Coveted by empires across the centuries, straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the world’s great metropolises. Founded around 1000 BC, the colony of Byzantium grew into the Byzantine Empire’s great capital of Constantinople and after the Ottoman conquest of the city, retained its glorious place as the heart of their empire. The city (officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic) is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history ,and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument-weary visitor.
As well as the big four (Aya Sofya, Topkapı Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar) leave enough time to explore the many other sights. Although many tourist attractions are located in, or near, the old city district of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other tourist attractions throughout the further reaches of the city.
What is now called Asian Istanbul was probably inhabited by people as early as 3000 BC. Eventually, in the 7th century, Greek colonists led by King Byzas established the colony of Byzantium, the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. Byzas chose the spot after consulting an oracle of Delphi who told him to settle across from the “land of the blind ones.” Indeed, Byzas concluded, earlier settlers must have been deprived of their sight to have overlooked this superb location at the mouth of the Bosphorus strait. This proved an auspicious decision by Byzas, as history has shown Istanbul’s location important far beyond what these early Greek settlers might possibly have conceived. Byzas gave his name to the city: Byzantium.
In the early 100’s BC, it became part of the Roman Empire and in 306 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. From that point on, the city was known as Constantinople.
The mid 400’s AD was a time of enormous upheaval in the empire. Barbarians conquered the western Roman Empirewhile the Eastern, also called the Byzantine Empire, kept Constantinople as its capital. In 532 during the reign of Justinian I, antigovernment riots destroyed the city. It was rebuilt, and outstanding structures such as Hagia Sophiastand as monuments to the heights Byzantine culture reached.
The attribute that made the city so desirable, its incomparable location for trade and transport between three continents, was also its nemesis. For the next several hundred years Persians, Arabs, nomadic peoples, and members of the Fourth Crusade (who for a time governed the city) attacked Constantinople.
Finally, in 1453, when Constantinople was so weakened by almost constant invasions and battles, the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II were able to conquer the city. Renamed Istanbul, it became the third and last capital of the Ottoman Empire. It was the nerve center for military campaigns that were to enlarge the Ottoman Empire dramatically. By the mid 1500’s, Istanbul, with a population of almost half a million, was a major cultural, political, and commercial center. Ottoman rule continued until it was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies. When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 after the War of Independence, Kemal Ataturk moved the capital to the city of Ankara.
It’s often said that Istanbul is the meeting point of East and West, but visitors to this city built over the former capital of two great empires are likely to be just as impressed by the juxtaposition of old and new. Office towers creep up behind historic palaces, women in chic designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings, peddlers’ pushcarts vie with battered old Fiats and shiny BMWs for dominance of the noisy, narrow streets, and the Grand Bazaar competes with modern shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin’s call to prayer resounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs and bars.
Most visitors to this sprawling city of more than 14 million will first set foot in the relatively compact Old City, where the legacy of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires can be seen in monumental works of architecture like the brilliant Aya Sofya and the beautifully proportioned mosques built by the great architect Sinan. Though it would be easy to spend days, if not weeks, exploring the wealth of attractions in the historical peninsula, visitors should make sure also to venture elsewhere in order to experience the vibrancy of contemporary Istanbul. With a lively nightlife propelled by its young population and an exciting arts scene that’s increasingly on the international radar—thanks in part to its stint as the European Capital of Culture in 2010—Istanbul is truly a city that never sleeps. It’s also a place where visitors will feel welcome: Istanbul may be on the Bosphorus, but at heart it’s a Mediterranean city, whose friendly inhabitants are effusively social and eager to share what they love most about it.
What To See:
- The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque (Called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is an historical mosque in Istanbul. The mosque is known as the Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design.Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 years, during the rule of Ahmed I. just like many other mosques, it also comprises a tomb of the founder, a madrasa and a hospice.Besides still used as a mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has also become a popular tourist attraction in Istanbul.
Besides being tourist attraction, it’s also a active mosque, so it’s closed to non worshippers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers.
Best way to see great architecture of the Blue Mosque is to approach it from the Hippodrome. (West side of the mosque) As if you are non-Muslim visitor, you also have to use same direction to enter the Mosque.
- Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi) for almost four centuries was the residence of sultans who ruled the Ottoman empire from here.
The palace is not a single building but groups of pavilions built around four courtyards. The construction of Topkapi was started in 1462 by Mehmet the Conqueror. The next sultans expanded it to the size of a little town with mosques, libraries, stables, schools, treasury, office buildings and audience halls. At its height, the complex was inhabited by 4000 people.
The palace was the sultan’s residence till 1853, when Abdulmecid moved to a newly built Dolmahbahce Palace. In 1924, by the order of Attaturk, Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum.
Topkapi is one of the greates tourist attractions in Istanbul, so it is recommended to start sightseeing as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds.
The museum is open every day except Tuesdays between 9.00 a.m. and 5.00 p.m.
The entrance fee is 20 TL ( tickets to Harem must be bought separately just outside the entrance to this part)
The best thing to do is to visit Harem first, because later during the day the queues get longer and the number of visitors per day is restricted.
- Bosphorus Sunset
You don’t need to book an expensive cruise to enjoy one of Istanbul’s most romantic spectacle – the Bosphorus sunset. Around sunset, take one of the dozens of ferries to the Asian side (Uskudar and Kadikoy) from Eminonu or Karakoy on the European side and enjoy the Bosphorus sunset unfold before you – from pale orange, turning darker into flaming red, before darkness finally envelopes the horizon. Perhaps the most strategic location to watch and photograph the sunset would be from the back of the ferry boat where you have an unimpeded view of the Sultanahmet skyline.
Wear some warm clothes if it’s around autumn and winter – the sea breeze could get chilly.
- The Valens Aqueduct
The Valens Aqueduct (Bozdogan Kemeri) is a Roman aqueduct which was the major water-providing system of the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey). Completed by Roman Emperor Valens in the late 4th century AD, it was restored by several Ottoman Sultans and is one of the most important landmarks of the city.
The aqueduct stands in Istanbul, in the quarter of Fatih and spans the valley between the hills occupied today by the Istanbul University and the Fatih Mosque. The surviving section is 921 metres long, about 50 metres less than the original length. The Ataturk Bulvarı boulevard passes under its arches.
After the Fall of Constantinople (1453), Sultan Mehmet II repaired the whole water supply, which was then used to bring water to the imperial palaces of Eski Sarayi (the first palace, built on the third hill) and Topkapı Sarayi and connected it with a new line coming from the northeast. The great earthquake of 1509 destroyed the arches near the Mosque of Sehzade, which was erected some time later. This gave rise to the popular legend that they were cut, in order to allow a better view from the nearby mosque. The repairs to the water-supplying net continued under Beyazid II, who added a new line.
Around the middle of the 16th century, Suleyman I rebuilt arches 47 up to 51 (counted from the west) near the Sehzade Mosque, and commissioned the Imperial Architect Mimar Sinan to add two more lines, coming from the Forest of Belgrade (Belgrad Ormanı).
The increased flow allowed the distribution of water to the Kιrkcesme quarter, situated along the aqueduct on the Golden Horn side and so called after the many fountains built there under Suleyman.
- The Town of Uskudar
The town of Uskudar on the Asian side was the traditional gathering point for pilgrimages to Mecca, and it became the site of several famous mosques erected by powerful female members of the imperial family over the centuries – Iskele Mosque, Atik Valide Mosque, Yeni Valide Mosque and the “Tiled Mosque.” The Atik Valide Mosque is open only during prayer hours, which is not an appropriate time for sightseeing, however, a well connected guide can get you admitted by appointment at other times. This mosque was designed by Sinan, was built for Nur Banu, a Venetian and the first imperial wife and mother to rule the empire from the harem.
The Atik Valide is decorated with classic Iznik tiles, some of which were pried off the walls and ended up for sale at Sotheby’s in London. They were returned, but a few were destroyed during the theft.
In the arcaded courtyard behind the mosque there is an attractive ablutions fountain. The large tree next to the fountain has been packed with clay to keep it stable, but it was at one time used by a shoemaker for his shop.
