A Traveler’s Guide to Istanbul: The Best of Asia and Europe

istanbul-city

Sufi whirling is a unique tradition in Turkey and the figurines could be seen everywhere in Turkey – it is also a great souvenir, they come with ceramic, copper, and many other materials. There are also candles shaped like a dance, and they twirl when the candle is lit.

Istanbul is a charming existence in Eurasia straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia. The transcontinental metropolis (basically the only one in the world) has a population of 15 million and a profound history. The city area is divided by the Bosphorus Strait so taking a boat trip towards the Black Sea is an experience of “Europe on the left and Asia on the right”:).

The Asian Side (a.k.a. The Eastern half of the city), connects to Turkey’s mainland in Asia with a lot of expensive mansions on the waterfront overlooking the harbor. Yet, the majority of the historical sightseeing spots are located on the European side of the city. The city’s biggest attraction is its historic center at the Golden Horn, with a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the well-known Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum, and Topkapi Palace. This area was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Unless you are staying in Istanbul for more than 5 days, or you are visiting Istanbul for the second time, most of the amazements happen in the western half of the city.

Something about Istanbul

istanbul-taksim-3The story of Istanbul begins during the time of Byzantium through the Ottoman Empire, where it is strategically located as one of the main hubs on the historic Silk Road, connecting the European and Asian worlds. It is also an important passage being the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The rather frequent Turkey terror attacks (like bombing) linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Kurdish militant groups in the last two years may have raised tourists’ concerns about visiting the city; I visited Istanbul a few years back and enjoyed a lot the magnificent cathedrals, mosque, palace and breathtaking views of the harbor.

Turkey has such a unique geographic location and long history, through Hittites, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – it also has a very diverse heritage which can be seen in different ruins and heritages. Check out Turkish Delight: Amazing Heritage Sites for more about Greek and Roman architecture. Here in Istanbul, you will find historic buildings in the Seljuk, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods.

Over 12 million foreign visitors come to Istanbul in 2015, five years after it’s named the European Capital of Culture in 2010. That year, Istanbul is the world’s 5th most popular tourist destination.

Sightseeing cruise

The Galata Tower was originally constructed in the 6th century, and again, destroyed by fire in 1348. This is a great location to climb up the 195 stairs and enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Besides, the Galata Kule Restoran is a fabulous restaurant that you should make a reservation to eat there. Something that you may not know: a Turkish jumped out of the tower with gliding wings in 1632, and successfully landed on the Uskudar, the Asian side.

The major landmarks of Istanbul are located closely in the heritage site of Istanbul, including Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahçe Palace, and Galata Tower – a tower that offers panoramic views of Istanbul’s old town, and could be seen in many spots in the city; But, if you want to have an overview of the city, a sightseeing cruise is a good way to view the scenery from afar. After we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge and returned to Istanbul from Turkey’s mainland after our trip, we boarded the cruise immediately we were on our way towards the Black Sea. The cruise travels north through the trait before returning to the same spot.

Do you know? Bosphorus means “throat” in Turkish – in fact, they share the same word, and it represents life, happiness, and fortune to the locals. This is a 32-kilometer long strait and a very important passage that separates Asian and European continents.

The Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side is probably the most eye-catching structure from the water; Built in 1843 and located in the Beşiktaş district, the palace was served as an administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. It is the largest palace in Turkey. The palace has an area of 45,000 square meters, with 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 bathrooms, and 68 toilets. Wait until you see the inside of the building, it’s extravagant, and it contains eclectic Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical elements, mixed with traditional Ottoman architecture. The style reflects how the ancient Ottoman Empire was influenced by different cultures, owing to its unique location on the world map.

Like the Ceremonial Hall in the Palace, showcasing a chandelier that was given by Queen Victoria, the Crystal Staircase was decorated with Baccarat crystal banisters, and the Sultan’s Hamam was decorated with Egyptian alabaster (so it’s white).

We saw many extravagant mansions (mainly on the Asian Side) of the harbor as well.

Hagia Sophia Museum

Sultan’s Lodge is a dedicated prayer room for Sultan. It was shielded by wooden screen and marble fences – yet it has the view of the entire interior space in the hall.

It should be the most famous and well-known architecture in the city. The Byzantine-style building has gone quite a transformation over the last 1400 years. Originally an Orthodox church, then a Roman Catholic church, and later a mosque, and now, it was secularized and converted into a museum. (Yet most of the people I know still recognize this place as a “church” and call it a cathedral). It was built by the Byzantine emperor and it stood as the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years until the completion of Seville Cathedral in Spain.

Do you know? Hagia Sophia has been the principal mosque of Istanbul for 500 years, and it was converted into a museum in 1935. The Christian ornate mosaics were covered over the centuries as it changes from a church to a mosque. A large number of mosaics were uncovered by the research teams after it became a museum. That’s why the building is so unique as it housed both Christian and Islamic religious elements on such a large scale in one place (and in Byzantine-style). 

The Ottoman Medallions are inscribed in Arabic the names of the Muslim important figures: Allah and Muhammad; the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali; and Muhammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein. Each Medallion has a radius of 7.5 meters – the largest in the Islamic world.

The building has undergone years of restorations – precious, but fragile frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics have remained for modern-day visitor’s eyes. the Emperor Door, the Omphalion (circular marble slabs), the Dome, the Sultan’s Lodge, the Weeping Column are not to miss!

