Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, is the most populated city in Turkey. It is the country’s economic, cultural, and historic center.
Istanbul is a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. The two sides are separated by the Bosporus Strait which is a narrow channel that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles.
The city was founded under the name of Byzantion around 660 BC and grew to become one of the most important and coveted cities in history. It was renamed Constantinople in 330 AD and remained the imperial capital for almost 16 centuries during the Roman and Byzantium (Holy Roman) Empires.
Istanbul played a big role in the the advancement of Christianity until the Ottomans captured the city in 1453 when they turned it into an Islamic stronghold and the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate. Modern Turkey was born in 1922 when the last Ottoman Sultan fled the city after the Nationalists’ victory under Mustafa Kemel Atatürk and in 1923 Ankara became the nation’s capital.
So from eons ago Istanbul has been an important city as shown by its rich history and historic sites. Many of those sites are clustered around the historic center on the city’s European side. The Mosques, Churches, and other sites as a group are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. They are the reason millions of tourists flock to Istanbul yearly, making it the world’s fifth most popular tourist destination.
I have been to Istanbul many times over the past 10 years or so. It’s a city one can never get enough of. I love just about everything in Istanbul; the sights, sounds, scents, and people are amazing. The food is delicious, the sights awe inspiring, the markets bustling, and the people warm and hospitable. What’s not to love?
Where ever your interests lie you’ll find something to love in Istanbul. Shoppers can shop til they drop at the Grand Bazaar; foodies can savor the exotic scents in the spice market, savor the kebabs and mezzes at one of the many restaurants, and indulge in decadent desserts of the sweets and pudding shops. History buffs can visit everything from ancient Roman ruins to Byzantine churches to opulent Ottoman palaces. And not to be overlooked Jewelry lovers can drool over the Sultan’s gem collection featuring the humongous Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the 4th. largest in the world.
I know, the first time visitor to Istanbul may find the city a bit overwhelming. So here’s a list of some of my favorite places and things to do in one of my favorite cities.
Kapaliςarsi AKA The Grand Bazaar built in 1461 is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It’s a sprawling complex with 61 streets and over 4000 shops selling everything from tourist souvenirs, to “genuine fake” designer watches, shoes, clothes, and purses, to hand woven Turkish Carpets, to handcrafted silver tea sets and beautiful gold and gemstone jewelry.
The Grand Bazaar has 22 gates leading in and out of the covered area, Along with the shops it is home to 17 inns, 2 mosques, 4 fountains, 10 wells, several cafes and restaurants, money exchange offices, and a police station. It’s pretty much a city within itself.
You can spend days browsing all the shops in the Bazaar, that is if you can stand the hawkers constantly trying to get your attention. I’ve found that my limit is 2 days before I’m ready to drop from exhaustion and have had my fill of politely but firmly saying “no thank you” to all the salesmen who are vying for my attention.
Many people say that the Bazaar is nothing but a big tourist trap, and I suppose it can be, specially if you don’t know how to bargain and don’t know what you’re buying and what its value should be. The main thing to remember when shopping at the Grand Bazaar, or any market in Turkey and the Middle East, is that you are EXPECTED to bargain and bargain fiercely. It’s like a game no matter if you’re buying a box of Turkish Delight, a handwoven carpet, or a diamond studded bracelet. Bargain, bargain, bargain! Be sure you know what you want to buy and what is the maximum amount you’re prepared to pay for it. Start lower than your max price and with a bit of haggling if the shopkeeper can sell it at your price and still make a profit believe me he will.
Hagia Sophia from the Greek Ayía ∑oφía; Ayasofia in Turkish; and Sancta Sophia in Latin; means the Church of Holy Wisdom (Sophia means wisdom).
This building and its massive dome was constructed in 537 AD. In its time it was the world’s largest building and its dome an engineering marvel. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture.
From its completion in 537 to 1453 it was an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral and was the seat of the Eumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This reign was briefly interrupted between 1204 to 1261 when it was converted by members of the 4th. Crusade into a Roman Catholic Cathedral under the Holy Roman Empire. After the Ottoman take over in mid 1453 it was converted into a Mosque and served as one until 1931. It was “secularized” and opened as a museum in 1935 and has remained as such to this day, at least for now. The current president Mr. Erdogan announced in March 2019 that he is considering changing it back to a mosque saying that its conversion to a museum in 1935 was “a big mistake”. We shall have to wait and see what the future holds for the Church of Holy Wisdom.
Regardless of the change in designation I’m fairly certain that one can still visit the Hagia Sophia with a few minor changes to one’s attire. As with the Blue Mosque across the park which welcomes tourists inside as long as it’s not prayer time, tourists will mostly be welcomed into the Hagia Sophia as long as they are dressed appropriately and behave with respect while inside. When visiting a mosque in any country one must dress conservatively; for men this means pants must cover their knees and shirts cover their shoulders; the same rules apply to women who must also cover their heads with a shawl or scarf. Everyone’s shoes must be removed before entering the mosque. But don’t worry, tourists are given fabric coverings to cover their hair and shoulders (you are not required to cover your face, just hair) and plastic bags for their shoes before entering the mosque.