The tomb of the sultan’s mother, Gulnus, at the mosque Yeni Valide, is roofless because she had asked to be buried where she would be “bathed by the rain.” Behind the Yeni Valide mosque a very old haman is being reconstructed, and a beautiful outside fountain that is part of it can be seen as one leaves the mosque via the courtyard.
Ferries connect Istanbul and Uskadar.
Where To Eat
- The Fish and Bread
Few enterprising fisherman had an idea: Why not cook the fish right on the boat and offer it for sale ready-to-eat?
They built grills and fryers right in their boats, built fires in them, grilled fish fillets, stuffed them in half a loaf of bread, and handed from the boat to thousands of hungry, thrifty Istanbullus every day.
Balik ekmek! Balik ekmek! They shouted. (Fish in bread! Fish in bread!)
Then came Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union, and such old-fashioned, romantic, but perhaps unsanitary practices were outlawed.
Istanbul’s newspapers were filled with requiems for the Galata Bridge fish sandwich, paeans to its flavor, nutritional value, cheapness, and tradition. A part of Istanbul’s age-old culture died.Or did it?
I’m happy to report that the Istanbul fish sandwich still continues !!!
Although the boats-with-fires-in-them are long gone, Istanbul fish sandwiches are still
being served daily at little restaurants beneath the Galata Bridge.
Just go to Eminönü, then to the western (Golden Horn) side of the bridge’s lower level, and you’ll find several small restaurants with low tables and chairs. Waiters will cajole you in with shouts of Buyrun! (“Come on in! Help yourself!”)
Sit at a table and a waiter will bring you balik-ekmek, a grilled fish fillet inserted in a half-loaf of bread along with a scoop of salata (lettuce, tomatoes and onions).
Order a drink—I recommend ayran, the yogurt drink—and enjoy. (No alcohol served.)
If you’re there in the evening, you’ll have a sunset view of the Golden Horn, and a good, cheap dinner: the bill may be less than YTL5 (about US$3) per person.
- Haci Abdullah
Haci Abdullah a half block northwest off Istiklal Caddesi at Sakizagaci Caddesi 17, is among the city’s famous old dining places. The ambience is bright and lively rather than quiet and dark, the Turkish food is delicious, but no alcoholic beverages are served. This is a great place for women traveling alone to dine undisturbed.Credit cards are accepted.
Deserving particular mention are Hunkarbegendi (pureed aubergines with lamb); Elbasan tava; Manisa kebabi; kuzu incikli patlican (aubergines with lamb); kuzu tandir (lamb cooked tandoori-style); kuzu dolmasi (stuffed lamb); and kuzu incik baglama (lamb ‘olives’ stuffed with aubergine and tomatoes). Haci Abdullah is famous for its fruit compotes, but also makes an excellent baked quince and dessert of bananas, cream and honey.
- Karakoy Gulluoglu
Do you know “baklava”? It is a traditional dessert of Turkish cuisine. It is made of walnut or pistachio between baked thin dough leaves and boiled water and sugar. Antep, a city in South Eastern part of Turkey, is very famous with its baklava production. There is a workshop there which sends baklava even to White House. Do not ask me the name of the place, coz I do not remember.
Let’s return to our main subject. This place I am trying to tell you about is a famous shop with its baklava production. The owner is from Antep, I think. There are two different Gulluoglu brand in Istanbul now. I heard that they had been separated because of the family matters. Karakoy Gulluoglu is only in two locations. One of them is a workshop near Tophane, the other and the popular one is under a multi storey parking lot near Karakoy port and Yeralti Camii (Underground Mosque).
The produce different kind of desserts with butter and serbet (boiled water with sugar). You can taste them in the shop. They have some tables in front of the shop, also a table in the shop. If you do not have the appetite at the time you see the shop, do not worry. They also sell desserts in packages.
- Borsa: Traditionnal Turkish
Borsa means ‘Stock Exchange’ and in fact the first Borsa Restaurant was near the Stock Exchange of Istanbul and was founded in 1927. It is a success story that lasts until our times, since the Borsa still serves traditional Turkish dishes and fills up with businessmen and politicians on week-days and with families on the week-ends.
It is a restaurant that can easily accommodate large parties. It has also a large veranda and a terrasse, with a commanding view, as the restaurant is on a hill overlooking the Bosphorus.