Meet Hugo, The Perfect Summer Cocktail

Meet Hugo, The Perfect Summer Cocktail

A couple of summers ago in Italy while awaiting the birth of my 6th. grandchild my daughter’s friend introduced me to Hugo.  After one sip of this blissfully refreshing cocktail I wondered why we’ve never met before!

When in Italy, specially in the Veneto region my cocktail of choice had always been the Bellini served at either one of my favorite cafes, Florian’s or Quadri’s in Piazza San Marco.

Of course if one wanted to be real authentic I suppose a Bellini at nearby Harry’s Bar would be better; after all it was the Venetian bar where the cocktail was invented by Giuseppe Cipriani in 1948.  But I much prefer the ambiance of Florian’s outdoor cafe; the perfect spot to people watch.

My husband on the other hand loves the Aperol Spritz.  He says it’s a thirst quencher.  I find it a bit too bitter.

But I digress!  I was introducing you to Hugo.  What exactly is a Hugo Cocktail?  It’s an alcoholic aperitif originating in the Alto Adige or South Tryol province of Italy.  This region includes parts of the Dolomites and Italian Alps mountain ranges.  It’s actually one of my favorite regions of Italy, which again makes we wonder why I’d never met Hugo during one of my visits to the area.

The Hugo Cocktail, like the Bellini and the Spritz, is a Prosecco based cocktail; makes sense because the best Prosecco comes from within the Veneto region of Italy and the Alto Adige region is just north of the Veneto.  The other ingredients in the Hugo include Elderflower Syrup or Liqueur, sparkling water, fresh mint leaves and lime.  It truly is refreshing, the perfect summer cocktail.

Since traveling to Italy doesn’t seem to be an option this summer and most likely the rest of the year I’ve decided to bring my favorite places to me by making our favorite drinks and foods from each country.  So today I’ll share my recipe for Hugo Cocktails as well as Bellinis and Spritzes.  Just in case you don’t know what to do with that bottle of Prosecco you just popped open you’ll have 3 options.  So pour yourself a drink and a plate of Cicchetti(bar snacks),sit back, and dream of Italy!  Buon Appetito!

Hugo Cocktail


5 oz. Prosecco

1 oz. Elderberry Liqueur – I use St. Germaine

2-3 oz. Sparkling Water

2 Lime Slices

4-6 Fresh Mint Leaves



Place Mint Leaves in a wine glass and slightly crush or muddle.  You want to let the minty aroma out but not smash the leaves.

Add ice and lime slices.

Pour Prosecco, Liqueur, and sparkling water over ice.

Stir and drink up!



3 Parts Prosecco

1 Part Peach Puree – Use 3-4 White Peaches (you can use any other peach if you can’t find white peaches)


Peel 3-4 ripe White Peach

Cut in quarters, remove pit

Puree in a blender

Strain in to a pitcher

Add Prosecco

Divide between chilled champagne flutes.

Aperol Spritz


2 Parts Aperol or Campari will do in a pinch

3 Parts Prosecco

A splash of sparkling water

Orange slice



Put ice in a glass

Add Prosecco, Aperol, and sparkling water


Garnish with Orange slice




6 Most Haunted Castles in Europe

6 Most Haunted Castles in Europe

haunted castles in EuropeEurope is steeped in history, many times violent and bloody.  What with ancient wars and feudes, palace intrigues, and domestic abuses it’s no wonder that many of its ancient castles are said to be haunted.  In fact it would be even more amazing if there were no haunted castles in Europe.

Every Halloween I like to share with you haunted places around the world.  Some of them I’ve been to, others are still on my bucket list.  I’ve shared my experiences in Tombstone’s Bird Cage Theater and have written about haunted hotels and other haunted places around the country.  But haunted places are definitely not exclusive to the United States, every country around the globe has its own spooky places that have stories of hauntings attached to them.  This Halloween I’d like to share 6 of the most haunted castles in Europe.

So buckle your seat belts as we fly across the Atlantic and have a quick peek at 6 of the most haunted castles in Europe.  Believe me there are so many haunted places on that continent it’s hard to pick just 6!

haunted castles in EuropeThe Tower of London

It doesn’t take much imagination to decide that London has many haunted places, specially on chilly nights when the fog swirls thick around  you as you walk down the narrow streets of the city.  After all London was home to Jack the Ripper one of history’s first recorded serial killers.  The streets of Whitechapel were known to be his hunting grounds.

