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The Colors of Istanbul, Turkey

istanbul turkey photos

I have an affinity for color, and by affinity, I mean I would dress up like a rainbow everyday if it were socially acceptable.

But alas, I am not longer seventeen, and sadly society has forced my wardrobe to evolve and mature into more neutral shades with controlled splashes of color here and there. So unfair. Gone are the days of multicolored tights and smurf blue mascara I would rock in high school. In retrospect, I wonder if that’s why I never had a boyfriend…

Moving on. Owing to my fierce love of brightly colored places and spaces, when I travel I am automatically drawn towards areas that POP and are alive with vibrant colors when traveling. I should add places with natural, bright colors, because I think if I ever were to experience the exploding neon lights of Asian metropolis’ like Tokyo or Hong Kong, I might have a seizure.

Reflecting on my few days spent in Istanbul last month, I can’t help but remember how iridescent and richly colored this east-meets-west city was. If you are a person who loves colorful cities, Istanbul is the place for you. Even in winter, with gray, monotone skies almost every day, the colors of Istanbul did not fade or diminish.

In November, I wrote a guide to Córdoba, Spain by color which turned out much better than I expected, so I decided to give another shot at it here with Istanbul. Here is my guide to Istanbul by color.

istanbul turkey photos

Gold: The Hagia Sofia

Without a doubt, the Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya-Turkish) has to be the most magnificent building I have ever step foot inside. It took my breath away, literally, and I had to lean back against a railing upon entering and calm down before I could even being walking around and photographing it (drama queen, I know). But seriously, the Hagia Sofia is beyond glorious for anyone; for me, I had been reading about this place since middle school social studies; to see it in person finally was a dream come true. Once an orthodox basilica, then a mosque and now a secular museum, it has seen its fair share of history, since 360 when it was first inaugurated as a church. I mean THE Emperor Justinian walked these hallowed floors in his gold-clad sandals (did he wear sandals?) No idea. In my imagination he does.

You know, as in the Justinian Code of Laws? Corpus Juris Civilis in Latin, oh snap, I just went there. Told you I’m a nerd.

But MOTHER OF GOD, I would have prostrated myself on that floor for a day if it hadn’t been about 40 degrees F and more crowded than Walmart on Black Friday.

istanbul turkey photos

After geeking out for a few minutes, I spent over an hour exploring every inch of the Hagia Sofia and it was still not long enough. Ablaze with gold everywhere, the walls and ceilings peeled back layers of history, showing just how profound and historic this whopper of a building truly was. From the gold filigree paint jobs to the sparkling domed ceiling, it’s not hard to imagine how much wealth and power went into building this.

Tip: go early, right when it opens or late in the afternoon to avoid the huge crowds of people. I got there late-morning and I had to wait for a few minutes before going in. Give yourself at least an hour and make sure your camera is charged up!

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

Blue: The Blue Mosque

The fact that the name of this holy place is the Blue Mosque, I feel obligated to filed it under the “blue” category, even though my inner teenager wants to be a jerk and put it in the “white” one; while the Blue Mosque is not an undeserved name, for me, it is not necessarily the dominant color for me. At sunset when I visited, the normally white walls glowed golden yellow, and the blue looked violet. But none of that matters when you look up at the ceiling. The domed roof is just spectacular, seriously one of the most detailed, delicate lace-like stylings I’ve ever been fortunate enough to lay my eyes on.

istanbul turkey photos

Tip: because it is a working mosque, there is a separate entrance for tourists around the side, and not in the inner courtyard. Don’t be an ass, you have to take your shoes off BEFORE entering, but they provide ugly hospital booties if you want. Also girls, it’s a mosque, you have to cover your hair THE WHOLE TIME. No matter what I personally believe, it’s important to respect other religious places, and I was shocked to see many girls pull off their head scarves after walking inside.

Though I am a total hypocrite and was peeved when they made me cover my legs with a hideous hospital gown because I was wearing tights and a dress. My tights were totally opaque and other girls were wearing pants tight enough to see what they had for dinner, but no matter, I had to shuffle around wearing a blanket. Good thing I didn’t know any one. Moral of the story, ladies, wear pants.

