The first thing people do, and of course the first thing I did, after arriving in Istanbul, is to see those sites that you see on the postcards and in the travel magazine. The ones we’ve all heard of, the Bosporus, Aya Sofia (which I always used to horridly mispronounce as Hagia Sophia), the Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. However, anyone who’s ever been to Istanbul or read a guide book about the city will tell you that there are a million more things to do and see in this city.
Generally, tourists don’t make it much further than what I’ve come to call the ‘historical side;’ this would be the areas along the Golden Horn in the neighborhood of Eminönü. The Golden Horn is an inlet into the Bosphorus that cuts through the European side of the city, connected by several bridges, most notably Galata Bridge. South of the Golden Horn is what we generally refer to as the ‘Historic Side’ (although all of Istanbul is historic, really). This is in general reference to the area around the neighborhoods of Eminönü and Sultanahmet, in the district of Fatih. In these neighborhoods you’ll find, among many other things, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (known by us foreigners as the Blue Mosque).
Eminönü is a very central place, and you can get there by various ways, from anywhere in the city. You can boat to the Eminönü port, come from across the Galata Bridge, ride up on the tram, take the metro to one of the various stops in the neighborhood, or take a bus or a taxi of course. Either way, if you’re from out of town, there should be absolutely no issue finding the area, and once in it, it’s best to walk through the neighborhood anyhow. When I first visited, I had no heading but a general direction, and a taxi driver’s word on which boat I should take from the Asian side. When I arrived on the other side, I found myself being led up the hill to Aya Sofia by a little old man who couldn’t speak a word of English. I had said I was going there, and he took it upon himself to show me the way.
Aya Sofia is one of my favorite building in Istanbul, not because it’s big or famous, or even because it’s where I met my boyfriend (true story for another time), but because it’s a perfect example of the layers in this city. The structure started as a Christian church, burned down, was rebuilt as a Christian church, which burned down again and was rebuilt as a Greek Orthodox Basilica, until it was captured by the Catholics during Latin occupation, and after that, when the city fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque. And finally, currently, Aya Sofia is simply a museum. This is a whole lot to follow, and in between all of these different additions and fires and renovations, there were also earthquakes, and countless changes made within each of those stages. For me, this building is not only impressive and beautiful and awe inspiring, but also a perfect symbol of Istanbul. Everytime I visit Aya Sofia I learn something new. There is just so much to take in and to understand about this place, that every time I’m there I find myself noticing something entirely different; whether it’s a new mosaic, or a crack in the wall, or simply an indent where there used to be a cross and it was removed when the Ottomans came. This structure is just simply a wonder.
Once you’re at Aya Sofia, the Basilica Cisterns, Blue Mosque and Topkapi palace are very close. The Blue Mosque is the massive mosque standing opposite Aya Sofia, and must not be missed on a tour of Istanbul. This is probably one of the most impressive works of architecture I’ve ever witnessed; with its massive domes, painted tile interior, and intricate stained glass windows. If you’ve never visited a mosque before, this one will make quite a first impression, and if you have been to a mosque, this one will be better.
Another thing you shouldn’t skip is the Basilica Cistern, which is quite close to Aya Sofia, and not as obvious to visitors as the structures above ground. The cistern is underground and used to be the water reservoir for ancient Constantinople. This is probably my favorite place in Istanbul. There is something so peaceful and contemplative about the cistern, which is bathed in a soft glow of the lamps reflecting off the water. The cistern is still full of water (complete with fish in the water) and there are walkways throughout, where one might walk between the massive marble columns. The columns and reflections on the water give the illusion that the cistern is endless, and there is nothing more surreal than walking through the dark, watching the silent ripples of the faint light on the water. Of course, I should mention that when I last visited the cistern, in March of 2017, the water had been drained for repairs, and it was immensely disappointing. I would suggest that if you’re planning to visit in the next several months or this year, that you ask about the status of the cistern, before setting your expectations. Not to say that it’s not still worth visiting, because of course it is, but it will not be the same experience.
Topkapi Palace is an old Ottoman palace, built more than five hundred years ago. It sits just a short walk down the hill from Aya Sofia. It is an impressive piece of architecture, commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II, as a royal residence. It is now a museum and is home to many Islamic relics, the imperial treasury, an impressive miniature and portrait gallery and a notable collection of porcelain pieces, weaponry, and various examples of calligraphy. The palace is made up of hundreds of different rooms and you can’t visit all of them today. Topkapi Palace is a great place to check out if you like palaces, and it will definitely be a different sort of palace than the ones you see in Europe. The architecture and artistry of the complex are impressive and beautiful, the gardens are peaceful and the view off the terrace is worth the entrance alone. I really enjoy spending the day at Topkapi, but personally am not a fan of religious relics in any way, nor am I particularly familiar with Ottoman sultans, so the gallery of portraits and the relic rooms were somewhat lost on me. I’m aware that these are quite a focal point of the visit for some. However, the porcelain and ceramics displayed in the kitchens of the palace were incredible. Many of the people who visit come for the imperial treasury, the armory and the harem. These are certainly all worth seeing, and are generally more interesting to people who aren’t particularly fond of history. However, like the Basilica Cistern, the last time I visited the palace, towards the end of 2016, the Harem and Treasury were closed off for renovations. This is also something to keep in mind before planning your visit, as there is so much to see and learn in a palace this big; think about what aspect of the palace you’re interested in seeing, and make sure that portion will be available to you when you visit.
