Going to Turkey is like heading to the centre of the world.
One of the country’s unique features is that it is a transcontinental country; it straddles two continents- Western Asia, and Southeast Europe. As you would imagine, this sort of geographical anomaly has been fortuitous for Turkey on one end as they have positioned themselves as the bridge between these two very different worlds. This has resulted in an extraordinary heritage of mixed cultures, lucrative trade and a remarkable history.
However, on the other hand, their enviable position has also resulted in this country being dragged into the throes of many political power struggles throughout the ages.
It is in Turkey’s largest city-Istanbul, where this juxtaposition has been clearly played out. Said to be one of the most influential cities in the history of the world, Istanbul was the capital city of three powerful Empires: Eastern Roman-Constantinople, Byzantine and Ottoman. Each left behind their distinct legacy on this ancient city.
With so much to take in, experience, see and learn in Istanbul I wanted to put together a post that would make the labyrinth of this amazing city that much easier to navigate.
Firstly, to put things into perspective, there are over 15 million people living in Istanbul-making it the 4th most populated city in the world. The city is also very spread out- it sits on two continents and while parts are very pedestrian, some of the city is not. Additionally, the traffic can be insane especially on Fridays.
One of the best ways to get around and beat the gridlock is with the city train; it’s easy, efficient and fast. Due to the sheer size of Istanbul and the congestion, I strongly recommend that you use the services of a professional guide. Having someone who knows the ins-and-outs of a city like this is vital to your time, energy and sanity.
Now, here is my list of the most extraordinary places to visit and things to do when travelling to Istanbul.
1. Hagia Sophia
Once you enter into Istanbul’s old city, The Hagia Sophia is one of its most prominent monuments. Built in the 6th century, today Hagia Sophia is an important museum and time capsule of the rich and dramatic history of this city. Originally constructed as a Greek Orthodox church, it stands as the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years. Once Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman it was later converted to an Ottoman imperial mosque. This majestic building was a powerful pawn and once regimes shifted, so did its use.
2. Grand Bazaar
Istanbul or formerly Constantinople was once the capital city of the Roman Empire. Legendary for its wealth and influence, the cities used its strategic location to create a trading bridge with the East. While Istanbul today is far removed from this period of opulence, if you wish to have a sneak peek of what it must have been like to stroll through the city’s lavish and exotic markets; the Grand Bazaar is where you need to be. Still one of the largest and oldest covered bazaars in the world, there are over 5,000 shops, spanning 60 streets. It’s jokingly referred to as a city in a city, chances are you will find what you are looking for here.
3. Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is Istanbul’s most famous site, and a visit to the city would not be complete without entering its beautiful grounds. It is popularly called, the “Blue Mosque,” because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of its interior, but lovingly referred to as the “jewel of Istanbul,” for its splendour. The design is said to be the culmination of two centuries of Ottoman mosque development. Today, it is still a functioning mosque and while visitors are welcomed, all rules must be respected.
4. Basilica Cistern
As a traveller sometimes you end up in the most unusual places. Believe me when I say this was one of them. Located beneath Istanbul’s old city is an underground water cistern. Built in the 4th century, it was the major water reservoir of Constantinople-the Roman capital. Called the Basilica Cistern it was designed to service the Great Palace and surrounding buildings. This subterranean reservoir was able to store up to 80,000 cu metres of water delivered via 20km of aqueducts. The ceiling is supported by 336 columns and two stone Medusa heads curiously placed in the far corner of the cistern.
5. Topkapi Palace Museum
Between the 15th and 19th century the Topkapi Palace used to be the residence of the Ottoman sultans. This sprawling palace was shared with the mother of the Sultan, his concubines, wives and children. That being said, by far the most intriguing section of the grand place that I visited, was the Harem. The Harem, literally means “forbidden” in Arabic. Entrance here was restricted to only a select few, as it was heavily guarded. The Harem Topkapi Palace has 300 rooms, 9 Turkish Baths, 2 Mosques, pavilions, beautiful gardens and a hospital. However, in 1923 at the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi Palace became a museum and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is no longer restricted.
6. Dolmabahçe Palace
This palace is one of the most opulent in the world, and was the residence of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. It was built in the 19th century and houses gilded treasures including the world’s largest crystal chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria of England. Sadly, visitors can’t take photos inside the palace or the harem, nevertheless the surrounding gardens and beautiful gates facing the Bosphorus Strait make for beautiful photo opportunities.
7. Spice Market
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is well, grand, but believe me when I say hold on to your liras because the spice market is the place in which I purposely choose to lose myself. This was definitely one of the highlights of my visit. Entering the spice market you’re greeted my mounds of colourful spices, trays of specially blended teas and the aromatic smell of dried fruits and flowers. Honey, nuts, rolls of jewel-coloured Turkish delights, coffee, olives, even herbal remedies and essentials oils are all there. The list of spices and sensory products is endless. I am also happy to report that I didn’t find the vendors overly pushy or aggressive. Instead, they were accommodating and welcoming.
Besides the many historical sites, a visit to Istanbul will not be complete without a full cultural immersion. The vibrancy of the city comes from its warm and energetic people; not to mention, its diverse culture and rich traditions. A great place to start your Turkish master class is with their food.
As an ancient trade hub, ingredients and flavours from around the world have made their way into Turkish cuisine. Food is everywhere in Istanbul, the most famous being the Turkish kebabs and the most popular is the Simit-similar to a bagel or pretzel, this round bread is covered in sesame seeds can be found in simit carts on nearly every corner!
Here city streets are overflowing with never-ending lines of restaurants sitting side by side and pictured menus are placed in your hands by beckoning waiters as you walk past. To properly cover Turkish food would take an entire feature or two. If you are a travelling foodie, then Istanbul is the city for you. On a side, if you happen to be vegetarian or vegan Turkish food is heavily meat-based, so you may want to do a bit more research.
For many, Turkey is seen as the cradle of civilization; the seat of the Greek, Roman and Ottoman Empires. The birthplace of Saint Paul and Homer and the last home of the Virgin Mary. Its prominent place in the history of the world is secure. Toda,y however, Turkey doesn’t only straddle different continents, it has also become a bridge between history, tradition, and modernity.
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