As ancient as the structure is sounded, sadly the building was destroyed and rebuilt over 8 times, and nothing we see today is quite the original that it was supposed to be 1,400 years ago. It was suffered from a fire in 532, and after it was rebuilt from its ashes, it was suffered severe damages from a number of earthquakes after the fire. Not to mention that this religious landmark has been ransacked and desecrated by invaders during the wars, namely the 4th crusade and then the Invasion of Constantinople in 1481.

Do you know? Hagia Sophia was once the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years until the Seville Cathedral overtakes the title when it was completed in 1520.

There are a number of Gold Foil Art in the museum: The Christ with Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe.

It’s quite overwhelming as we entered the museum seeing the immense height of the hall, plus the number of artworks and frescoes that remained. Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at My Top 12 Cathedral in Europe (2)!

The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) is kind of like a twin building of Hagia Sophia with giant domes and minarets, facing each other, in two distinctive theme colors that dominate Istanbul’s skyline. Since our flight arrived so early in the morning, we were outside Sultanahmet Square and waited before the museum opened.

Ritual washing before prayer in a mosque.

Despite the “similarity”, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was, in fact, a thousand years younger than the Hagia Sophia, completing in the year 1616. The architecture still functions as a place of worship today, with prayers kneeling on the red carpet during the call to prayer every day. Not only the exterior of the building was painted with shades of blues on its domes, but also the interior was adorned with delicate hand-painted blue tiles. The mosque was also the resting place of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed the First, with ablution facilities lining up at the entrance of the prayer hall. It was the first mosque (a rather important one) that I visited and it was special.

Sultan Ahmet, I initiated the project at his age of 19, and the finished product is considered an architectural masterpiece of Turkish architect Sinan and his student Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa. The Blue Mosque took only about 7 years to build, and Sultan died one year after it was completed at the age of 27.

Do you know? The Blue Mosque has six minarets, around one giant dome, and eight smaller domes, which is impressive and unique because mosques traditionally have one, two, or four (Like Hagia Sophia, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, Taj Mahal in India, they all have four minarets, except Masjid al-Haram in Mecca has nine, and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina has ten.) Rumor has it, that it could be a misunderstanding when the sultan instructed the architect to build gold (altin) minarets, and it was mistaken as six (alti) minarets.

While it’s not difficult to spot shades of blue from the exterior of the mosque, its name most likely came from the striking 20,000 blue tiles inside the ceiling of the mosque, featuring patterns of flowers, trees, and abstract patterns of Iznik design in the 16th century.

Basilica Cistern

It is located right across Hagia Sophia Museum, and it is an important structure that many tourists may miss. There are over 30 cisterns (water storage) in Istanbul during the Byzantine period, and this one is the largest and the most well-preserved. This is called a “Basilica”, featuring 336 marble columns, with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes of water. However, two of the most unique columns are the Hen’s Eye column (spooky tear patterns, dedicated to the hundreds of slaves who sacrificed during the constructions), and the inverted and sideways Medusa columns.
Do you know? Basilica Cistern was featured in Hollywood’s blockbuster Inferno, another adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel. I am not going to spoil the plot here, but I am a huge fan – check out my trips in Rome and Florence which I named some of the other locations that were also featured in Professor Langdon’s adventure as well.

Topkapi Palace Museum

Another important historic spot in the area was the Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman Sultan’s royal residence located on a hill overlooking the entire Istanbul city. It was a Turkish version of Versailles.

Walking through the Gate of Salutation, we entered the world of Sultan in the past times.

Check out the beautiful Imperial Hall at the Harem which you will see extravagant decorations in each room and beautiful Iznik pottery, or Iznik ware – a decorated ceramic that was produced from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century.

‘Sultan’ is a Muslim Sovereign and the architecture style remained me a lot of the palace that I have seen in Malaysia and Indonesia, where these countries also have a huge Muslim community and had a strong Muslim influence. The museum showcases also exquisite jewelry, gems, and costumes from the last time. Walked through the ornate rooms and manicured gardens and temples, the Fourth Court and the Kiosks was where the imperial families reside and I was blown away by the view of the Bosphorus Strait with the Maiden’s Tower in the middle of the ocean and the Istanbul city center with the Galata Tower poking out from the old buildings.

We sat down at the terrace café and had some coffee and snack, looking at the view that never gets old.

Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi)

istanbul-grand-bazzar-1It is one of the biggest Grand Bazaars, and often referred to as one of the first “shopping malls” in the world. We took some time in the maze and bought gifts and souvenirs for my friends back home, and then we decided to get closer to the real Istanbul – so we grabbed the little time that we have left in the city and took the modern tram and reached the busiest shopping street in Istanbul – the İstiklal Avenue. The GrandBazaar has over 4,000 shops, cafes, restaurants, post offices, exchange offices, and even bathhouses. Some of the shops sell similar souvenirs, but if you look closely, you will find some unique products that suit your taste.

The Arasta Bazaar is Istanbul’s only historic market that is open. It was established in the 17th century and it was known for its beautiful carpets. Half the Bazaar was burned down in 1912, and it was renovated in the 1980s. Now it has shops that sell jewelry, leather goods, handicrafts, textiles, and pottery. This is another great place to explore as it’s less crowded than the Grand Bazaar, adding a little more chill.

Istanbul nostalgic tramways

The city has a modern tramway that connects everywhere but it’s great that the heritage tram line is still functioning today. There are two separate nostalgic tramways in Istanbul, one on each side of the city. The 1.6km European side tram line runs along the famous İstiklal Avenue from Taksim to Tünel in a 20-minutes interval. Therefore it’s a convenient way to travel up and down the avenue or go back to the starting point after walking through the entire avenue – because it’s quite difficult to actually locate the stops on the avenue except for the terminus.

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