Destination Turkey: Istanbul

INCIRLIK AIR BASE, Turkey -- My husband and I, as well as another couple, decided to do a couple's trip to Istanbul during Memorial Day weekend. This was the first time any of us had visited the city except for short layovers at the airport on the way to other destinations.

Istanbul is a city rich in culture and diverse in history. While walking the streets, you will see tourists of every nationality, hear many languages and see both Turkish Lira and the Euro being used as currency. This is a destination you shouldn't miss.

Instead of doing a planned trip with a tour company, the four of us decided to arrange the hotel and flight ahead of time and be our own tour guides with the help of a Turkey travel book. This worked out quite well since we were able to see everything at our own pace.

We arrived Friday at noon and after checking into our hotel we ventured out to see where we wanted to visit in the coming days. The nice thing about Istanbul is that all the main sites are within a mile radius.

We scouted out where all the sites were and planned the next day's tour destinations. It was nice to get a look at all the places the day before to take a look at the lines of tourist groups as well as determine a destination we wanted to explore.

Our first stop was a tour of the Basilica Cistern. The Cistern was built in the 6th Century and at one time housed 80,000 cubic meters of water which could be pumped or delivered through aqueducts. If you are touring Istanbul in the summer heat, the cistern is a great place to visit since it offers an enclosed area that is very cool. It also houses two columns of stone featuring Medusa's head and large carp swimming in its waters.

Our next destination was the Aya Sofya or Hagia Sophia, which is a minute walk from the Blue Mosque and the Hippodrome. The Aya Sofya or as it is called in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, was completed in 537 AD by Roman Emperor Justinian as a church and in 1453 it was converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror.In 1935, Ataturk officially declared the Aya Sofya a museum open to the public.

Inside, the vast walls and ceilings are covered in magnificent mosaics that are currently under restoration. Despite the scaffolding, you can still enjoy the architecture and work that went into this one-time church and mosque.

After the Aya Sofya we went to stroll about the area to sit and plan out our next day's adventures.

On day two, we arrived at the Topkapi Palace around 10 a.m. The palace is definitely one destination you don't walk up to and leave 30 minutes later. If you want to visit the site, allot at least three hours. Once on the premises you can explore the rooms of the sultan, his treasury, a mint, as well as beautiful gardens and even for another fee you can enter the harem.

After a long afternoon at the Palace we enjoyed dinner on the patio of a local restaurant. As we sipped our çay (chai) or tea and ate a doner kabab we were able to sit with our tour book and read about the Hippodrome 20 feet away.

The Hippodrome was the center of activity in ancient Istanbul. Daily activities included everything from politics to chariot races. All that remains of the site today are four different monuments: Kaiser Wilhelm's Fountain, the Obelisk of Theodosius, the Spiral Column and the Rough-Stone Obelisk.

With a little exploration you can also find the remnants of the Hippodrome wall. If you walk southwest of the Rough Stone Obelisk around a school you will see a large wall to your right. According to the History Channel, this is all that remains of the original wall.

Finally, to end the evening we walked the grounds of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or the Blue Mosque as most people refer to it because of its blue tiles.

In the morning we returned back to the Mosque to go inside. Wearing our conservative clothing and our head scarves (only for the women), we walked in the mosque at the tourist entrance.

The tourist portion is marked off with ropes but you can still observe the whole room and take pictures. We found an English speaking tourist group and were able to learn about the mosque in addition to what we read in our book ahead of time.

Construction on the mosque began in 1606 and concluded in 1616. Besides the thousand of blue tiles, the mosque has six minarets and 260 windows, not to mention a large chandelier that hangs just above your head.

Next stop was the Grand Bazaar. Come ready with your cash and your bargaining face because every Turkish trinket imaginable is available in this maze of vendors. The biggest decision you will make here is which aisle you want to turn down next. They have leather items, tapestries, jewelry, wood carvings, rugs, pashminas and so much more. My advice: don't settle for the first vendor you see and definitely haggle for the price you are willing to pay.

After all the walking and shopping in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar seemed to be the next logical place to go. Though I have to admit the smell of all the spices just made my stomach grumble even more. Again, we found a little Kebab vendor overlooking the bazaar and watched the culture around us. It was amazing to think that the haggling of spices we were witnessing was something that has been around in this very spot since the 1600's.

Overall our trip to Istanbul was a great vacation and something I recommend every member of Team Incirlik to have on their to-do list prior to leaving Turkey.