Istanbul

Istanbul – which in Turkish is spelled İstanbul (letter “I” marks a sound that does not really exist in English, while “İ” sounds exactly how you are used to pronouncing the vowel in the city name) – certainly belongs to the stratum of the great European capitals. It has plenty of grand edifices, magnificent perspectives, as well as thousands of years of history.
Istanbul
Every visitor to Istanbul will find themselves at least once in the Sultanahmet area where the most well-known monuments are located. It is the main component of Istanbul’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydanı) ♥♥  bookended by two grand mosques is one of the most photographed areas in all of Istanbul. Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) ♥♥♥ and Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya Camii) ♥♥♥ are both extraordinary pieces of architecture, gorgeous inside and out; mosaics on the upper level of Hagia Sophia are very much worth making an extra effort to see. The lines to enter both of these attractions get very long very quickly, so you either need to come at the very opening, or in the late afternoon (Blue Mosque’s lines seem to dwindle by 3 pm or so). There are other buildings on the square’s perimeter that include a hammam, a madrassah, and a couple of lesser places of worship.

Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı) ♥♥ is also at the edge of the square and also usually sports very long lines in the first half of the day. This underground reservoir is a remarkable attraction, from its overall space to details such as varied column designs or the upside-down Medusa head column supports. A similar monument of lesser renown, the Cistern of Theodosius (Şerefiye Sarnıcı) ♥ is just a few blocks away and can be a reasonable substitute accessible without long lines.

Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) ♥ is large, with many separate pavilions and collections, and is a bit short on the wow factor. The treasury, the clock collection, the standalone library, and several halls here and there are true highlights, and a couple of other pavilions are interesting enough; at least two hours are needed to see the place more or less thoroughly, probably stretching to half a day if you listen to everything on the audio-guide. The Harem is included on a higher-price ticket, but not on the basic one; in truth, there is not much in the Harem that is not seen elsewhere. The historic church of Saint Irene is also included in the visit, but it is entirely empty with not much to see. Again, ticket lines could be prohibitive, so come first thing in the morning.

A few other points of interest are located in Sultanahmet, such as the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (including the Tiled Pavilion Museum), the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and the Great Palace Mosaics Museum. I managed to step into the latter despite it being closed for renovation, and would probably make a point of coming back. The entrance to it is located within Hanoğlu Bazaar, which is never too crowded despite sitting near the walls of the Blue Mosque.

Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) ♥ is, conversely, rarely uncrowded. It is really a whole city by itself where you can get lost without a map. There are over four thousand stalls selling various stuff but the stock inventory tends to repeat itself every few doors down (sweets, spices, souvenirs, tableware, lamps, carpets), plus whole areas for jewelry. Not without appeal but quickly becomes trivial. Decorations of interior spaces are an additional highlight.

One other market worth visiting is the Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the Spice Bazaar, Mısır Çarşısı) ♥. It only has a couple of “streets”, much smaller in scale than the Grand Bazaar, but with more pronounced and uniform decorations of the interior.

As you walk towards the Grand Bazaar from Sultanahmet, you cannot miss Nuruosmaniye Mosque (Nuruosmaniye Camii) ♥, which is very much worth a stop – it is the most Baroque of all Istanbul mosques, managing to stay understated and elegant, and a tentative World Heritage site in itself (likely as an eventual extension of Istanbul’s inscription).

Suleymaniye Mosque (Süleymaniye Camii) ♥♥♥ holds the most commanding hilltop position of all, and is certainly one of the most remarkable to see. There are additional points of interest here, such as an extensive cemetery, a sultan’s tomb, and a fantastic terrace with views towards Sultanahmet and Galata.

Another quite impressive mosque is the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) ♥, by the Galata Bridge and the Spice Market, which somehow feels not as huge inside as it appears on the waterfront, but also has a wider color range in its interior painted decorations.

I will mention the Zeyrek Çinili Hamam ♥, slightly further away in the Fatih district of Istanbul, as another highlight, but you may not be able to visit it unless you want a true hammam experience. The recently renovated public baths were built by the same royal architect who built the Blue Mosque and the Suleymaniye Mosque – Mimar Sinan. They were accessible as a museum in the second half of 2023. Understanding the layout and the design, and admiring the frescoes and the original details gave me a good appreciation of this historic type of establishment.

In this same area, Zeyrek Mosque (Molla Zeyrek Camii) is one of the most impressive in the city; also, the remains of the Aqueduct of Valens (Valens Su Kemeri  or Bozdoğan Kemeri) offer a picturesque perspective.

Yet further away in the Fatih area are the Karyie Mosque (Kariye Camii), housing the Chora Museum of Byzantine frescoes, and the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Sarayı), the remains of a Byzantine palace. Not far from them is the picturesque area of Balat ♥, where rows of colorful houses offer one of the most popular Instagrammable locations in Istanbul. If you descend from Balat to the quay of the Golden Horn, a different type of house of worship can be seen in the form of the Orthodox Church of Saint Stephen.

