I am currently travelling across Turkey. My trip started in magnificent Istanbul. I’ve been to Istanbul six times before. However, this time I decided to spend a week there and to explore the city in more detail. I have already seen the most important sites during my past visits.
But, Istanbul is so full of history that there is always something new to discover.
Istanbul is a very big city. There are approximately 15 million people living there. It also covers a very large area.
However, for visitors to Istanbul, that’s not so important. Things of interest are concentrated in the oldest part of the city. While that area is also very big, it is possible to walk everywhere, although it takes a bit of time. But, it is possible. That’s exactly what I did during my stay there, two weeks ago.
The best way to get to know any city is to walk everywhere. Of course, that can be tiring, but it’s also very gratifying. The best way to absorb the city and its various impressions is at a leisurely pace.
Istanbul is a city in which all impressions are hugely magnified. There is a spectacular skyline when you cross Galata Bridge from Beyoğlu to Eminönü. There is also the Bazaar Quarter and the Grand Bazaar.
Then, there are three magnificent historic structures next to each other, that leave everyone totally bewildered: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Just one of them would be more than enough, but the three of them in such close proximity is a miracle.
You will also find a lot of history, especially the Ottoman legacy that perhaps may not be as famous as the most famous sites although, historically and artistically, it’s equally important.
Generally speaking, the city can be divided in three main areas:
- – Sultanahmet Area and the Bazaar Quarter
- – Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street and Taksim
- – Üsküdar – on the Asian side of Istanbul
SULTANAHMET AND THE BAZAAR QUARTER
All visitors to Istanbul come to see Sultanahmet and the Bazaar Quarter. That area contains the most famous sites, next to each other. Many other cities would be proud to have just one of them, let alone all three of them together, in the same place. But, that’s not by chance.
Certainly, the magnificent Hagia Sophia, constructed in 537, is in the best location in the city. Originally, it was a Christian Orthodox church, then a mosque and it’s a museum now. It’s definitely one of the most precious world’s treasures.
The first thing that Fatih Sultan Mehmed II did in 1453, after he conquered Constantinople, he went to Hagia Sophia and converted it into a mosque.
The Blue Mosque is directly opposite Hagia Sophia. This mosque did not exist at the time when the Ottoman army conquered Constantinople. Sultan Ahmed I constructed it in 1616, in what is clearly a spectacular location. It is the only imperial mosque in Istanbul with six minarets. During Ottoman times, only imperial mosques could have two or more minarets. Ordinary people, such as pashas and other dignitaries of the empire, also constructed numerous mosques but only with one minaret.
The Blue Mosque is currently under restoration. It is open for prayers and visitors, but big parts of the mosque are covered in scaffolding and you can’t really see much. The photo below is an old photo, from one of my previous visits, where you can see this mosque in its full glory. Otherwise, one rear minaret was missing, they probably took it down for repair.
At a short distance from Hagia Sophia, you will find Topkapi Palace. It was the imperial palace of around 30 sultans, who ruled the vast Ottoman empire from there. Shortly after the conquest of Constantinople, Fatih Sultan Mehmed II ordered construction of the palace in what was clearly the very best location. Its construction was finished in 1478, on a small peninsula that dominates the Golden Horn on one side, the sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus on the other two sides. Views of the surrounding area from the palace are stunning.
Similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, ordinary people could not easily enter the palace. One section of the palace – harem – was completely forbidden to everyone, except to members of the Ottoman dynasty.
The Topkapi Palace seized to be the imperial palace in the mid-19th century, after nearly 400 years. Sultan Abdülmecid I moved the imperial court to the newly constructed Dolmabahçe Palace.
Not far from Sultanahmet, you will find the Grand Bazaar or Kapalı Çarşı in Turkish. This is one more historical site that is simply mind blowing. It is one of the largest and the oldest covered bazaars in the world.
Fatih Sultan Mehmed II ordered its construction shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. The original, historical core of the bazaar was completed in 1461. There are over 60 streets and thousands of shops in the bazaar.
Over the years, the Grand Bazaar expanded and became an immense roofed complex, with tradesmen’s inns and workshops (hans) in the surrounding area. The complex reached its present size by the 17th century.
Naturally, the Grand Bazaar is now one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions. When you visit this magnificent structure, I suggest that you disregard its touristy aspect and concentrate on the architecture and many beautiful details that you can see all over the bazaar. One of them is a fountain in the photo below.
Whenever I go to Istanbul, I always go back there for at least a short period of time. The bazaar is simply that beautiful.
The area around the Grand Bazaar is the Bazaar Quarter. It’s the old part of Istanbul, with many Ottoman era structures. It is also one of the most vibrant shopping areas that I have ever seen. The abundance of goods on offer is astonishing. You can find whole streets dedicated to just one item, such as socks or underwear or t-shirts. That’s, at the same time, amazing and quite unbelievable. I keep saying to everyone that shopping in Istanbul is the best.
COLUMN OF CONSTANTINE
History is everywhere. Somewhere in between Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar, you will come across the Column of Constantine. You may not even notice it, because there is much to see in that same area.