Sure the pubs around Whitechapel are said to be haunted, remember many of them have been there since well before Jack the Ripper began his murderous spree.  But since we’re talking castles lets start with the Tower of London.  It’s not exactly a castle, it’s actually a prison.  A 900+ year old prison that  housed some of histories most famous nobility, many of whom are now said to be haunting the place.

With its long history of torture, murder, and executions it’s no wonder this castle like building is haunted by a long litany of specters.  Arguably the most famous haunt is Anne Boleyn the unfortunate second wife of Henry VIII.  Her only crime was her inability to produce a male heir to the throne and her fickle husband grew tired of her and divorced her.  The king then charged the poor woman with treason and had her beheaded 1536.  Her headless ghost is said to roam the tower’s corridors.

Other famous ghosts include the two princes who were deemed illegitimate by Parliament and imprisoned in the tower.  It is believed they were murdered, actually smothered, by their uncle the Duke of Gloucester.  Today it’s said they’ve been spotted in the tower holding hands and looking afraid.

haunted castles in europeBran Castle

Believed to be the castle in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, Bran Castle in the Romanian town of Bran is said to be haunted by a variety of its previous occupants.

It is said the Stoker never actually visited this 13th. century stone castle , but used pictures of  it as his model for the home of  his famous vampire Count Dracula.

But somehow fact and fiction mingled to form the basis of legends about this picturesque castle.  Legend has it that some of Bran’s citizens are actually strigoi, people whose souls leave their bodies at night to terrorize the village.  This definitely encourages the areas vampire lore.  Who knows perhaps rumors of these legends reached Stoker’s ears in Ireland and encouraged him to write his classic novel.

haunted castles in europe

Leap Castle

Leap Castle (pronounced Lep) in Coolderry, County Offaly, Ireland is notoriously the most haunted castle in Ireland if not the world.  This ancient castle has been featured in several TV shows about the paranormal including Ghost Hunters and TV’s Most Haunted.

It’s not surprising that the world’s most haunted castle would be located in Ireland, a land that’s steeped in legends and mystery.  And it’s not at all surprising that Leap Castle is haunted given its bloody history and ambiguous origins.

It’s unclear exactly when the castle was constructed, some say 12th. century and others 15th.  But whatever the year of it’s construction was one thing everyone seems to agree on is the site on which it was built.  Leap Castle is build over a site that was previously occupied by druids who used it for initiation ceremonies.  It was originally named Leim Ui Bhanain meaning Leap of the O’Bannons.

As the legend goes the O’Bannons were an affluent clan from County Tipperary.  Two O’Bannon brothers vying to become chieftain is said to have entered into a contest where they would leap off the rock where the castle was to be built.  The brother who survived would be chief and be responsible for building the castle.  Thus began the castles bloody history and hauntings.

However O’Bannons did not control the castle for long, the castle was seized by the O’Carroll clan, a ruthless and greedy bunch who left a legacy of carnage within the castle walls.  The years of O’Carroll reign over the castle are said to be cruel and bloody.  Many of their victims are said to haunt the castle including the lady in red.

The lady is said to be seen wandering the castle dressed in a fluttering red gown carrying a sharp blade.  The lady is said to have been imprisoned and repeatedly raped by the O’Carrolls.  She became pregnant and her child was murdered by the same men.  Overwhelmed by the murder of her baby it is said that she used the blade that she now carries to end her tormented life.

And then there’s the Bloody Chapel.  At one point the O’Carroll chieftain died without a clear heir.  Of course this resulted in a fight between his sons Thaddeus and Teighe.  Thaddeus was a priest and is said to have been in the middle of a mass when his brother rushed in and slaughtered him.  His ghost is said to wander in and around the chapel.

There are many more bloody tales about this castle as it seems that the O’Carrolls were a bloodthirsty and sadistic clan.  It’s really no wonder that their many victims haunt this castle.


Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop a hill overlooking Scotland’s most haunted city of Edinburgh sits Scotland’s most haunted castle.  Edinburgh Castle has seen its share of violent deaths.  With over 900 years of history behind it the castle has been the scene of surprise attacks, executions, and even a brief capture by the English.

It should come as no surprise that Edinburgh Castle is said to be haunted, it would be more surprising if it wasn’t.

