After arriving in Istanbul late at night, I was prepared to set up camp and curl up on an airport bench until the next morning. I figured I'd be able to ditch my bag for a few hours in a locker and then have all afternoon to tour the city until my connection left from Istanbul to Dakar (including a brief and sketchy stopover in Tunisia of course). Though the idea of a 20 hour layover may seem absurd and inconvenient to a lot of people, I thought it was just a bonus of my ticket and an opportunity to see some of a city that I'd heard such wonderful rumors of.
After landing, I decided to head to the Turkish Airlines desk and find some information out about the city before finding a cozy corner to curl up in. This turned out to be, arguably, the best decision I made this trip! I was instantly asked where my accomdations for the night would be, and when I said, "here," pointing to the floor of the airport, the desk attendents just laughed.
Apparently, with little to no coercion, on layovers longer than 10 hours, Turkish Airlines books you a room in the swanky, five star, Radisson Blu Airport Hotelo. The whole concept of a free room seemed quite foreign to me and I kept insisting there must be some catch. The room did turn out to be free - no strings attached, and made the 24 hours I spent in beautiful Istanbul that much more fun and rewarding!
I woke up at 7 a.m. the next morning and took full advantage of the Raddison Blu complimentary breakfast (mornings like these are so amazing after traveling for a month in cheap hostel accomdoations). Afterwards I checked in with the front desk about check-out time and learned Turkish Air had booked the room up until 5 p.m., when I would need to leave for the airport! How exciting! That meant I was able to leave my bags, and all my valuables in the safe confines of my locked room. I left the hotel with happy stomach, and a ligther bag than I've carried in weeks (it's really the little things that make a difference sometimes)!
Istanbul itself is gorgeous and the tumultuous history including the rise and fall of many empires is evident in it's architecture. It is also huge. The city itself is the size of Delaware (around 2,000 sq miles) and a metro population the size of 10 million making it the 12th most populated city in the world. There are as many people in Istanbul as there are in Michigan or Ohio! Thank goodness they have such an established public transit system. I jumped on the metro at the airport and easily navigated my way to the tram stop that dropped me off right in front of the Ayasofya.
The Blue Mosque was also quite impressive. Not as blue as I thought it would be, but stunning none the less. People were preparing for prayer during ramadan outside, cleansing face, hands and feet in the gold lacquered faucets that surround the mosque.
I decided to just walk around aimlessly for the rest of the afternoon. I strolled through the historic Markets, which were closed in creating a simliar feel to the Old City in Jerusalem, but much bigger with wider and cleaner streets making it less chaotic and claustrophobic.
Out of the market, the streets have a very European feel, but still quite Middle Eastern. It's a nice mix. It's relatively clean for a city, with some tall buildings and cobblestone streets, littered with outdoor cafes, similar to what you might find in cities like Prague or Vienna. The Middle Eastern feel comes from the buildings painted in shades of pink and aqua marine and shops spilling out of the doors and onto the streets with merchants luring you in with promises of good prices. I really enjoyed the overall feel of the city, very urban and chic but full of life and a character of it's own.
By 2 p.m., I had to talk myself in to getting on the train and heading back to the hotel to pack. My layover in Istanbul had turned into a nice little addition to my travels thus far, and I look forward to coming back in the future and giving it, as well as the rest of Turkey, more time to explore.