I love history. I was even one of those weird kids who loved history in grammar school. And I can say with relative certainty that though Istanbul was occasionally mentioned in history class, it was never as a city benefited by a focused study (such as Rome or Paris), and rarely presented as importantly tied to the West’s overall historical narrative. As a result, it was never at the top of my travel to-do list.
What a mistake! This exotic, familiar, modern, ancient city is a must-see for every traveler and history hound, and is officially my favorite place on the planet. Actually, it’s probably a good thing Istanbul appeared later in my traveling adventures; had I been there first, many “popular” places I’ve seen would have subsequently been down right boring. Everything from back-alley coffee shops and street-food vendors, to high-end shopping malls and state-of-the-art metro systems, to thousand-year-old (and older) structures, exotic smells, and the melodic call to prayer – all of it clamored for my attention. With only a week on the ground, it proved impossible to get through my must-see lists (plural). But out of everything I did manage to squeeze in, there were definitely highlights, and missing out on the below experiences should be avoided at all costs.
1. The Grand Bazaar
Shortly after the conquest of Constantinople in the mid-15th century, the Grand Bazaar was erected specifically to house trading commerce, encouraging the sale of textiles and jewels.
Today, thousands of small shops line the arched corridors, selling everything from glass-blown lamps to hand-stitched leather goods to delicious (and some downright disgusting) Turkish Delight. The structure is held together by centuries of jimmy-rigged engineering, methodic craftsmanship, and sheer consumer will. Vibrant jewel-toned wares and crockery, stands selling sizzling, pungent donar kebab, shouting, tray-toting delivery boys carving paths through the crowds to serve hot afternoon tea to vendors, and even a brief electrical fire, made this one of my favorite Istanbul experiences.
2. The Hagia Sophia
Built in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was the most expansive and impressive cathedral on Earth. Almost 1,500 years later, I stood as a tiny speck in the middle of the nave, gazing up in captured awe of the colossal space above and around me, encompassed by domes, pillars, chapels and chambers.
Sultan Mehmet II laid siege to, and conquered, Constantinople in 1453. He was so enthralled by the church, he had it converted into a mosque rather than let it be destroyed.
After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, and the rebuilding of Turkey as a modern, secular state, the Hagia Sophia reopened as a museum in 1935. Pains were taken to restore and maintain both Christian and Islamic artwork, and much of the Christian mosaics and paintings and Islamic calligraphy remain in tact and on display.
Many of the city’s subsequently built mosques mimic, in part, the Byzantine architecture of the domed, multi-leveled Hagia Sophia, giving Istanbul its beautifully iconic skyline.
3. Basilica Cistern
Emerging from the bottom of a non-descript stairway, in a non-descript building, into an expansive, dark, dank underground cavern filled with hundreds of roman support pillars eerily lit by sporadically placed lanterns and casting long, deep shadows over slick walls and pools of black water, was easily one of my best moments in Istanbul. The kind where your heart starts to race and your eyes dart everywhere at once, unbelieving in what they’re taking in.
Built over the site of a previous basilica in the mid-6th century, the Basilica Cistern served as a fresh-water holding for the city until modern times, and little has changed over the last few hundred years. Largely unspoiled, the structure continues to capture the imagination of pop culture – many films have shot on location here, and James Bond fans would recognize it from the second Bond film, From Russia with Love, as the conveniently located underground waterway running directly beneath the fictional Russian Embassy. Today, most of the water has been drained and visitors can explore the cistern via wooden-plank paths weaving around the pillars. Many unique pillars have been discovered over the years, including two with Medusa’s head as the base – one upside down and one on its side.
Though the entire cavern is around the size of two football fields, the lack of daylight and a musty, mossy scent can be a bit claustrophobic. All of this combines into a singular experience through which to view historic Istanbul.
4. Antakya Mutfağı Meyhanesi
After a long day of site-seeing, my husband and I ended up at what we thought was an empty little hole-in-the-wall eatery. Not so much – Antakya Mutfağı Meyhanesi was clearly one of the “it” restaurants in the Besiktas neighborhood, and we lucked out getting seated without a reservation.