The castle is home to a variety of specters including the ghost Lady Janet Douglas of Glamis who was imprisoned for witchcraft and burned at the stake.  Then there’s the unseen drummer who many have claimed to hear but never seen.  The castle dungeons were filled with notorious thugs and cutthroats many are said to be heard moaning and groaning down there.

haunted castles in europeMoosham Castle

Moosham Castle also known as Witches Castle is a 13th. century castle in Unternberg, Austria.  It was the location for the bloodiest and most gruesome witch trials in Europe.

In the 17th. century the archbishop of Unternberg tried, tortured, and executed thousands of women here.  The women were accused of witchcraft.  Here those women were beaten, tortured, hanged, and some even drawn and quartered (their bodies tied to horses and were torn apart when the horses ran in different directions.)  It’s no wonder the place is haunted by those tortured souls who are said to roam the halls in search of justice to this day.

Another ghost said to linger in this castle is Anton the resident caretaker during the witch trials.  He roamed the halls then guarding his prisoners and is said to roam the halls still.

Frankenstein Castle

Yes there really is a Frankenstein Castle, its ruinhaunted castles in europes are located in Darmstadt, Germany.  And yes this is the castle and the legend immortalized by Mary Shelly in her classic novel Frankenstein.

The original castle that sits atop a hill overlooking the town dates back to 948 B. C.  Obviously it underwent many additions and renovations since it was originally constructed.

In the 1600’s the sole remaining member of the original Frankenstein family died instantly in a chariot accident.  He was on his way to see his one true love, Anne Marie.  Clearly he never saw her and as legend has it she stayed in the castle waiting for him until she eventually died of a broken heart.  Today it is said that both Knight Frankenstein and Anne Marie are wandering around the darkened castle searching for each other.  Now this is not the basis for Shelly’s novel, that one’s about monsters and body parts.  So how did that come about?

After the original Frankenstein family died out a man named  Konrad Dipple von Frankenstein moved into the castle.  He was an alchemist and grave robber.  As the story goes he was experimenting with human and animal body parts and the blood of virgins, he was trying to resurrect the dead.  His greatest creation was his monster made of body parts and reanimated in his laboratory in the castle.  The town folk were afraid and stormed the castle whilst the alchemist was locked in his lab.  He supposedly drank one of his potions and thus ended up committing suicide.  However his monstrous creation escaped and roams the forest to this day in search of virgins whose blood he needs to stay alive.

The brothers Grimm actually recounted this tale to Mary Shelly’s stepmother.  Mary Shelly later visited the castle and used the story as her basis for her world famous novel Frankenstein.

Well there you have it, 6 of the most haunted castles in Europe.  Visit them this Halloween or any time of year, if you dare!

Ready to plan your ghost chasing adventure in Europe?  Let Savvy Nana Travel help you plan!  We specialize in helping families plan memorable vacations around the globe.  Call me at 808-372-7734 and we’ll start planning your adventure today!

4 Fun Night Out Ideas in London

4 Fun Night Out Ideas in London

Let’s face it the Big Smoke has plenty to offer when it comes to a night out! Sometimes you may feel a little spoilt for choice; with so much to do, you might not know where to start. Whether you’re visiting London for the weekend or your a local, let’s take a look at some fun night out ideas. 

Theatre trips

You won’t want to leave London without experiencing the theatre. With so many critically acclaimed shows being put on year after year, there really is something for everyone. First things first you’ll want to decide on what kind of show experience it is that you’re looking for. Do you want something that’s a real classic? Or a new show by an emerging writer? Is it a musical that tickles your fancy? Or would you prefer more of a traditional play format? Shows like The Book of Mormon have been popular this year as has the ever classic Wicked. If you’ve got children and it’s a family night out, you could try shows like The Lion King or Aladdin? Great shows stick in your memory forever and can be an excellent night out no matter how old you are. Many theatre tickets are really affordable these days so you won’t have to break the bank to go! 

Take a ghost walk

Do you like getting scared by real ghost stories? Why not try something a bit different and go on a ghost walk through London? You could try the Paranormal Activity tour in Farringdon if this sounds like your kind of thing. Come hunt for ghosts and poltergeists through the streets and listen to tales that will chill you to the very bones. The tour takes you to the abandoned gaol cells, which were once home to infamous serial killers. Your tour guides will even help you along the way to make contact with ghosts (if you’re brave enough)! 

