Istanbul is the gateway between the east and the west. Spread across two continents, Istanbul is the ultimate blend of European and Asian cultures. The most enduring image of the city is the skyline, with its many mosques. But, when it comes to the lifestyle of its people, Istanbul leans more toward Europe. In fact, most people who live in Istanbul consider themselves Europeans.
Once known as Constantinople, the city was named after Roman emperor Constantine, who made it his capital in 330 A.D. Prior to that, the city was a trading port known as Byzantium. Constantine himself called it Nova Roma.
Modern Istanbul is a sprawling metropolis, divided between Europe and Asia, with a population of 10 million. Constantine’s city was limited to a narrow strip of land on the European side of the Bosphorus, now known as Old Istanbul, between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. At its peak, a million people lived there.
Most impressive are the Theodosian Walls, erected in 412 A.D., which secured the four miles of the city vulnerable to a land invasion. To assure its impregnability, two sets of walls were built. The outer wall is six-and-a-half feet (2 meters) thick and 28 feet (8.5 meters) in height. The inner wall, built 65 feet (20 meters) from the outer wall, is 16 feet (4.8 meters) thick and about 40 feet (12 meters) in height. The walls included 96 towers, some as high as 65 feet (20 meters), and 12 gates.
For the medieval connoisseur, several days could be spent exploring the land walls. But for the average visitor, a half-day is sufficient. First, spend two hours at Porta Aurea. From there, take a taxi north along the inner wall, stopping at interesting points along the way. One of those stops will surely be the ruins of the Blachernae Imperial Palace, built in the 11th century by emperor Alexius I. Major restoration work is underway, closing off the palace’s interior to visitors. From Blachernae, walk five minutes east to St. Chora Church, a lavish example of 11th century Byzantine architecture and craftsmanship.
Then you should visit Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom. Construction, started in 532, amazingly took only five years to complete. It replaced two previous versions of the church that had been destroyed. For more than a thousand years, Hagia Sophia was the largest and grandest church in the world. When Sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque, the loss devastated Orthodox Christians. Ironically, Hagia Sophia’s design impressed the Ottomans so much that it was copied in other mosques throughout the empire. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, declared Hagia Sophia a museum and work started to restore its mosaics. Today, it is mix of both faiths.
The royal residence, known as the Great Palace, was located between Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome. It had been abandoned by the time the Ottomans took over and what remained was demolished.
While the Hippodrome and Hagia Sophia were testaments to the wealth of the Byzantine Empire, practical things such as a sewer system and a fresh water supply were necessary in maintaining what had been the largest city in the world. The demand for hot water was accommodated by hundreds of underground cisterns. Two of these are open to visitors. The more impressive is the Basilica Cistern, a minute walk west of Hagia Sophia. The cavernous “hot water tank” was built by Constantine and supported by massive columns. Visitors will notice the strange placement of Medusa heads at the base of two of the cistern’s marble columns. It is not uncommon for visitors to test their singing voices here, as the natural acoustics of the room make it ideal for concerts and performances. The other cistern open to the public is in the basement of Nakkas, a carpet and souvenir store one block southeast of the Hippodrome.
In addition to everything mentioned, the Valens Aqueduct, Divan Yolu (Constantinople’s main road) and the pillars from the Forum of Theodosius should not be missed.
Here are the best things to do in Istanbul:
1. Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is one of the world’s great palace and a premiere attraction. Visiting Istanbul without touring the Topkapi is like visiting London without seeing the Tower of London. Your trip to Istanbul is not complete without it. For that reason the Topkapi is ridiculously crowded and very expensive compared to other attractions in Turkey.
The palace was first built by Mehmet the Conqueror just after his capture of Constantinople in 1453. His successors lived here for nearly 400 years until they began to take up residence in the Dolmabahce Palace, just across the Golden Horn.
The palace is quite different from the European concept of a palace. It is much more enclosed being built around four courtyards. Surrounding these courtyards, within the perimeter walls, are a series of pavilions, chambers, halls, kitchens and even smaller courtyards. Among them are the famous harem and treasury. Each of these must see attractions can only be visited by purchasing an additional ticket. This is why the cost of your tour of the Topkapi with cost you an arm and a leg. I figure that my visit cost me $26 (23 euros) in all. Just the same, the whole place is engrossing and it is hard not to pass up not seeing all of it.
Supposedly it cost $10.00 to just enter the palace grounds and a additional $10.00 each to tour the Harem and the Treasury. This price will adjust with the change in the exchange rate. So there maybe some relief from the high cost.
The palace is open everyday but Tuesday from 9:30am to 5pm. The Harem which only can be visited by guided tour, is closed at lunchtime.
2. Hagia Sophia – Ayasofya
Hagia Sophia has been standing on its site since 537 against all odds. Disasters struck, empires changed, there ware wars, conflicts and rebellions, but the temple survived them all. Four minarets at the corners of the building remind us that a thousand years after its consecration, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque for five long centuries. Now it’s a museum and one of the must-see attractions of Istanbul.
