“If the whole world were one country, Constantinople would be its capital.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
Istanbul, where east literally meets west. One of the only cities in the world that lies on 2 continents, it embraces both Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorous Strait. Originally given the name Byzantium, then by the more renown Constantinople (many thanks to They Might Be Giants), it was the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, AND Ottoman empires with a history stretching back to 5500 BCE!
Renamed Istanbul in the 1920’s, it is today a top destination for historians and urbanites alike – a melting pot of different cultures and a harmonious balance between antiquity and modernity.
Mike and I stopped for a few days on our way to Africa earlier this year. So as you can see, we were not properly dressed for the cold. Well, maybe we look warmer than we were 🙂 With only 2.5 days, here are my recommended sites to see in the metropolis designated as the “2010 European Capital of Culture”.
The Essentials of Istanbul
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)
Built in the 17th century, this mosque is commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles adorning the walls of the interior. Besides a popular tourist attraction, it is also an active mosque and is closed to tourists during prayer times. Before entering the mosque, you must remove your shoes (plastic bags are provided for free) and women must wear head covering (you will be provided one for free, otherwise a basic scarf will do).
Lined with over 20,000 ceramic tiles, 200 stained glass windows, chandeliers and beautiful calligraphy verses from the Qur’an, the interior is surely worth a visit.
Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)
The Hagia Sofia, directly across from the Blue Mosque, is considered one of the most important Byzantine structures and a UNESCO heritage site. It was originally built in the 6th century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Over the centuries and through innumerable renovations, this historical edifice has served as a church and a mosque, and is now a museum.
Constructed in the 6th century, this ancient cistern once brought and stored drinking water to the city of Istanbul. This underground attraction is strangely peaceful and a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city above ground.
Dan Brown fans will be happy to know that you can enter and explore this venue, the apex from his novel Inferno. Let your imagination run wild, take in the detailing on the pillars of this Roman architecture, and don’t miss the upside-down Medusa’s head at the bottom of one of the columns.
This medieval stone tower, built in 1348, stands in the Golden Horn of Istanbul and provides a spectacular view of the city and the Bosphorous from its balcony. Though the tower itself is nothing remarkable, the view is and it’s worth the fee to go inside if you want a bird’s-eye view.
The Egyptian Spice Bazaar, built in the 1660s as part of the New Mosque, is a big tourist attraction today and sells everything from spices and nuts to lokum (Turkish delight “on a moonlit night”!), caviar, apple tea, Turkish cheese, silk and jewelry. Though we didn’t make any purchases here on our visit, the vivid colors and pungent smells are an experience of its own.
The Grand Bazaar in the heart of the Old City is one of the largest and oldest markets in the world and the center for trade during the Ottoman Empire. Today, it is a bustling hub for merchants, shoppers and tourists. It’s a place more for the experience than to actually shop, imho. If you decide to buy anything, make sure to negotiate beforehand, otherwise it can be a bit of a tourist trap. Also, a word of advice – watch your personal belongings as this place can get really crowded.
Treating Your Taste Buds
The food in Turkey is a big part of its culture and its heritage. Try something new or take a food tour! This was definitely a highlight of our trip. Eating is a favorite pastime so I guess it’s no surprise 🙂
Istanbul Eats does a fabulous job leading visitors on “an eating binge” across the city. This walking and eating adventure included over 8 stops and biting off more than you can chew, quite literally. From kokoreç to boza, baklava, doners, iskender, lokum and pit-roasted lamb, this tour indulged us in foods I already love and introduced us to foods I never would have tried.
If you don’t do a food/eating tour, opt for trying something new at one of the many vendors and restaurants instead. When it comes to food in Istanbul, the variety is limitless, even on a budget.