Within 30 minutes, the small, dark cafe was packed – alive with celebrations as diners clapped and sang along with the hottest Turkish pop music blasting from speakers directly above our table. Gobbling up plate after plate of creamy hummus, grilled, spiced meats, stuffed vegetables and two different kinds of bread, I managed to only spill one glass of wine all over the table next to us before we waddled home – a major coup, considering we were sitting elbow to elbow with the rest of the (chair-dancing, chain-smoking) patrons.
5. Süleymaniye Mosque
One of my favorite sultans was Süleyman the Magnificent, a man defined by his brilliant military campaigns, legal reforms and cunning wife, Roxleana. The mosque built at his commission was at the top of my must-see list.
While the Blue Mosque is one of the most divine structures in the world, the Süleymaniye Mosque, in my opinion, takes the baklava. Completed in 1558, its chief architect, Sinan, created a rich and beautiful center for public life (mosques were built to include schools, public bathhouses, hospitals, and soup kitchens for the poor – it was as much a community center as a place of worship).
Süleymaniye Mosque greets visitors with an arch-walled open courtyard and bright blue calligraphy artwork flanking the prayer hall entrances. Similar to the Hagia Sophia, the vast prayer hall, with its intricately painted red and black archways and low-hanging circular chandeliers, succeeds in instilling a sort of reverence in visitors, especially when experienced as modest rules dictate: without shoes and with scarf-covered hair.
6. Turkish Cooking Class
A trip to Turkey would not be complete without a cooking class, so I signed up for an evening with Cooking Alaturka. The experience was fantastic, from the charming and informative hosts (a married couple – one Greek, one Turk and both well versed in current events) to the delicious food. And we got to use a ginormous, curved knife. We chopped, stirred and simmered for hours. “This is why Turkish women, and always the women, spend so much time cooking – barely is one meal finished when preparation for the next must begin,” explained our host, Rocco.
7. Istiklal Ave
Istiklal Ave is a wide, pedestrian-only boulevard, linking Taksim Square, the heart of modern Turkey and Istanbul’s political center, to the Galata Tower, a 14th century tower built by the Genoese and offering some of the best panoramic views of the city.
Lined with boutiques, music stores, bookstores, cafes, pubs, patisseries, and multi-national clothing chains, it’s where the young come to see and be seen, and everyday treasures from Gap jeans to ancient maps can be procured. Almost every corner boasted different versions of painted dishware (a popular local souvenir), and alleyways swelled with the smells of baking baklava and fresh squeezed citrus fruit juice.
8. Princes’ Islands
The collection of Princes’ Islands, off the coastline of eastern Istanbul, are a great escape from the city bustle. The nine tiny islands evolved from a place of royal exile during the Byzantine era, to a popular tourist destination today. Reached via the public ferry system, motorized vehicles are banned, making the primary mode of transportation bicycles and horse-drawn carriages.
We toured the island Büyükada, the largest and most visited of the bunch. The main town is a collection of 18th and 19th century buildings, populated with tourist shops, ice cream parlors, and galleries. Restaurants line the shore fronting the town, and I can only image how packed they must be during summer months.
We walked through the main town, passing up carriage rides in favor of burning calories, up the main hill lined with homes styled in the way of what appeared be American Southern-Gothic, through a hilltop park, around a monastery, and back down to a delicious, and well-earned, ice cream lunch (a meal of strong espresso and pistachio gelato should never be under estimated). The sun had decided to make an appearance, and sitting on that outdoor patio, under a red and black stripped umbrella, and surrounded by parents attempting to rein in their ice-cream gobbling, sauce-covered face children, my entire being relaxed fully and completely for the first time in months.
9. The Asian Side of Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the few cities in the world straddling two continents – Europe and Asia. We spent most of our time on the European side of the city, so we decided to hop the ferry over the Bosphorus and explore the Asian-side neighborhood of Kadikoy.
10. Rooftop Bars
There was one more thing we had to do before we left for home – find out just how much of the mega-city can be seen at once. Preferably at sunset. The Rooftop Bar at the Marmara Pera Hotel served delicious cocktails along with a 360-degree view of Istanbul, allowing us to watch the sky roll from light blue to lilac purple to deep, rich magenta, before a bright moon (and an unending sea of city lights) lit up a black night.
Sadly, we were about two months too early to enjoy both from the hotel’s rooftop pool. But like everything else we couldn’t get to on this trip, I emphatically declare, “next time!”