Lying on the banks of the Bosphorus, meeting point between Europe and Asia, ancient city and 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 its people. Vibrant, full of lights and colors, with its heritage monuments, bazaars, its minarets and domes that stand out in the sky, the antiquity that exudes from every stone, it is a city not to be missed.
After a tipical turkish breakfast , we leave around 8.30 our Hotel along Divan Yolu street heading to Sultan Ahmet area, the heart of the “Old City” from where the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires were ruled. The first spot of the day is Hagia Sophia, the ancient basilica built by Constantine the Great, in the 4th century and reconstructed by Justinian in the 6th century, and one of the greatest architectural marvels of all time.
We buy at the ticket counter the Museum Pass (a ticket that allows you to visit several monuments and museums http://www.muzekart.com/en/museum-pass/about_27.html ) and start the visit of this magnificent monument. It takes around 1 hour and one of the most interesting things inside the basilica are the beautiful decorations with mosaics made within the centuries during Byzantine period and its dome which makes Hagia Sophia world famous. Hagia Sophia dome sits at the centre of the church and it is between two half domes which together equals to the diameters of the dome. At 10.30 we are at the nearby Basilica Cistern (30min visit), was constructed by Justinian Emperor in 532 to supply water to the Byzantine Palace and others buildings. Its highlights are the 336 columns with the capitals in Corinthian or Doric style, and the upside down Medusa head supporting one of the columns.
Completed the visit, we go to the famous Sultanahmet Cami, knows as Blue Mosque because of its magnificent interior decoration of blue Iznik tiles. Built in between 1609 – 1616 by the architect Mehmet in the name of Sultan Ahmet, this mosque is very impressive with its beautiful domes and semi domes, nice 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 colorful 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 the visit of this religious building that takes around 30 minutes. Since this is a working mosque, keep in mind that you have to calculate well the time of your visit because the mosque close the entrance about 1 hour before the prayer times and re-open about 1 hour later.
Left the mosque, just 5 minutes walk, there is the square that cover the site of the ancient Hippodrome with with its four monuments: the obelisk of Theodosius, the Serpentine column, the column of Costantine and the German fountain. 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 Eminonu neighborhood, passing by the Galata bridge and having a quick visit to Yeni Cami ( the new Mosque ), completed in 1665 and originally named Valide Sultan Mosque. Next to the mosque there is the Spice bazaar, a covered market well known for being the most colorful, fragrant, and often the most fun as visitors can taste the goods that the many vendors offer them trying to sell. After tasting and buying some spices around the bazaar, we reach the Suleymaniye Mosque. On the top of one of the seven hills of the city, the mosque was built by the legendary architect Mimar Sinanand and completed in 1557 as tribute to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s the largest mosque in Istanbul and the complex comprises a madrasa, a medical madrasa, a dining hall, a caravanserai, a library and a back garden with the tombs of Suleyman and 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 up our trip visiting the Grand bazaar that lies just 15 minutes walk from 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 own area: the gold and silver section, carpet and kilims sellers, jewelry and ceramic plates, hand-honed copperware, brasware and trays, water ewers, onyxware and meerschaum pipers, clothes, leather goods and obviously plenty of souvenirs. With no doubt it is a place not to be missed that with its vibrant sellers, crowd, colors, 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 another shops until we get a good price. During the late evening we go back to Sultanahmet having the dinner at the DOY DOY, a budget restaurant with a wonderful panoramic terrace in front of the Blue Mosque.
At 8.30 we are ready to walk towards the Topkapi, the great palace of the Ottoman sultans from the 15th to the 19th centuries, set on top the most visible hill of Istanbul and the symbol of the city. During the four centuries in between it hosted 22 different Sultans and their famiglie and in 1924, Topkapi Palace was converted to a museum with the order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk housing an exquisite collection of precious gems, jewelry thrones of sultans, robes worn by the sultans and their families.
The visit takes at least 3 hours and the highlights are the Spoonmaker’s diamond, an 86 carat diamond listed as the 5th biggest of the world, and the Harem section which was once the private residence of Ottoman Sultans. Left the palace around 12.30 , we take our rest close to Hagia Sophia eating from a streetfood stand, then, at 1.30 pm we take the tram ( line T1 – Sultanahmet stop) getting off at Kabatas. In a few minutes by walk 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 center of the Ottoman Empire until 1922. There are two guided tours (every 20 min) in the palace that can be made: “Selamlik” and “Harem” ( you can do both within 4 pm, then you have to choose just one of them). The ‘’ Selamlik’’ tour takes 45 minutes and the ‘’Harem’’ 30 minutes.
At 5.00 pm we take the cableway from Kabatas to Taksim Square. It is the beating heart of Istanbul and where take place all the celebrations, protests, official ceremonies, and many other activities. In the middle of the square is located the Taksim Republic Monument, a commemorative sculpture group to honor the foundation of Turkish Republic in 1923. From here we walk through the beautiful Istikal Caddesi, the most famous shopping street of Istanbul, always crowded and full of fashioned shops, rooftop bars and restaurants. At the end of Istikal street there is the Galata tower, a cylindrical tower made from stone and built in 1348 by genoese community living in this area. During the Ottoman period, Galata Tower functioned as a jail, observatory house, and watch tower.
This 67 meters high building dominates Beyoglu skyline and still offers the best panoramic views of the city. Leaving the tower we descent the narrow street until the Galata bridge that link Beyoglu and Eminonu. Walking here during the sunsent is very charming, while the sun goes down , its soft red – pink rays surround the mosques atop the seven hills of the city. The bridge is always crowded with thousands people crossing from one side to another, vendors sell fresh and baked food, fishermen with its long fishing rod always trying to catch something good while the sea gulls stand and fly besides 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 Eminonu. 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, on the other side of the road there is a large car park where buses leave. With the help of a driver , we jump onboard towards Eyup Sultan Mosque. Here the people are very friendly and always ready to give you help.
We get off at the Eyup Iskelesi stop and in a few minutes we reach the Eyup Sultan Cami. It is one of the most holy 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 19th ( the first complex dates 1450 ) and its interior is elegant in design and 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 takes place the Pier Loti cafe and where we enjoy a stunning view accross the Golden Horn. The café is named after the French novelist and turkophile who used to come here for inspiration. After tasting a cupo f turkish coffee we descent through the ancient cemetery of the mosque until the Eyup district where we stop for lunch.
Around 2.30 pm we jump on a taxi heading to the Chora Church, an interesting Byzantine Church with superb frescoes and the mosaics that reflect the magnificent heritage of Byzantine Art. After a quick visit, we have a walk through Dervisali neighborood, then we take a taxi going to Eminou dock looking for a Bosphoro afternoon cruise. Cruising along the Bosphorus between the two continents, Europe and Asia, while we pass 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 really charming and beautiful. Back at Eminonu dock after 2 hours, we end up our day, the last in this amazing city, in one of the many restaurants along Istikal street, ready to move towards Cappadocia.