Built at the times of Emperor Justinian I, it took less than six years to be completed ( it is a short time, compared to f.e. a hundred years needed to construct Notre Dame cathedral in Paris). This rush may have been a cause of problems, especially with a domed roof that almost collapsed at the time of construction. Actually, it did collapse about two decades later. Luckily, then it was restored using lighter materials and a different technique. It was done so well that it has lasted till present days.
Beneath the dome are 40 windows and the sun coming through them seems “to dissolve the solidity of the walls and create an ambience of ineffable mystery”. When Hagia Sophia was completed Justinian is believed to have said: “Solomon, I have outdone thee”.
The decorations of the temple at the time of its construction must have been very simple, such as the shapes of the cross. Over the time mosaics and images of Christ and imperial family were added. In the 8th and 9th centuries some of them were destroyed during iconoclasm. After that period decorating the church with figural mosaics was resumed. One of the most famous – that presenting Virgin Mary with the child – is placed in the apse of the church and comes from 867.
The year 1453 started another chapter in the life of Hagia Sophia. On May 28th Mehmed II marched into Constantinople and the Ottoman empire took over. Promptly, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. The mosaics were covered by paint or plaster, four minarets added, the monograms of four caliphs put on the pillars and other changes made. But the temple kept its name “Holy Wisdom” (Sophia means wisdom in Greek).
The main entrance to Hagia Sophia (Ayasofyia) leads through Imperial gate in the past used only by the Emperor himself. The moment you come inside, you are struck by the immense size of the construction. The nave is carried by a dome of 30m (426ft) in diameter, which is carried on four pendentives and supported by four massive pillars. Procopius, a Byzantine historian, put it that way: “It seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain and so cover the space”.
Unfortunately, many of the beautiful mosaics covering the walls of the temple have been lost completely. From what remains, the mosaic of the Virgin Mary with the child, which is in the apse, is one of the most impressive. She’s sitting on the backless throne, holding little Jesus in her arms and two archangels Michael and Gabriel are on her both sides. (Gabriel is partly and Michael largely destroyed).
To see other mosaics it is recommended to climb the galleries. Hagia Sophia has two levels: a ground floor and galleries above. A part of the gallery was used as an imperial lodge, from which an empress could observe a service.
In the upper south gallery we can see Deesis considered to be the finest mosaic in the church. It dates back to 1261 and shows Jesus standing between Mary and Saint John.
3. Grand Bazaar – Kapali Çarsi
Kapalicarsi, the Grand Bazaar, is one of the largest covered markets in the world, 330000 sqft (30km²), with upwards of 3500 stores, 55 streets, 25000 workers, and 250000-400000 visitors per day. Mehmet the Conquerer opened a market at this site as early as 1450, enlarged significantly by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th C, with extensive renovations following a major earthquake in 1894.
The broad classes of merchandise available from multiple vendors include most famously jewellry, watches, leather good, clothing, carpets and kilims, all varieties of antiques, ceramics, and precious metals and stones. The floor plan is confusing with some oblique and curved streets, but schematic maps are available from multiple sources including hotels. These are color coded as certain areas of the bazaar contain predominantly once class of shop. The most expensive and upscale section is at the center (Cevahir Bedesten – Old Bazaar) where the aisles are narrower, the storefronts far more refined, and the dome the highest. Here the streets are quiet and peaceful without the hustle and bustle of the remainder in fitting with the more refined offerings. This is the area for antique jewellry coins and furniture, copperware and amber, fine ceramics, and religious objects.
Multiple entrances to the bazaar allow access to different areas but for most visitors following the crowds from the Beyazit or Cemberlitas tram stop ( just west of the Sultanahmet stop) will be the best route. Immediately on entrance there is a leather clothing district and the first main street running perpendicularly is the main street for jewellry sales, with small side streets.
4. Blue Mosque – Sultan Ahmed Mosque
What can be said about the Blue Mosque that hasn’t already been said? It is as synonymous to Istanbul as the Grand Bazaar. It is what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Statue of Liberty is to New York, the Taj Mahal is to India. It is one of the most famous and most recognizable buildings in the world.
The Blue Mosque is really called Sultanahmet Camii. Architect Mehmet Aga created this Ottoman masterpiece for Sultan Ahmet I in 8 short years beginning in 1609. My favorite features – the cascading domes and six minarets – make this a stunning building from the outside. It was the six minarets though that provoked hostility because it was considered a sacrilegous attempt to rival the Elharam Mosque in Mecca. In the end, Sultan Ahmet I had to send Aga to Mecca to build a seventh minaret for the Elharam Mosque to reestablish its prominence in the Islamic world.
Much larger than I expected, the Sultanahmet Camii is 213 feet (65 meters) by 239 feet (73 meters). It is so huge that it can be seen from many spots around the city – and it is from a distance that you can fully appreciate its beauty (and its size!).
