After traveling way back in history along the Nile of Egypt, Istanbul felt rather new and not so old to us. What’s seventeen hundred years when you’ve been traveling back to before 3,000 BCE? Obviously calling Istanbul a new city is grossly misrepresenting the legendary metropolis and there is no underestimating the importance of its rise in the history of the world.
Brief History of Istanbul
Istanbul is a historian’s dream land due to the complexity and importance of it. During the might of the Roman Empire, Istanbul was named Byzantion and maintained its existence due to its incredible location. The strategic location of Istanbul, straddled between Europe and Asia Minor, was a major crossroads of people, cultures, goods, and ideas. The city was a crucial stop along the silk road and acted as the gateway between Europe and Asia.
The city would become the center of Europe following the decline of Rome, as power shifted from the western half of the Roman empire to the Eastern half known today as the Byzantine Empire. It is important to note that the people living in the empire thought themselves as Romans (despite speaking a different language and religion) and carried on many of the Roman traditions and ideas long after Rome fell. Emperor Constantine would rename the city to Constantinople in 324 CE, making it the center of the empire. It was during this time that the some of the city’s greatest monuments would be constructed, such as Hagi Sophia which was completed by Costantine’s successor, Justinian. The city would prosper for over a thousand years until the city finally fell to Ottoman Empire’s Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. The city would now be referred to by the Turkish name, Istanbul.
Prior to 1453, the Ottoman Empire were a group of Turks who occupied Anatolia on the fringes of the Byzantine Empire. By the time Constantinople fell, the Ottomans were well on their way to power and glory, occupying what once was the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. The Ottomans blessed the city with much of the beautiful architecture and neighborhoods you see today in Istanbul including Blue Mosque. Islam has been the most lasting presence of the Ottoman’s with the vast majority of the empire converting to the religion.
The Ottomans would rule, with Istanbul as their capital, until their defeat in WWI. The empire began disintegrating in the early 20th century, with the official end arriving in 1922 and the establishment of modern day Turkey in 1923. This also marked the end of Istanbul being the official center of the Turks as the capital was moved to Ankara. Today, Istanbul remains the cultural and economic capital of the country.
What to See
The list of sites and museums in the city is endless. Claire and I highlight the must sees along with some less visited sites that we enjoyed while there. Some of the images you see will be from four years ago when I visited the city for the first time.
Sultanahmet Park is one of the most beautiful squares you will ever set foot in with the magnificent Blue Mosque on one side and the grand church of Hagia Sophia on the other. Built on top of an older church in 537 CE, the basilica has become the Byzantine’s most enduring symbol. The church was the seat of the throne and also served as the religious center of the empire.
The most notable feature of this structure is its massive dome, which was pushing the limits of engineering at the time. A dome of this scale would not be attempted again until nearly five hundred years later. You will also note the minarets towering over the corners, a lasting mark of the Ottomans.
Every Byzantine emperor was crowned here from the construction of the basilica until the fall of Constantinople. After its fall, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. The building is no longer a mosque either, after being converted into a museum in 1935 by the secular government that took over modern day Turkey. Today, the structure is a historical oddity with its blend of Christian and Islamic influences.
Upon entering the building, the first room you will enter is the outer and inner narthexes with their incredibly intact ceiling mosaics. Above the central door of the inner narthex is a mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator. Stepping into this doorway will lead you to the most impressive room of the church, with its massive dome and mosaic work.
Starting with the floor, most of the structures you see before you are the result of the Ottomans when they converted the church into a mosque. The library, prayer niche, mimber, and hunkar mahfili are all Islamic additions. In the center of the room you will notice a section of colorful marble on the floor. This is where the emperors of the Byzantine empire would be crowned, the throne is now long gone.
Looking up you will see the giant dome, nave, and apse that makes the building so incredible. In the apse is a giant mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, the most impressive artwork in the church. At the four corners of the dome are frescoes of Seraphs which are six winged angel in charge of guarding God’s throne. You will also spot four large medallions with Arabic script which date back the the 1800s.