The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are a wonder to behold. The Grand Bazaar is a chaotic and haphazard arrangement of covered streets, full of shops selling everything from carpets and trinkets to fake Louis Vuitton bags and Chanel shoes. The Spice Bazaar is also comprised of covered shopping streets, but is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and generally sells spices, coffees, teas, and food items; as opposed to bags and clothes and inedible things. Once you’ve been through the Grand Bazaar and come out the other side, you should have no trouble making your way down the busy streets between it and the Spice Bazaar. You’ve definitely got to keep your wits about you when you’re wandering through the bazaars, and keep in mind what you’re looking for and what you’re willing to spend. For visitors who are coming from a western country, the way they do things here can seem somewhat aggressive. The shop owners will ask you to come see their wares, and try to grab your attention from their shop front by shouting random English phrases at you. It is not only in the bazaars you’ll see this of course, this will also happen on other streets, but in the bazaars there is certainly more of it. Once they’ve got your attention, they will try to keep you in their store, pushing everything they’ve got at you, and they won’t let you leave. The first time I experienced these sales techniques was in Tanzania, so I was already somewhat prepared before I came to Turkey. However, if you aren’t used to the haggling and aggressive sales techniques, this can be annoying, frustrating or even put you off shopping in general. This may be the case with some, but I have heard many foreigners say that they always shop in the bazaars and they love the visit every time. It’s completely down to the person, but it is always good to keep in mind what you’re willing to spend, and what you came for, so as not to be distracted or ripped off.
Some Other Sites To See
Some other things to see on the historical side would be the Archaeology Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. These are worth visiting if you’ve got a real passion for the history and art history of this area, but if you haven’t, then these museums might feel a little dry. I love these museums, as archaeology is my passion, and I could, and have, spent the whole day going through the exhibits; however, I can see how this might be dull for some. I love Islamic art as well, so looking through the tiles, rugs and especially calligraphy. The museums are cheap and all located around Topkapi Palace and Sultanahmet Square, however, something worth mentioning is the lack of information and explanations around the exhibits. Many archaeology exhibits in the museums will have written next to them only the age, place, materials and culture they come from, as opposed to an explanation of what the artifact might be. In the Turkish and Islamic Art section it is much the same, often only the name and date of a calligraphy verse, and likely no mention of what that verse is, or the importance of it, for those who don’t know the Quran. While I have a fair amount of background knowledge of archaeology and history, as well as Islam and Islamic art, many people visiting would not, and this might leave their visit a little lacking.
Aside from the museums, I would recommend visiting two of the more famous mosques in the area, Yeni Cami, and Süleymaniye Mosque. These are both works of art in themselves. Personally, my favorite mosque in Istanbul is Süleymaniye, built by the famed architect Mimar Sinan. It is a massive and elegantly designed mosque, and absolutely I love visiting it – I can’t even describe what exactly it is that I love about it. I find it so impressive, and yet subtle, and I just somehow feel comfortable there. Perhaps it’s something about the lights or the carpets, but I feel a sense of familiarity when I visit the mosque. Yeni Cami, also known as the New Mosque (yeni meaning “new” and cami meaning “mosque”) is a more recent Ottoman mosque and sits on the south end of the Galata Bridge. When you arrive in Eminonu from the port, on the tram or over the bridge, it will be the first thing you see on the historical side. It sits next to the Spice Bazaar and would be a natural end to a visit to the Bazaars. This mosque is also beautiful and and an impressive piece of architecture. However, this mosque has recently been undergoing restoration, and is unfortunately somewhat diminished because of this.
While there isn’t a great abundance of churches around Istanbul to see, as there are in European countries, there is Chora Church. This church is one of my favorite things to see in the Fatih district. The neighborhood, called Edirnekapi, is a little out of the way of the rest of the sites and museums on the historic side, but definitely worth a visit if you have the chance. It is a Byzantine Greek Orthodox church built during the medieval period, and has gone through renovations, destruction and additions over the years, since the initial construction of the church on this site in the fourth century. What I love about this church are the mosaics; the church houses beautiful gold mosaics that are in large part still intact, unlike those in many other buildings from this time. Unique also to this church is that a great portion of the mosaics are not even about the life of Jesus, but focus on the life of the virgin Mary. I have been to many medieval churches over the course of my travels, but until Chora Church I had not seen such a complete representation of the life of Mary. I absolutely adore the atmosphere and the artwork in this church, as well as the refreshing feeling of simply being in a church after not having seen one in many months. Although, unfortunately, parts of the church have been undergoing restoration for the entire two years I’ve been here, and likely will be for years to come. So, it’s worth asking a guide or calling ahead to see how much of the church you might be able to see. The narthex (or entrance) is the portion of the church with the life of the virgin depicted; so if the Narthex is accessible, it is still worth a visit in my opinion.
Something that always stands out to me on the historical side, and is not usually noticed, are the old Roman city walls of Constantinople. These walls are not hidden behind glass walls, or even fenced off from the public. Instead the city just grew around them. These remains from the fourth century are scattered throughout the city and have become a part of the city, hardly noticed by the people who live here. They remind me of how old the city is, and the many layers of this city, and every time I walk under them, or around them I can’t help but being awed by this city I live in.