Visit the city that straddles Europe and Asia and where the sightseeing is endless. Memories of your Istanbul vacation will last a lifetime.
When I reflect on Istanbul after having visited the city several times, I have come to the conclusion that, as many others probably have, it is a mixture of old and new that somehow meld together seamlessly. Of course, many old cities have their traditional and contemporary aspects but the two, most times are clear cut. In Istanbul, they intertwine and complement each other.
It helps to understand the layout of the city before venturing out. First, there are the European and Asian sections separated by the Bosphorus – a wide stretch of water through which boats and ferries ply their way. The European side will be where you will spend almost your entire time as it holds most of the major attractions. Then, there are two distinct geographic parts to the European side which are separated by a narrower stretch of water known as the Golden Horn.
Sultanahmet is the name of the district which contains a number of must visits for any Istanbul vacation. Start off in the green area which is known as the Hippodrome. On one side, you will find the Hagia Sofia and on the other, the Blue Mosque. I understand the word hippo in Greek means horse and therefore, the Hippodrome was where one would have watched chariot races etc. The principal adornment in this park like place is the Serpent Column.
The Hagia Sophia’s claim to fame is that it has been a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. Also known as the Aya Sophia it was built as a Greek Orthodox church in the 6th Century AD, and used to contain many treasures such as mosaics and frescoes on its walls. Then in the 15th Century, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque and the walls of the church were plastered over hiding the artwork. In 1935, the mosque was converted into a museum.
My first visit there disturbed me to see most of the plaster on the walls intact but a little restoration had been done and the treasures beneath the plaster were beginning to be revealed. Today, the work to remove all the plaster and restore the mosaics and frescoes has progressed slowly but is not complete. To see the best ones, you have to go to the gallery and pay an entrance fee. Take a look at the impressive dome on top of the Hagia Sophia. It was so heavy when built that it collapsed several times and had to be propped up.
Almost next door is the Blue Mosque. Take the time to look at its beautiful exterior. Majestic and splendid are two descriptive words that come to mind. This enormous mosque was built in the early 1600’s and was designed to be one of the largest anywhere with its 5 domes and 6 minarets. It is called the Blue Mosque because the upper part of the interior has 20,000 blue tiles adorning the ceiling. Like all mosques the centre is empty of adornment but the walls and ceiling are where the attractions lie.
The Basilica Cistern is located close to the Hagia Sophia. It is an underground complex built in 532 AD and is the largest enduring one in Istanbul. It was used as a storage area for water during the days of the Byzantine Emperors. It eventually went into disused and was rediscovered in 1545. Today, it is a tourist attraction containing many marble columns and is well worth a visit.
A short few minutes’ walk from here is the Topkapi Palace. It is impossible not to be impressed with this vast complex. Originally built in 1478 and inhabited by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire for around 400 years, it contained as many as 4000 people at its height. So, in reality, it is a city within a city (compare to the Imperial Palace in Beijing). It became a “museum” in 1922. You approach the palace from the south and enter through the Imperial Gate. The palace consists of 4 courtyards or divisions. Immediately you enter, you will encounter a peaceful atmosphere (the other visitors hopefully will not spoil the experience and are surrounded by gardens and lawns.
The second courtyard is where you will find the palace’s museums and displays. These include collections of arms and weapons, Chinese, Japanese and European porcelain, copper and gold plated kitchen utensils, silverware, portraits and paintings. All these are incorporated in a number of small buildings. The third courtyard contains the original living quarters of the sultans. Three places stand out in my mind. One is the Audience Chamber, a room which you can only look into from outside through glass windows. Inside is a male person sitting cross-legged on the floor reciting from the Koran which is relayed outside. This goes on non-stop 24 hours every day and when the Koran is completed, they start again. I hasten to add the readers are relieved after a certain period of time.
Another room is the Harem which in its heyday contained 300 concubines looked after by 200 eunuchs. Today, just empty rooms so you have to use your imagination. The third is the Imperial Treasury with its bejeweled priceless objects. Finally the fourth courtyard overlooks the city, the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The views from the restaurant on the promontory high above the Golden Horn are where you will obtain the best perspective. You can stroll around the attractive Tulip Garden in this courtyard. All this takes time but it is time well spent, and believe, me visiting the palace must be included as part of any Istanbul vacation.
The Grand Bazaar is where you will possibly do your shopping. I have heard that prices are higher here than in stores elsewhere in Istanbul. I personally didn’t particularly find it so and you can bargain. And you will not find a greater variety and selection of merchandise than in the Grand Bazaar. Let me quote from the Grand Bazaar’s own words, “The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world with 60 streets and 5,000 shops, and attracts between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily”.
Now you have an idea of its size. Take time to look for whatever it is you are wanting to purchase or if just window shopping, enjoy a stroll around, stop at one of the many cafes and savour the atmosphere. Most of the merchandise is sectionalized so if it’s carpets you are looking for, then go to the carpet section. If you want to pay less, take a look at the stalls outside the main bazaar as being a little off-centre, the prices are more reasonable. I personally purchased two ornamental rugs on one occasion and was satisfied with the service, the quality and the price.
The Suleiman Mosque can be seen from the other side of the Golden horn. It tends to dominate the skyline and rightly so. Situated on one of the seven hills of Istanbul, it is the most fascinating and beautiful mosque in the city. But don’t just view it from a distance. Set in its own walled gardens, you can both stroll around the mosque admiring the workmanship that went into this building and also go inside. Built in the mid 1500’s, it is in a great state of preservation. The street adjacent to the entrance to the mosque has a number of pleasant outdoor cafes and restaurants. If you go to the far end of the street, there is an outdoor café set in a sunken garden which is located below the roadside.
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