In the far corner near the ramp that leads to the upper galleries you will spot a column with a brass plate and hole. According to legend, the column was blessed by St. Gregory the Miracle Worker. It is said that those who place their finger in the hole will be healed of any ailments if the finger, once removed, is moist. There is a often a line of people waiting to stick their fingers in, making it probably the most unhygienic place in all of Istanbul.
Once upstairs, aside from the wonderful views along the balcony, there are several Christian mosaics to be discovered. The most impressive is a depiction of the Last Judgment which has large images of Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist. To get a look at some of the empire’s rulers, head to the end of the room where there are 11th and 12th century mosaics of Empress Zoe and Constantine IX on the left and of Empress Eirene and Emperor John Comnenus on the right.
Heading back downstairs to the exit of the building, there are a few more sites you need to see. As you leave through the inner narthex, be sure to look back and up at the builder of the church himself, Emperor Justinian (left) along with the Virgin Mary, and Emperor Constantine (right). The mosaic dates back to 10th century.
If you are interested in the history of the church and the items it contains, it is worth investing in an audio guide near the ticket office. You will need to give up your passport in order to get it and it will be returned to you when you bring back the audio guide.
The eye candy of all Istanbul, Blue Mosque rivals Hagia Sophia in both size and magnificence. Built in 1617, the mosque was the largest of its time. The mosque boasts six minarets which was never done before Blue Mosque. The large dome along with the many smaller domes that line the exterior are a site to see.
This is still a religious building so proper etiquette is required to enter the building. Women’s heads should be covered and dresses should be worn. These can be provided to you if you do not have them. Men should where at least a t shirt and pants. The interior is beautifully painted and the prayer hall is absolutely huge. The interior is closed to visitors during prayer times so plan your visit accordingly.
The seat of the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi Palace is the Versailles of the Eastern half of Europe. The complex is massive and with so much to do and see, you need to dedicate at least a half day for the palace grounds.
The Sultans and his court all lived here from the 15th to 19th centuries and the area served as the center of the Ottoman Empire. The palace is entered through the imperial gate, just outside the southern corner of Haigia Sophia. Before entering, be sure to take time to appreciate the gorgeous Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III. Built in 1728, it is one of the most beautiful structures in the city.
The first court, just after the gate is a open green space that was used as a parade ground during the time of the empire. The ticket office is located at the far end near the entrance to the second court.
The middle gate into the second court is beautiful and all who entered the gate had to dismount here unless you were the Sultan himself. To your right will be the Royal Kitchens while on the left with be the Imperial Council Chamber where the political elite would discuss matters of the state.
At the far end of the second court is the entrance into the Harem. This was the private quarters of the Sultan and is where the royal family along with the sultan’s many concubines, would live. The Harem requires an additional ticket and is well worth the admission price. The rooms inside the Harem are magnificent and give insight into the life of the Sultan and his most important family members. The pathway through the Harem changes as rooms are opened and closed for restoration.
Upon exiting the Harem, you will now be in the third court. Only those on business with the Sultan were permitted into this court and it is where the Sultan would receive gifts from foreign ambassadors inside the Audience Chamber. Many of the rooms inside the third court have museums with some impressive artifacts. These include the safekeeping rooms which contained important relics. They still display relics of the Prophet Mohamed along with relics of Old Testament characters such as Moses, David, and John the Baptist. The Dormitory has portraits of many of the Sultans who lived here. The jewel of the showrooms is the Imperial Treasury which houses many of the precious items from the Ottoman Empire.
The fourth court is comprised of a series of beautifully decorated pavilions and offers wonderful views.
This is a bare bones description of the hundreds of rooms to be explored in the palace. I highly recommend grabbing an audio guide at the ticket office in order to truly appreciate the complex.
