(Are you still there ? Not bored yet ? Today I'll tell you all about the sumptuous palaces we visited, and one of my favorite restaurants in Istanbul)
Our second day in Istanbul started pretty much just like the previous one, and soon we were heading up towards the Topkapi Palace right around the corner. I had read in one of my guides that we should be there early, to avoid the long queues for buying tickets. At the gate, though, we were told by the guards that entrance was only at nine o'clock so we sat by the road and played with the cat until it was time. A group of Japanese tourists soon arrived and all of them insisted in taking photos with one of the guards, who found it all very amusing.
Finally we were allowed in, got our tickets and started our visit. The palace grounds are quite big, and it takes at least 2 or 3 hours to cover everything. We started by the palace kitchens, which now houses the world's third largest collection of blue-and-white Chinese and celadon porcelain (a type of porcelain much valued by the sultans because supposedly it changed color in contact with poisons).
After that, we went to stand in line to buy the tickets for the Harem (separate tickets, yes ... you buy them at a small booth on the left side as you enter. First entrance at 9:30) and decided to go there at once. It was my favorite part, of course, all those beautiful rooms and tiles (it goes without saying I took dozens of pictures here), although I can't imagine how at a given time more than a thousand women actually lived here.
The rest of the morning was spent exploring the Treasury (expect to queue a lot here to see all the treasures and relics), Armory, gardens and the remaining pavilions. I particularly liked the library of AhmetI and the Circumcision Room.
And another favorite part: the ottoman patchwork covers shown at the Sultan's Clothes exhibition (I couldn't take photos to show you, but my crafter's heart missed a beat when I saw these). A quick stop to check the Konyali restaurant (looked good, but a bit pricey) but we had other plans for lunch.
We made our way down to Eminonu, passing by numerous souvenir shops and the much famed Haci Bekir shop, known for its turkish delights.
We had decided to have lunch at Hamdi (Tahmis Cad. Kalçın Sok. nr. 17, Eminönü), very much recommended here and by everyone at the TA forum. It is located next to the Spice Bazaar, at the top of a building on the right side. The restaurant has 3 floors, but the main attraction is the terrace and its magnificent views.
It is known for its grilled meats, and indeed the list of kebabs is quite extensive. We chose a tomato and onion special and a yoghurt kebap, along with cacik (yogurt and cucumber dip) and some pilav (which turned out to be a very good spicy rice). The turkish bread (ekmek) was my downfall, once you start eating it there's not way you can stop until it's all gone, so it's a good thing we walked so much or we would've come home a few kilos heavier. The food arrived and it looked good ...
... but it tasted even better. Both dishes were quite spicy and a bit hot (which was fine with us) and I can honestly say I never had better kebabs before. The service at Hamdi is also quite good and efficient (actually, the level of service generally in Turkey is pretty good and we never had problems at hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. of any kind) and if I had enough space left in my stomach I would've tried their baklavas. Instead we settled on a nice plate of fruit, some çay and we were done. It was probably one of the best meals we had in Istanbul, if not the entire trip.
Our plan in the afternoon was to visit the Dolmabahçe Palace, located on the other side by the river, and so we decided to take the ferry. Since we didn't have a Bosphorus cruise planned for our Istanbul visit, this was a second best. We took the ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar, and from there to Besiktas. If I had looked at the maps properly though, I would've seen that it would've been better to go to Kabatas, which is closer to the main entrance. As I said, we like to walk, and that day I think we walked for miles (or at least it felt like it).
The Dolmabahçe Palace is relatively recent (finished in 1853) and it was the first European style palace built in the city. It's a pity we can't arrive there by boat, since I think the view from the water is quite spectacular. We finally reached it, and got tickets for the Selamlik tour. You can buy tickets for two different tours - Harem or Selamlik - and since we didn't have time to take both, we chose the last one as recommended in our guide (takes about 1 hour each).
Before entering, you must cover your shoes in some plastic wraps in order to prevent damage to the carpets. Our tour guide was quite knowledgeable, but unfortunately his English was very heavy accented, which means I was only able to understand half of it. Oh well, the rooms were pretty though, similar to others I've visited elsewhere in Europe.
One of the main attractions is this huge crystal chandelier which hangs in centre of the main hall (a gift from Queen Victoria, and the world's biggest one), and indeed it is quite impressive.
We were exhausted by then, so we took the bus back to Eminonu, and went in search of a supermarket to get some provisions for our bus ride later that night. We found a small one in Sultanahmet, got some cookies and refreshments, and headed to Albura (Yeni Akbiyik Caddessi nr 26) for an early dinner.
We weren't exactly hungry (after that lunch, how could we ?) but we had to eat something before leaving for the bus terminal, so we ordered lentil soups, a plate of mezes (turkish appetizers) and another of dolmalar (vine leaves stuffed with rice). The soups were delicious, and the mezes as well (the dolmalar was ok, but didn't compare to the mezes). While we were eating, it started raining quite heavily and soon it was actually pouring down. I have to say that the weather during the whole trip was brilliant - sunny and warm enough, but not too hot (two weeks before we went I saw reports of 40ºC in Antalya, so I was a bit apprehensive about that, especially because of A. who is not too fond of the heat) - and the two times it rained were just before we left Istanbul.
We ran back to the hotel and although we had planned earlier to take the tram and subway to the ottogar (main bus terminal) we decided to take a taxi instead. Traffic in Istanbul, and particularly during a rainy day, can be very chaotic (well, pretty much like Lisbon, I guess) and an otherwise normal 20 minute ride can take almost one hour. We did get there on time, and our driver apologized profusely for the delay.
While researching for the best way to travel from Istanbul down to Cappadocia, I came up with a lot of options. Train to Ankara and picking up a rental car there seemed a good option, or even taking a domestic flight (actually quite cheap) to Nevsehir or Kayseri. But the night bus option was the only one that would get us there by early morning, so in the end that's what we decided on.
It is probably the most used public transport inside Turkey, and I must say that it's comfortable and the service quite good (refreshments and snacks are included, and they make frequent stops for passengers to use the restrooms as well). However, I was never able to sleep that well in buses, even if I sneaked to the back (and empty) seats at the back in the middle of the night. Around 6 am and with the sun rising I had the first glimpse of Cappadocia, a place that I now have the fondest memories of, but that's a story for my next post.
Note: while researching for this trip, I found the following links to be the most useful, so I'll leave them here for future reference:
Turkey Travel Planner, a very comprehensive guide and inside tips from Tom Brosnahan, author of several travel guides.
The Trip Advisor Forum for Turkey, where so many friendly and helpful people will answer your questions and give you advice with your planning
Frommer's Turkey pages, I printed a lot of these and took them with me, but if you have the chance to get the printed version (which we got later) it is even better.