We are back in Turkey for the first three months of 2019 and although we are staying in the South Western region, in the ghost town of Kaya Koy, it got me thinking about what I love most about this country. And I started thinking particularly about Istanbul - my favourite city in the world.
Istanbul is a city with good food, amazing architecture, a rich history, a myriad of cultures, huge shopping bazaars, beautiful parks and a plethora of fantastic cafes and restaurants. There’s so much to see and do, you could easily spend a week or two here. But if you are short on time, here are a few of my favourite things to do in Istanbul.
Go Look At Some Majorly Impressive Buildings
1) Hagia Sophia
A building that has had multiple identities, the Hagia Sophia was once referred to as the eighth wonder of the world and was first built as a church in AD360. This building was razed to the ground during the Byzantine period as was the second one, built in AD415. The third structure built on the site in the 6th century by Emperor Justinian had a little more luck and is the building that visitors see today. From the sound of it, this Justinian was a pretty competitive dude and he wanted to build a Greek Orthodox Church that would outdo the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. After only five years and with a force of nearly 11,000 workers the current Hagia Sophia was complete and it was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years.
But as usual…nothing lasts forever. When Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans in 1453 with Mehmet the Conquerer at the helm, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and the very ornate interior mosaics were plastered and painted over. It stayed as Istanbul’s main mosque for nearly 500 years and was considered to be one of the holiest sites in Islam.
And yet the winds of change were still not over. In 1935, having been closed for four years, the Hagia Sophia was reopened as a museum by the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Tickets to Hagia Sophia cost 60TL (£9). For information about visiting hours, visit the museum’s website.
Honestly, this is going to be hard to miss, but the 180 foot high dome of the Hagia Sophia was considered revolutionary, as it was built on top of a square base (get your head around that!)
Fantastic intricate mosaics on the upper level of the museum that date back to the 9th century.
Great examples of the melding of Christian and Islamic architecture: the dome of Hagia Sophia is surrounded by four minarets that were built in the Ottoman period. The central mihrab of the building which indicates the direction of Mecca is overlooked by a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in the arch of the dome.
2) The Blue Mosque
Dominating the Istanbul skyline and just across from the Hagia Sophia is the equally impressive building of the Blue Mosque. Commissioned in the early 17th century by the 19 year old Sultan Ahmet I, the mosque took seven years to complete and was finished in 1616. Apparently Sultan Ahmet was so eager for his vision to be completed that he often assisted in the work. However, he died just a year after the mosque was completed at the age of 27 and was buried outside the building with his wife and three sons.
“But it’s not actually blue!” I hear you cry. Well, no. The exterior of the mosque actually isn’t blue at all. The building gets its name from the 20,000 blue tiles that line the high ceilings of the mosque and showcase the finest examples of 16th century Isnik design, with flowers, trees and intricate patterns.
One of the standout features on the exterior of the mosque are the beautiful cascade of domes, that seem to flow out from the grand central dome.
The mosque has six minarets which is very unusual: most mosques are built with one, two or four minarets. This appears to be the result of a bit of a mix up between the Sultan and his architect. The Sultan apparently instructed his architect to make gold (in Turkish altin) minarets (clearly a man who was into his bling) which was misunderstood as six (alti) minarets.
3) Basilica Cistern
This subterranean engineering marvel (I can just feel my Dad getting excited about this) under the streets of Istanbul was built by Emperor Justinian (yes, it’s him again) to bring fresh water to his palace and nearby buildings. The cistern was constructed using 336 thirty-foot columns that were salvaged from nearby Roman ruins. When it was first re-discovered in the 1500s there was even an artificial freshwater lake the size of two football fields with fish swimming about in it! Whilst the fish are still hanging about, visitors can now walk around the cistern and even have dinner in an underground restaurant.
The column that has an upside down majestic-looking Medusa head on its end.
4) The Grand Bazaar
Nope, this isn’t like going to Westfield shopping centre. The cavernous and warren-like Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world: it is 30,700 square meters and comprises over 60 streets and alleys and 4,000 shops. The original structure of the bazaar was much smaller (think a small arcade with several shops) and was completed in 1461 by Mehmet the Conquerer. By the 17th century it expanded into the sprawling complex we know today, housing thousands of shops, tradesman’s workshops, stalls, restaurants and (at the time) a Turkish bath and a mosque!
