Istanbul’s Top Ten List:
Ten things not to miss!
Making a Top Ten List of any city can be daunting and Istanbul is no exception. Its history is Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, but its is also the very modern, vibrant, and colorful city you see today. Its culture is European and Asian, making for a wonderful mix of sights, sounds and flavors. But….. since so few of us have the chance to spend more than a few precious days or maybe weeks when we travel, this list should help you get the most out your time in this magical city!
A visit to Hagia Sofia, or “The Church of the Holy Wisdom”, brings you back in time to the age of Constantine the Great and his descendants, rulers of new Christian Rome, rulers in Byzantium, the then capitol of the great Roman empire. From the time of the famous “Edict of Milan”, where Constantine allowed religious freedom in the Roman world, this new legal cult of Christianity grew and was fostered by the emperors themselves. It was the emperor Constantine who sponsored the first churches like, Saint John in Lateran and Saint Peter’s in Rome, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It is then of no surprise that in the time of the emperor Justinian in the early sixth century, that a Church would be built in Constantinople, which by far outshone others in the new capital, center of the eastern right of the Church. This jewel of byzantine architecture has a long history both as a church, then at the fall on Constantinople in 1453, as a mosque and then a museum. Today it is both a mosque and it is opened to tourists to admire its stunning Christian mosaics and its lavish additions by Sultans over the past centuries.
The Blue Mosque
This utterly striking imperial mosque, with its six magnificent minarets, takes its name “blue” from the over 20,000 Iznik tiles which decorate the inside of this commanding structure. The mosque, whose name is actually the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, was completed in 1617 at the request of the young Sultan Ahmet I, who is also buried there. The structure is exquisite architecturally with its multiple domes, and minarets and beautiful for its inner decorations. As you visit take note of the beauty of the light streaming in from its over 200 stained windows!
A visit to Topkapi Palace is like walking into a page of a story book regaling the secret life of the Sultans, their inner court, and of course their Haram! And at Topkapi Palace, you can visit it all. The Palace dates to the XVth century, built by Sultan Mehmed II, and became a museum in 1924. It houses not only the Imperial Treasury with its collections of artwork, jewels, jewel encrusted swords, the famous Topkapi Dagger inlayed with emeralds, the 86 carat Spoon-maker’s Diamond, but also an impressive arms collection dating back centuries. In passing though the beautiful pavilions, fountains, gardens, kitchen pavilion and visiting the Harem (the private space for the Sultan and his family) you leave having a better understanding and appreciation of the impressive history of the Ottomans and their Sultans.
The Grand Bazaar
A trip to Istanbul would never be complete without a trip to the Grand Bazaar, the oldest and largest market of its kind. With over 4000 shops, covering over 30,000 m2 it is an experience not to be missed. The friendly shop keepers vie for the attention of passersby to sell their wares, so don’t forget to bargain! It is part of the fun and is expected. You will find everything from carpets, crafts, jewelry furniture and more! If you get tired from all that shopping take a break for a Turkish coffee or tea and maybe a piece of Baklava or Turkish delight, the perfect pick me up!
Take a walk around Hippodrome Square. This was the center of social and sporting life in Constantinople. It was where the chariot races took place. Modeled after the Circus Maximus in Rome, the Hippodrome in Constantinople was built by Constantine the Great in the IVth century as he was monumentalizing the new Roman capital. Some of its decorations still remain, like the Serpent Column and the two Egyptian Obelisks, one dating back to the XVth century b.c.e. Although the square is quiet today and a lovely place to take a walk on a beautiful day, if you close your eyes you can almost hear the roar of the crowd, screaming as their favorite teams banked the turns by the obelisks.
“Go Red! Go blue! Go white! Go green!”
A Ride on the Bosphorus
The importance of the city, in ancient times and even today has always been connected to the Bosphorus Strait. It was, and still is the funnel for goods from the Black Sea to arrive to the Aegean, Mediterranean, Atlantic, and beyond. The Strait also divides the continents. Europe is on one side and Asia the other. Taking a cruise on the Bosphorus gives you the best views of the city and a unique way to enjoy the two halves of the strait as you pass between continents enjoying Ottoman palaces, Mosques with their tall minarets, and picturesque wooden hunting lodges. Whether you rent a private boat, join a group cruise or even take a local ferry to the Asian side, a ride on the Bosphorus is well worth it! Maybe you will be lucky and see dolphins at play. That’s a wonderful site to behold!
Istaklal Street, (Independence Avenue), formerly The Grand Avenue of Pera, is worth the visit and is in fact wonderfully grand. This bustling pedestrian street is filled with galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. The buildings are elegant and have some of the most eclectic architecture in the city. Here you’ll find Neoclassical, Art Nouveau, and Ottoman era buildings. You can even take a ride on one of the historic trams.
One of the most suggestive locations in Istanbul is not above ground, but below. Not far from Hagia Sofia, is an ancient Roman cistern built in the VIth century by the emperor Justinian. It takes its name from a basilica which was originally located above the cistern but is long gone. This cistern, which held water brought in from miles outside the city, was a source of water for the local area and for the imperial palace. In visiting the cistern it seems as if you’ve entered an elegant underground palace not a place to merely collect water. With the addition of the soft music playing when you enter, it is as if you’ve entered a location absent of time. Rows of beautiful ancient columns under lit all add to the effect of other worldliness. Prior to recent restorations the cistern was viewed by boats but today walkways make it easily accessible to stroll the lovely corridors of columns and get lost in thoughts of past eras.
If you are looking to find one of the best lookout points in Istanbul, the Galata Tower is the perfect spot. The tower, first built in the early VIth century as a lookout point on the northern side of the Golden Horn, was destroyed in the XIIIth century. The tower was then rebuilt in 1348 by the Genoese colony established in the zone since the mid 1200’s. With the fall of Constantinople, the tower passed to the hands of the Ottomans. It was used for a variety of functions, including a prison, and also a lookout tower for fire control. Today the restored tower is both a symbol of the skyline of the city and also a museum. Galata Tower is located in the district of Beyoğlu, which is a vibrant zone of the city filled with hotels, restaurants, cafes, museums and lots of shops. Enjoy the view and explore the neighborhood!
A Taste of Istanbul- Street Food
A journey to Istanbul is not complete without an exploration of its street food! Yes, sure you will find fantastic restaurants just like in most big cities of the world, but nothing is quite like enjoying food like a local. Maybe a fresh fish sandwich (Balik Ekmek) from the many vendors in the Eminonu District, or grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts which can be found in many busy spots around the city. Simit, a round bread crusted with sesame seeds which some call a Turkish bagel is a must as is Kumpir or baked stuffed potatoes. Fish, chicken, meat, and veg. Literally something for everyone. But don’t forget the sweets! Whether stuffed with nuts or soaked in honey it is all good. Street food is inexpensive, it is varied, and delicious!