Galata Bridge (Galata Köprüsü) ♥♥♥ is not too remarkable in bridge terms, but is definitely my favorite place for views of central Istanbul, including during the blue hour and after the darkness sets. Fishermen along its sides are another highlight, and the lower level is lined with seafood restaurants. The nearby newish train-and-pedestrian Haliç Metro Bridge is another alternative for excellent unobstructed perspectives.

Crossing either of these bridges from Fatih brings you to the Beyoğlu district, where Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) stands as one of the iconic Istanbul sights. The lines to ascend the tower are invariably long and the views from the gallery are said to be only marginally worth the climb, compared to views from many of the hotel and restaurant terraces in the area. In fact, throughout the central areas of Istanbul, there are plenty of rooftop cafes ♥ offering sweeping panoramas of the city; make use of them.

The Galata area ♥ is always busy and it connects to the no less bustling pedestrian thoroughfare of İstiklal Street ♥, which is traversed by the ever-popular historic tram line. There are a couple of minor history and art museums nearby, as well as a very impressive catholic church of Saint Anthony of Padua ♥.

Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı) at the northern end of İstiklal is a large public space with monuments, a newish mosque, an adjoining urban park, and a happening vibe. It is a nighttime and event hub of the city, but probably not a place that you will expressly target as a visitor.

Galataport ♥ is a recently gentrified area to stroll through, shop, dine, and enjoy picturesque corners. Interestingly, to get to the stretch of the Bosphorus waterfront here, you will need to pass a metal detector either in one of the large stores that open up to two sides or at the checkpoint in front of the Museum of Modern Art that anchors the area. (As a side note, security checks with metal detectors are a standard feature of tourist attractions in Istanbul).

Overall, somewhat surprisingly, the pedestrian quays are not in huge supply in central Istanbul. Large areas are inaccessible to pedestrians, and only occasional stretches are developed for enjoyment. There is Karaköy Sahil Parkı on the Beyoğlu side of the Haliç Metro Bridge; I also lingered at Haliç Şair Nedim Parkı reachable from Balat. For others, you have to go to the Asian side or further northward along the Bosphorus. Some signage suggests that certain places are soon to be developed as public quays.

Standing on a picturesque stretch of the Bosphorus at the edge of Beşiktaş, Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe Sarayı) ♥♥ is huge and varied, with quite a few interesting highlights in different sections, including several halls decorated in a very European way. In fact, this is a Renaissance palace that has practically nothing of an Eastern culture. Just as at other popular sights in Istanbul, early arrival makes for speedier access.

Yet further northward, Ortaköy Square (Ortaköy Meydanı) ♥ anchors a lively and pleasant quarter, highlighted by a smallish but lovely Grand Mecidiye Mosque (Büyük Mecidiye Camii) ♥♥ on a compact waterfront promenade. This district is famous for kumpir, the loaded baked potato, which I cannot imagine is possible to eat on the go even as it is considered to be a typical street food (I did enjoy it in a sit-down setting).

Relatively nearby is another grand palace that is a tentative WHS – Yildiz Palace (Yıldız Sarayı) – but it was closed for renovation with no defined open date as of late 2023. Other points of interest further northward from the city center on the European side are the popular waterside district of Arnavutköy and the imposing Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisarı).

Among other “further afield” potential points of interest in the Beyoğlu part of Istanbul near the Golden Horn are Rahmi M. Koç Museum and Miniatürk. Eyüp Sultan Mosque (Eyüp Sultan Camii) is frequently mentioned as one of the most impressive in town, but it is probably too far away for most visitors on the Fatih side of the Golden Horn.

It should be noted that throughout Istanbul, the streets connecting the sights may not strike your fancy all that much. Many of them feel too bazaar-like and few of them offer a lot in terms of attractiveness, occasional lovely pockets notwithstanding. Some areas are downright dilapidated and even mostly abandoned, such as, for instance, the quarter between Suleymaniye and Zeyrek right in the middle of the city.

The Asian part of Istanbul is much more residential and not overly rich in points of interest. The relatively far-away Çamlıca Mosque (Çamlıca Camii) ♥♥ – seen from all parts of Sultanahmet or Galata, but requiring a significant effort to get to – is one of the newest in the city and the biggest in all of Istanbul, extremely impressive in its size and decorations. There are sweeping views of the city from its terraces, although too far to clearly discern key landmarks.

Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi) is another of the iconic Istanbul sights, sitting on a small island off the Asian-side district of Üsküdar. You will come close enough to it on a given cruise or even the ferry ride on the Bosphorus, but it is one site that is not worth the money to visit. You can climb the tower for views, but you do not get much here that you cannot find elsewhere.

Kuzguncuk ♥, also on the Asian side, is a pretty area to stroll through, full of cafes and small shops, with one or two colorful segments. Not far from here up the coast is Beylerbeyi Palace (Beylerbeyi Sarayı) anchoring one of the newest pedestrian embankments.

