Istanbul has been working its way up to the top of my “dream list” for quite a while. And now, thanks to Turkish Airlines, I was actually here in Istanbul with six days to explore one of the world’s great cities and its top sights. And I was roaring to go!
Istanbul is a fascinating city where East meets West. In fact, the city straddles both the European and Asia Minor continents with the Bosphorus strait as the dividing line. Istanbul has been at the crossroads of many great cultures and empires including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Ottoman sultans before becoming an independent Turkish republic in 1923.
I was joining an Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) 2-week tour of the highlights of Turkey in September 2015, along with two good friends. The tour started in Istanbul but we arrived four days early, because I knew much more time was needed to explore this magnificent city, which always receives rave reviews from travelers. So, armed with the excellent Rick Steves’ Istanbul guidebook, we three set off to explore Istanbul on our own.
The Turkish people are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you’ll ever meet. Turkey is a secular, moderate Muslim country with the vast majority of Turks identifying themselves as Muslims. With its many beautiful mosques and the five times a day calls to prayer that ring out all over the city, Istanbul offers a wonderful introduction for us western visitors who might be unfamiliar with Islam and its practices.
In this post, I will share highlights from my wonderful travels in Istanbul (all of Turkey was great!), along with travel tips for planning your own visit here. I am starting with five “must see” sights – all located within Istanbul’s historic old city. (The first two are described below, the last three continue on Part 2).
I named these top sights the “Big 5” of Istanbul, in a cheeky reference to Africa’s “Big 5” (for safari animal viewing) which, of course, is wildly unrelated. Strong Istanbul runner-ups include the beautiful Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Topkapi Palace (former residential palace of the great sultans), and the Chora Church with impressive Byzantine mosaics.
Here’s My “Big 5” of Istanbul’s Historic Old City:
- Blue Mosque
- Hagia Sophia
- Basilica Cistern
- Grand Bazaar
- Spice Market
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii)
This gorgeous “working” mosque, built by the Ottoman Sultan Ahmet in 1616, is named for the rich blue color of the ceramic tiles inside. It was built on a grand scale, along with six elegant towering minarets to rival the mosque in Mecca. The mosque is open to visitors, except during the five daily prayer services. Visitors pass through a special entrance where you can borrow a blue wrap, like I did, to make sure your head (women only), knees and shoulders are covered.
I was dazzled by the architecture, scale and beauty of the interior with its lavishly decorated walls, giant pillars, domes, cupolas, and 260 stained glass windows. Since Islamic tradition forbids the portrayal of living beings in places of worship (quite unlike the Christians!), the Muslim world excelled at non-figurative art such as geometric designs, flowers and beautiful Arabic calligraphy.
I happily joined the mass of tourist humanity (from all around the world) as we stood shoe-less behind the wood railing, snapping photos of the massive main hall reserved for male worshippers (women had private areas behind us). Some of the men seemed to be “hanging out” with friends while others were doing their prayers, facing southeast to Mecca. Make sure to notice the low hanging chandeliers with their multitude of shimmering white lights which add to this unforgettable scene.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
The amazing Hagia Sophia has been called the greatest house of worship in the Christian and Muslim worlds. Built by the Byzantine Emperor in 537AD, it served as the “eastern Vatican” for the next 900 years. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, they converted it into an imperial mosque, blending architectural elements of both religions.
Hagia Sophia was converted into a “museum” in the early days (1930s) of the Turkish republic. Today, along with the Blue Mosque, it is a most deserved top draw for Istanbul travelers. Just make sure to plan your visit around cruise ship tours. The day we went, there were four ships in port with very long lines. So, we headed off to the Grand Bazaar, and came back later when we could just walk in.
Hagia Sophia is considered the single greatest architectural feat of the Byzantine Empire and, once you’re inside, you can see why! The huge nave, designed as a classic basilica, is covered by a vast central dome. We were told that you could fit Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral under the dome.
In addition to touring the main floor, make sure to head to the “Upper Galleries” on the 2nd level, which is a must-see. From here, you can enjoy great views back down to the nave where you get a real sense of Hagia Sophia’s massive scale. Don’t miss the chance to admire the beautiful, glittering Byzantine mosaics close-up and the eight huge medallions inscribed with artful Arabic calligraphy.
Post continued on “Big 5” Top Sights of Istanbul’s Historic Old City – Part 2
Comments: Have you visited Istanbul? Did you love it as much as I did? I imagine you’re also dismayed to see all the violence taking place in Turkey right now, which really hurts the Turkish people by a dramatic drop in tourism that they so depend upon.