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eally you could spend two weeks in Istanbul and still not get round all the historical and colourful sights. That said it is amazing what you can do in a day and fairly leisurely too, as long as you pace yourself and take advantage of its vibrant cafe society to fuel up. If you are hitting the city during the height of summer (July/August) make sure you carry plenty of bottled water as the streets can be sweltering.
This guide aims to give readers a methodical way to see some of this great city’s most important architectural and cultural features, including suggestions to get around quickly when need be and still have time for a sightseeing trip on a boat up the famous Bosphorus. Just make sure you’re wearing some decent walking shoes.
Nothing quite prepares the first time visitor for Istanbul. A city of nearly fourteen million, its monumental architectural vistas and cacophony of street sounds can be both exhilarating and daunting. But strolling through the streets in your own time and using the local trams and one of the world’s oldest funiculars, you will be able to experience just in eight to nine hours the rich cultural tapestry of this bustling metropolis. This is a global city encompassing a multitude of cultures, religions, customs and one which uniquely strides East and West.
This day itinerary covers three principle areas that will offer visitors a taste of Istanbul’s history and cultural scene. Sultanahmet, The Bazaar Quarter and Beyoglu.
The historical quarter in the south eastern part of Istanbul’s epicentre is a must on the tour trail and one that most visitors will try and visit, if only for an hour or two. The area plays host to two of the most important and magnificent mosques in the city – the famous Blue Mosque, bedecked with 20,000 shimmering blue Iznik tiles and the older Haghia Sophia, one of the world’s greatest architectural glories.
Making light work for visitors on foot, the two mosques conveniently stare at each other across an area of lush gardens making it a walk-friendly start to explore a stunning part of the city that forms what is now a UNESCO heritage site.
The Haghia Sophia
Possibly the most iconic mosque in Istanbul captured on millions of holiday snaps and even the opening sequence of Bond blockbuster Skyfall, the ‘Church of Holy Wisdom’ is more than fourteen hundred years old and a breathless vision when seeing it for the time. Even though this is a day tour it is well worth waiting until dusk just to see this architectural gem lit up with its red and yellow stucco brickwork and minarets shimmering against a dark sky.
A Byzantine masterpiece and originally built over two earlier churches the Haghia Sophia was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in the 15th Century. No matter what your religion, simply being in the presence of such man-made beauty can be an emotional experience for many.
Three mausoleums are open to the public and the Nave is a staggering vast space covered by a huge 184ft dome. Famous for its Byzantine mosaics the most impressive being the apse dominated by a large glittering portrait of the ‘Virgin with Infant Jesus on Her Lap’
short stroll from the Haghia Sophia through the leafy Sultanahmet Square (Meydani) takes you to the most venerable monument – The Blue Mosque.
For a moment though take a break in this idyllic pit stop full of fauna and flora and sit by the central ornate fountain, before you start out on further exploration of a mosque that requires a good hour to take in its magnificent detail and beauty.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
Taking its popular name from the beautiful blue Iznik tiles that decorate the mosque’s inner walls this is one of the most important and famous religious buildings in the world. Nothing will prepare you for the mesmeric design and opulence of this stunning religious palace which was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet and built between 1609-16.
The extravagance of the building initially caused hostility, mainly because its six minarets (four were the norm) were considered sacrilegious. The ‘blue’ is really a misnomer as the subtle detail of the Iznik tiles renders the mosque more a light blue-grey-white rather than the kind of shimmering blue hue we expect of a pacific island.
The mosque is at its most beautiful and magical at dusk, subtly lit and a shimmering contrast against a dramatic early evening sky. It’s well worth hanging around an extra hour to experience the moment.
The Iznik tiles (all 20,000) that adorn the mosque. Also, the view of the Domes – a cascade of domes and semi domes that make a striking sight when viewed from the courtyard.
This is an optional detour but well worth the short walk from the Blue Mosque considering the area’s historical significance. Although there is little left of the chariot racing arena that held 100,000 spectators, you can still get a vivid idea of the magnitude and scale of the venue built by Emperor Constantine. There’s even the origins of the racing tracks that with a little imagination can conjure up scenes from Ben Hur. The area is now mainly a garden with an Egyptian Obelisk taking centre stage.