Try the Ice Bar

Want to go out for a few drinks (but with a twist)? Why not try London’s famous Ice Bar. A bar made entirely of; you guessed it- ice! Sip on some gorgeous cocktails at -5ºC, an experience not to be missed. Ice Bar provides extra warm attire to put on over your clothes so you’ll be comfortable while you party in style. There are so many excellent bars in London to try, so it’s hard to pick one. For an utterly original experience- Ice Bar should be top of your list. 

Thames Jazz Dinner Cruise

Want to experience the Thames in a luxurious and fun way? Then the Thames Jazz Dinner Cruise could be perfect for you. You’ll get a delicious three-course meal and bar, providing wonderful Champagnes, beers, and wines. The delightful ChiJazz band will keep you good and entertained with some excellent jazz classics and jazz covers of contemporary songs. For a jazz-tastic night of fun, this is your best bet! It’s hard to fit everything in when in London (you’ll need a few visits to do it all)! 

Bodrum, Turkey – 6 Things to do in Bodrum City

Bodrum, Turkey – 6 Things to do in Bodrum City

Bodrum is a seaside city in Turkey’s Bodrum Penninsula which stretches from the country’s southwest coast to the Aegean Sea.  Bodrum City features two bays with views of Bodrum Castle.

Bodrum City serves as a gateway to beach towns and resorts in the area.  The city has also become a popular port of call for some cruise ships who ply the Med and Aegean Seas.

Bodrum means sun, sea, history, and shopping.  It’s a perfect destination for everyone!

We recently spent a day in Bodrum, it was a port of call on our cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection.  The cruise terminal is located at one end of town and is an easy walk to all the sights in the city.  And if you’re just looking to stay in the city, no worries, there’s lots to do to fill your entire day!

Here are 6 things to do in Bodrum City!

BodrumVisit the Bodrum Castle.

Also known as St. Peter’s Castle, it is  medieval fortress completed in the 4th century B.C. which was partly built with stones from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The castle is a great example of Crusader architecture.  It is built on the site of the ancient city of Halikarnassus.  The castle grounds host several towers and halls which house different exhibits.


A must see is the Carian Princess Hall which showcases a gold crown, necklace, bracelets, rings and an exquisite wreath of golden myrtle leaves.  They belong to a woman of high status, possibly associated with Ada, the last Carian Princess.  The jewelry owner’s skeleton was found in the heavy terracotta sarcophagus on display here.

While at the castle don’t forget to walk the ramparts for awesome views.

Admission is 10TL about $6 and includes the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (Sualtı Arkeoloji Müzesi) which is housed within the castle.

Visit the Museum of Underwater Archaeology (Sualtı Arkeoloji Müzesi).

This museum is housed in the Bodrum Castle.  It is the largest museum in the world devoted to underwater archaeology.

Here you will see finds from ancient shipwrecks in the Aegean.  This museum has a fine collection of  amphoras, ancient glass, bronze, clay, and iron items.


Most of the artifacts date from underwater expeditions by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) after 1960.  The INA excavated several wrecks, some dating back to the 14th. Century BCE.

The glass collection is a definite must see!


bodrumWander thru the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

If you haven’t had your fill of historic structures you can walk over the the site of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, it’s about a 13 minute walk inland from the Bodrum Castle.

The once magnificent monument tomb was built by order of King Mausolus of Caria.  It was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

Unfortunately today not much remains of this ancient wonder.  It was destroyed by the earthquake of 1304 and many of its stones were used to build the Bodrum Castle.  You can wander thru the excavation and the gardens, and have a look at some of the battle scene freizes on display.

Window shop or shop at the town’s bazaar.

You can’t miss the bazaar, you pass it on your way to Bodrum Castle!  It’s filled with all sorts of things from “original fake” bags to Turkish handicrafts and souvenirs.

Before you decide to make your purchase remember to bargain!  It’s expected!


While you’re there try some Turkish street food.  I love Turkish Lokma, sweet fried dough balls!

Doner Kebabs are delish too!




Grab a meal or snack at one of the seaside restaurants.

All of them have comfy seating under an umbrella and awesome views of the castle!

And the food is amazing!

Find a table right by the beach and you can dip your feet in the water while waiting for your meal.  I did!

Stroll along the wide seafront corniche.

It’s a pretty stroll with views of the castle and the town.  There are even playgrounds along the way so stop by and let the kids play for a while.

There are many cafes and bars along the way if you want to stop and have a drink or snack.