We walked through the courtyard to the entrance. We removed our shoes, I covered my head, and we stepped inside. My eyes adjusted to the light and I looked around in awe. There was so much to see, so many fantastic details. The carpeted floor seemed to go on forever. The area for worshipper’s was roped off and non-Muslim men and all women were not permitted past the rope. There was a separate section in the back for women worshippers.
The mosque is nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the 20,000 blue-green hand painted Iznik tiles inside. (Iznik pottery is made from hard, white “fritware” which is similar to procelain.) The tiles themselves have over 50 different designs (including floral designs – tulips) and are very beautiful. Although it was not brightly lit inside, light comes from the 260 stained-glass windows and the 141 feet (35 meters) high center dome. (The celing of the dome is painted with very pretty Arabic patterns.) There is also a huge (very low) chandelier (as well as other chandeliers) that had small strings of lights but must have once held candles.
Other special highlights inside:
- The Mihrab – an ornate niche in the wall that marks the direction of Mecca.
- The Mimbar – a lofty pulpit from where the imam (head of the mosque) delivers his Friday khutba (sermon).
- Safe spot allowing the sultant to pray.
We spent a good amount of time inside – there was so much to see – before making our way back to the large courtyard which interestingly covers the same amount of space as the prayer hall to balance the whole building. In the middle of the courtyard is the ablutions fountain where worshippers would wash their head, hands, and feet before entering the mosque. This fountain is no longer in use and the ablutions ritual is performed at a line of taps next to the entrance to the courtyard.
Please be quiet and respectful of worshippers (no photos!). No flash photography is permitted. Women must cover their heads, proper dress for all. Allow at least an hour to visit.
The mosque is opposite Hagia Sophia and within walking distance of Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern. Within the mosque are the Carpet and Kilim Museums. Entrance to the museums is $2.
No charge for entrance into the mosque, although donations are accepted.
The mosque is open 8:30 a.m. to noon, and 1:45 – 4:30 p.m. Access is restricted during prayer times, particularly mid-day Fridays.
5. Galata Tower
Going to the top of the Galata Tower was one of my favorite things to do in Istanbul because the panoramic views from the top were great! I loved the greens, pinks, and tans of the surrounding buildings, the views of the mosques, the ships and ferries sailing the Bosphorus, the bridges, as well as the views of Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and the Galata Bridge.
The tower itself rises 196 feet (60 meters) out of Beyoglu and is easily spotted from the Eminou side of the Galata Bridge. It is shaped like a rocket ship and doesn’t really look so tall up close. In the 6th century it was used to monitor ships in the surrounding waters. In subsequent years it was a jail and also a fire lookout.
We went at 4 p.m. which was a good time. The sun was still shining but glare was less. There was a line even at that time of day. The elevator goes almost to the top but once you exit the elevator you have about 60 (circular) stairs to climb. You have to yield to people passing and it gets a little tight especially if you’re on the “small” part of the stair. Once you do reach the top, make sure to go clockwise around the tower otherwise you will be constantly trying to pass people on the narrow walkway (and in turn, irritating them!). There is a sign posted with a directional arrow.
There is a restaurant where the elevator lets off and a gift shop in the bottom of the tower. There is also a nightclub in the tower.
Do try and go when the sky is clear for the best “long” views. If you are coming from the Eminou side or from the Galata Bridge, take the “tunel” (funicular/underground railway) up the steep hill to Beyoglu Square and walk back down a short distance to the Tower. Otherwise, the walk from the bridge to the tower is pretty steep.
Admission is 10 TL.
Open 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. daily. Restaurant & Nightclub is open 8 p.m. to midnight daily.
6. Daytrip – Princes’ Islands
If you are not pressed for time during you stay in Istanbul, I would definitely advise you to go to the Princes’ Islands on a day trip. It’s a group of islands on the Marmara Sea and getting there is no problem. You can take a ferry from Kabatas – a place easily accessible by public transport. The ferry ticket costs 5 TL and after an hour you find yourself in a different world – far from the madding crowds and the noise of Istanbul.
The islands’ name originated in the times when Byzantine emperors sent there the troublesome princes for exile. Today the islands are rather reffered to as Adalar ( meaning the islands). Four of the nine ones are open to visitors. They are: Buyukada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kinaliada, Buyukada being the biggest and most popular one.
What i loved about the island is the lack of cars, which makes it an oasis of peace. You can move around on foot, by bike or in horse-drawn carriages (faytons). You can hop into one just a few steps from the ferry terminal and the other good thing is that the prices for every location are fixed. We decided to go to the central point of the island which is called Birlik Meydani (it cost us 30 TL). On the way (mostly up the hill) we passed some beautiful wooden Victorian houses. It was a very nice ride and when we saw bikers sweating their way up, we thought that taking a fayton had been a very good choice.