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

Red: The Basilica Cistern

If wet were a color, that would be what I chose to represent the Basilica Cistern. Only a few minutes from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, it is a vast, subterranean space that used to store water for the city and was built by, you guessed it, my favorite Byzantine man, Justinian! I don’t know if it was because it was winter or the fact that it had rained a lot the week before, but the beautiful, ancient ceiling and floors were soaked and dripping water constantly. Felt like I needed an umbrella underground! The jungle of columns looks like a maze, combined with the low red lighting, and giant fat carp needling around the low water level, it was a very surreal experience. I am a big fan of visting “different” and unique places while traveling, so the Basilica Cistern was perfect for me.

istanbul turkey photos

Tip: the lighting is really low, so if you want to take good pictures, bring a tripod, otherwise you can prop your camera on the railings but hold on tight and prepare for wet knees

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

Turquoise: The Harem in the Topkapi Palace

I was not really impressed with the Topkapi Palace, maybe because over the years I’ve been to approximately a trillion palaces, many of them Islamic, and quite honestly, nothing can top the Alhambra in Granada, Spain; who knows? Freezing my ass off, I spent a good chunk of my time huddled inside sipping on an overpriced Turkish coffee or shoving my way through giant groups of (the dreaded) Asian tourists. I was so disappointed I almost skipped the harem because you have to pay extra, and they didn’t accept credit cards. Digging through my Mary Poppins bottomless purse, I found a few extra Turkish lira, and I was able to pay for a ticket without begging. Also, being a HAREM, I felt obligated to go inside, because, it was a harem. H-A-R-E-M (sorry guys, I am actually a 12 year old boy).

istanbul turkey photos

Here was where all the pretty arabic tiles and designs were hiding! It was gorgeous. Home to the Ottoman Sultans since the 15th century, there is no shortage of history or curved swords to be found here. Every shade of the rainbow was represented, but the predominant color was turquoise. My inner 5 year old was so happy! How did they know that was my favorite crayon color?

Tip: if you are limited on time, head straight to the harem, that’s the best part. There is a lot of walking involved because it’s mostly outside, so it’s not the best to visit in the rain. 

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

Brown: Turkish Coffee

It’s no secret, I love coffee and I love coffee culture, both of which Istanbul has in abundance. I can’t function without it daily. I am always on the hunt for the best new roasts or the yummiest blends when I am traveling. After getting a taste for the thick Turkish coffee in Egypt, I knew I was looking forward to it in Istanbul. Strong enough to knock you on your ass, it is a great way to fit in like a local if you can down it and keep it down.

istanbul turkey photos

My favorite coffee experience was getting my fortune read in the dregs of coffee, a local tradition still going strong in Istanbul. In fact it’s so local that it can be hard to find a coffee fortune teller who speaks English. Luckily, I went with my new friend Selin, who runs Turkish Flavours (tons of foodporn posts coming soon!) on my last day in town and she was my translator. As we walked towards this woman’s shop, Selin explained to me that she is a semi-famous coffee fortune reader (the correct terminology eludes me). After shocking the pants off of me for an hour, she pulled out a copy of the local newspaper with her picture with Gisele Bündchen. Holy crap, she wasn’t kidding! If you want to do something fun and very local, I definitely suggest getting your fortune read (in a part of the city that’s NOT in the Sultanahmet).

Tip: Turkish coffee is either brewed with or without sugar so be sure to specify when you order, but for god’s sake DON’T add sugar to it once you get it in front of you.

Green: The Gardens at the Hotel Empress Zoe

After living in southern Spain for a year, I became a big fan of inner patios or courtyards of houses and apartments, usually turned into a beautiful blooming garden. I always look for them when I am traveling, and sometimes I am so cheeky, I follow people into promising-looking gated doors thinking that they might be hiding a lovely green patio. So far this has only blown up in my face once, which I believe is a good statistic. I love gardens, and I think it’s really important to balance some chill-out time during a hectic trip, so when I was there, I made sure to spend a little while eating and reading outside in the sunshine, with a few kitties for company. It was so nice.

istanbul turkey photos

When I was looking for boutique hotels in Istanbul, as soon as I saw the photos of the gardens at the Empress Zoe, I knew I had to stay there. Even in big cities, for me I need to find some green places or I lose my marbles. Whether it be a park or garden or a little patio, a little green goes a long way to improving my mood, even it’s just sitting out and having breakfast under a tree. Though I am a little biased because green is my favorite color.

