If you’re like me, Istanbul is probably one of those places you occasionally heard about in social studies classes, but not as a city benefited by a focused study (such as Rome or Paris), or even one presented as importantly tied to the West’s overall historical narrative. As a result, it was never at the top of my travel to-do list. What a mistake – this exotic, familiar, modern, ancient city is a must see for every traveler and history buff, and is officially my new favorite place on the planet. Actually, its probably a good thing Istanbul appeared later in our traveling adventures; had we been there first, many “popular” places I’ve seen would have subsequently been down right boring.
But being extremely fortunate to spend a week powering our way through tourist sites and wandering streets of this magical city, Brendan and I made sure our wanderings consisted of back-alley coffee shops, street-food vendors, high-end shopping malls, state-of-the-art metro systems, thousand-year-old (and older) structures, exotic smells, and listening to the melodic call to prayer throughout the day.
There is so much to share about Istanbul (for example, the city is packed with street dogs and cats – all docile, well fed and living in the city parks – which could be a post all by itself), but my focus below is on the sites and events that made the biggest impact on us.
1.The Grand Bazaar
Shortly after the conquest of Constantinople in the mid-15th century, the Grand Bazaar was erected specifically to house trading commerce, encouraging the sale of textiles and jewels. Today, thousands of small shops line the arched passages, selling everything from lamps to leather goods to delicious (and some not-so-delicious) Turkish Delight. The colors, textures, sounds, and delivery boys bustling through the shops offering hot afternoon tea to vendors makes it one of my favorite experiences.
The structure is held together by centuries of jimmy-rigged engineering, craftsmanship, and sheer consumer will. Electrical wires cluster together and run the length of the complex, shooting down narrow passageways to link the most remote shops to power (one caught fire while we were there – and was put out in about three seconds).
2. The Hagia Sophia
Built in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was the most expansive and impressive cathedral on Earth. Fifteen hundred years later, visitors are still awed by the vast space encompassed by its domes, pillars, chapels and chambers.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II laid siege and conquered Constantinople. He was so enthralled by the church, he had it converted into a mosque rather then having it destroyed.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rebuilding of Turkey as a modern, secular state in the early 20th century, the Hagia Sophia reopened as a museum in 1935. Pains were taken to restore and maintain both Christian and Islamic artwork, and much of the Christian mosaics and paintings and Islamic calligraphy remain in tact and on display, including the mihrab (indicating the direction of Mecca), the minbar (pulpit), and the four minarets (used to broadcast the call to prayer).
Many of the city’s subsequently built mosques mimic the Byzantine architecture of the Hagia Sophia, giving Istanbul its beautifully iconic skyline.
Built in the 6th century, the famous Basilica Cistern is a massive underground cistern (built on the previous site of a basilica, hence its name), supplying water to much of the city until modern times. James Bond fans will recognize it from the second Bond film, From Russia with Love. The cistern has been cleaned and renovated many times over the last five hundred years, but was opened officially for visitors in the mid-1980s. Many unique pillars were line the cavernous space, including two with Medusa’s head as the base – one upside down and one on its side.
One evening we ended up at what we thought was an empty little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, around the corner from our hotel. Not so much – Antakya Mutfağı Meyhanesi was clearly one of the “it” places to be and we lucked out getting seated without a reservation.
Within 30 minutes, the place was packed – alive with celebrations, clapping, seat-dancing, and belting out the hottest Turkish pop music (blasting from speakers above our table). I still think about the food…
One of my favorite sultans was Süleyman the Magnificent, a man defined by his brilliant military campaigns, legal reforms and cunning wife, Roxleana. The mosque built at his commission was at the top of my must-see list.
While the Blue Mosque is one of the most divine structures in the world, the Süleymaniye Mosque, in my opinion, takes the baklava. Completed in 1558, its chief architect, Sinan, created a rich and beautiful center for public life (mosques were built to include schools, public bathhouses, hospitals, and soup kitchens for the poor – it was as much a community center as a place of worship). Süleymaniye Mosque also offers gardens and panoramic views of the Bosphorus.
6. Turkish Cooking Class
Brendan was a sport and signed us up for a cooking class with Cooking Alaturka. The experience was fantastic, from the charming and informative hosts (a married couple – one Greek, one Turk and both well versed on current events) to the delicious food! And Brendan got to use a ginormous knife.
It was an usually slow, mid-week evening and the only other participant was Danielle – a US teacher currently based in Dubai, and in Turkey for a long weekend holiday. We quickly realized we’re both grew up in the same area, but didn’t know just how few steps removed us until our mutual friend (and fellow Travel Bug blogger), Brooke, commented after seeing both our social media cooking class posts in her feed. Its a crazy small world out there.
7. Istiklal Ave
Istiklal Ave is a wide, pedestrian-only boulevard, linking Taksim Square, the heart of modern Turkey and Istanbul’s political center, to the historic Galata Tower, offering some of the best panoramic views of the city. Istiklal Ave is lined with boutiques, music stores, bookstores, cafes, pubs, patisseries, and restaurants. Almost every corner boasted a baklava shop, painted dishware, and fresh fruit juice stands.
South of Istikal Ave and Galata Tower, and across the Golden Horn (one of the major Bosphorus River inlets cutting into the city), lies Topkapı Palace, the home and ruling platform of sultans for centuries, and today acres of public parks, museums, and cafes.
Aside from the stunning views, we enjoyed the clock rooms, the sword rooms, the kitchens (which took up a third of the palace), and the famous harem (most of which was inaccessible due to renovations – we’ll be back!).
The collection of Princes’ Islands, off the coastline of eastern Istanbul, are a great escape from city bustle. The nine islands evolved from a place of royal exile during the Byzantine era, to a popular tourist destination today. Motorized vehicles are banned on the islands, making the primary mode of transportation bicycles and horse-drawn carriages.
We toured the island Büyükada, the largest and most visited of the bunch. The main town is a collection of 18th and 19th century buildings, populated with tourist shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants and galleries. We walked through the main town, up the hill lined with American Southern-Gothic style homes (yeah, very odd), through a hilltop park, around a monastery, and back down the other side to a delicious ice cream lunch (a meal of espresso and ice cream should never be under estimated).
10. The Asian Side of Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world that straddles two continents – Europe and Asia. We spent most of our time on the European side of the city, so we decided to hop the ferry over the Bosphorus and explore the Asian-side neighborhood of Kadikoy.
We were repeatedly told the Asia side is a laid back version of its European counterpart, and the description matched our experience. Unlike many of the packed, trinket-filled shops of the Grand Bizarre and hustle-bustle of European side neighborhoods, the smaller markets of Kadikoy were visited by strolling patrons, taking their time deciding between varying fresh spices, produce, meats, breads, and coffee. Our new favorite coffee shop, Montag Coffee Roasters, sits on the second floor of a corner building, overlooking a lazy square. We wandered the residential streets for a couple hours, then took the ferry back.
11. The Bosphorus
On our last day, we took a boat ride up the Bosphorus river, the shipping artery between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara (and subsequently the Mediterranean). Historically, whoever controlled the Bosphorus controlled world commerce.
Flanking both sides are castles, mosques, elaborate homes, and a stunning multi-acre tulip park climbing from the bank to the top of the hill, a little north of the city center.
12. Rooftop Bars
There was one more thing we had to do before we left for home – visit a rooftop bar to find out just how much of the city can be seen at once. The Rooftop Bar at the Marmara Pera hotel serves delicious cocktails and left us with amazing, unreal views of Istanbul.
We packed a lot in, but we barely scratched the surface of this city. A return trip is definitely in our future!