The Hagia Sophia. It was the main stopping point on our whirlwind single-day tour and we dedicated the rest of the afternoon to it. This 1500 year old building went from cathedral to mosque to museum, and has influenced a lot of other buildings both in Istanbul and around the world. It was the seat of the Eastern Orthodox church and at the center of the Byzantine/Eastern Roman Empire for a millennium. It's hard to overstate just how impactful such a place could be.

Hagia Sophia Exterior from the South

The main entrance to the Hagia Sophia. Lots of tourists and locals jostling each other for a place in line. Pro tip: you can skip most of that line if you're willing to use an automated machine. Just like going to a movie theater it baffles me why so many people wanted to stand in line just to talk to a human to buy a ticket.

Hagia Sophia Exterior from the East

Another shot of the Hagia Sophia from the side. Since there wasn't an entrance here the area had very few people milling about.

We walked into the center of the main floor first, staring upwards at the high vaulted ceilings and twirling around, trying to take it all in. I don't remember any other domed building I've been in being this old. To think that the roof here stood the test of time when so many others fell. It was a staggering moment.

Hagia Sophia Interior from Upper Floor

The inside of the Hagia Sophia. You can see some of the restoration projects on the left and the massive hanging chandeliers in the middle.

Hagia Sophia Altar

This is the focal point of the main floor inside the Hagia Sophia. It's where the sermons would've happened. A Christian altar would've been in the center back area now replaced by the Muslim mihrab. And you can see the staircase on the right leading up to the minbar, what would be called a pulpit in English. Finally, you'll note the mosaic visible in the dome up top - the original cathedral had tons of impressive mosaics throughout. Sadly some were stolen and the rest plastered over during the conversion to a mosque. Restoration efforts have improved the state of a lot of them though.

There were museum pieces aplenty, including a modern art exhibit. But really we were there for the building itself and to feel close to the history it had seen.

Hagia Sophia Byzantine Emperor Coronation Spot

This unadorned, unassuming spot in the middle of the floor is where the coronation of the Byzantine Emperor happened for a thousand years. It's hard to imagine a micro-location with more historical weight behind it.

Topkapi Palace Gardens

Just to the north of the Hagia Sophia is a huge, sprawling garden filled with flowers, statues, and water features. Originally, the verdant acres could only be enjoyed by the royals of the adjacent Topkapi palace and their guests, but it's now a public park. That conversion from private, exclusive space to something anyone can experience for free really impressed me.

When we finally departed it was to meet up with Eric, an American friend I made on the flight over, who was doing a solo version of the same trip we were. We tried to find a rooftop restaurant but ran into the same problem with addresses and maps that we had the first night. After several failed attempts we walked up six flights of stairs that were only wide enough to fit one of us at a time, past heaps of junk, in an utterly silent building before emerging into what was clearly a restaurant, complete with white linens and a great view to the West. But it was empty of people except for a single patron nursing a tall beer at the bar. The proprietor eventually appeared and greeted us in a different accent than we were used to hearing, a minor mystery he solved when he identified himself as Kurdish. We started with grilled calamari served with hummus and yogurt to dip in for an appetizer. Dinner for me was a sizzling hot lamb stew with mushrooms and peppers, a dish that reminded me a lot of the food in Hungary.

Istanbul Sunset from Terras 6/Wonder Roof

This is the sunset as seen through the window of the restaurant we dined in, called both Terras 6 (it's on the 6th floor) and Wonder Roof, depending on which website or map app you're checking.

Eric departed as we left for drinks at what became my favorite bar in Istanbul: a tiny wooden corner off of Istiklal sporting American beer signs and license plates called Parantez. There we had Bomonti, a domestic light beer that goes down smoothly.

We then hit our first - and only - recommendation of the night, the James Joyce pub. An Irish pub in Istanbul? Of course. The atmosphere and drinks were what you would expect - glorious Guinness was available and we were surrounded by shelves of classic books - but the highlight happened as we were thinking of leaving. A live acoustic band started playing covers of 80s and 90s American music, focusing (much to our delight) on the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And they nailed it! We stayed far longer than we had intended just to listen to them keep jamming.

We finished off the night at a place called Pasha with another Turkish tradition: hookah. It was low-key and the servers hung around to talk to us when we seemed amenable to learning more about their culture. As the night waned they pointed out some of the rarer sights: punks and drag queens started walking right by our table while pop music could be heard thumping from a nearby club. In that moment we could have easily been in any Western city. The miracle is that we weren't.