If you are like me and really don’t enjoy shopping, this might already make you feel a bit tired. But I honestly loved it: the bright colours, lights, myriad of stalls, vendors offering you tea or coffee to entice you to look at their wares…it’s total sensory overload in there. Obviously this can be a little overwhelming, so here are some quick tips to make sure that your Grand Bazaar visit doesn’t end in a massive tantrum (because yeah, I’ve been there).
Don’t try and fit a visit to the Grand Bazaar into an afternoon. I’ve already told you it’s massive! You really want to experience it at a leisurely pace, instead of just something you want to tick off your bucket list. So stroll around, strike up some banter with the sellers, stop for a cup of çay, try your hand at haggling…just immerse yourself in the experience.
Expect to get lost. Trust me, when I say that this is part of the authentic bazaar experience. You will definitely go in at one entrance and come out somewhere totally different. After all, there are 66 alleyways to choose from! If this is your idea of a nightmare and you are one of those people who needs to know where they are at all times, you can easily pick up a map of the Grand Bazaar or take a guide.
If you are after something particular e.g. Turkish carpets, Iznik tiles or jewellery, decide on what you are willing to pay for it before your visit. That stops you getting that ‘ripped off’ feeling when you go and visit the stalls. Although I am not a fan of massive carpets (can’t really fit that into my carry-on rucksack) I am partial to the beautiful pashminas, ceramics and jewellery that you can find at the Grand Bazaar. There are plenty of good quality items and superb bargains if you look hard enough.
Enjoy the bargaining experience. It’s traditional and remember, you don’t have to buy anything! I am always amazed at the number of languages the stall holders speak as well as at their super charm offensive.
Don’t like the offer? Feel free to move to the next stall. It’s true that as soon as you have picked something up or sometimes even just looked at something, the seller will try their utmost to seal the deal. But don’t feel pressured. If a stall holder is rude or aggressively insisting that you purchase an item, it’s probably not that great anyway. Just move on to another stall. Sellers offering quality items won’t be out there harassing you to buy something. And with 4000 shops, you’ve got plenty of choice!
Go Back in Time
5) Istanbul Archaeology Museum
Museum lovers rejoice! Located near Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park, this huge museum founded in 1875 showcases Istanbul’s rich history through over one million archaeological and artistic treasures from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine period. Woah. Technically, it’s three museums in one: the Ancient Orient Museum, the Islamic Art Museum and the Archaeology Museum. You will seriously need to put aside a day to visit this museum but if you love artefacts and secretly wish you were Indiana Jones, this is definitely for you. (I am ashamed to say that during my half-day visit I got so tired that I ended up having to have a sleep in Gulhane Park. More about that later.)
Experience Some Park Life
6) Gulhane Park
Whilst hanging out in a park in London probably doesn’t sound all that attractive (and in some cases could be considered downright scary), Gulhane Park in Istanbul is a different sort of place. Located next to the opulent Topkapi Palace, the park served as the outer garden of the palace and was not open to the public. These days the park is filled with crowds of Istanbulites, local and international tourists who come to escape the scorching heat of the summer, have a picnic under the trees or enjoy the panoramic views of boats sailing around the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. There used to be a tea room at the end of the park which offered wonderful views of the Bosphorus (I went there after my Istanbul Museum experience, had Turkish tea and found the whole experience so relaxing that I promptly fell asleep) but my recent research shows that it might have closed. The park is gorgeous in winter as well and a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Start the Day Off With a Good Breakfast
7) Serpme Kahvaltis or ‘Spread Breakfasts’
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day (well, for me anyway) and boy do the Turkish know how to put on a good breakfast. The serpme kahvaltis of Istanbul are legendary and definitely something you should experience when you visit the city. You can find more information on what I think are the best ‘spread breakfasts’ in Istanbul here.
Have a Beverage at a Fancy Hotel
8) Pera Palas Hotel
This is no ordinary hotel: the Pera Palas is one of the most famous hotels in Istanbul: it was built in 1892 with the specific purpose of hosting passengers arriving on the Orient Express. Full of atmospheric and opulent rooms, the hotel also has a quirky history: Agatha Christie was one of the early visitors and the hotel is apparently the place where she wrote Murder on the Orient Express. There is even a room (number 411 if you are interested) preserved in her honour. The hotel also houses a small museum featuring the belongings of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who prepared for the Turkish Revolution from room 101.
