What to do in Istanbul
“Istanbul was Constantinople, now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople” The wonderful tones from The Four Lads will be the song that inspires you as you get to discover this city.
Istanbul is a magical city, nesting on 2 Continents with the Bosphorus River dividing Europe and Asia. It has been a hot spot to be at since 660BC, so good they renamed it 3 times from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul. It has been a seat of power for the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire, the Latin Empire, the Ottoman Empire and finally the Republic of Turkey. It has been Orthodox, Christian and Islamic City.
It was in the middle of the Silk Road connecting Europe to Asia as well as being the port that connected the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea which made it a city of wealth. It is now considered the European Capital of Culture as it brings its mixed history, multiculturalism from 2 continents and a mix of the Western world and the Islamic World together.
A fun fact is the Tulip originally came from Turkey not the Netherlands, as you begin to witness that the city has weaved Tulip art all around, from tiles to garden fences. Also a fruit you will see everywhere is the Pomegranate, even better it is in beautiful jewellery than you can not wait to drape around you.
It is a step back in time and I couldn’t get enough. If I had lived 100 years ago I would have loved to travel from London all the way down to Istanbul on the Orient Express. It is truly a wonderful unique and beautiful city that is a must visit in Europe.
What to see-
Let’s start our tour of Istanbul in the heart of it all at. Right in the middle of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is a place many just walk by, it is the perfect place to pause at. There is stone work remains from an arch that is known as Milion. This arch was once guarded by the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena, what makes it so important was that is was the place that measured distances to all corners of the Roman Empire. From here we will mark our path travelling through Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque is what you think of when you think of Istanbul as you see it upon the horizon. It is not a sight to miss out on when visiting, every inch of it is grand and covered in wonderful traditional Turkish motif tiles. Sultanahmet Camii as it is called by the locals was built in 1609, it has 5 main domes, 6 minarets and 8 secondary domes taking inspiration from its sister Hagia Sophia who is across the way. You will be overwhelmed by the walls and ceilings covered in painted tiles in the İznik style from 50 different tulips to fruit and cypresses. From top to bottom the Mosque is covered in stained glass, giant chandeliers and warming carpets for the worshippers to pray on.
When visiting the Blue Mosque remember to dress appropriately from covering your legs and arms as well as taking off your shoes as you explore the Mosque and for the ladies to wear a head scarf. The Mosque is closed for 60 minutes during the prayer times which are 5 times a day but you will not be confused when those times are as the whole city will be called to prayer from their local Mosque. Entrance to the Mosque is on the hippodrome.
You will be spinning like a Whirling Dervish to admire all that is surrounding you.
The Hippodrome in Istanbul has been around since the city was called Byzantium, it was used as the Circus where the people of the city would come to watch Horse and Chariot Races, it was the centre of social life. The Hippodrome could hold 100,000 spectators, including a place for the Emperor to perch. The Emperor’s box once had 4 gilded horses above which you now can find in Venice as they sit on top of Basilica di San Marco after they were pinched during the Fourth Crusade.
Nowadays the Hippodrome is home to 4 wonders to see;
Walled Obelisk was built in the 10th Century and was once covered in bronze, nowadays it looks like a massive brick Jenga wondering how is it still standing.
The Serpentine Column that is an Ancient Bronze Column that was moved from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Serpent’s heads that once topped it were destroyed in 1700 but the last surviving head remains in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.
Obelisk of Thutmose III was brought from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor and placed in the middle of the Circus. For a monument that is 3,500 years old it in great condition, you will be in amazement.
The Fountain of Kaiser Wilhelm II was made to celebrate the anniversary of the Kaiser’s visit to Istanbul in 1898. The fountain has a stunning gold ceiling all edged with vivid motifs.
Hagia Sophia is over 1000 years old and what a long history it has had. It was first a Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral then a Roman Catholic Cathedral then it later became a Ottoman Imperial Mosque but lucky for us it was so beautiful it has only had a few changes since its conception. We are able to see the Mosaic work from the Kings and Queens of the Byzantine Empire, Viking Graffiti, how Crucifixes have been changed for a Mosque, the weeping column which is said to heal and how it has developed into this breath taking Museum that we get to admire today.