The Hagia Sophia is definitely worth a visit. The size of the interior space is awesome. You will see remnants of the time it was a Christian cathedral in the uncovered Byzantine paintings and mosaics that once dominated the walls and ceilings. You’ll also see the painted decorations and mosaics on those same walls and ceilings that were done when it was a mosque. You will also see that some of the columns used in its construction were taken from all over the world including 8 from the ancient Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and from Egypt.
The Blue Mosque
Popularly called the Blue Mosque because of the blue ceramic tiles that adorn the interior its official name is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque.
This historic mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Ahmet I. It was built to surpass the magnificence of the Hagia Sophia located across the park. The complex consists of the mosque, the tomb of the founder, a madrasa, and a hospice.
The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most visited attractions, but it is also an active mosque so it’s closed for 30 minutes during the 5 daily prayer times.
Visiting the mosque is free as is the fabric head cover provided for women (use them to cover your hair and shoulders, not your face. Then return them when you exit the building) and the plastic bag for carrying your shoes while in the mosque.
Constructed between 1460-1478 by Sultan Mehmed II the conqueror of Constantinople Topkapi Palace was the official residence of the Ottoman court and the adminstrative and educational center of the state until the mid 19th. century.
In the 1850s the palace became inadequate and the court moved to Dombalahçe Palace on the banks of the Bosphorus. But Topkapi Palace remained home to the Royal Treasury, the Holy Relics of the Prophet Mohammad, and the imperial archive.
It was converted into a museum in 1924. Today it houses several different collections including the Royal Treasury where one can gaze upon the Spoonmaker’s Diamond and other gem encrusted garments, swords, and other accessories once worn and used by the Sultans. It is also where one will find the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle and Holy Relics where relics of The Prophet are kept.
Other areas one can visit are the Harem and the Hagia Irene Church. Each require the purchase of a ticket in addition to the museum admission. On the grounds you’ll also find book and gift shops as well as cafes and restaurants. Grab a table at the Konyali restaurant located in the fourth courtyard for some delicious Turkish food and commanding views of the Bosphorus and the Asian Side.
Second in popularity to the Grand Bazaar the Spice Bazaar is a must see.
This colorful fragrant market is housed in an L shaped building which is part of the New Mosque’s complex that was built in 1664. For the most part this market is located in the building with vaulted ceilings but spills out into the streets and alleys leading into and around the complex. If one is inclined one can walk from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Bazaar and vice versa.
The Spice Bazaar is filled with colorful spices from around the world. You’ll also find nuts, dried fruit, and other delicacies in the many stalls. In recent years some of the food stalls are being replaced by shops that sell ceramics, handbags, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. It really is a fun place, it’s yummy too! Shopkeepers will be more than happy to let you sample their wares!
Built during the reign of Justinian I a Byzantine Emperor the Basilica Cistern is the largest of the several hundred cisterns under the city of Istanbul. It’s located less than 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia.
The cistern served as a water filtration system that provided water to the building in the area including Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman rule. It served this purpose up to modern times. Today it is more a tourist attraction and a venue for various events.
This cavernous space measures 105,000 square feet and can hold up to almost 3 million cubic feet of water. Its ceiling is supported by a forest of marble columns, a total of 336.
It’s an eerie place accessed by a narrow stairway found across from the Hagia Sophia. You can walk on the wooden walkways that crisscross the area and eventually you’ll encounter the 2 inverted Medusa head blocks that serve as a base for 2 columns.
The site has been the scene used by several books, movies and even a video game. Most recently it was the setting for the final chapters of Dan Brown’s book Inferno. It was here that the final scenes of the movie of the same name were filmed.
Galata Bridge is one of the most happening places in the city. It spans the Golden Horn and links the old city on the European side to the Asian side.
Thousands of people cross this bridge daily. They cross in cars and on foot. You’ll even find many fishermen dangling their lines from the sides of the bridge. Join the hoards of people crossing the bridge, it’s an experience in itself! Then make your way to the area under the bridge. Here you’ll find restaurants, food kiosks, and ferries that offer cruises along the Bosphorus. It is one of my favorite hangouts in Istanbul!
Sweets & Pudding Shops
You can’t leave Istanbul without trying the food. Yes Doner Kebabs and stews are a must, but after the meal it’s dessert time!
And dessert is a big deal here. You’ll find pudding shops and Baklava shops every where. My all time favorite is Hafiz Mustafa. There are 4 locations in the city but my favorite is the 2 story location on Eminönü.
They have so many things to satisfy your sweet tooth it’s hard to choose just one. I can’t even name a favorite!
Try the made to order Kunafe, it’s so worth the wait! While you’re waiting have some of their baklava made with green pistachio dough, it’s amazing; try the chocolate dipped ones, they’re to die for!
If you have room have a pudding, chocolate, pistachio, hazelnut, rice, and so many others. Whenever we go there we always end up bringing home boxes of sweets.
It’s a dessert lover’s dream!