From Birlik Meydani we decided to walk up to the Hagios Giorgios Church situated on the summit of the island ( carriages don’t go there, as it’s too steep). It takes about 30-40 min to reach the top.
Walking down back to the ferry terminal was much more pleasant. We admired splendid mansions dating back to the late 19th and early 20th century, surrounded by lush greenery.
The island is also a good place for tasting sea food – there are plenty of restaurants, especially near the ferry terminal.
7. Basilica Cistern – Yerebatan Saray
Istanbul is often described as mystical, but when you go down the steps into the cool, dark Palace Cistern (also Byzantine Cistern, Basilica Cistern or Yerebetan Sarayi), it doesn’t get more mystical and magical than that.
This underground reservoir was built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century to store water brought via aqueduct from 19 kilometers away. The arched roof is supported by marble columns, 336 in all. These columns are lit up to create a wonderful play of light and shadow. You walk through on a wooden walkway to the sounds of soft classical music and dripping water. If you look closely, there are goldfish darting around in the water.
One column with a greenish tint and a swirly circle pattern has a thumb-size hole in the side. Stick your finger in, swivel your hand around and make your wish. I saw a similar column on a traffic island on the main boulevard of Sultanahmet. So if the line is too long in the cistern, I bet that one works just as well.
Justinian’s builders didn’t actually carve all these Ionic, Doric and Corinthian columns: This was a case of ancient recycling: They reused materials from old buildings. From the giant carved Medusa heads in one corner of the cavernous structure, one upside down and the other on its side, it seems clear these builders never attended any courses in art appreciation.
In Greek mythology, Medusa was a gorgeous gal with a great head of hair, but Athena, queen of the gods, was jealous. She turned her into a monster with serpents growing out of her head, and anyone who looked at her turned into stone.
The Turks are an enterprising bunch. After removing centuries of mud from the cistern and reopening it in 1987, they didn’t forget to build a café on a wooden deck in the corner. Sometimes there are concerts here. Overhead hangs a large piece of plastic sheeting, insuring that diners and musicians stay dry.
8. Dolmabahce Palace
Main Entrance and Secretariat Halls
The interior of the Dolmabahce Palace is visited as part of a group of about 35 led by a provided guide and given in English and Turkish. The recitations are in hushed and reverent tones delivered without great enthusiasm. With the ambient noise associated with other groups in the same room, hearing the delivery is very difficult if one is not in the front two or three rows. And the groups are moved quickly – stopping for a photo op guarantees missing a lot of the presentation. Often the visitor simply stands in awe of the sumptuous overdecoration without knowing exactly what it represents or even which room one is in.
The citizens of late Ottoman Period Turkey had few luxuries, but Sultan Abdulmecid spared no expense in his opulent palace. Each of the reception halls and surrounding offices are filled with crystal, gold leaf, Hereke carpets, porcelain vases, paintings, and fine classic furniture. Magnificent chandeliers are the hallmark feature of these rooms.
The Main Entrance Room used to assemble the tour groups was also the room used by visitors to the sultan and features an English chandelier with sixty little arms and lots of Hereke silk fabrics and rugs in royal red. The adjacent Secretariat Room is famed for its paintings, especially the largest painting in the palace — a painting of the Surre Procession (1887) by Stefano Ussi depicting the annual procession of the Sultan to Mecca carrying a surre (money sack) with financial resources used to maintain holy sites.
What the Dolmabahce Palace lacks in subtlety it makes up for in size. The overall palace complex covers over 11 acres with the main palace containing 285 rooms, 44 halls, 6 baths, and 68 toilets. It is an L-shaped building of 3 stories with the lowest half underground. The great ceremonial hall is twice as high as the remainder and located centrally.
From the garden at the west, the administrative section of the palace is the first part entered and contains four large halls used to receive and entertain foreign officials with the famed double horseshoe crystal staircase located in the middle. Studies, libraries, smaller reception room, and prayer rooms surround these larger rooms which are among the most lavishly decorated, meant to impress visitors with the wealth and power of the sultan.
The tallest portion of the palace, the great ceremonial hall, opens to the Bosphorus. Further east are the harem and private quarters of the sultan’s families, maids, and other functionaries, extending into the short limb of the L where the favored concubines were housed. The harem is not included on the guided tour of the palace, unfortunately, so that the private quarters of the sultan are not visited.
The highest, largest, and most magnificent room in the palace is the muayede or ceremonial hall used for the most important religious and state functions presided over by the sultan. Over 2000 sq yards (1700 m²) in size, with a 36 yd (33m) high ceiling supported by 56 columns, the centerpiece is a 4.5 ton crystal chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria. Until recently this was the largest chandelier in the world, with the largest now in Jordan. The floor is covered by a hugh Hereke carpet. The walls are pushed out to create narrow aisles. All the domes are exquisitely painted and decorated.
