting street art and graffiti.

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After walking around for awhile, we settled in for dinner at a place right by the Galata Tower.  It was probably a little touristy, but we were hungry and it had traditional Turkish food and raki, an anise-flavored alcoholic drink popular in Turkey.  Surprisingly, I really liked it! During our dinner, a stray dog came over and stayed under my chair the entire time–I was expecting a lot of stray cats in Istanbul, but there were just as many stray dogs!

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After dinner, we began the trek back toward our hotel.  Along the way, while we were walking over the Galata Bridge, we saw fireworks going off from a boat on the river to celebrate the holiday.  The skyline was beautiful lit up at night.

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Before we called it a night, we went in search for Turkish ice cream and found some in Sultan Ahmet park.  Turkish ice cream has a strange consistency, kind of like taffy, that allows the vendor to put on a little show and do tricks with the ice cream before giving it to you.  It was really good, and luckily I realized my salted caramel flavor also had almonds in it before eating any, and quickly traded with Robin.  I didn’t really want to have an allergic reaction the very first night of our trip!

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The next morning we had a great breakfast in the courtyard of our hotel, and then enjoyed one last Turkish coffee at the airport while we waited for our flight to Porto.  Before our trip, I was curious about Istanbul, but wasn’t completely sure what to expect or if I would like it, but just a few hours there was more than enough to win me over.  Unfortunately, the recent terrorist attacks have taken a toll on the residents of Istanbul as well as the tourism industry, but I hope better days are ahead as it’s such a beautiful city with wonderful people and we will be back one day when we can stay longer!

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