No transportation woes on our brief, comfortable, air-conditioned flight from Belgrade’s Nicola Tesla Airport to Istanbul. There exists an overnight train (couchette only, no cabins) for the same route, requiring an 01:30 wakeup for passport control at the Bulgarian/Turkish border, but that abominable notion was not given a second thought in the early stages of planning.The uneventful flight did not mean that all went smoothly on our arrival, though. As our Istanbul stay was four days, I had rented an apartment rather than a hotel room, in order to do laundry and spread out a bit, as well as to give us the option of eating meals at home when we chose. Our taxi weaved through Istanbul and up into the neighborhood that the owner described as “vibrant with local color.”

 Now of course that can mean anything, but the several dozen reviews reassured me that all would be well. He also said the “people were very poor, but nice.”  An odd comment.The apartment itself was pleasant; the owner had arranged for the neighbor to meet us, and she very generously invited us to her lovely apartment for tea and gave us a brief tour of the neighborhood.   But something felt amiss. Anna Grace and I set off to find lunch, and by the time we returned to the apartment, we knew we could not stay there and enjoy Istanbul.  The feeling we had was hard to describe: much of the neighborhood was shabby–not a concern, as the area was very safe; and indeed, many neighbors of this UNESCO-protected area were poor–again, not a concern. The local markets and restaurants may have been a bit oversold–no concern, everyone has an opinion.

 Still, something didn’t feel right.The apartment was on the street level of a UNESCO-restored building; and the owner mentioned that the neighborhood children liked to peer into the windows, so we would want to keep the curtains drawn in the evenings. However, we found it necessary to draw the curtains in the middle of the day, making us feel a little trapped. After an hour of fretting and searching Expedia, we decided to move to a hotel the following morning. We just could not put our finger on what unsettled us about the apartment except that we felt out of place, but even that didn’t seem sufficient.

 The following morning we left the apartment and settled into a pretty little hotel room smack in the heart of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s equivalent of the 6eme in Paris, or maybe midtown Manhattan in NYC. The decision was a wise one; our balcony doors opened to a view of the Sea of Marmara, and we were truly surrounded by “vibrant local color” (our neighbor had no qualms hanging his laundry on his patio while wearing nothing but his skivvies.) Now, we thought, our Istanbul holiday had begun!But enough chatter.The Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque). As impressive as all the photos you’ve ever seen.

The interior. Terribly long wait in line to view, and absurdly difficult to photograph well (at least by me). The viewing area is limited, and the light cables obscure the beautiful tiles.  Anna Grace and I voted this the most underwhelming experience of our entire holiday.

A secular society, but not entirely equal.

The Blue Mosque in the evening light, at the opposite end of the park from the Hagia Sophia. In the evening families gather on the benches, watching the sky turn to night and the lights illuminate the two mosques.  Being in the park at dusk will always be one of our favorite memories.

Istanbul University main building. Even prettier in person.

Sulemaniye Mosque, the inner courtyard.

The New Mosque near Eminönü, inner courtyard.

The Sirkeci train station, currently under restoration. This station was the terminus for the Orient Express.

Basilica Cistern, one of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath Istanbul.  If you’ve seen From Russia with Love, you’ve seen this cistern.

Hagia Sophia in the early evening.

A small scene of the interior of Hagia Sophia that wasn’t currently under restoration.

An unassuming mosque near our hotel. The calm inner courtyard provided a place to rest, far away from the din of tourists.
Ali Baba greets visitors to the Topkapi Palace.  Do give yourself at least the entire afternoon to enjoy the palace and the grounds.

Pasha’s Terrace at the Topkapi Palace (main salon)

The Baghdad Room of Pasha’s Terrace. The inlays include mother-of-pearl stones, and the room shimmered in the afternoon light.

 Ottoman architecture throughout Sultanahmet.

The Million Column, the point from which all distances in the Ottoman Empire were measured.

Across the Golden Horn in Beyoglu, the tram going between Tunel and Taksim Square.

Passages in Beyoglu very much like the ones I’ve visited in Paris.

Taksim Square. Quiet now, save for the tourists snapping photos and the armed military standing around watching the tourists snap photos.