One grisly episode of the ancient arena’s history involved a brawl between rival chariot racers which developed into a bloody revolt. The tragic end resulted in the massacre of 30,000 people trapped in the Hippodrome.
Quick Transport to the Grand Bazaar: Trams from Sultanahmet run directly down Yeniceriler Caddesi to outside the Grand Bazaar.
THE GRAND BAZAAR
The sheer scale of the Grand Bazaar with its sixty six streets and four thousand shops means it isn’t so difficult to get lost in its warren of alleys strewn with goods and fancy wares that appear to almost tumble out of the walls. To explore what is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world would mean needing a homing device and half a day!
But for sightseers on the go keeping to a small northerly quarter near The New Mosque gives visitors a rich taste of the colourful streets and shop fronts without having to stray into the epicentre.
If any place encapsulates the spirit of Istanbul then it has to be here in the Grand Bazaar with all its exotic sights and smells. It’s a visual and olfactory assault on the senses. The Spice Gallery built in 1600 is the number one destination which despite its name sells much more than spices. This is also the perfect place to enjoy a tea or coffee and watch the bustling, noisy world go by. The Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi is one of the oldest coffee shops and a great atmospheric place to drink Turkish coffee or even buy some and take away.
Be prepared for a degree of pestering by stall holders selling their wares in the Grand Bazaar itself. It’s all part of the atmosphere and haggling over prices is customary. Enjoy it. Although take note, once a price is agreed you must stick to it. As someone who intensely dislikes unrelenting approaches by trinket sellers, here in Istanbul and mainly in the Grand Bazaar, I found it tolerable and at times amusing. Maybe it’s the presence of the Bazaar’s police that keeps excessive hassling at bay?
If you are on the look-out for some good deals over gold and centre then head towards Ic Bedesten located at the centre of the maze. This is where most of the more precious and expensive goods are stored.
As this is on your way up to cross the Galata Bridge, it is worth taking a peek inside this beautiful mosque completed in the 17th Century which dominates the Eminonu waterfront (where you can board boats for the Bosphorus) and is notable for the fact it was commissioned by Safiye, the mother of Sultan Mehmet IV at a time when women from the harem became powerful. Similarly to The Blue Mosque it is decorated in beautiful blue and floral Iznik tiles. Its position at the southern end of Galata Bridge makes it one the most stunning to photograph, taking in the waterfront as a backdrop
A short stroll from the New Mosque is Galata Bridge which will take you into the bustling European quarter of Beyoglu north of the Golden Horn harbour. Built in 1992 the bridge which has a raffish charm actually opens in the middle to allow access for tall ships. Peppered with weather faced fishermen on the bridge this is one of the best vantage points to take in breathtaking views of the complex geography of the city and the stunning minaret spattered skyline. The bridge straddles the Golden Horn river valley flowing down from the west and looks towards the busy Bosphorus in the east. Underground it’s an Aladdin’s tunnel of cheap trinkets, souvenirs, battery operated toys and fake designer clothing.
Once over to the north side of Galata Bridge, depending on how much time you wish to spend by the waterfront, a quick way to get to bustling Beyoglu is to take the Funicular at the bottom end (Karakoy) which travels up the hill to Tunel Square which is the gateway to Beyoglu’s heart of shopping and cafe society and offers Istanbul’s largest pedestrianized street Istiklal Caddesi.
This is the heart of the European quarter of the city, a home for many of the city’s foreign residents and in many ways represents a bygone era of Victorian and early twentieth century travellers to the city. The Galata area, dominated by its iconic tower became the main destination for a cosmopolitan mix of Jews, Greeks and Arabs who settled in communities here from the 16th Century.
Imagine a more raffish and colourful Champs-Elysees peppered with up market and low rent stores, cafes and restaurants and you get an idea of the bustling circus that is Istiklal Caddesi which is also lined with 19th century apartment blocks, vintage and modern architecture, European Embassy buildings and fashion houses. This busy, noisy and bustling main street where you can buy anything from furs to watches is to Istanbul what Oxford Street is to London.