A cruise on the Bosphorus ♥ is a popular attraction, offered by a huge number of operators. The cruises differ in length, timing, types of vessels, and number of people. A sunset option will allow you to catch the sun setting behind Suleymaniye Mosque, which is quite magical. Seeing the major sights from the water is a great perspective.

Practicalities

Transportation

Public transport in Istanbul is extensive and varied, including buses, trams, funiculars, ferries, and commuter trains. With a good transit app and an IstanbulKart, you can easily get anywhere without having to resort to a taxi. IstanbulKart is the only form of payment accepted on public transport. You can buy one at a yellow Billetmatic machine (TRY 70) or at any newsstand (where it could be TRY 80). You can then put money on the card at the same machine and top it up as necessary, although I ran into an issue that a single anonymous card has a monthly limit of TRY 500, which at the present level of fares would be good for about 35 trips (I simply bought another one). Each ride is a separate cost, although there should be small discounts for transfer, even if I have not once seen a discount applied with my card, probably also owning to its anonymous nature. There is technically a way of registering your card which could remove those limitations, but I expect that it is not possible for a visitor to the city; the IstanbulKart phone app turned out to be unusable to me as well, but you can certainly do without it.

If you use the metro, keep in mind that many underground stations are sprawling, requiring non-trivial walks from entrances to the platform, so allow for extra time in your planning.

Traffic in central Istanbul is often suffocating, so driving is not recommended (as is taking a taxi aside from airport-related travel). Narrow streets, pedestrians walking on roadways, impatient drivers, and so on, make driving one mode of transport that you probably want to avoid.

Visiting mosques

Mosques are free to enter in between services. Shoes need to be taken off and left in the “cupboards” by the entrance; women have to cover their heads and shoulders (there are always shawls available by the entrance). It is important to be aware of the timing of the services, as visitors are not allowed in for about an hour in each instance.

Lodging

Accommodation-wise, any location in either Eminönü/Sultanahmet or Beyoğlu/Karaköy will put you within walking distance of most of the unmissable points of interest. Public transport options may make other areas workable as well.

Dining

As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Istanbul. You may be put off by barkers as much as I usually am, but it is such a common practice in Istanbul that only the most fashionable of establishments will not have one. Usually, the meal will not be any worse if you give in to a barker’s invitation as opposed to picking a place on your own.

One other note: Smoking is fully allowed in outside areas of Istanbul eateries and sometimes it may look like all smokers in the world have converged on the city during your meal.

Worthy of specific recommendations: Balkon Cafe and Restaurant (in a hotel off İstiklal), with great terrace views and a nice if limited menu; Roof Meze 360 (in a hotel in Eminönü), with a slightly upscale ambiance, terrace views partially obstructed by the shrubbery, and excellent food; Güney 1964 (in the shadow of Galata Tower), a busy, efficient, and fantastic eatery; Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta (around the corner from Basilica Cistern), a popular and excellent kebap place that only accepts cash.

Separate mention goes to the chain of coffee-and-dessert shops called Hafiz Mustafa 1864 (there are at least a dozen in various parts of town). The variety of sweets on offer is mind-boggling.

Layover

The new Istanbul airport is located a fair distance from the city center; it is also huge, requiring non-trivial walks to get between the gate areas and the public arrival/departure areas. You cannot expect to reach the city sooner than about an hour and a half after landing, and you need to plan to start the trip back to the airport about 2.5 hours before the departure of your outgoing flight. It is possible to see the highlights of Istanbul on a long layover, but to spend a few hours in the city center you need at least 8 hours between your flights.

When your time is short and you want to see a lot, it is highly recommended to arrange for a private guide. The key benefits of that are the transportation to and from the airport would be arranged for you so you don’t have to worry about it, and also getting into one or two paid attractions (such as Basilica Cistern) bypassing the ticket lines. Of course, those who always prefer to listen to the narration while touring will get a wealth of information. The guide that my family used on multiple occasions, Sefa Ozdemir, got the highest marks from us on all counts.

Bypassing the lines benefit also applies if you simply want to avail yourself of a tour guide on a longer stay.

Beyond Istanbul

Bursa and its environs are within day-trip distance from Istanbul, even though Bursa itself merits an overnight stay.

Much closer to the boundaries of the city, near the mouth of Bosphorus where it connects with the Black Sea, lies the picturesque village of Anadolu Kavağı, whose central waterfront area is taken up almost entirely by the seafood restaurants. The village is atmospheric if short on highlights, although there are waterside promenades right outside it.

Yoros Castle (Yoros Kalesi) ♥ high above the village is a place for many fantastic perspectives. The ruins themselves are picturesque, and you can step into one of the towers – it is quite impressive. The castle is part of the tentative serial World Heritage site called “Trading Posts of Genoese Trading Routes”, of which Galata Tower is another member.


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