Visiting the charming Istanbul
Lying on the banks of the Bosphorus, a meeting point between Europe and Asia, the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire that came to threaten Europe, Istanbul is a charming city that fuses elements of many cultures in its monuments and people. Vibrant, full of lights and colours, with its heritage monuments, bazaars, minarets and domes that stand out in the sky, the antiquity that exudes from every stone, it is a marvellous city not to be missed.
After a typical Turkish breakfast, we leave our accommodation along Divan Yolu street around 8.30, heading to the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the heart of the “Old City” from where the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires were ruled. The first attraction is Hagia Sophia, the most impressive religious building in Istanbul, built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century. It was destroyed in 404 and rebuilt by Emperor Theodosius II in 415, but it was damaged again in the early 6th century due to numerous revolts. Emperor Justinian built the “third” Hagia Sofia in 532 as the Imperial Church of Eastern Rome. In the following centuries, with the Ottoman conquest, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque until 1934, when the Turkish government decided to transform it into a museum. In 2020, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan converted the building into a mosque for the second time.
We buy at the ticket counter the Museum Pass – a ticket that allows you to visit several monuments and museums – and start the visit of this magnificent monument. It takes around 1 hour to complete the tour. One of the most exciting things inside the Mosque is the beautiful decorations with mosaics made within the centuries during the Byzantine period and its dome, making Hagia Sophia worldwide famous. Hagia Sophia dome sits at the centre of the church, and it is between two half domes, which together equals the diameters of the dome. At 10.30, we visit the nearby Basilica Cistern (30min visit), which Justinian Emperor constructed in 532 to supply water to the Byzantine Palace and others buildings. Its highlights are the 336 columns with Corinthian or Doric style capitals and the upside-down Medusa head supporting one of the columns.
Completed the visit, we reach the famous Sultanahmet Camii, known as Blue Mosque, because of its magnificent interior decoration of blue Iznik tiles. Built between 1609 – 1616 by the architect Mehmet in the name of Sultan Ahmet, this Mosque is imposing and features beautiful domes and semi-domes, lovely courtyards and six slender minarets. The interior is breathtaking with its enormous chandeliers, more than 20.000 handmade ceramic tiles, 200 stained glass windows with intricate designs that make the Mosque very bright and colourful and the floor covered with carpets. The most important element of the Mosque interior is the mihrab, which is made of finely carved and sculptured marble, with a stalactite niche and a double inscriptive panel above it. At 11.30, we line up with many tourists, waiting our turn to get inside. After 20 minutes, we are finally ready to start visiting this religious building for around 30 minutes. The Mosque closes at each prayer time (5 times x day). You can check the worship hours on the board located at the main entrance in the Mosque’s inner courtyard.
Left the Mosque, only 5 minutes on foot, is the square that covers the site of the ancient Hippodrome with 3 ancient monuments: the obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine Column and the Column of Constantine. It’s a bit hot now, so we buy a kebab from a stall and rest in the beautiful Sultanahmet park in front of Hagia Sophia. At 2 pm, we walk towards the Eminonu neighbourhood, passing by the Galata bridge and quickly visiting Yeni Cami (the new Mosque), completed in 1665 and named Valide Sultan Mosque initially. Next to the Mosque, there is the Spice Bazaar, a covered market well known for being colourful and fragrant, and often the most fun as visitors can taste the food and spices on display. After tasting and buying some spices around the bazaar, we reach the Suleymaniye Mosque. Located on the top of one of the city’s seven hills, this Mosque was built by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1557 as a tribute to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s the largest Mosque in Istanbul. The complex comprises a madrasa, a medical madrasa, a dining hall, a caravanserai, a library, and a back garden with the tombs of Suleyman, his Russian wife. The size of its dome is impressive, and the interiors are elegantly decorated.
It’s almost 5.30 pm, so we decide to end our trip by visiting the Grand Bazaar that lies just 15 minutes on foot from the Suleymaniye Mosque. The Grand Bazaar was the commercial heart of the old city, a labyrinth of streets and passages with more than 4000 shops where each trade has its area: the gold and silver section, carpet and kilims sellers, jewellery and ceramic plates, hand-honed copperware, brassware and trays, water ewers, onyx ware and meerschaum pipers, clothes, leather goods and plenty of souvenirs. Without a doubt, it is a place not to be missed that, with its vibrant sellers, crowd, colours, lights and sounds, create an exotic and unique atmosphere. The most fun thing is to haggle with the sellers, giving them our “best price” and pretending to walk away looking for other shops until we get a reasonable price. The long day trip is completed with a tasty dinner at DOY DOY, a budget restaurant with a beautiful panoramic terrace in front of the Blue Mosque.