Hagia Sophia was build by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it was the seat of power for the Byzantine Empire displaying its importance through its Architecture and Art, you can clearly see why is was the setting for ceremonies such as coronations. The Architecture in this Cathedral was the inspiration for many Ottoman Mosques during the Ottoman Empire.
During the Fourth Crusade the church was ransacked and desecrated which left the Church is a poor state until the Fall of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire. The city was renamed Istanbul and the church was converted into a Mosque which is much of what you see today. It is one of the most important buildings you need to see in your life time. It is incredible, so make sure you take your time to soak up the beauty and history of Hagia Sophia.
Underneath the street of Istanbul is Basilica Cistern. Basilica Cistern is the largest cistern out of the hundreds in Istanbul that were built by Emperor Constantine. The cistern was a way for holding the water for the Palace of Constantinople, Topkapi Palace and was still used in the early 20th Century. Today we get to visit this wonder; it is filled with a forest of 336 columns all carved in the Corinthian style. Inside the Cistern there are a few special columns to discover; at the far end there are 2 big columns with the head of Medusa, one sits upside down and the other resting on her side. Another unique column to discover is the Hen’s Eye Column that is carved with eyes and tears. It is an incredible place to discover in Istanbul with all the fish that are swimming beneath your feet.
The Topkapi Palace was once the main residences of the Ottoman Sultans from the 15th Century to the mid 19th Century when the Sultan moved to the Dolmabahce Palace on the Bosphorus River. The Palace is a labyrinth of courtyards and rooms where you will be able to visit the Imperial treasury, library, mint, the kitchens, the Throne room, the Sultans Bedrooms and living quarters. A place not to miss is the Harem, which is where Female family members lived. The Harem was my favourite part of the Palace as it is ornately covered in rich Turkish blues and red painted tiles with golden edges.
When visiting the Palace you will be able to see Ottoman clothing, weapons, armour, relics, manuscripts and so much more. It is a wonderful opportunity to explore life in the Ottoman Empire. When visiting the Palace try to get there early enough as it gets busy fast.
When at the Topkapi Palace make sure you pop into the Archaeology Museum that has artifacts such as the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, relics from the Temple of Zeus, part of the Gate of Babylon and so many treasures from the Ottoman Empire, there is a little bit for everyone to see.
By the entrance to the park that leads to the Topkapi Palace is the church of Hagia Irene, it is one of the few churches that was never made into a mosque. It is large and raw showing what lies underneath the walls making it a wonderful place to visit to witness the juxtaposition.
The Grand Bazaar
No visit to Istanbul is complete without visiting the Grand Bazaar and boy does it live up to its name. Full of treasures from jewellery to spices to shoes, carpets, teas, lanterns and so much traditional clothing. It is one of the largest and oldest markets in the world, it was shortly built after the Ottoman’s came into Istanbul which became a place that was for the trade of textiles and jewels. Today you can spend hours wandering the 66 streets that are an Aladdin’s Cave.
When shopping in the Bazaar it is all about bargaining and doing it with a smile. I personally like to walk around first and watch how they conduct business and see the prices between a few different shops as you will find the same things repeated. Most of the shop keepers speak English making it easy to bargain but because you are a tourist they will try and take advance but if you make sure you seem to know what you are doing, are stern about how much you are willing to pay they will know you mean business and will be willing to work on your terms. It helps if you know the currency conversion in your mind which will allow you to say “Well no, at home I can get something like this at that shop for this much”. If they become to aggressive it is better to walk away as it is not worth your time.
Don’t get angry or show too much interest. Don’t name your final price straight away. Take time to bargain. Work together to get a good price that benefits both parties.
