Ten years ago I sat in a University lecture hall listening to a lecture about ancient Byzantium. Images of ancient Constantinople flashed on the wall. Finally the lecturer got to the Hagia Sophia, the stunning and architecturally exquisite church built by the Emperor Justinian ( well the third incarnation). memorised by the stunning building me and my friend turned to each other and decided we had to go and see it! Ten years later and we finally got there and it did not disappoint!
The Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic images of Istanbul. Its minarets ( an Ottoman addition when it was a mosque) adorn the horizon and it dominates the landscape when on the other side of the Bosphorus. A trip to the Hagia Sophia is synonymous with a trip to Istanbul.
However this is a city with much more to offer. Unlike Rome who wears her history and archaeology on its sleeve for everyone to see, Istanbul, the modern Constantinople has its treasures hidden which means exploring is needed. She is not a city that will just hand you history on a plate. Much of Ancient Constantinople, its marble temples and roman architecture was destroyed by earthquakes, stolen by Venetians and recycled over time and used by the Ottomans when they invaded the city. This means that as you wander the city its history is all around you, just not always in plain sight.
One of the most stunning architectural feats I saw in Istanbul was the Basilica Cistern built by Justinian I in the 6th Century, which remained under the city since its building, and opened to the public in the late 80’s. This underground structure demonstrates the genius of ancient Byzantine engineering. This structure unlike many other structures survived the city’s various invaders and inhabitants as well as its seismic location. As you descend the stairs not quite knowing what to expect, you enter a subterranean world of Corinthian columns, low atmospheric lighting and Medusa! Its restoration means a glimpse into how the ancient city would have worked.
The museum of archaeology gives a further glimpse into not only the city but also Turkey’s ancient past. It houses some of the most important archaeological finds in the country. If you want a good grounding of Turkey’s ancient past then its well worth a visit. If archaeology isn’t your passion then the museum is located in the delightful Gulhane Park. This large park full of towering trees and flowers ( full of tulips due to the tulip festival in April) is an ideal place to take a break from sightseeing and the swarming tour groups that fill Sultanahmet. Finding a spot under the towering trees (ice cream optional) you can take in the calm surroundings, watching the young people of Istanbul meet away from the eyes of their parents, young children playing in the park and tourists taking respite from the crowds. It’s truely a delightful place.
Above the park and museum perched on a hill is the regal Topkapi palace, the seat of the Ottoman empire. This elaborate Palace is a prime example of Ottoman opulence and architecture. Its many courtyards separate the royals from the swell of the city below it. Now the Palace is a must do on every ones lists which means it gets crowded fast! We got there at 9.30am and within an hour the site was packed with tourists and trying to avoid giant tour groups is impossible. My recommendation is get there on opening or go towards the end of the day. Read up on the Palace in advance so you don’t have to keep stopping to read your guide-book as well. The standard Palace entrance ticket doesn’t include entrance to the Harem, but it’s definitely worth paying extra to see it. The complex which is attached to the main palace was the home to the Sultans wives and concubines. Its warren of rooms which are elaborately decorated and give you a real insight into Palace life but also the hardships faced by the women who lived there.
Sultanahmet and the neighbouring area around the Grand Bazaar are also home to some of the most stunning mosques in existence, the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye mosque that sits behind the University. The Blue Mosque which is always teaming with tourists and worshippers is famed for its six minarets and its name sake the azure blue tiles that adorn the inside of the mosque.
As an active mosque avoid it on Fridays as they limit when tourists can go in due to friday prayers. The best time to visit is after 4pm as there are no more tour groups so you can just head in ( ladies you need a headscarf) and enjoy the space around you. The Süleymaniye mosque which sits on another of Istanbul’s hills can be seen dominating the sky line from the Galata side of the Bosphorus.
The domineering piece of architecture is less Ottoman and more influenced by European styles. The grounds include several other buildings such as for teaching and feeding the poor. Inside the mosque you are taken back by its plainness compared to the more decorated mosques such as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The plain white walls add a sense of calm to the building, sitting there taking in the delicate art work in the dome you are given a whole new perspective on Islam.
No matter how short a time you have in Istanbul, escape the tourist world of Sultanahmet and head across the Galata bridge to Galata and beyond. One of the highlights of the city for me is its very modern Modern Art Gallery. Located in an old warehouse on the waterfront it houses a wonderful collection of Turkish Modern Art. The paintings themselves would rival those of European artists that tend to dominate galleries. The Gallery itself is very simply laid out, text on each sections of the large open room add a sense of story to the art you are admiring. The lower level houses temporary installations some of which were its easy to say were odd! One which ended up leaving me in fits of giggles ( I try to appreciate art at all times even when I don’t understand it but this one was special! – You walk through three layers of a feather bower curtain into a dark room. The curtain took me by surprise to start with! In the centre of a room is a spinning globe and opera music is playing. Then as you stand and wait a curtain retracted and another globe ( this time the countries turned on their head) was opposite). I have no idea what set me off, the shock of the feather bower curtain or the weird dark room and opera music, but with my giggles I exited the installation leaving my friend alone with the security guard who started laughing as well! fun all around. If you like modern art and like to experience the more obscure installations this is the place to go! The gallery also houses a mouth-watering restaurant which has some of the most beautiful views of Old Istanbul and the Bosphorus. The food, high quality Italian with a Turkish twist is a must do if you like good food and stunning views. This was the best meal we had in Istanbul! We turned up on a saturday just before the lunch rush, we would recommend booking a table in advance if you can as the place was packed out on the balcony.
A short walk from the Gallery is Galata and the Galata tower. Walking up the narrow shop lined streets you get a sense of real Istanbul. Cool and chic boutique shops line the narrow streets, unique clothing hangs on the racks, while other shops have home wear and art.
As you get closer to Galata tower the shops do get more touristy but it does give you an opportunity to do some souvenirs shopping! Around the tower take a breath and sit at one of the many cafes and take some time to people watch.
From here you can walk back down hill towards the bridge and cross back into the Old town. On the Galata side of the bridge there is the fish market behind the ferry port, fish of every kind being sold and some so fresh they are still alive! Along the bridge it is lined with people lowering their fishing rods into the waters. Small buckets sit at their feet filled with little fish and some even lucky with big ones. People of all ages are here, fathers with their sons and daughters, old men chatting with their friends while doing something that have most likely done most evenings of their life. Walking across this bridge as the sun sets is one of the most magical and atmospheric places I have ever been.
Reaching the Eminönü side of the bridge you can enter the spice markets. The smells of the spices and sweetness of the turkish delights fill the air! The bright lights that fill this beautiful building mesmerise you, as the crowd of people push you forward you cannot help but stare at the copious amounts of nuts and spices piled high! as you wander, the vendors trying to lore you in, you are overwhelmed at everything that is being sold around you…. which stall do you go into!! We finally picked one, and slowly collected a variety of teas, spices and nuts! If you pick a good shop they can vacuum pack your stuff for you so it’s properly sealed for the journey home!
Istanbul is such a varied city, so much to do and see! The people are friendly and yes some of the waiters are sleazy but its part of the experiences… maybe not! This is a city that pairs its history and culture with a modern bustling metropolis so well. The efficient public transport system means it’s so easy to get around and the lush green spaces offer respite from sightseeing and the heat. This is a city to be explored and adored. 2.5 days was not enough time to fully take everything in so a return visit is definitely on the cards. Istanbul like the Iconic Hagia Sophia does not disappoint!