Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium…Different names for the same mythic city, taking on new faces across the centuries, but always keeping beauty and mysteries, calling the visitors to discover its charms.
Old Istanbul: A Walk Through Ancient Time
We spent a couple of days in Istanbul, discovering the top attractions of the Sultanahmet like Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the little known but most surprising Basilica Cisterns. Of course, we could not miss the Grand Bazaar for some shopping spree!
Istanbul is a huge city, and we could have easily spent double the time there discovering the back streets and little food stores around the city.
You can’t go to Istanbul and not see the Hagia Sophia – it should be on everyone’s list to see.
Granted, it’s busy – very busy – but go early and you will take in the grand attraction to its fullness. A former basilica started in 537, an imperial mosque from 1453 and now a museum since 1935, you admire every stone, every detail, every stained glass work. Most of the visitors stay on the first floor, but on my end, I really like the second floor as you get a great view and depth of the whole place.
The second floor is also where you will find amazing mosaics from the 8th century, not be missed. These are really detailed pieces of art, depicting scenes from the Bible with Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints and emperors or empresses, added through the centuries of the Byzantine period. I think these were the most impressive elements for me. The artwork is fantastic, so detailed you would think the characters are alive.
To enjoy your visit to its fullest, take a guide, read your travel book for details, or rent an audio-guide. Whatever you choose, you will appreciate to hear about the monument history, small details that make it come to life.
We spent around four hours in Hagia Sophia, though you could easily spend a full day if you want to linger longer.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, is standing opposite the Hagia Sophia and a true delight of various shades of blue – 20,000 handmade mosaic tiles from dark marine to translucent purple, with lights shooting through 200 stained glass windows.
Built from 1609 to 1616, the Blue Mosque is a monument of high religious importance, very much in use as a mosque today so visits need to be timed around services. There will be a long queue on Fridays for the prayers, though this Mosque, due to its central location in the Sultanamhet and its world-fame, gets lots of attention and visitors.
Make sure to walk around to get different angles of the ceilings. Rays of light will come straight through the ceiling to further intensify the colors, really amazing.
Both women and men need to be dressed conservatively, with legs covered. Women should also wear a headscarf. The helpers are the entrance at the Mosque will hand over pieces of fabric to help you cover if need be.
Topkapi Palace is another must-see in Istanbul and deserves several hours of your day – this was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years after all! Start early to avoid the long lines and enjoy the palace without the crowd.
A huge complex started in 1459, with more rooms added over the year each room and display nicer than the other, Topkapi includes ceremonial rooms and an Imperial harem of more than 400 rooms. Some of the exhibitions include Ottoman artifacts as well as important Islamic manuscripts, even items who belonged to the Prophet Mohamed.
Make sure to visit the Harem. The mosaics of the baths, delicate wood work, ornate walls designs, all are testament to the Ottoman empire. The Harem is by far the section of Topkapi that was the most impressive for me. Not just by because of its size of about 300 rooms, 9 baths, 2 mosques, 1 hospital, 1 laundry, and more but details of the decorations, the bright colors and designs so varied. Trying to sort the photos and find the one I prefer was hard as I loved them all, with the unique details and design, variations of colors and shape.
The Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, is a shopper paradise with 3,000 shops of leather bags and shoes, colorful lanterns and silver ornaments, and stalls of dry fruits and Turkish delights (locally known as lokums). The ceilings of the Bazaar hallways are beautifully decorated and it is worth looking up from the shops’ shelves for a few minutes to admire them.
The Grand Bazaar is a top attraction in Istanbul but with thousands of visitors every year, is not necessarily the best place to bargain. Why offer discounts when the next visitor might buy full price? This is the first place in all our travel that would not give a discount or even bargain. I wanted to buy some little bracelets for friends and colleagues, and inquired for the price per bracelet. As I found several that I liked, I grabbed about 10 of them, with the idea that I would get a bulk discount. What a surprise when the shop owner (not the one below though!) bluntly stated the unit price multiplied by ten. As I was trying to bargain, he sternly kept to that price, not budging by even a lira. Being in a Bazaar when bargain is king, I was unimpressed by his rather non-business like approach of Take it or Leave it. I did – leave. I spent my money somewhere, thank you very much.
The Basilica Cisterns are less known than the majestic nearby Hagia Sofia or Blue Mosque, but definitely worth the discovery.
Built in the 6th century under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the ancient cisterns hold the water for the whole city. No longer used today, you can visit the huge underground and enjoy a very relaxing moment, and a good way to get out of the heat for a while. As we did not what to expect, the area came as a nice surprise, and the way it is lit definitely bring a different atmosphere to the place.
At the end of your visit, have a coffee or cold drink by the corner shop. If you go to Istanbul like we did, the heat can be scorching and we loved the short break down under.
Heading up the hill, we reached Suleymaniye Mosque, the largest mosque in Istanbul. Maybe one of the better known Istanbul monuments, the Imperial mosque was built under Sultan Suleyman – Suleyman the Magnificent – from 1550 to 1558.
We arrived just before prayer time so we could not stay very long but I really enjoyed visiting this Mosque, as it is less visited and was quieter, a better representation of this symbol of prayers and reflections.
The location has great views of the city and is worth walking around, wandering around small cobbled streets and local shops. Like the Mosque, the area sees less tourists and gives you a truer feel to Istanbul. We walked our way down to the nearest subway station – a very safe and convenient way to move around.
Turkish Bath & Cagaloglu Hammam
Finally, we could not leave Istanbul without a Turkish bath experience. Istanbul is packed with Hammans, some with hours specific for women or men, some in a more modern settings. We were looking at one that would offer overlapping women/men hours, and was of older construction. After checking around these which would offer the services we wanted, we opted for the Cagaloglu Hammam, a 18th-century bath house
This hammam is beautiful, white marble top to bottom, huge domes and large round massage tables.
The place was spotless and the masseurs were very friendly and considerate. Be prepared for some strong cleaning though, don’t go after a sunburn! But once you exit the hammam, you feel cleansed and refresh – a welcome and relaxing way to end the day!