Of course, you don’t have to stay at the hotel to experience the splendour. During our winter visit to Istanbul, we stopped off one evening and had a warming cup of salep in the hotel’s Patisserie de Pera cafe. A great way to escape the frosty weather!
Explore Some of the Oldest Neighbourhoods of Istanbul
9) Fener-Balat Districts
Be adventurous and step outside the well trodden areas of Taksim, Beyoglu and Sultanhamet and visit the UNESCO world heritage listed neighbourhoods of Fener-Balat. Here you will get a taste of the real Istanbul as well as escape the crowds at the major tourist attractions. We actually stayed in this neighbourhood on our most recent visit to Istanbul and I fell completely in love with the place…so I wrote a whole blog post about the area.
Visit a Street That Simply Oozes Romance
10) French Street
Okay, so I will be the first to admit that this suggestion may be a controversial one: visitors either love French Street or think that it is a massive tourist trap. (My family went there and felt that they were conned into buying expensive drinks and what my parents described as ‘100 year old calamari’). Oh dear. French Street’s Turkish name is Cezayir Sokak and in 2004 the street was renovated with the assistance of Parisian architects. The renovation led to beautifully designed narrow streets and restored terraced buildings lit with traditional gas lamps, boutique shops and covered cafes, wine houses, restaurants and street musicians.
The steep and narrow street looks romantic and dreamy, especially in the evening, but be prepared: THIS ISN’T FRANCE. You will get the same food that you get elsewhere (I think there are French restaurants but I am not sure how authentic they are) and perhaps at a slightly higher price. I personally find the whole place charming and I still love going to French Street for a cocktail in the summer and a salep or hot chocolate with brandy in the winter.
Go Island Hopping
11) Visit the Prince’s Islands
Island hopping isn’t just reserved for Thailand - you can do it in Turkey too! Hop on a ferry to the Prince’s Islands, where you can swim, rent bicycles, visit ancient churches, monasteries and mosques and even do a spot of hiking. The Prince’s islands are actually a chain of nine different islands and the ferry from Istanbul stops at four of them: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada, so it’s up to you which one you want to explore. The trip can take between one to two hours depending on the number of stops the ferry makes.
No motorised vehicles are allowed on the islands, so horse-drawn carriages (yes, really) and bicycles are the main method of transport. During the weekends the islands can get pretty crowded as it’s a favourite chill-out destination for Istanbulites after a busy working week, so I’d recommend that you visit during the week, especially in the summer months.
Have a Bath
12) A Turkish Bath that is!
No visit to Turkey or Istanbul would be complete without the soapy, rough scrub down and pummelling massage that makes up a Turkish bath or hamam experience. Forget about modesty though, you will be scrubbed and washed everywhere so be prepared. And there will be a number of people walking around half naked. But don’t worry, these bath attendants have seen it all and are nothing but professional.
Traditionally, an experience at a hamam involves moving though steam rooms of varying temperatures and then lying on hot marble while an attendant scrubs all the dead skin off you with a loofah and then gives you a wonderful bubbly soap massage. They will even wash your hair for you! Trust me when I say that you will never have felt cleaner in your life.
Istanbul has a number of historic Turkish baths including the luxurious 16th century Kiliç Ali Pasa Hammam which is considered to be one of the best in the city. There are separate hours for women (8am-4pm) and men (4.30pm-11.30pm) and the price for this type of extravagant, truly Ottoman-style hamam experience starts at 270TL (around £40 per person). As we like to have a hamam together, Vincent and I visited Aga Hamami 1454 (open from 10am-10pm) which is reportedly the oldest mixed hamam in Istanbul. We opted for the massage package which includes a hamam and an oil massage, for 160TL (£23 per person). The staff were really friendly and professional and we had a fantastic experience.
There’s obviously so much more to Istanbul than my humble list, so my advice is simply this: go out, wander, explore and allow yourself to get lost in the fascinating city that is Istanbul.
Have you got any other recommendations for places we should visit in Istanbul? Let us know in the comments below! (P.S. We know we haven’t put Topkapi Palace on this list…as we are saving this for our next visit!)