Of note, the current exit from the palace for tourists is to the waterside quay, which was the preferred entrance in Ottoman times. For the special events, the sultan’s golden throne was carried from the Topkapi palace even when the palace was otherwise not used.
Much is made of the heating system, heated air supplied through vents at the bases of the massive columns. Since hot air rises, it took up to 3 days to completely heat the hall.
9. Istiklal Caddesi
Istiklal Avenue is described as the heartbeat of modern Istanbul, visited by up to 3 million every weekend day. It is described as an elegant pedestrianized street 3 km long lined with boutiques, galleries, upscale restaurants clubs and pubs, bakeries and chocolate stores, all housed in 19th C Turkish buildings and all extending up the side streets on both sides. There are several famed churches and synagogues, schools, and multiple consulates. The avenue runs from Taksim Square, the major transportation hub in eastern Istanbul to Tunel, a funicular in the Galata district to the main tram. During Ottoman times, it was known as Grand Avenue of Pera. The name was changed in 1923 to Istiklal meaning independence and commemorating the Turkish War of Independence.
10. Taksim Square
Taksim Square is the huge square anchoring the eastern end of Iskilal Caddesi. The name is derived from the Turkish word for division – here water brought from resevoirs to the north was divided to several smaller pipelines serving adjacent neighborhoods as conceived by Sultan Mahmut I in the 18th Century. It is the center for a large area of shopping, restaurants, and hotels including some in the 5 star category. On one side, the Ataturk Cultural Center offers periodic concerts. On the other, the impressive Republic Monument features Ataturk, his successor Inonu, and other revolutionary figures. Besides honoring these men, it also serves to break with the Islamic and Ottoman tradition forbidding the depiction of human figures and establishes the more secular nature of modern Turkey. It was placed in 1928 by the Italian sculptor Canonica. The square is a frequent site of state gatherings and demonstrations.
Taksim Square and Iskilal Caddesi undoubtedly still have fine restaurants and upscale shopping but they are not readily apparent to the casual tourist. The throngs on the square are in transit between innumerable busses, a funicular, and two trams and seem most interested in a trailer selling akbils and a massive Burger King. On the Iskilal, the Great Avenue is no more – the stores and restaurants occupy architecturally classic buildings but are decidedly middlbrow and the crowds walking the street painfully and obviously not the creme de la creme of Istanbul society.
11. Süleymaniye Mosque
Suleiman the Magnificent was the most powerful ruler of his time, the greatest ruler of Ottoman Empire and one of the most significant rulers in the history. Appropriate to his title – the mosque he was the patron of, built between 1550 and 1557, is the magnificent building. Constructed on the highest point of the Golden Horn’s west bank, the mosque is the artwork of architect Sinan, the greatest architect of Ottoman Empire and “the closest Turkey gets to a Renaissance architect”. Sinan, man of Greek or Armenian origin, lived for almost a century, was the chief Ottoman architect during the region of four sultans and constructed about four hundred buildings!
The mosque suffered the damage from fire in 1660 and from the earthquake in 1766. It was restored in several occasions, the last time in 1956 to gain its faithful appearance. The mosque interior, mostly red in colour, decorated with Iznik tiles is very spacious and astonishingly beautiful.
In the garden behind the mosque are two mausoleums – turbes – one of Suleiman the Magnificent and the other of Hurrem, Suleiman’s wife of Russian, Ukrainian of Georgian origin, the first especially powerful and the most influential woman of the Ottoman Empire. Turbe of Sinan is situated north of the mosque, across Mimar Sinan Caddesi street (it was named in his honour). The mosque complex includes medreses – theological schools, school of medicine, caravanserai – building for rest and recover from the day’s journey, Turkish bath, kitchen and hospice for the poor.
12. Bosphorus Ferries
Take a public ferry up and down the Bosphorus. Jump off if you want to eat, drink, or look around somewhere (wait till the boat stops at a pier, of course).
Very cheap, very fun. Just buy a token (jeton) each time you get on.
They have eats & drinks on the boats as well.
It’s a great way to see outlying parts of the city and villages further up towards the Black Sea. You’ll be amazed by the other traffic on the waterway, especially if you pass a big tanker. Impressive!
If you visit in the summer, the trip will be a great escape from the heat of the city. Any other time, make sure you have clothes to keep you warm enough!
13. Spice Bazaar – Egyptian Bazaar
At the south end of the Galata Bridge, next to the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) is the main entrance to the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar or Misir Carsisi. The bazaar is one of the oldest in Istanbul and the second largest covered bazaar in the city. It was originally built (17th century) to generate rental income for the upkeep of the Yeni Camii.
It seemed most stalls did not sell spices but this bazaar was and is still considered the center for spice trade in Istanbul. The stalls that did have spices had neat cones of colorful spices (chili, saffron, turmeric, etc.). Those same stalls usually sold several kinds of tea as well. Some of the most interesting stalls sold Turkish sweets, honey, nuts and dried fruits. Many stalls sold belly dancing outfits, clothes, household goods, and souvenirs.
