My journey to Israel started with a layover in Istanbul. I’ve never been to the Turkish capital and decided to use the opportunity of a connecting flight to plug that gap on my travel résumé, if only a little.
A 9-hour interval from the arrival of the incoming flight to the departure of the outbound one gives you under five hours to explore the central Istanbul. That is about enough for “scratching the surface” type of a tour, visiting several key attractions around the core of the city, and taking a few fairly commonplace photographic shots.
Starting with this iconic shot of Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Square.
And the opposite view from roughly the same spot, featuring the Blue Mosque (whose proper name is Sultan Ahmet Mosque).
In my honest opinion, the exterior of the Blue Mosque, constructed in early 17th century, provides a far superior visual gratification than its interior. Nonetheless, here are a few interior details.
Assisted by my excellent local guide, I was able to enter Hagia Sophia as one of the very first people at the opening time, and for a few brief moments had the grand monument nearly to myself.
Construction of Hagia Sophia started in 360 AD and its principal structure was completed about 180 years later. For the following 900 years it served as an Orthodox cathedral and then for nearly 500 years as a mosque. For close to a millennia it was the largest cathedral in the world. It is just incredible on every possible level. The mosaics and other interior decorations are in various stages of restoration need – and some are being restored at present. They are still brilliant and gorgeous in many instances, well worth the time and money invested to see them.
My next stop was Cisterna Basilica, a 6th-century subterranean cistern in the vicinity of Hagia Sophia. Its water reservoirs are currently empty due to wide-ranging restoration efforts, which I was told greatly affects its overall ambiance. It is still a fairly unique and interesting monument.
Among the odd decorative features here are the “upside” Medusa Heads. It is unclear whether this was done on purpose to mitigate the potential petrifaction effects of looking at Medusa or simply because nobody cared about the stones’ positions when they were brought to the Cistern to be used as column supports.
There are tons of places in Istanbul to get an elevated perspective over the city, including a non-trivial number of rooftop cafés in the town center that each can offer a cup of coffee or tea with a sweet or two in addition to the great view. Here is Hagia Sophia again.
And the Blue Mosque again.
And another historic church that happens to be older than Saint Sophia, Hagia Irene.
In Eminönü district, the multi-dome Madrasah building of the Suleymaniye complex makes up the foreground, while in the background the Asian part of the city across the Bosphorus Strait can be seen.
Galata Bridge connects two sides of the European part of Istanbul, the “proper” imperial core of the city and the districts where historically non-Muslims lived and worked.
The current incarnation of the bridge is the fifth on this spot and quite young at just 25 years of age. The Asian side is in the background again, and you can see in the back on the left one of the modern bridges spanning Bosphorus to the north of the city.
A few fragments of Nuruosmaniye Mosque, dating to the 18th century, architecturally remarkable for being as Baroque as a mosque can be.
One of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar.
Grand Bazaar, one of the first covered “malls” in the world, derives its history from the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century. I had been reasonably prepared and yet was still surprised to find this city within the city, big enough so that you can get lost in there and yet with main “streets” wide enough so that you do not feel crowded all the time. It could all have been a factor of Saturday morning not being an exceedingly busy time at the market – seemingly everything was open for business and the people tending their shops visibly outnumbered the potential customers, belying the statistics of over quarter of a million visitors on a daily basis.
The colorful inventory repeated every few doors along the major lines of spices, sweets, tableware, carpets, and assorted souvenirs.
Another impressive grand mosque is Suleymaniye, inaugurated in the middle of the 16th century, which enjoys a commanding position over city, seen here from Galata Bridge.
Suleymaniye had an advantage of not undergoing any restoration during my visit. The stately and serene interior is literally unblemished.
The mausoleum of Mimar Sinan, the 16th-century chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, responsible for erecting many structures in Istanbul (and indirectly, through his apprentices, for such famous places as the Blue Mosque, or the Taj Mahal, or the Old Bridge in Mostar).
Suleymaniye Mosque is Sinan’s most famous accomplishment, which is why his mausoleum stands near the entrance to the mosque.
I have to admit that aside from the grand edifices, the streets of Istanbul failed to make a significant impression on me. I allow that this is mainly due to the brevity of my visit, with my guide taking the most direct route from one major point of interest to another without any attempt to show me the quainter side of Istanbul, if such exists. I have practically no passable snapshots away from the major sights as the result. Maybe this one, of decorations above a stairway passage leading from Suleymaniye heights down to the waterfront area.
A corner of the square of Kalçin Sokak, with yet another mosque, 16th-century Rustem Pasha, providing a visual highlight.
A few shots of the Egyptian Market (aka, the Spice Market) – a two-street smaller version of the Grand Bazaar. Here, around midday, it felt pretty crowded.
Waterfront of the Galata district, with its most prominent feature, the Galata Tower, as seen from the Galata Bridge. If not for the scarcity of good visuals, I might have found additional opportunities to use the same name in a single sentence.
Also seen from Galata Bridge is the New Mosque, so called not because it is newer than others but because its construction in the second half of the 17th century replaced an incomplete mosque that had been abandoned about 60 years earlier.
And let’s send another glance towards Suleymaniye Mosque.
I obviously did not come anywhere near getting to know Istanbul on par with other great European capitals. I suspect that two or even three full days must be the absolute minimum to achieve that. The WH inscription talks about the historical importance of the city and the place where East met West, and lists by name many different monuments in the city; just covering all of those looks like a task for more than one full day.
A couple of notes on logistics for anyone who intends to use a layover in Istanbul similar to mine.
The new Istanbul airport is located much further out of the city than the old Ataturk Airport was – the ride between the airport and the city takes no less than 40 minutes and can last over an hour, depending on traffic. The airport itself is humongous and may require non-trivial amount of walking between its central entry/exit areas and the gates. Therefore, the earliest reasonable time you can get to the city center after landing is within about an hour and a half. And you need to consider starting your trip back from the city center no later than two and a half hours before your scheduled departure time. In other words, roughly four hours of any layover had to be given to the airport getting to and from logistics.
If your time in the city is short and you want to visit paid attractions – such as Hagia Sophia or Basilica Cisterna – then having a licensed guide in your employ saves you the time of standing in lines (in addition to the obvious benefits of guidance and narration during your tour). The guide will also arrange for your airport transfer to and from the city, which helps with the peace of mind. If you’d like a guide recommendation, feel free to reach out.