Istanbul, once so highly prized by emperors and envied by empires, is now divided into two parts – “the old city” of Istanbul previously known as Constantinople, and the new city lies across the Golden Horn.
If you love history, Istanbul is fascinating. The clashes between power, religion and the cultural differences are shown in the scars of historical buildings, magnificent architecture from different eras, and a mixture of monuments from pagan times unto the religion of the present day, Islam.
For those who live to enjoy the present, Istanbul is definitely more than just sightseeing. A walk down the street will yield colourful products vying for your attention, the tantalising smell of kebabs, as well as the visual and literal treat of Turkish Delights.
We’d like to see you resist temptations in the city of Istanbul, so here are our top 10 must-dos in the Turkish capital:
Check Out The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Built by Constantine the Great’s son in the 3rd century, this former Byzantine basilica was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Translated as Holy Wisdom from Greek, the Hagia Sophia transited from Christianity to Catholicism under the Latin Empire and then in 1453, it was turned into a mosque. In 1935, it was secularized under Atärturk and became as a museum.
Many mosques have copied the architectural design of the massive dome, so you might find Hagia Sophia’s dome familiar. The extensive work on Hagia Sophia has been extremely laborious as the structure has been the victim of wars and earthquakes, resulting reconstructions and additions to the original basilica.
Even if you don’t go for the history, go for the art; you’ll see Byzantine religious mosaics on the ceilings, Latin Christianity’s floor frescoes and marble figurines, and Islamic artefacts and monuments.
The entrance price might seem a little pricey at $16 per person, but we think it’s worth every penny to admire a (still) gorgeous 1, 600 year old building!
See The Blue Mosque
Named after the Izmir blue hued tiles that form the facade of the inner building of the mosque, the Blue Mosque was constructed by a Sultan who is known for his admiration and interest in the arts. Located just across the Hagia Sophia, the mosque lights up in radiant blue when sun rays shine through the windows and reflect onto the blue tiles. The Blue Mosque is also known to be the only mosque to have six minarets instead of the usual four.
Shop at The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and the largest covered ancient market in the world, erected by Sultan Mehmed II. There are 61 streets inside the Grand Bazaar with more than 3,000 shops selling all manner of Turkish goods and merchandise. It’s relatively easy to find the objects of your desire and compare prices as the same types of shops are clustered in the same area. For an example, if you’re looking for leather, all the leather shops will be hidden together in an alleyway.
Offering everything from glass to jewellery, Turkish herbs and spices to quality carpets, the Grand Bazaar is a one stop shop for souvenirs. However, it’s also known for steep prices, so we’ll forgive you if you just window shop and take in the beauty of the infrastructure alongside the mesmerising, colourful shops of many kinds.
Go to the Fatih Mosque
The Fatih Mosque is dedicated to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror (Fatïh). His successful campaign in defeating the Christian Greek Byzantines has led him to be revered by Muslims, for many believe that he was the blessed one whom the Islamic Prophet Muhammad had prophesied over concerning the conquest of Constantinople. Mehmed is interred along with his wife in a mausoleum in the courtyard of the mosque.
Visit Istanbul Archaeological Museum
On a par with the British Museum in London and the Berlin Museum for its important artefacts from the old pagan world, the Istanbul Archaeological Museum has a large collection of relics from the ancient civilisations throughout Turkey. It’s also famous for their collection of Islamic art. This is one world perfect for archaeological nerds.
Explore the Spice Bazaar
Named as the Egyptian Spice Bazaar because it was the main hub for the Egyptian spice traders, you can actually buy stuff at The Spice Bazaar as it has expanded and is somewhat cheaper than the Grand Bazaar. Products on offer range from ground coffee, tea and spices to toys, clothes, and souvenirs. Expect to be fascinated and crowded, but this is the place for shopaholics to get into a bargaining frenzy.
The Wall of Constantinople
The infamous, and reportedly impenetrable, Wall of Constantinople was built with a triple walled defence system and was known to be the best fortified defence wall in the world at that time. After 16 unsuccessful attempts, 22 year old Sultan Mehmed II finally broke through the walls on the 17th try at the end of the 53-day siege, thereby ending the Byzantine era.
The remnants of the original wall still stand to tell the story of the triumphant entrance of Sultan Mehmed II. There is a nearby museum named Fetih 1453, which paints a very vivid picture of the Fall of Constantinople. The re-enactment of the events is well worth the entrance fee of $5.
See the Valens Aqueduct
Not far from the Wall of Constantinople, you’ll see the longest Roman aqueduct ever discovered at 971m length and 50m in height. It was a major water supply system to the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire. It remains as one of the most important landmarks of the Roman Empire in Asia. The arched design of the aqueduct now stands pridefully over the busiest road of Istanbul.
Discover Turkey at Miniaturk
This is one of the least mentioned attractions because it’s not located within the main tourist areas. However, Miniaturk is a marvellous demonstration of the brilliancy of the Turkish mind. Here, they have, in miniature, all the famous places and structures of Turkey, and they’re on display in a park-like, geographical map of the country. So if you want to know more and haven’t yet planned your next adventure within this vast land, this miniature display will certainly help you out.
Topkapi Palace / Topkapi Sarâyi
Built by Mehmed II in the 1459, Topkapi was a major residential palace for many Ottoman sultans during the 400 year period of their reign. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, it has been transformed into a museum featuring many important Ottoman relics, including the relief of Muhammad’s cloak and sword. Strategically situated on the hill top overlooking the Asian side of Istanbul by the Marmara Sea, the palace has its own mosques, hospital, bakeries and a large outer palace garden.
Experience a Turkish Hammam
Turkish Hamam is known throughout the world for its sauna-like, sans massage, type of bath. There are some hammams in Istanbul that operates according to tradition, while many have adopted some modern features and facilities. However, there are folks running scams on overpriced hamam sessions, so do check the price of the type of hammam you want right from the start.
So where are your favourite spots in Istanbul? Let us know in the comments.