The layout of the bazaar is an L-shape with 88 vaulted rooms. The narrow lanes are very crowded and it is easy to get swept out of the Spice Bazaar into the local markets (outside) surrounding the bazaar. (We walked around there for a while and it was interesting to note that the market was set up in sections: clothes, hardware, stationary/packing, wedding dresses, etc.)
The Spice Bazaar was not only too crowded and hot to shop, but expensive as well. I would compare prices if you want to make any purchases – and it’s likely you’ll need to bargain! We did find in general that things were less expensive outside than at any of the bazaars.
Allow 30-60 minutes to wander, longer if you plan to shop or visit the outside markets.
14. Galata Bridge
The Galata Bridge spans the mouth of the Golden Horn and joins the Asian side (Eminou) of Istanbul to the European side (Galata). The previous bridge was a pontoon bridge which probably had alot more charm than the current bridge. The Galata Bridge is a bascule (moveable) bridge. Built in 1992, the new bridge is 490m (1,607ft) long. The deck of the bridge is 42m (138ft) wide. There are 3 lanes for vehicles and a walkway in each direction. The tram runs on the tracks in the middle of the bridge.
The bridge in itself is not particularly attractive. It is more the activity on and around the bridge that is so interesting. It is a great place to walk – actually stroll.
Along the top of the bridge men are fishing and selling their catches while vendors are selling various street food. The lower level of the bridge is lined with cafes and restaurants selling fish, of course. We stopped for lunch one day – took a seat outside almost right on top of the Bosphorus River. We had great fish and relaxed watching the various vessels sailing the Bosphorus while fishing lines with small fish attached were reeled in over our heads.
From Eminou you can catch the ferries or tour boats that ply the Bosphorus (definitely recommend doing this!).
For a great snack/lunch visit the boats lining the Eminou quayside. The fish are grilled right on the boats and the finished sandwich is handed over to you from the boat. Small chairs and even smaller tables available. Gets very crowded but absolutely worth it! (With your back to the Yeni Cami/New Mosque, the boats are located on the left side of the bridge – Eminou side.)
15. Bosphorus Strait
There are many places by the Bosphorus which are an absolute delight but let’s focus on these few:
- Ortakoy. Ortakoy is a very popular hangout place here. It’s 2nd only to Taksim for nightlife, many concerts in clubs and many very trendy places indeed. But it also boasts an excellent restaurant area where you can eat outside and admire the gorgeous Ortakoy Mosque against the great Bosphorus bridge, particularly when it’s lit up in the night.
- Beskitas is great for shopping. Many students live here and the atmosphere is youthful and rather great amongst the pedestrianised streets. Lost of cheap shops, some restaurants and a generally nice place to hang out.. Sometimes I like to sit by the water and watch the boats as they come in.
- Moda, on the Asian side (take a ferry from Besiktas), there is a charming tea garden here where you can have your Turkish tea and a truckload of sugar. Also some nice bars, good restaurants AND some of the best ice cream in Turkey! (Ali Usta). There’s also a great walk along the water’s edge. Very nice and quieter than other places.
16. Sultanahmet – Old City
Located in the heart of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Sultanahmet Square is also known as the Horse Square and is the most telling venue in this Sultan of Cities that is Istanbul. A favorite with photographers, a stopping place for travelers and the quintessential experience for those with a passion for Istanbul, the square is like an open-air museum.
In the late 2nd century A.D., the city Byzantium, the name it bore before Constantinople, paid a heavy price for its betrayal of Emperor Septimius Severus and was razed to the ground yet the city owed its subsequent reconstruction and Istanbul’s most famous square to the selfsame emperor. The square amazed visitors with the vast array of monuments belonging to various civilizations and was known as the Hippodrome (Greek for ‘race track’). The ancient square served as an arena for chariot races and for contests involving wild animals and gladiators. While maintaining its importance throughout the centuries, the square rose to even greater prominence after the city was declared the capital of the Byzantine Empire by Constantine I on May 11th 330. During this era, the Hippodrome was turned into a center for social affairs, measuring roughly 500 x 120 meters (1,640 x 393 feet) and boasting an estimated seating capacity of 100,000.
The surviving two obelisks and a bronze column that can be seen today in Sultanahmet Square ornament the centuries-old square with an air of pride and nobility. Also there is a beautiful Fountain of Kaiser Wilhelm II, a.k.a The German Fountain, which is a real eye catcher.
17. Archeology Museum
The exhibits displayed in the Archeological Museum belong to the most important in the world, although the collection was started only in the second half of the 19th century. The museum complex consists of three buildings: the Museum of Ancient Orient, the Archeological Museum and the Tiled Pavillion.
