I am currently travelling across Turkey. My trip started in magnificent Istanbul. I have been to Istanbul six times before. However, this time I decided to spend a week there and 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, which makes it the largest European city. It also covers a very large area.
However, for visitors to Istanbul, that is not so important. Things of interest are concentrated in the oldest part of the city. While that area is also very large, it is possible to walk everywhere, although it takes a bit of time. But, it is possible. That is 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 at the same time it is 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. Whether its spectacular skyline when you cross the Galata Bridge from Beyoğlu to Eminönü. Or its Bazaar Quarter and the Grand Bazaar. There are three magnificent sites next to each other, which leave everyone totally bewildered: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Just one of them would be more than enough, but three of them in such close proximity is a miracle.
Then, there are numerous restaurants and shops everywhere. And most importantly, history and especially the Ottoman legacy that perhaps may not be as famous as the most famous sites, but it is equally historically and artistically important.
Generally speaking, for a purpose of visiting Istanbul, either for the first time or for people who have been there before, the city can be divided in three areas:
- – Sultanahmet Area and Bazaar Quarter
- – Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street and Taksim Square
- – Üsküdar on the Asian side of Istanbul
SULTANAHMET AND BAZAAR QUARTER
All visitors to Istanbul come to see Sultanahmet and the Bazaar Quarter of the city. That area contains the most famous sites, next to each other. Many other cities would be proud to have only one of them, let alone three of them together in the same place. But, that’s not by chance. Certainly, the magnificent Hagia Sophia was constructed in 537, in the best location of the city. Initially it was a Christian Orthodox church, then a mosque and it is now a museum. It is 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 marched to Hagia Sophia and converted into a mosque.
The Blue Mosque is directly opposite Hagia Sophia. At the time when the Ottoman army conquered Constantinople, this mosque did not exist. 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 the Ottoman times, only imperial mosques had two or more minarets. Ordinary people, such as various pashas and other dignitaries of the empire could construct mosques with only one minaret.
The Blue Mosque is currently under renovation. It is open for prayers and visitors, but big parts of the mosque are covered in scaffolding and you can’t really see much. You can also see in a photo below that one minaret is missing.
Finally, at a short distance from Hagia Sophia, there is the 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 Mamara and the Bosphorus on the other sides. Views of surrounding areas from the palace are stunning.
Similar to the Forbidden City in Beijing, ordinary people could not easily enter into the palace. And one part of the palace – the Harem – was completely forbidden to everyone, except to members of the Ottoman dynasty.
Topkapi Palaces seized to be the imperial palace in the mid-19th century. After nearly 400 years, Sultan Abdülmecid I moved the imperial court to a newly constructed Dolmabahçe Palace.
Not far from the Sultanahmet area, you will find the Grand Bazaar or Kapalı Çarşı in Turkish. This is one more historical site of Istanbul 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 this 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 things that you can see all over the bazaar. One of them is a fountain in a photo below. Whenever I go to Istanbul, I go back there, even for a very short period of time, despite the many tourists. The bazaar is simply that beautiful.
The whole area around the Grand Bazaar is the Bazaar Quarter. It is the old part of Istanbul, with many structures from the Ottoman era. It is also one of the most vibrant shopping areas that I have ever seen. The abundance of goods on offer is astonishing. There, you can find whole streets dedicated to one item, such as socks or underwear or t-shirts and so on … That’s at the same time amazing and quite unbelievable. Ever since my first visit, I keep saying to everyone that shopping in Istanbul is the best.
History is everywhere. Somewhere in between Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar, you come across the Column of Constantine. You may not even notice it because there is much to see in that same area. But then, you realise that the Roman emperor Constantine the Great ordered its construction in 330. It is a nearly 1700 years old monument that commemorated the declaration of Byzantium as a 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 Magnificient in 1557. This mosque dominates the skyline, together with the New Mosque.
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. The mosque is currently under renovation, as you can see in a photo below. Right now, it is closed for visitors, although it is open for prayers. Despite its name, it is actually a 17th century mosque, constructed in 1663.
I could put an old photo of this mosque in this post, to show its full beauty. However, this photo reflects its current state under renovation. If and when I go back to Istanbul in the future, I will take another new one. As a matter of fact, a lot of historical sites are currently under renovation. That is good, as it means that the state looks after its precious legacy.
The Egyptian Spice Bazaar is next to the New Mosque, in Eminönü.
It is the second biggest covered market in Istanbul, after the Grand Bazaar. It was built in 1664, as a part of the New Mosque complex.
The same as the Grand Bazaar, it is a very touristy place. In any case, it is a very beautiful construction and I suggest that you visit it. It is vibrant and very colourful. Plus, you can see a lot of different spices and other goods on offer.
Try to ignore its touristy aspect and concentrate on the architecture and many other exquisite details. It is really 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. On one side you can see the New Mosque and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.
On the other side, there is a Rustem Pasha Complex. And that is just the initial impression, before you venture further into the historical area.
BEYOĞLU, ISTIKLAL STREET AND TAKSIM SQUARE
Beyoğlu district is also on the European side of Istanbul. In my opinion, it is 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 is the medieval Galata Tower. The Genoese community that lived in that area constructed the tower in 1348. It is a fascinating structure that dominates the skyline of that part of the city. It is also one of the symbols of Istanbul.
If you stay in Beyoğlu during your visit to Istanbul, from there you can easily walk to the old part of the city. The walk takes you through Yuksek Kaldirim street. It is a street from the Genoese period, with all characteristics of Italian steep streets based on slopes perpendicular to the sea. The street is now full of various shops and restaurants and it is very interesting.
Istiklal street is a focal point of this area. It is also the reason why I say that this is the best area to stay in Istanbul.
Istiklal street is a very long pedestrian street, with shops, restaurants and coffee shops that are open until midnight. In the old part of Istanbul, all businesses close at 6pm and that part of the city is dead in the evening. But, not in Istiklal street. Usually, the street is very busy with people. Also, all side streets are equally full of restaurants and bars that stay open until early morning hours. Fascinating!
Taksim square is a very big square at the north end of Istiklal street.
Admittedly, it is not a very beautiful square, although it is very interesting to see.
The Republic Monument is in the square and the vintage tram that runs along Istiklal street starts there.
Üsküdar is a historic part of Istanbul, but on the Asian side of the city.
Although I have been to Istanbul six times in the past, this time for the very first time I visited Üsküdar.
It seems that it is 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 historical sites from the Ottoman period.
I spent almost the whole day there and managed to see everything that I 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 is a frequent service that transports people from one part of the city to another. At the same time, it is extremely enjoyable as you cross the Bosphorus. Also, you see the city from a totally different perspective and 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. A very broad overview that gives a general idea about the city. I was there for 7 days and although I managed to see a lot, equally I missed a lot.
These last photos are of places and sites that you can see when you cross the Bosphorus, on the way to Üsküdar. I have never been to Dolmabahçe Palace, for example. But, there will be next time.
I’ve also wanted to visit Beşiktaş and Şişli areas of the city, but there was simply no time. That is also one more reason for me to go back to Istanbul in the future. The city is truly amazing and requires repeat visits.
The Historic Areas of Istanbul are the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Indeed, with so much history, it is appropriate to designate the whole 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 you see falls into the right place. Then, you can fully appreciate and understand this great city.
I already look forward to going back!