Small fishing boats dock along the corniche.  You might catch a local fisherman fixing his nets.  Stop by and say hello, they’re very friendly!


There are many more things to do in and around Bodrum if you have the time.  You can spend some time walking the harbor in front of the castle, that’s where the big yachts are!

Or you can go on a boat trip along the Bodrum Penninsula for the day.  You’ll see the coastline from a different perspective and stop at some popular beaches.

If boating isn’t your thing take a day trip to one of the surrounding villages or resorts.  You can take a road trip to the ancient city of Ephesus, it’s just 2 1/2 hours away.

Barcelona With Kids

Barcelona With Kids

Last April we ended up in Barcelona with kids.  We were there with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons aged 8 months, 5 and 10.  Pretty wide age gap I know and finding things for the kids to do can be challenging at times. Specially when the adults want to do things too!

But Barcelona is a pretty kid friendly city and there are quite a few things for kids to do and a lot of fun places for them to visit.

Ever since my kids were small I always liked to mix things up when we went on family vacations and I see no reason why the same wouldn’t  hold true with vacationing with grandkids.  What I mean is I feel that vacations are a fun way to learn about the world and the different people and cultures that live in the many places we visit.  That’s why as part of any vacation I include something educational, like museums, local cuisine, and architecture, and something fun, like a beach day or an amusement park, in our itinerary.

So here are 7 kid friendly places and activities that will make your Barcelona with kids vacation fun for everyone.  I’m sure you’ll find something to suit your family!

This article contains affiliate links too help you plan your Barcelona family vacay!

Exploring Gaudí’s Work

Let’s face it one of the main tourist attractions in Barcelona are the whimsical buildings designed by Antoni Gaudí.  And whether you’re in Barcelona with kids or without those buildings are a definite must see.

Kids may not be that impressed with the unfinished Sagrada Familia Basilica but they’ll probably find the fairy tale buildings and sculptures in Parc Guell fun and charming.  And they’ll probably love seeing the dragon like roof of Casa Batló and the wavy facade of La Pedrera aka Casa Mila.

Ok that’s a lot for some kids to take in, actually it’s a lot for some adults too!

So what’s the best way to see all this?  Well a private guided tour of La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell is a great start!

You can book a kid friendly tour of both the basilica and the park with a guide who will tailor the experience for your child.  The guide will make visiting these places both fun and educational.  Best of all the tour includes skip the line tickets to both attractions (who wants to stand in line for hours to buy tickets and gain entrance, specially when you’ve got antsy kids with you!) and a cab ride between the two sites.  And since it’s private you decide how long you want to spend in each place.

So you can fit in a time for some silly photos.  Like spelling out YMCA in front of the Basilica!  Or letting the kids do a bit of running and climbing at the playground located across the street from the church.  Hey while the kids let off some energy parents and grandparents can grab a sangria and a snack at the truck located in front of the playground entrance.  There are tables and chairs located in the same place where you can rest and have a snack or drink while admiring the front of La Sagrada Familia.  (Just beware of pick pockets, they love to work the crowded sites. Keep your belongings in front of you always and keep and eye on the kids in the playground!)

Click here to book a kid friendly private tour of Barcelona’s 2 great attractions!

After visiting 2 of Gaudí’s masterpieces take a stroll down Passeig de Gracia if you still have the energy!

Here you’ll find high end fashion boutiques including Gucci, Chanel, Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Hermes, and more.  Definitely the Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue of Barcelona!  Kids might enjoy the store window displays along the boulevard, or they can check out the Apple Store or the little fashionistas might like to pop in to Desigual, a clothing brand headquartered in Barcelona that features trendy and chic clothing for the whole family.  We love Desigual!  They have fun clothes!

Along this wide street you’ll also pass Casa Batló and La Pedrera.  You can if you want buy tickets and check out the interior of each building, they’re pretty cool and some kids might find it interesting.  Our kids did not.  They preferred window shopping, go figure!


Stroll down La Rambla

La Rambla is Barcelona’s main pedestrian street.  It’s a crowded bustling pedestrian zone that stretches from Placa Catalunya right off Passeig de Gracia down to the Columbus statue towards the waterfront.

It’s lined with souvenir shops, hotels, cafés, fast food joints, restaurants, street vendors, and street artists.  Kids like La Rambla because it’s lined with shops and vendors hawking things kids love like gelato, ice cream, and even toys.  Our 10 year old basketball fanatic loved the NBA store and café.