In the Museum of Ancient Orient we can see interesting reliefs, sculptures, tools and weapons from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Anatolia. One of the most precious exhibits is the Treaty of Kadesh – the oldest recorded peace treaty, signed in the 13th century B.C. between Ramses II and the Hittites. The Museum has also the tiled reliefs of lions, dragons and bulls from the Isthar Gate.
The most important object of Archeological Museum is definitely the Alexander sarcophagus. It owes its name to the carved scenes on its sides presenting Alexander the Great either in battles or during hunts. Actually, it is most probably the sarcophagus of Abdolonymus, the king of Sidon. No matter who it belong to, the sarcophagus, which looks like a temple with its pitched roof, is a real masterpiece.
Another exhibit which attracts the attention of most visitors is the sarcophagus of mourning women. It was excavated from Royal Necropolis at Sidon. The figures of women in different poses but undoubtedly in grief have a universal appeal.
You can enter the museum with the Museum pass. Otherwise the admission fee is 10 TL.
Closed on Mondays.
18. Bosphorus Bridge
Bosphorus Bridge is the first connection between Anatolia and Europe. With the efforts of 35 engineers and 400 men, it was completed and opened in 30th October 1973, when Turkey was 50 years and 1 day old. Its tower in Asian part is in Beylerbeyi, and in European part in Ortakoy.
Its main span is 1074m/3523ft (15th longest in the world) and total length is 1510m/4954ft. Towers’ height is 105m/344ft, deck’s clearance from sea level is 64m/210ft. Deck width is 39m/128ft and it is hanging on zigzag steel cables. Thinking about its structural design gives me headaches.
It is forbidden to walk over the bridge now, but it wasn’t always the case. Then, because of the suicides and sabotage risk, it was prohibited. Now it is only possible if you take part of the Eurasia Marathon.
19. Daytrip – Anadolu Kavagi
This small fishing village is the last stop on the Bosphorus cruise before you turn around and head back to Istanbul.
The boat drops you off by a square in the centre. Here there are plenty of restaurants, and some souvenir shops, there really isn’t a lot here. There are more restaurants located on the way up to the Castle ruins, these have marvellous views of the Bosphorus.
Yoros Castle is located in Anadolu Kavagi on the hill above the town.
It’s here where the Bosphorus and the Black Sea meet, and it is one of the narrowest stretches of the Bosphorus. Rumeli Kavagai is a fortress on the other side. Years ago, a massive chain could be extended across the Bosphorus between these two points, cutting off the straits to attacking warships. Because of this, it is a very important area for the Turkish defence, so most of the area surrounding the Castle ruins are out of bounds.
To reach it you have to climb quite a steep hill, but its worth it, the views are fantastic. There isn’t much left of the Castle!
Its nice to sit on the walls and watch all the ships, there is a constant stream! A pretty spot!
20. Gulhane Park
Gülhane Park (House of Roses) is a historical, urban park in the Eminönü district of Istanbul, Turkey. It is the oldest and one of the largest public parks in Istanbul. It is located between the Topkapý Palace and Sarayburnu. The entrance of the park has one of the larger gates of the palace. The park is spread over a very large area and has very interesting and rare kinds of trees and bushes.
Gulhane Park borders the northern border of the Topkapi Palace, entered by a pathway from the first courtyard and also through a massive gate from an adjacent city street. During Byzantine times, it was an area of military barracks. The Ottomans recognized its potential as a park and created an elaborate refuge for the sultans. The name means “rosehouse park” and it was filled with roses, other exotic plants and trees, as well as assorted pavillions and even a museum. After the Topkapi was abandoned, the park was gradually developed with a small and apparently decripit zoo and a funpark and became a gathering place for locals. In 2000, a three year renovation did away with all the “attractions” and new walkways were built surrounded by immaculate lawns, beautiful 18th C trees, and assorted monuments. In the midst of the hustle of the Sultanahamet district, the park is a welcome peaceful interlude in an otherwise hectic day.
21. Maiden’s Tower – Kiz Kulesi
The history of the Maiden’s Tower (Kiz Kulesi) dates back to around 340 B.C., when the wooden architectural style was first mentioned in some sources. The current stone tower is said to be constructed in the 18th century.
Through the years the 23m (75ft) tall tower was used for several puposes: it was a lighthouse, a quarantine station, a tax collection point and a defense tower. Nowadays it is used as a luxurious restaurant and café, which can be reached by private boats.
The Maiden’s Tower is situated on a small island near the southern entrance of the Bosphorous Strait. The shortest boat trips to the tower leave from the coast of Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul. The distance from Üskudar is only about 180m (590ft).
Located on the north-eastern shore of the Golden Horn is Miniaturk miniature park. At 650,000 square feet (60,000m²), it is said to be the world’s largest miniature park. There are 105 models of various structures. The models are done in 1/25th scale. If you visit after a few days of sightseeing in Istanbul, you will recognize many of the 45 models from Istanbul. There are an additional 45 models from Anatolia and 15 from Ottoman territories outside of today’s Turkey.
