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.
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.
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.
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.
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.