Also on La Rambla you’ll find La Boqueria Market.  Kids love markets!  They’re colorful, fun, and filled with good things to eat.  Specially these frozen fruit bars!

Drop in around lunchtime and gather some picnic fixinigs!  You’ll find everything you need for a family picnic including fresh bread, deli meats and cheeses, fresh fruits and veggies, locally made olives and pickles, and more.  Or you can find ready to eat tapas like fried shrimp and calamari.

If you don’t want to take your food to go you can sit down at one of the tapas bars inside the market.

barcelona with kidsMosaic Class

Kids love arts and crafts.  Take them to this hands on Mosaic Class and let their creativity run wild for a couple of hours.

Kid friendly artists will teach kids the art of mosaic making.  The kids will learn how to handle and set tiles to create a mosaic which they will take home at the end of the class.

Our kids loved this!  Click here to book a Mosaic Class for children.

Camp Nou Private Tour

Football (Soccer) fans old and young will enjoy  a private tour of Camp Nou, home of the FC Barcelona or Barça.  This is the current team of Messi and the former team of other great players like Neymar and Ronaldo.

The tour includes one way transportation from Barcelona city center, guided tour of the stadium and museum,  and a light meal.  Of course you get to shop in the megastore for logo items such as shorts, shirts, balls, and more.  Click here to book a private tour of Camp Nou!

Barcelona with kidsL’Aquarium

Spend a couple of hours at the Barcelona Aquarium.  It’s one of the largest aquariums in Europe and is home to the world’s largest collection of Mediterranean Sea Life.

We love aquariums and have been to some of the best around the world.  The one in Barcelona is a definite must if you find yourself in Barcelona with kids!

Click here to get your skip the like L’Aquarium tickets!

barcelona with kidsBarcelona Zoo

Located in the city’s Cuitadella Park the Barcelona Zoo is another kid friendly favorite.  Founded in 1892 it is one of the oldest and most modern zoos in the world.

This zoo prides itself on it’s humane treatment of its animals.  It’s modern facilities and habitats do seem to house happy and content residents.

You can ride the train around the zoo or rent an electric buggy to putter around in.  Then of course there’s a restaurant serving fresh meals as well as snack vendors.  You can easily spend a day here and the kids will love it!   Avoid the ticket ques and click here to purchase your zoo tickets!

PortAventura and Ferrari Land Theme Parks

Spend the day at 2 theme parks!

Thrill to the super speed rides in Ferrari Land then the breathtaking coasters in PortAventura.  Truly and adrenalin junkie’s dream parks!

For those of us not so interested in heart stopping rides and the younger kids find family friendly rides and venues in both parks.  PortAdventure features a Sesame Street section complete with Big Bird and his gang!

The parks are located outside the city center and the tour includes roundtrip transportation and admission to both parks.   Click here too book this awesome tour!

Ready to book your family vacation to Barcelona?  Let Savvy Nana Travel help you plan a family friendly custom itinerary!

Must See Sights in Istanbul

Must See Sights in Istanbul

Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, is the most populated city in Turkey.  It is the country’s economic, cultural, and historic center.

Istanbul is a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia.  The two sides are separated by the Bosporus Strait which is a narrow channel that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles.

The city was founded under the name of Byzantion around 660 BC and grew to become one of the most important and coveted cities in history.  It was renamed Constantinople in 330 AD and remained the imperial capital for almost 16 centuries during the Roman and Byzantium (Holy Roman) Empires.

Istanbul played a big role in the the advancement of Christianity until the Ottomans captured the city in 1453 when they turned it into an Islamic stronghold and the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate.  Modern Turkey was born in 1922 when the last Ottoman Sultan fled the city after the Nationalists’ victory under Mustafa Kemel Atatürk and in 1923 Ankara became the nation’s capital.

So from eons ago Istanbul has been an important city as shown by its rich history and historic sites. Many of those sites are clustered around the historic center on the city’s European side.  The Mosques, Churches, and other sites as a group are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.  They are the reason millions of tourists flock to Istanbul yearly, making it the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination.

I have been to Istanbul many times over the past 10 years or so.  It’s a city one can never get enough of.  I love just about everything in Istanbul; the sights, sounds, scents, and people are amazing.  The food is delicious, the sights awe inspiring, the markets bustling, and the people warm and hospitable.  What’s not to love?

