Istanbul has been the centre of territorial conquest and geopolitical friction since the very beginning of its existence. It was known as Constantinople during the Roman Empire. Then, the city served as the capital for three more empires: the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. Bridging the gap between East and West, the celebrated Silk Road trickled across Turkey, allowing merchants and traders to exchange not only commercial goods, but cultural trade as well. Today, Istanbul is an extremely dynamic city with delightful surprises at every turn.
To start off your journey, consider taking a stroll around Sultanahmet District. A grand fountain can be found in the middle of the square, which illuminates as different colours during the evening. Specialty shops featuring handmade carpets and lamps border the expanse pedestrian walkway. You will find vendors selling grilled corn for 50 British pence, fluffy cotton candy, and a variety of toys such as spinning tops or stencils. Within walking distance, two powerful monuments face each other: Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
Hagia Sophia was originally constructed as a cathedral, but was then turned into an imperial mosque during 1453 when Ottoman Turks conquered the capital. Mosaics portraying Jesus, Mother Mary, and angels were removed or plastered over as Islamic symbols took their place. The interior of Hagia Sophia is breath-taking, and is one of the only monuments where visitors can mount different levels. It is now considered a museum, and therefore charges a fee of approximately 8 British pounds for an adult ticket.
On the other hand, all mosques in Istanbul are free and permit entry for believers and nonbelievers. . A strict dress code must be obeyed where women cover their heads with scarves and wear long trousers or dresses that conceal the legs. Men follow the same code in regards to trousers. If you are not deemed appropriate to enter, a volunteer will give you a shawl or skirt that you should return at the end of your visit.
In designing a mosque, the number of minarets indicates who constructed the holy centre and how important it is. The Blue Mosque has six minarets while the Süleymaniye Mosque has four. Even though the architectural majesty of these two mosques is astounding and definitely worth a visit, I recommend checking out Little Hagia Sophia and Rüstem Pasha Mosque.
Both Little Hagia Sophia and Rüstem Pasha Mosque only have one minaret, but they are perhaps the most essential visits in Istanbul. What adds to the riveting aspect of these two smaller mosques is that they are less frequented. With hardly anyone around, you almost have the entire place of worship to yourself. Little Hagia Sophia’s charming design is partly due to the fact that there are no low chandeliers like there are most mosques. This frees up space and gives you the chance to view the spectacular ornamented ceilings without the dangling strings that hoist up lights.
Located near the Spice Bazaar, Rüstem Pasha Mosque is the true “blue” mosque in the sense that all the decorated tiles in the monument are various nuances of blue. A myriad of floral and geometrical designs will leave you spellbound.
After a trip to Rüstem Pasha, work your way to the Spice Bazaar and open your eyes and nose for a sensory adventure. There are rows and rows of vendors selling everything from handmade Turkish Delights of honey and pistachio to earthy spices of saffron and paprika. Try tasting the rich variety of nuts and sweet dried figs.
The Grand Bazaar is another shopping experience, but this time focuses on a variety of goods such as belly dancing costumes, jewellery, shoes, handbags, toys, trinkets, and board games. The marketplace is massive and all shops may look the same, but take the time to get lost in the commerce jungle and you may just stumble on a gem. Practice your haggling skills!
When it comes to dining in Istanbul, most of the restaurants feature the same menu of grilled meat, Turkish dishes, and typical Western fare. It’s important to know which eateries serve quality food, and which ones are just touristic traps. On Akbiyik Caddesi in the Sultanahmet District, there are hostels, great restaurants, and shisha bars that are very warm and inviting to travellers. On this street, Siva Café Restaurant reigns as one of the best restaurants for its superb service and delectable dishes. The kind host speaks perfect English and makes you feel at home. Taste the chicken casserole or any of the grilled fish.
For a half-day excursion, journey to the principal residence of the Ottoman Sultans: Topkapi Palace. The Imperial Treasury room of the palace showcases candlesticks made of 100 bars of gold and the famous Topkapi dagger, decorated with three large emeralds.
The most coveted section of the palace is the harem. Devoted to the Sultan’s 300 concubines, the harem is extraordinary in its refined decoration. It instantly transports you to the peak of Ottoman lavishness. Imagination and fantasy are the only tools available in visualizing this opulent, and even grim, lifestyle where the Sultan was almighty and the girls mere slaves.
Possibly one of the most overlooked tourist attractions is the Bosphorous Boat Tour. Study your boat cruise options before making a decision, and be careful about private companies that charge double the price than local tours. A 30-minute cruise is recommended and allows you to see an entirely different side of Istanbul you wouldn’t be able to cover by foot.
Looking to decompress and be treated like royalty? Take the affordable, complete bath service at Cagaloglu Hamam, where experienced assistants will exfoliate your body and offer soothing massages. This is the legendary Turkish bath where photographers Mert and Marcus photographed Kate Moss for W Magazine. If you want a five-star hamam experience, check out Ayasofya Hamam.
A great way to end your journey is at the rooftop restaurant of Hamdi Restaurant. Serving deliciously fresh kebab and Ottoman dishes, Hamdi truly provides one of the most spectacular views of the Golden Horn. Feast on the traditional döner kebab, or any kebab on skewers.
Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, is transcontinental and lies both in Europe and Asia. This world centre paints a colourful mosaic of multiple civilizations and cultures. Are you ready to explore one of the earth’s most remarkable cities?
Words & Photography / Sheri Chiu
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