Tip: many people don’t think of Istanbul as a good destination for winter, but for me, it was the best time to come because you really get to see the city for what it is, without millions of cruises and tourists passing through like in the summer. Even in winter, the city is still green, it’s a really nice change of pace and it is a whole lot cheaper too. Win-win.

istanbul turkey photos

istanbul turkey photos

Yellow: The Grand Bazaar

Istanbul is home to one of the oldest and biggest covered markets in the world. It’s really worth visiting if even to just take photos because it’s so colorful! I loved it! With pale yellow walls underneath centuries of paint and grime, with the smell of tea and turkish coffee wafting through the air while vendors call out all sorts of hilarious questions to get you to come into their shops, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is the place to be.

istanbul turkey photos

My favorite part of the Grand Bazaar were the twinkling mosaic hanging lights. So colorful and vibrant, I just wanted to buy them all. OF course, I stopped over and over again to take photos of them at different stands, and had to endure countless men trying to sell them to me. Come on, WHY WOULD I EVER BUY THAT NOW? Where would I put it? In my backpack for the beautiful apartment I don’t have? I don’t like to be reminded that the life I have chosen lately is a nomadic one, going against all my female instincts to nest and buy sparkly things for the home. One day, one day….

istanbul turkey photos

Tip: this is mostly for my fellow Americans. I sat at one of the cafes for a while and observed a shop. Europeans I’ve noticed for the most have absolutely no problem barreling past pushy vendors and ignoring them, whereas Americans get sucked into their schemes so easily. Remember this, they will do anything to start a conversation with you and get them to enter their shop. “Excuse me, where are you from? Excuse me, have you seen this? Excuse me, you are so beautiful” Please, I’ve heard them all. Just ignore them, and keep going, or ignore them while you look; I know that goes against our entire country, but you have to do it if you want to be left alone. Don’t be polite. But whatever you do, don’t make eye contact or accept their offer of tea if you are not prepared to come home several hundred dollars less and with a carpet.

Now I’m about to give away my biggest market secrets, I discovered this in Istanbul. If you make the “tsk-tsk” sound and shake your head from side to side (it almost sounds like a cluck, with your tongue against the roof of your mouth) it means “no, go away, I’m not interested.” Seriously! Try it, it works.

On an unrelated note, I thought I’d finish with the best pick up line I got on my entire trip to Turkey. I was walking back to my hotel in my first night after dark, and I heard a loud “Excuse me, miss! You dropped something.” I turned around and there was a young Turkish guy on his knees with his hands on his chest and replied “my heart.” Hahahahahahahaha!

Do you notice the colors of places when traveling? What’s color speaks to you the most? What’s the best pick-up line or catcall you’ve gotten while traveling?

More posts about my trip in Turkey!:

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39 Responses to The Colors of Istanbul, Turkey

  1. Vanessa @SauteedHappyFamily March 11, 2013 at 6:06 am #

    MY HEART!! What did you do? I don’t know how I could have not started laughing! In any case, I want to give my 150% support of your note to Americans: don’t stop when vendors call out to you, they are trying to sell you something (usually a lot of something) and not trying to just be nice to you. In Paris and in Korea I’ve learned to avoid eye contact and pretend I don’t hear their voices calling after me.
    p.s. This wasn’t a pickup line used on me, but my friend told me that she met some Italian boys (recipe for disaster) on her travels, and they bet her and her friend, “I bet I can kiss you without touching your lips.” So the girls (for some reason) just said, “Ok, what the heck, go ahead.” And he kissed her straight on the lips, then said, “Oh, I lose.” haha!

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:00 am #

      omg that’s hilarious!!!

  2. Cat of Sunshine and Siestas March 11, 2013 at 7:55 am #

    Turkey was one of the most mesmerizing places I’ve been, and I’ll always remember the barrage of senses – the colors, smell, sound of the call to prayer.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:01 am #

      agreed 😀

  3. Trevor Huxham March 11, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    YES I loved the Justinian reference…and it gives me chills just to think about how the Hagia Sofia was built ~1,700 years ago and is still standing…whoa.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:01 am #

      nerds forever <3 I can always count on you for these kids of references!!

  4. kami March 11, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    OMG, this pick up line is just hillarious, I’m laughing out loud in here!

    I also nottice colors when I travel but not exactly when I’m in some place, only later on when I look at my pictures from there… but in Istanbul I notticed more or less the same colors as you!

    And yeah, you are right, I have no problem with ignoring sellers in places like Grand Bazaar. I just politely say “thank you” and then I can easily ignore them as I don’t feel like I behave rudely after all 😉

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:02 am #

      Sometimes I don’t notice til I’m at home looking at photos too

  5. Mike March 11, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    This is great! I must have missed your guide by color for Cordoba, but I’m definitely going back to check it out now! Every one of your Turkey posts has made me want to go there as soon as possible. You have great colorful writing to go along with wonderful photos. Thanks Liz!