During our trip there we bought Turkish slippers, Iznik printed scarfs, little Turkish painted bowls and so much jewellery that we had to go back for a second time as we were getting such great bargains on all these treasures. It is so much fun to walk around and explore, seeing all the beautiful shiny treats.
The Grand Bazaar is opened each day except Sundays and bank holidays from 9:00am to 7.00pm.
The Arasta Bazaar was once part of the Blue Mosque as it is nested underneath. Today it is full of wonderful treasures from Jewellery, to statues, carpets and Turkish Delight. We spend many a time there and bought alot of delicious Turkish Delight at least once a day and jewellery. This Bazaar is a bit more expense than the Grand Bazaar but it has quality products. It has delightful tiled and evil eyes fused into the stone work around it so keep an eye out for these little delights.
The Spice Market is located near the base of the Galata Bridge, it makes for strolling around such a feast for the senses. There are the riches spices in vivid colours that offer incredible smells, dried fruits of all kinds, teas from the far reaches of Turkey and Turkish Delight. It is worth visiting trying hard not to let your senses overcome you.
The Kariye Museum also known as the Chora Church is a bit further afield from the centre of Istanbul but worth the exploration. It takes around 40 minutes with the trams taking the T1 & 28/87. The Chora Church is a Byzantine Church that offers some of the oldest and best surviving Byzantine Mosaics and Frescoes. It is actually hard to describe the beauty of it, you just have to trust me but the best description I can give you is that there are 3 different parts of the church.
As you enter the church you are met with a corridor that is covered in mosaics that decorate the story of the Life of Jesus from Birth of Christ to the Journey of the Magi to the Three Miracles. A room full of Mosaics of the Apostles. Mosaics showcasing the life of the Virgin Mary. Another room filled with Frescoes of Angels. The whole church is topped off with a dome with Christ in the middle surrounded by Kings, Angels and Apostles. This doesn’t do it justice but gives you a small clip of some of the beauty you will witness. You will just need to pause to take it all in and be thankful there is such an incredible Byzantine Church left in the world.
Galata is on the north side of Istanbul and it is a a cool place to stroll around in. To reach the neighbourhood you need to cross the Galata Bridge which is the main bridge that crosses the Golden Horn. You will find many fisherman perched on the edge fishing for the freshest food. You can either walk over the bridge or grab a tram over to the vibrant neighbourhood of Galata.
When you get to the base of Galata it is best to grab the Funicular up to the top of the hill. It is a great wander down the cobbled paths that are covered in great street art, artist shops, delicious cafes, the freshest oranges and pomegranates, it has really embraced a bohemian lifestyle which I adore. It has been home to Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities since the Ottoman Rule. We loved walking around enjoying the atmosphere and popping into many cafes and bar to keep warm and enjoying all the food & drinks they had to offer.
In the middle of the Galata Neighbourhood is the Galata Tower. The Galata Tower was once the tallest building in Istanbul which still offers breathtaking panoramic views of Istanbul. You can either walk up the winding staircase or grab a lift at the top to catch the views while having a bite to eat at the cafe atop.
Whirling Dervish Show
When in Istanbul you will want to experience all there is to do from visiting the sights, eating the local cuisine and most importantly grabbing a show to see the traditional dance with Whirling Dervish. The dance for the Whirling Dervish comes from the members of the Mevlevi Order. The dance as we know it, is known as the Sema Ceremony which represents a spiritual journey turning towards God and Truth. The Whirling Dervish (Semazen) wears a Camel Felted Hat that represents a tombstone and the White Skirt is the death shroud, when he takes of his Black Cloak he is spiritually born to the truth. The Semazen will stand with his arm crossed while waiting his turn to testify to God’s unity. The Semazen when whirling has his arms open with his right hand up towards the sky for God and his left hand towards the ground to the earth as is a gift from God.
It is a majestic performance to witness in your life time. There are many places to experience a Whirling Dervish Show but the best setting is in the Galata Mevlevi Museum which has been used by the Semazen since the 1400s. The Sema Ceremony is performed every Sunday at 5pm during Summer and every other week during the Winter Months, it is best to check for tickets beforehand.