Where ever your interests lie you’ll find something to love in Istanbul.  Shoppers can shop til they drop at the Grand Bazaar; foodies can savor the exotic scents in the spice market, savor the kebabs and mezzes at one of the many restaurants, and indulge in decadent desserts of the sweets and pudding shops.  History buffs can visit everything from ancient Roman ruins to Byzantine churches to opulent Ottoman palaces.  And not to be overlooked Jewelry lovers can drool over the Sultan’s gem collection featuring the humongous Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the 4th. largest in the world.

I know, the first time visitor to Istanbul may find the city a bit overwhelming.  So here’s a list of some of my favorite places and things to do in one of my favorite cities.

Grand Bazaar

Kapaliςarsi AKA The Grand Bazaar built in 1461 is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world.  It’s a sprawling complex with 61 streets and over 4000 shops selling everything from tourist souvenirs, to “genuine fake” designer watches, shoes, clothes, and purses, to hand woven Turkish Carpets, to handcrafted silver tea sets and beautiful gold and gemstone jewelry.

The Grand Bazaar has 22 gates leading in and out of the covered area,  Along with the shops it is home to 17 inns,  2 mosques, 4 fountains, 10 wells, several cafes and restaurants, money exchange offices, and a police station.  It’s pretty much a city within itself.

You can spend days browsing all the shops in the Bazaar, that is if you can stand the hawkers constantly trying to get your attention.  I’ve found that my limit is 2 days before I’m ready to drop from exhaustion and have had my fill of politely but firmly saying “no thank you” to all the salesmen who are vying for my attention.

Many people say that the Bazaar is nothing but a big tourist trap, and I suppose it can be, specially if you don’t know how to bargain and don’t know what you’re buying and what its value should be.  The main thing to remember when shopping at the Grand Bazaar, or any market in Turkey and the Middle East, is that you are EXPECTED to bargain and bargain fiercely.  It’s like a game no matter if you’re buying a box of Turkish Delight, a handwoven carpet, or a diamond studded bracelet.  Bargain, bargain, bargain!  Be sure you know what you want to buy and what is the maximum amount you’re prepared to pay for it.  Start lower than your max price and with a bit of haggling if the shopkeeper can sell it at your price and still make a profit believe me he will.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia from the Greek Ayía  ∑oφía; Ayasofia in Turkish; and Sancta Sophia in Latin; means the Church of Holy Wisdom (Sophia means wisdom).

This building and its massive dome was constructed in 537 AD.  In its time it was the world’s largest building and its dome an engineering marvel.  It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture.

From its completion in 537 to 1453 it was an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and was the seat of the Eumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.  This reign was briefly interrupted between 1204 to 1261 when it was converted by members of the 4th. Crusade into a Roman Catholic Cathedral under the Holy Roman Empire.  After the Ottoman take over in mid 1453 it was converted into a Mosque and served as one until 1931.  It was “secularized” and opened as a museum in 1935 and has remained as such to this day, at least for now.  The current president Mr. Erdogan announced in March 2019 that he is considering changing it back to a mosque saying that its conversion to a museum in 1935 was “a big mistake”.  We shall have to wait and see what the future holds for the Church of Holy Wisdom.

Regardless of the change in designation I’m fairly certain that one can still visit the Hagia Sophia with a few minor changes to one’s attire.  As with the Blue Mosque across the park which welcomes tourists inside as long as it’s not prayer time,  tourists will mostly be welcomed into the Hagia Sophia as long as they are dressed appropriately and behave with respect while inside.  When visiting a mosque in any country one must dress conservatively; for men this means pants must cover their knees and shirts cover their shoulders;  the same rules apply to women who must also cover their heads with a shawl or scarf.  Everyone’s shoes must be removed before entering the mosque.  But don’t worry, tourists are given fabric  coverings to cover their hair and shoulders (you are not required to cover your face, just hair) and plastic bags for their shoes before entering the mosque.

The Hagia Sophia is definitely worth a visit.  The size of the interior space is awesome.  You will see remnants of the time it was a Christian cathedral in the uncovered Byzantine paintings and mosaics that once dominated the walls and ceilings.  You’ll also see the painted decorations and mosaics on those same walls and ceilings that were done when it was a mosque.  You will also see that some of the columns used in its construction were taken from all over the world including 8 from the ancient Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and from Egypt.

The Blue Mosque

Popularly called the Blue Mosque because of the blue ceramic tiles that adorn the interior its official name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.