The Roman emperor Constantine the Great ordered its construction in 330. It’s a nearly 1700 years old monument that commemorated the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire.
When you look at Istanbul from the Galata Bridge, one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks is the Suleymaniye Mosque. The imperial architect Mimar Sinan designed it and constructed it for Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557. This mosque, together with the New Mosque, dominates the city’s skyline from that particular angle.
I have a lot of photos of the New Mosque from my previous visits to Istanbul. When you cross the Galata Bridge, from Beyoğlu to the old part of Istanbul, this mosque is right in front of you.
But this mosque was also under restoration, as you can see in the photo below. The photo above is an old one, from my previous visits. The mosque was closed for tourists, although it was open for prayers. Despite its name, it is actually the 17th century mosque, constructed in 1663.
As a matter of fact, a lot of historical sites were under restoration in Istanbul. But that’s good, it means that they look after the precious legacy.
EGYPTIAN SPICE BAZAAR
The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is next to the New Mosque, in Eminönü.
It’s the second biggest covered market in Istanbul, after the Grand Bazaar. It was built in 1664, as part of the New Mosque complex.
The same as the Grand Bazaar, it is a very touristy place. But, it’s also a very beautiful construction and I suggest that you visit it. It’s vibrant and very colourful. Plus, you can see a lot of different spices and many other goods on offer.
Try to ignore the touristy aspect and concentrate on the architecture and other exquisite details. It really is very impressive.
A large square, to which you arrive when you cross the Galata Bridge from Beyoğlu, is a starting point for exploration of the old part of Istanbul. It is always full of people and rich in sounds of a vibrant mega city. In the photo below, you can see the New Mosque and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.
The Rustem Pasha Complex is on the other side of this square. Basically, you get to see all this before you venture further into the historical area. It’s like that all over Istanbul.
BEYOĞLU, ISTIKLAL STREET AND TAKSIM SQUARE
Beyoğlu is also on the European side and, in my opinion, it’s the best area to stay in Istanbul. The Golden Horn separates it from the historical part of the city.
While it doesn’t contain many historical sites, perhaps the most famous of all of them is the medieval Galata Tower.
The Genoese community, that lived in that area, constructed the tower in 1348. It’s a fascinating structure that dominates the skyline in that part of the city. It is also one of the symbols of Istanbul.
YUKSEK KALDIRIM STREET
If during your visit to Istanbul you stay in Beyoğlu, you can easily walk to the old part of the city. The walk takes you through Yuksek Kaldirim street. It’s a street from the Genoese period, with all characteristics of the Italian steep streets. The street is now full of various shops and restaurants and it’s very interesting.
Istiklal street is the main street in this part of city and probably in all Istanbul. That’s why I say that this is the best area where you should choose to stay.
Istiklal street is a very long pedestrian street, with shops, restaurants and coffee shops that are open until midnight. In the historical part of Istanbul, all businesses close at 6pm and that part of the city is dead in the evening.
But, not in Istiklal street. This street is usually very busy and there are always a lot of people. Additionally, all side streets are equally full of restaurants and bars, that stay open until early morning hours. It’s a fascinating area.
A very big square at the north end of Istiklal street is Taksim square.
Admittedly, it is not a very beautiful square, although it is very interesting to see.
The Republic Monument is in the square and the old tram, that runs along Istiklal street, starts from there.
Üsküdar is a historic part of Istanbul, but on the Asian side of the city.
Although I’ve already been to Istanbul six times in the past, this time for the very first time I visited Üsküdar.
I’m not entirely sure, but it seems that it’s an overlooked part of the city. That day when I went there, there were hardly any foreign tourists.
But, that doesn’t mean that there is little or nothing to see there. On the contrary. There are some very famous Ottoman historical sites that you can see there.
I spent the whole day in Üsküdar and managed to see everything that I had planned to see. It was less busy than more popular areas of Istanbul, but that was a very good thing.
Getting to Üsküdar is very easy. You take a boat from Eminönü, it’s a frequent service that transports people from one side of the city to another. At the same time, it’s extremely enjoyable as you cross the Bosphorus. You also get to see the city from a totally different perspective. The views are spectacular.
THE REST OF ISTANBUL
Istanbul is a very big city. What I’ve mentioned in this post is just a scratch on the surface. It’s a very broad overview that gives you a general idea of the city. I was there for 7 days and although I managed to see a lot, I also missed a lot.
These photos are of places and sites that you can see when you cross the Bosphorus, on the way to Üsküdar. I’ve never been to the Dolmabahçe Palace, for example. But, I will go next time.
I also wanted to visit Beşiktaş and Şişli, but there was simply no time. That’s also one more reason for me to go back to Istanbul in the future. The city is truly amazing and it requires repeat visits.
The historic areas of Istanbul are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Indeed, with so much history, it’s appropriate to designate the whole city area as the world’s patrimony.
The only thing that I would add is that, with a bit of knowledge of the Ottoman history, everything that you see in Istanbul falls in the right place. I believe that only then you can fully appreciate and understand this great city.
I already look forward to going back!