An amazing flight deal to O’Hare via Turkish Airlines prompted us to spend our last weekend abroad in Istanbul, Turkey. In order to go out with a bang, we cashed in the last of our credit card points and stayed at a nice hotel off Taksim Square, a busy and young district in downtown Istanbul on the European side of the Bosphorus Sea. (Istanbul, previously known as Constantinople, literally sits at the crossroads of Asia and Europe and is the only city where you can be in two continents at once; in fact 2.5 million people commute from Asia to Europe every morning for work! Crazy!)
Upon landing, we quickly realized that we weren’t in Kansas anymore! With its nearly 20 million residents in 2,000 square miles, Istanbul is one of the most populous cities in the world; and its airport was no different! After a 90-minute line to get through customs, we jumped in a cab and began a harrowing journey downtown; the Turkish cabbies’ driving knows no bounds!
Grateful to have (safely?) arrived at our hotel, we went on our concierge’s recommendation to our first Turkish restaurant where we ate kebab, baba ghanoush, and witnessed Turkish culture for the first time. As a 98% Muslim country, it was no surprise that we witnessed some broad differences in culture from the outset; the gender differences the hardest for me to swallow. Differences aside, all of our encounters with the local people were warm and welcoming and we felt quite safe while touring the city.
The next morning, we set off on a cultural tour of Sultanahmet, the Old City, where we visited the famous Blue Mosque, saw the Hippodrome, and walked through the Hagia Sophia, an original Christian church that was converted to a mosque in the 1400’s. Our native tour guide walked us through the fascinating transformation of Istanbul through the ages and we took pictures of some of the oldest monuments we’ve seen on this entire trip! The highlight was a set of four pillars that were brought by Constantine from Ephesus to be installed in the Hagia Sophia that were originally built over 4,000 years ago! Our tour ended with a lesson in Turkish rug-making which may or may not have ended with a souvenir for our next apartment…whoops!
Not to leave our loved ones out, the next day we shopped for more souvenirs at the infamous and CROWDED Grand Bazaar and had fun haggling with vendors for deals. The fact that over 98 million people visit the Grand Bazaar every year no longer seems that hard to believe! Mementos secured, we ate our last foreign fare and repacked our backpacks for one last time. With many mixed feelings, we prepared to formally bid Europe adieu and settled in for our 11-hour flight home Tuesday morning.
When we hit the ground on Tuesday evening in Chicago, we had logged 19,375 miles via 17 flights, 10 trains, 3 very long bus rides and 1 ferry, we managed to see 18 European countries (including the Vatican), took a zillion photos, and captured countless lifelong memories. To say this was a trip of a lifetime is a huge understatement…
With very thankful hearts, we are slowly attempting to readjust to the Central Time Zone, have already eaten Mexican food three times, and have loved catching up with family and friends. With two friends’ weddings on the itinerary for this Memorial Day weekend, our Chicago summer is already off to a speedy and fun start!
As we reflect on this trip, we hope that this is just the beginning of a lifetime of traveling the world together. Let us know if you’re looking for some travel companions; we’ve got WAY more of this world to see!