The model’s were very cool. In front of each one was an audio guide with a description of the model available in several languages. My favorties included Ataturk Airport (complete with planes), Ataturk Olympic Stadium (with cheering spectators), and the various mosques (the details are superb). What was also really nice was that you got to see the mosques (and their many domes) and structures from above – a view you would not normally have.
This is a very popular field trip for school children so do consider that and the heat (the entire park is outdoors) when deciding when to go. I’d recommend early in the day or late afternoon. Inside the park is an excellent play area for children, a restaurant, snack stands, and a very nice gift shop. There is a mini-train ride around the park and a pool as well. It is enjoyable with or without children! Allow a couple of hours to visit, more if using the children’s play area or pool.
While you’re in the area, I highly recommend visiting Rahmi M. Koc Museum – a few bus stops back towards Istanbul.
I was really nervous when I went there as I had never been to a hammam before. So I searched the net and tried to understand the ‘customs’.
I went really early to avoid the crowd (and also to avoid embarrasement in case I was doing something really strange).
First they asked me to ‘cleanse’ – which meant that I was sitting by the tap and they kept pouring water on myself for 20 minutes or so. Then the woman masseuse came in and ‘bathed’ me – she washed my whole body and also did an exfoliation followed by a nice massage.
Then, I relaxed a little bit in the steam room. Finally, I enjoyed a cup of hot apple tea.
I felt great. It also gave a nice start of the day. I had more energy to do a lot of walking and exploring. I would recommend anyone who is visiting Istanbul (or Turkey) to give it a try.
24. Whirling Dervishes
The Mevlevi Dervish order was founded in the 13th century by the followers of the Persian Islamic scholar Jalal ad Din Rumi. The order is based on a specific interpretation of Islam and the rites and obligations of devotion to God. It grew in prestige in Turkey and the Levant, especially after its leaders established a blood relationship with the Ottoman Sultans. As a result, the order, which was based in Konya, had widespread political, social, economic and religious influence throughout the Empire. They had their own regiment in the army and established outposts in various sections of the Empire. With the proclamation of the Republic in 1923, they fell out of favour with the new governing class, and were banned in 1925. Many of their lodges were seized by the state, and they survived only by becoming apolitical organizations devoted to religious and social works. Despite the new establishment’s hostility to the dervishes, their cultural and religious traditions are preserved to some extent, including in museums, in order to conserve the memory of the important role played by the dervishes in Ottoman society and politics.
25. New Mosque – Yeni Cami
Built in the late 1500s, and therefore “only” being 400 odd years old, this striking mosque is known as Yeni Camii or New Mosque. Overlooking the Eminonu docks and the Galata bridge, the square outside this mosque is always teeming with life. To reach it from the bridge, you have to navigate your way through the crowds of shoppers buying the most amazing tack in the underpass. In the square, you can buy seed to throw to the pigeons, barter over a Turkish flag, be entertained by a dondurma seller as he clowns around with thick dollops of that special stringy icecream, or relax over a tea in the courtyard of the nearby Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar).
At night, Yeni Camii is brightly lit. I recommend a walk around Eminonu early evening, watching the fishermen on Galata Bridge, before heading to the boats where fish are grilled on board and served in a sandwich. Street hawkers abound here, and in amongst the tack and rubbish, you can find some good buys here.
- Featured image: Josep Renalias [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 1. Topkapi Palace: Moonik [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 2. Hagia Sophia – Ayasofya: Mertaydintr [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 3. Grand Bazaar – Kapali Çarsi: espiritu_protector [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 4. Blue Mosque – Sultan Ahmed Mosque: Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 5. Galata Tower: Alexxx1979 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 6. Daytrip – Princes’ Islands: Freedom’s Falcon [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 7. Basilica Cistern – Yerebatan Saray: User: (WT-shared) Edsonh at wts wikivoyage [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 8. Dolmabahce Palace: Moonik [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 9. Istiklal Caddesi: William Neuheisel from DC, US [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 10. Taksim Square: calflier001 [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 11. Süleymaniye Mosque: Mattias Hill [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 12. Bosphorus Ferries: Moonik [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 13. Spice Bazaar – Egyptian Bazaar: Derzsi Elekes Andor [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 14. Galata Bridge: Sergey Ashmarin [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 15. Bosphorus Strait: Cpandmg [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 16. Sultanahmet – Old City: HALUK COMERTEL [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 17. Archeology Museum: Jwslubbock [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 18. Bosphorus Bridge: Jorge1767 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- 19. Daytrip – Anadolu Kavagi: Moonik [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 20. Gulhane Park: Bjørn Erik Pedersen [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 21. Maiden’s Tower – Kiz Kulesi: Abdullah kıyga [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 22. Miniaturk: Boris Dzhingarov [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 23. Hamams: Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 24. Whirling Dervishes: Wenchao Wang [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
- 25. New Mosque – Yeni Cami: Sinoplu diyojen, public domain