Dolmabahce Palace was the last Palace of the Sultan’s in the Ottoman Empire. Located on the Bosphorus River its architecture is full of Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassic styles are all blended with Ottoman Architecture which is the perfect marriage of life in Istanbul as it joined Europe and Asia. It is unbelievably ornate with each room being another feast for your eyes, you will be blown away with the views.
The Palace is open every day apart from Monday and Thursday from 9am to 4pm. It is best reached from the centre of Istanbul using the T1 tram to the last stop of Kabatas then walk 10 minutes to the Palace.
When in Istanbul why not spend the evening on the Bosphorus River doing a cheesy little cruise is a must do as it takes you across into another continent. It is a wonderful thing to say you are straddling two continents. For our experience we went on a 4 hour cruise in the evening that included a traditional Turkish Meal and performers from Belly Dancing to Folk Dances from areas all over Turkey and a Whirling Dervish. There was even a point where everyone got into a Belly Dancing Competition and I actually won which is really flattering as I was the only European there. It is a fun way to experience the night lights of the Bosphorus. Most cruises will either pick you up from your hotel or from a meet point in the centre of town.
If that doesn’t interest you, why not grab a ferry or a cruise during the day. There are many on offer that you can find out about from your hotel or online.
If you really want to embrace your cultural experience in Istanbul, treating yourself to a Hammam is a must. A hammam begins with sipping Turkish tea in a warm steam room which allows you to work up a sweat opening up your skin, then it is followed by being bathed as your assistant exfoliates your skin. Once the skin has been cleaned your assistant will scrub you to really cleanse your body which will leave you tingling. All of this is finished off with a long deep massage in a private room which will leave you incredibly relaxed.
During our experience in a Hammam, we were lucky to visit the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hammam which is right in the middle of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. They offer the opportunity to have a full hammam experience to a wash and massage experience. It is a beautiful place to discover as you are led to the Female or Male section of the building, where you will be full immersed into the Turkish Hammam experience.
The best way to get around Istanbul is with the Istanbul Museum Pass. It includes everything I have shared with you. It is easily purchased from one of the many booths dotting around the city such as in the square between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque or online. It cost £22 and will last up to 5 days.
Where to Stay-
There are so many places to stay in Istanbul that are perfect for everyone but on our trip we found the most fantastic Hotel right in the centre of Sultanahmet which has great views of the Blue Mosque and even better views from the roof top terrace. Blue House Hotel was a wonderful stay; It is easy to reach the major sights by foot, the rooms were comfortable with great breakfast every day and the staff were incredibly kind and were so helpful for us. I highly recommend them.
What to Eat-
When in Istanbul you must try everything that is typical Turkish. I normally like to ask locals what their favourite restaurants are, as they know the unique and local taste. Some of the food you should be tasting is rich strong Turkish Coffee, Apple Turkish Teas, Turkish Delight sold by the slab, Baklava draping in Honey, try warm Turkish Bread straight from the oven and kebabs in every flavour.
We found some great little spots to eat at such as Mesale Restaurant & Cafe right underneath the Blue Mosque, where you could lounge in their courtyard with a Shisha and try a tapas of Turkish Cuisine, including watching a Whirling Dervish performance. Our second favourite place was Barbeku House down near Hagia Sophia which offered a family style cuisine with their Aunties making bread in the window. It is really hard not to find a delicious place to eat in Istanbul.
I hope that this blog inspires you to experience life on the edge of Europe and embrace this wonderful Turkish lifestyle Istanbul has to offer, it has really inspired me to go back as soon as possible to see what else I can discover in Istanbul. I look forward to seeing Istanbul in a different light, when we visited it was approaching New Years Eve, we were able to watch the fireworks across the Bosphorus River from our rooftop hotel and Snow, so much snow making the Blue Mosque incredible to view from our window. We were incredibly lucky to see the city like this as it was the first snow in 5 years. Istanbul is really a place of magic and wonder.