Out & About in Istanbul
Most people rave about Paris, Amsterdam, London, and New York. And don’t get me wrong – I absolutely love those cities too. But I’ve said it once before, and I’ll say it again – I’m madly in love with Istanbul. It’s probably one of my favorite urban destinations in the world to date, if not my favorite. The streets of Istanbul are flooded with history, and it seems that every corner houses a site of historical or religious significance.
As the only city that sits on both the Asian and European continents, Istanbul has played a critical role in empires past. From the Romans and the Byzantines to the Latins and the Ottomans, Istanbul was once the capital city of them all.
As a result, Istanbul has transformed from a Christian city to a secular one although the majority of the Turkish population are followers of Islam. With the sound of the azan, or the Islamic call to prayer, blaring from mosque minarets five times each day, the entire city pauses in reverence and in remembrance of God.
As our taxi made its way from the airport to our hotel in Sultanahmet, we noticed that pedestrians suddenly came to a standstill, our taxi and the cars around us halted in spite of green lights, and our cab driver turned down the radio. We didn’t know what was going on until we too quieted down and the azan came within earshot. It was a powerful experience, and though I’m not Muslim, I looked forward to the azan and was even glad to hear it in the wee hours of the morning while lying in bed, enveloped by darkness.
Another thing I love about Istanbul is its people. The Turkish people in general are so warm and hospitable, and so were Istanbulers, without exception.
And then there’s the food, but if I get started on that I’ll just keep going on and on. So what I really want to focus on in this post are Istanbul sites, most of which are within walking distance of Sultanahmet or easily accessible via tram or bus if staying in other parts of the city. In my opinion, these are the sites you shouldn’t miss when visiting my love, my city, my Istanbul…
Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarayı (the “Sunken Palace”) is a giant underground well that once provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other nearby buildings including the Topkapi Palace. You may recognize it from the 1963 James Bond flick, “From Russia with Love.”
Functioning as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922, this palace was built over 13 years beginning in 1843. Founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatürk, died in the palace in 1938 during a visit to Istanbul. This is probably the most opulent palace I’ve ever been in and it even features a 4.5 ton chandelier in its Ceremonial Hall. The Turkish police stand at the ready with machine guns, and a military unit is also on hand at all times. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside of the palace.
Once a district of Istanbul, Byzantium was built on Eminönü. Not to be missed in Eminönü: the Galata Bridge, the ferry dock where you can purchase tickets for a ride across the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea to the Asian side of Istanbul, or the rocking boats that make the most scrumptious fish sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.
Hodjapasha Cultural Center
Turkish Dance Night at the Hodjapasha Cultural Center is an event not to be missed with live music and dances from different Anatolian regions. The show takes place in an old, restored hamam, and complimentary beverages and Turkish Delight service is available during the 15 minute intermission.
Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar due to the fact that during the Ottoman rule, many spices were imported through Egypt, the Spice Bazaar is the second largest covered shopping complex in Istanbul and it still holds the title as the center of the city’s spice trade.
At this bazaar – the largest covered market in Turkey – you can find carpets, clothes, and everything in between! Shop with the locals, put on your poker face, and bargain for some unique souvenirs and keepsakes.
This mosque was built from 1609-1616 and is located on the site of the palace of the Byzantine emperors. The Blue Mosque gets its nickname from the color of the interior tiles that are mostly found on the mosque’s upper level. In addition to serving as a house of worship, the Blue Mosque houses a school, a hospice, and the tomb of Ahmed I, the mosque’s founder.
Ayasofya, also known as Hagia Sofia or the Church of the Divine Wisdom was once an Orthodox patriarchal basilica that served as Constantinople’s cathedral, but it’s now used as a museum.
In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror declared the church a mosque not long after conquering the city from the Byzantines. The 30 million gold mosaic tiles in the interior are being restored so that they’ll be as brilliant as they were 1500 years ago. But they were pretty freaking brilliant when we visited. I literally gasped when we walked through the doors and saw this…
Topkapi Palace Museum
The Topkapi Palace was the official and main Istanbul residence of the Ottoman sultans from 1465-1856 for nearly 400 of their 624-year reign. This UNESCO World Heritage site served as a venue for official occasions and royal entertainment, and it houses the most holy relics of the Islamic faith including the Prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword.
This place is huge as it consists of four main courtyards and several smaller buildings, and it also housed a mosque, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint. Towards the end of the 17th century, the Ottoman sultans began spending more time in their new palaces along the coast of the Bosphorus, so Topkapi eventually lost its importance. Now, the palace is a museum that houses great collections of Ottoman artifacts including the biggest diamond I’ve ever seen in my life.