Turkey – IstanbulBack to Story

Istanbul - Europe's Cultural Capital 2010

Istanbul is making the most of being named Europe’s Cultural Capital for 2010.  I would definitely agree with reports I read saying that Istanbul has not seen a slowing in tourism but it has obviously seen a boom.  The historic centre now has prices that compare to those of other European capitals. It is a pleasant change, however, to visit a city that is progressive and optimistic.

Sultanahmet Area

Sultanahmet is the historical heart of the city and contains all the headline sights you have probably heard of – including the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. This area can be walked around in no problem but it is a little hilly, the streets uneven and doesn’t do it justice to do it in a day.

Firstly a word of quiet warning about people approaching you in this area.  This will particularly happen if you are not in a tour group – asking questions about where you’re from with the sole intent of diverting you to their carpet shop.  Personally I didn’t have much of a problem with them – a stern no thanks usually sends them off in pursuit of others.

Before I explain one of the biggest drawcards in my mind I want to express my frustration with what I saw from my fellow travellers and beg you not to repeat their actions.  Mosques are places of worship and quite frankly as a non Muslim it is a unique opportunity to enter them. So abide by the rules! Women should wear headscarves – it is common courtesy. Take your shoes off when they say and don’t put them on until you have passed over the clearance matt. Finally if you are asked not to use flash on sensitive artwork then don’t. I know this sounds like things that would never happen but you wouldn’t believe how often it does.

Sultanahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque)

So look through the tours behaving badly and carpet salesmen and go to Sultan Ahmet Cami or otherwise known as the Blue Mosque. It is just off the Hippodrome, which is today a pleasant pedestrian strip with some significant monuments in their own right. But you will be too excited to look at any of that because the Blue Mosque towers above all else and draws your eyes immediately.  It took 8 years to build and was finished in 1617 by Sultan Ahmet 1 who was determined to outbuild the Aya Sofya, which is a short walk away and also amazing.

Tourists enter a different entrance and have restricted access.  You can see all of the interior but don’t have access to where they pray. The outside courtyards give you many different perspectives of this fine building. You can see the followers washing their feet before entrance into the mosque.  There are touts all around this area so beware. You will almost certainly be approached if you are not part of a tour group.  Most of them will go away if you say you’re not interested but anyone who approaches you will almost surely have a carpet store nearby they want you to come to.

Aya Sofya

The Aya Sofya is just across the road effectively and is now a museum but the older of the two churches and a fine example of its architecture.  Be here early because it doesn’t take long for the queue to expand beyond patience levels. Well mine anyway.  Another tip is that there are two queues – one for groups and one for individuals. When you are over 100 metres away it is hard to tell which quue you’re in so be sure to check.

There are two things I really enjoyed here.  The first will be obvious as soon as you walk in the door.  It is the central room. Even with the scaffolding all over the alter it is very impressive.  The domes loom large over your head and the golden paintwork is beautiful.  If it wasn’t for the calligraphy which is on large billboard-like structures you would think you were in a Catholic Church.  In fact until 1453 the building was an orthodox church.  This great building then became a mosque until 1934 when it was secularised and made into a museum the following year.

The dome is considered the founder of Byzantine architecture and was the largest cathedral in the world for 1000 years.  It is amazing to look up from the inside and think that this amazing structure was built in 537. There have been a few adjustments to the dome as the original collapsed in an early earthquake. The treasures of this grand cathedral were unfortunately looted in 1453 following a siege. It was during its life as a mosque that many of the original mosaics were covered up.

So this is the second most interesting part of the building. On the mezzanine floor you can see the original works as they have been restored.  The restoration began in 1935 when the building became a museum but there is a lot of work going on today as part of the 2010 funding. The Deesis Mosaic is one of my favourites and is thought to date back to the 13th Century.

In the 16th Century the mausoleum Selim II was built at the western end of the building. In the next century two more mausoleums were added next to them. These are accessed through a separate entrance but well worth visiting for their interesting domes and colourful tiles.

Topkapi Palace

Almost in a straight line is the Topkapi Palace which is now also a museum.  Even if you are not one to go to museums this palace is interesting to look around in it’s own right. Especially when you consider it was home to the Ottoman Sultans during their reigning period from 1465 to 1856. During the 17th Century they began to prefer using their new palaces on the Bosphorus. In 1924 it was made into a museum.  Pay a little extra and go into the Harem which is where the Sultans housed their women – mothers, wives, and concubines and children.  This took 400 rooms apparently.  This gives a small insight into what the life of the sultan may have been like.

There are good views out across the Bosphorus from the edge of the palace grounds. You can stop for lunch here but it won’t be the food that you’re stopping for. It is very much a cafeteria style and seems to be where all the tour groups hang out.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a stroll through the streets from here. If you need a coffee or maybe even lunch stop try Rumeli Café or to be honest any of the cafés in the immediate area. I also tried next door which was good value and good quality food.  There are also interesting mosques to drop in and see on the way.  In my case I found myself in Gazi Atik Ali Pasa Mosque ,which was beautiful and because it was a little off the beaten track there were no tourists and an opportunity for quiet enjoyment.

The Grand Bazaar is truly grand. I couldn’t help but take a photo of the buses lined up outside in the car park. It was an indicator of the crowds to come. However they soon spread out over the vast area. There seems to be a everything for sale here – you are unlikely to find a bargain but you’ll have fun trying! If that’s not enough shopping for you walk down the hill to the Spice Markets. The Yeni Camii Mosque is also well worth taking a walk around.

Balat, Fener and Galata

The suburbs of Balat and Fener are also well worth a walk around if you have a few extra days in Istanbul.  They are an insight into the old Istanbul and in fact I am told that a Turkish academic describes the suburbs as Old Jerusalem.  There are plenty of little shops and interesting things to explore.

Another great spot for a café or glass of wine is across the bridge at the base of the subway in Galata. The House Café is in a little back street to the left of the main pedestrian street and is a great spot for a glass or wine or food. Any of the cafes and bars in this area look good though so be sure to chose you own. This is a good base to walk up the main pedestrian shopping street which resembles any across the globe.  As you near the top if you can stop off any of the side streets to the right and explore the antique selling area. There are also some good cafes and bars to explore for when your feet hurt.

As for staying I agree with the general advice that if you only have a few days it is probably best to stay in the old part of town. However that is also dependent on your budget as it is very expensive. You will find prices that rival any European capital. I stayed at a boutique hotel just over from the Blue Mosque called Hotel Ibrihim Pasha . It is very centrally located and the team were very friendly and helpful.

Travel photographs from Istanbul\'s mosques including Aya Sofya and The Blue Mosque. Streets of Istanbul including Balat, the Spice Markets and the Grand Bazaar.

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