At 8.30, we are ready to walk towards Topkapi, the grand palace of the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries, set on top of the most visible hill of Istanbul and the city’s symbol. It hosted 22 different Sultans and their families during the four centuries in between. In 1924, Topkapi Palace was converted to a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Nowadays, it houses an exquisite collection of precious gems, jewellery, thrones of sultans and robes worn by the sultans and their families.
It takes about 3 hours to complete the tour. Its highlights are the Spoonmaker’s diamond, an 86 carat diamond listed as the 5th biggest in the world, and the Harem section, which was once the private residence of Ottoman Sultans. Left the palace around 12.30, we relax a bit in the park in front of Hagia Sophia eating a delicious kebab bought from a cart, and at 1.30 pm we take the tram (line T1 – Sultanahmet stop) getting off at Kabatas. In a few minutes on foot, we reach the beautiful Dolmabace Palace. The palace, built in baroque and rococo style, was commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid and completed in 1856, working as the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire until 1922. There are two guided tours (every 20 min) to visit the palace: “Selamlik” and “Harem” (you can do both within 4 pm, after that you have to choose only one of them). The “Selamlik” tour lasts 45 minutes, whereas the “Harem” lasts 30 minutes.
At 5.00 pm, we take the cableway from Kabatas to Taksim Square. It is the beating heart of Istanbul and where all the celebrations, protests, official ceremonies, and many other activities take place. In the middle of the square is located the Taksim Republic Monument, a commemorative sculpture group to honour the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. From here, we walk through the beautiful Istiklal Caddesi, the most famous shopping street of Istanbul, always crowded and full of fashioned shops, rooftop bars and restaurants. At the end of Istiklal street, the Galata tower is a cylindrical tower made from stone and built in 1348 by the Genoese community living in this area. During the Ottoman period, Galata Tower functioned as a jail, observatory house, and watchtower.
This 67 meters high building dominates the Beyoglu skyline and offers the city’s best panoramic views. Leaving the tower, we descend the narrow street until the Galata bridge links Beyoglu and Eminonu neighbourhoods. Walking here during the sunset is very charming. While the sun goes down, its soft red-pink rays surround the mosques atop the city’s seven hills. The bridge is always crowded with thousands of people crossing from one side to another, vendors selling fresh and baked food, fishers with their long fishing rods always trying to catch something good while the seagulls stand and fly beside them looking for fresh fish. The underneath level of the bridge is plenty of restaurants and cafes, so we decide to have our dinner there before heading back to the hotel by tram.
We take the tram (Laleli-university stop) in front of our hotel, getting off at the Eminonu stop. Here, we visit the small and beautiful Rustem Pasa Cami. It’s a small mosque built around 1560 with a gorgeous interior, covered in Turkey’s famous Iznik tiles that come in a wide variety of floral and geometric patterns. Opposite the Mosque, there is a large car park on the other side of the road where public buses leave. With the help of a driver, we jump on board to go towards Eyup Sultan Mosque. Here, the people are very friendly and always ready to help.
We get off at the Eyup Iskelesi bus stop, and in a few minutes, we reach the Eyup Sultan Camii. It is one of the holiest and important mosques in all of Turkey because it is located on the site of the tomb of Eyup al-Ansari, who was both a friend and standard-bearer for the Prophet Muhammed and was killed during the first Arab siege of Constantinople in 670. The present building dates from the beginning of the 19th century (the first complex dates 1450), and its interior is elegant in design. The decorated dome of the Mosque measures 17.5m in diameter and is supported by two half domes. Next to the Mosque, we take the cableway going on the top of the hill where the Pier Loti cafe is located and where we enjoy a stunning view across the Golden Horn. The café takes its name from the French novelist and turkophile Pier Loti, who came here for inspiration. After tasting a cup of Turkish coffee, we go back on foot to Eyup district through the ancient cemetery of the Mosque.
Around 2.30 pm, we jump on a taxi heading to the Chora Church, an attractive Byzantine Church with superb frescoes and mosaics that reflect the magnificent heritage of Byzantine Art. After a quick visit, we walk through the Dervisali neighbourhood, and then we take a taxi going to Eminonu dock to book a Bosphoro afternoon cruise. Cruising along the Bosphorus between the two continents, Europe and Asia, passing by the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces, wooden villas and mansions up to the Rumeli Fortress, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridges and going back seeing the sun setting beyond the city, it is something charming and unique. Back at Eminonu dock after 2 hours, we end our day, the last in this fantastic city, in one of the many restaurants along Istiklal street, ready to move towards Cappadocia.