If you’re feeling a tad jaded on your pins by now you can always take an old fashioned tram down the full length of Istikali Caddesi to Taksim Square at the furthest point. It’s great fun, although usually packed but a great way of seeing the full length of the street. But equally it’s a pleasant and stimulating walk and one where you’ll be spoilt for choice to have dinner or a traditional snack or Meze (selection of appetizers) from a multitude of restaurants, fast food joints and cafes.
Pera Palace Hotel
If you really want to spoil yourself and experience a moment surrounded by sumptuous elegance then head for the famous Pera Palace Hotel (1892) just off the main street, where the likes of Agatha Christie, Greta Garbo, Jackie Onassis and Josephine Baker have sipped cocktails under its ornate chandeliers that haven’t changed since the establishment catered for travellers on the Orient Express.
The Whirling Dervishes
Walking back down towards Tunel Square you’ll find just a short distance across from the underground station Mevlevi Lodge, a small museum in an oasis of tranquillity set in an ornate garden. It’s here on an octagonal wooden dance-floor that visitors can experience the mesmerising Whirling Dervishes the most famous sect of Sufis, performing the ‘sema’ – a whirling, trance like dance that has captured the imagination of millions throughout the world.
Note that the performances usually take place on Sundays at 3pm.
Only a stroll away (south) from Mevlevi Lodge is the most recognizable feature and popular meeting point Galata Tower. At 190ft high this 6th Century tower which at one stage had been turned into a prison, offers stunning views of the city, the Golden Horn and beyond. It also has a restaurant on the ninth floor and so provides an excellent relaxing pit stop before embarking on the last leg of the itinerary.
The official Bosphorus ferry run by Istanbul Sea Bus Company sets off from Eminonu Port at the base of Galata Bridge offering spectacular views of the harbour and in particular the iconic Suleymaniye Mosque.
The all round trip to the upper Bosphorus and back stops at six piers on the way giving passengers the choice to get off and explore palaces and villages. Visitors can return to port back by boat or take the bus or taxi. There are also pre-arranged boat tours and for those that fancy a more personal service you can book small boats from the port. Average all round trip is about 2hrs.
Alternatively if you fancied a different kind of excursion then the quiet Princes Islands (situated on the sea of Marmara) have both history and beaches on offer. Out of high summer these are relaxing respites to the bustle and hustle of Istanbul’s central hot spots but be warned that in summer (July, August) this is where many locals escape to.
A 35mins trip by Sea Bus (note Sea Bus rides are more expensive but twice as fast as Ferry services) will take you to one of the most popular and traffic-free islands – Buyukada, the largest, where one can jump on a pretty horse-drawn carriage and explore the central area or pop down to one of many secluded sandy beaches for a spot of sunbathing and dining by the sea. During my brief time on the island I hiked to the lovely Monastery of St George in the heart of the island and also discovered Leon Trotsky’s now derelict home of residence where he wrote History of the Russian Revolution.
Four of the nine Princes Islands are accessible by sea bus and ferry from Istanbul’s Adalar ferry terminal in Kabatas.
Pera Palas Hotel
Visits to Agatha Christie’s room by request only. Tel (0212) 251 45 60
Mevlevi Lodge – Whirling Dervishes. 3pm performances. Address Galip Dede Cad 15, Beyoglu.
Recommended Eating Venues
Cafe Sark Kahvesi
Havuzulu Lokanta (restaurant)
Ferries & Sea Bus services
Boat trips for The Bosphorus can be boarded at Eminonu Pier.
The Istanbulkart – the smartest and quickest way of getting around the city on public transport including municipal and some private buses, trains, sea ferries, the Metro and trams. This ‘top up’ smart card can be purchased for a refundable 10TL from kiosks around the city, including the Grand Bazaar and at ports.
Some customs and things to know
10% of women in Istanbul cover their arms, legs and heads. Be aware of entering religious areas and not adhering to an acceptable dress code. When visiting mosques dress appropriately.
Turks drink alcohol in moderation. Drunkenness will be frowned upon and could lead to problems with the law.