This historic mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmet I.  It was built to surpass the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia located across the park.   The complex consists of the mosque, the tomb of the founder, a madrasa, and a hospice.

The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most visited attractions, but it is also an active mosque so it’s closed for 30 minutes during the 5 daily prayer times.

Visiting the mosque is free as is the fabric head cover provided for women (use them to cover your hair and shoulders, not your face.  Then return them when you exit the building) and the plastic bag for carrying your shoes while in the mosque.

Topkapi Palace

Constructed between 1460-1478 by Sultan Mehmed II the conqueror of Constantinople Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman court and the adminstrative and educational center of the state until the mid 19th. century.

In the 1850s the palace became inadequate and the court moved to Dombalahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus.  But Topkapi Palace remained home to the Royal Treasury, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Mohammad, and the imperial archive.

It was converted into a museum in 1924.  Today it houses several different collections including the Royal Treasury where one can gaze upon the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and other gem encrusted garments, swords, and other accessories once worn and used by the Sultans.  It is also where one will find the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle and Holy Relics where relics of The Prophet are kept.

Other areas one can visit are the Harem and the Hagia Irene Church.  Each require the purchase of a ticket in addition to the museum admission.  On the grounds you’ll also find book and gift shops as well as cafes and restaurants.  Grab a table at the Konyali restaurant located in the fourth courtyard for some delicious Turkish food and commanding views of the Bosphorus and the Asian Side.

Spice Bazaar

Second in popularity to the Grand Bazaar the Spice Bazaar is a must see.

This colorful fragrant market is housed in an L shaped building which is part of the New Mosque’s complex that was built in 1664.  For the most part this market is located in the building with vaulted ceilings but spills out into the streets and alleys leading into and around the complex.  If one is inclined one can walk from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar and vice versa.

The Spice Bazaar is filled with colorful spices from around the world.  You’ll also find nuts, dried fruit, and other delicacies in the many stalls.  In recent years some of the food stalls are being replaced by shops that sell ceramics, handbags, t-shirts, and other souvenirs.  It really is a fun place, it’s yummy too!  Shopkeepers will be more than happy to let you sample their wares!

Basilica Cistern

Built during the reign of Justinian I a Byzantine Emperor the Basilica Cistern is the largest of the several hundred cisterns under the city of Istanbul.  It’s located less than 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia.

The cistern served as a water filtration system that provided water to the building in the area including Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman rule.  It served this purpose up to modern times.  Today it is more a tourist attraction and a venue for various events.

This cavernous space measures 105,000 square feet and can hold up to almost 3 million cubic feet of water.  Its ceiling is supported by a forest of marble columns, a total of 336.

It’s an eerie place accessed by a narrow stairway found across from the Hagia Sophia.  You can walk on the wooden walkways that crisscross the area and eventually you’ll encounter the 2 inverted Medusa head blocks that serve as a base for 2 columns.

The site has been the scene used by several books, movies and even a video game.  Most recently it was the setting for the final chapters of Dan Brown’s book Inferno.  It was here that the final scenes of the movie of the same name were filmed.

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge is one of the most happening places in the city.  It spans the Golden Horn and links the old city on the European side to the Asian side.

Thousands of people cross this bridge daily.  They cross in cars and on foot.  You’ll even find many fishermen dangling their lines from the sides of the bridge.  Join the hoards of people crossing the bridge, it’s an experience in itself!  Then make your way to the area under the bridge.  Here you’ll find restaurants, food kiosks, and ferries that offer cruises along the Bosphorus.  It is one of my favorite hangouts in Istanbul!

Sweets & Pudding Shops

You can’t leave Istanbul without trying the food.  Yes Doner Kebabs and stews are a must, but after the meal it’s dessert time!

And dessert is a big deal here.  You’ll find pudding shops and Baklava shops every where.  My all time favorite is Hafiz Mustafa.  There are 4 locations in the city but my favorite is the 2 story location on Eminönü.

They have so many things to satisfy your sweet tooth it’s hard to choose just one.  I can’t even name a favorite!

Try the made to order Kunafe, it’s so worth the wait!  While you’re waiting have some of their baklava made with green pistachio dough, it’s amazing; try the chocolate dipped ones, they’re to die for!

If you have room have a pudding, chocolate, pistachio, hazelnut, rice, and so many others.  Whenever we go there we always end up bringing home boxes of sweets.

It’s a dessert lover’s dream!