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:02 am #

      Why thank you Mike 🙂

  6. Alex @ ifs ands & butts March 11, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    That pickup line is freaking hilarious and so typical of a Turkish guy. I also love your shopping tips. My American friend would always respond and I got so annoyed with her because it took us SO long to go anywhere.

    My best advice from the bazaar was “you know you got a good deal with the salesman is pissed when you leave” and it’s so true!

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:02 am #

      I would have left her ass in the market, but that’s just me 😛

  7. Annie of TravelShus March 11, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    UGH, I LOVE istanbul. it is definitely one of the most colorful places I’ve seen. The lanterns and tiling add so much.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:03 am #

      I love the lanterns and tiles too!!!

  8. Rachel March 11, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    Gorgeous pictures. I adored Istanbul, so so beautiful. I almost swooned with sheer joy at the Hagia Sofia too. Was so excited to visit it, doubly so as it was a 007 location too. *geeky me!
    I love the Tsk Tsk tip, could work in a lot of places I reckon 🙂

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:03 am #

      I just watched Skyfall tonight and noticed the opening was set in Istanbul! I was like hey, that looks familiar!!

  9. Ricky March 11, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    Liked your post but what problem do you have with Asian tourists? The fact is that these are rising economies and you will see more and more of them whether you like them or not.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      It has nothing to do with rising economic markets. I just hate giant ass groups of annoying, rude tourists. And with almost 30 countries under my belt and over 6 years of long term travel, 99% of the time they’re Asian tour groups.

  10. Jennifer March 11, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    I love the spices and the Turkish lamps! I think the spice market was my favorite thing in Isanbul. I wasn’t a fan of Turkish coffee though. It was too thick and strong for my liking.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      It was really thick, took me a couple tries to get used to it. Kinda like drinking mud haha

  11. Jen James March 12, 2013 at 12:44 am #

    I am really taken with your pics of the Basilca Cistern. Amazing to think its underground. Thanks for a great post..all your photos are both interesting and beautiful.

    • Liz March 12, 2013 at 2:06 am #

      It’s so neat right? I’ve never seen anywhere like it!

  12. Alana - Paper Planes March 12, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    What a cool concept to do a city post by color – definitely a different, and beautiful, way of looking at things!

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks Alana 🙂

  13. Katie @ March 12, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

    Ugh I want a room FULL of those lights. But I would rather travel to Istanbul to see them. 😉

    Great post!

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks Katie!

  14. nelnel@attractions in paris March 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

    The hagia sofia looks amazing in wide angle. Wish I can take the same shot someday.

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

      I rented a sweet lens that made it all possible 🙂

  15. Kim March 20, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    This is such a great post! I am getting ready to go on a trip to Turkey with friends this summer, and this makes me so excited!! I can hardly wait to get on that plane!

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      I’m sure you’re gonna have a blast!

  16. Jessica of HolaYessica March 20, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    Nice photos! I was actually surprised at how many other colors there were in the Blue Mosque (apart from blue, that is).

    I didn’t try the Turkish coffee, but it looks great. The tea was so delicious though.

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      It’s got a very strong thick texture but I still love it 🙂

  17. Thomas J. Hill March 21, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    First of all – I am incredibly jealous! Istanbul, particularly the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, has been on my bucket list forever. Thank you for your marvelous descriptions and photos!

    Second – did you experience any safety concerns while there? With all the turmoil in the Middle East, it is easy to wonder about security issues when planning travel.

    Thanks so much!

    • Liz March 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      Nope it was totally safe! Got a post about it coming soon 🙂

  18. Komal January 22, 2015 at 11:50 am #

    Hi Liz,
    I am going to turkey in two weeks time,with my two kids 9 and 6. Hubby is going on an official trip so we decided to tag along and I have been trying to find if someone had any tips for a winter turkey:) even though it would be hard to do the things you have done, but I loved reading all your experiences:) I had always dreamed about traveling the world alone but my wish of traveling came true but with hubby and kids in tow..which is a different experience in itself..

  19. August 10, 2015 at 11:41 am #

    This is one of the best article about Turkey that i ever read. I like the photos that you upload and the story, is good to learn from others adventures.


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