Little visited Chora Church has to be declared as the hidden gem of Istanbul. Incredibly preserved and absolutely plastered with bright golden mosaics from the 14th century, a visit to this church is a jaw dropping experience.
Most of the mosaics you see are images taken from the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, covering the story from conception to resurrection. On the far side of the church is a chapel that is covered floor to ceiling with frescoes. Most of the frescoes deal with death and the resurrection with depictions of Christ resurrecting Adam and Eve and scenes from the Old Testament.
Just a few minutes walk from the church are the old city walls that used to enclose Constantinople. You can climb up what remains and the view from up top is great. You get a 360 view of the whole city from here.
The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest market places in the world. With over 4,000 shops, the possibilities are endless in this vast market complex. It is still a bustling place with about one million people visiting the bazaar every three days. Everything is sold here from clothes to kitchen products to prized souvenirs and Turkish carpets.
If you are new to the world of bargaining, it is important to understand that Turks are very keen salespeople. You are more than welcome to take a look at anything but do not feel pressured into buying anything. Most vendors will try to lure you into their store and try to immediately sell you anything that you seem to take interest in. Back when I was a more naive traveler in Istanbul for the first time, I made the mistake of bargaining for a shirt but after I lost interest, allowed the seller to pressure me into staying and stating a price. He wouldn’t let me leave until I stated a price and once I did, he said I could take the shirt for that price. At that point I no longer wanted the item to which he became very angry. We motioned as if he was going to hit me and told me to get out of his shop. While many vendors will not be like this, be sure to only begin the bargaining process unless you are really serious about what you want.
If you want to buy something, Your first counter offer should be 40%-30% less than the price stated. You should always go in with a number that you feel the item is worth and try not to go over that. Sometimes walking away can be your biggest weapon.
Built by Justinian in 532 CE, the cistern is the largest ancient water storage facility in Istanbul. With the decline of Constantinople, the cistern was forgotten and was not rediscovered by the Ottoman’s until 1545. For much of its history thereafter, the cistern was used as a dumping ground for all things unwanted and was not cleaned up and opened to the public until 1987.
The cistern is an incredibly atmospheric place to explore due to the series of columns, that were mostly taken from temples, that line the seemingly endless pools of water. At the far end of the cistern is an upside down carving of Medusa with her snakes for hair slithering out from her head.
The Byzantine Empire loved many of the things that was Rome, and Roman entertainment was no exception. The Hippodrome is where chariot races and other sporting events would take place in ancient Constantinople. Now resembling more of a park than an arena, the area is a nice place to sit and people watch. The most prominent monument left in the area is the Obelisk of Theodosius which was originally erected in Luxor Egypt, but was moved here in 390 CE.
Where to Stay and Eat
Most of the major tourist attractions and accommodation lies in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. While the location is perfect for sightseeing, it is also the most touristy area of Istanbul and has a dreadful array of eating options which are grossly overpriced. If you are in a hurry, this is the area you should stay in as you will be smack in the middle of all the major sites. If you have time to spare and want to see the local side of Istanbul, staying a few tram or subway stops away from Sultanahmet will reward you with a slice of local life along with much better eating options.
For Sultanahmet, we recommend staying at Big Apple Hostel. While management has changed since the first time I stayed in Istanbul, the new owners are super friendly and are doing a lot to make the place even better. The breakfast is excellent and the views out into the sea are great from the rooftop.
If you want to eat like a local, head to Eminou tram station near Galata bridge. A local favorite, fish sandwiches (Balik-ekmek) is served right off the boat and also underneath the bridge which is a great lunch time snack. If your up for it, most locals accompany their fish with a cup of very sour pickled vegetables.
Istanbul: A city that few can compare
The history and position of Istanbul should be more than enough reason to want to visit this legendary city. With its impressive monuments, blend of eastern and western culture, and array of sounds and smells, this is a city not to be missed. A visit to this city is a visit to the fringes of both Europe and Asia.