Istanbul – East meets West
Spanning across both Europe and Asia continents, with vast amount of historical and religious sites, and a wide range of contemporary museums, art galleries and cultural sites, Istanbul is one stunningly beautiful city.
Combining Byzantine, Greek, Roman, Ottoman and Turkish civilizations, over centuries Istanbul has evolved into a city with great cultural and architectural significance. This can be seen immediately as you start sightseeing. The Old City, centered on the Sultanahmet district, is the historical core of the city and home to the main sights. Firstly the perfectly-proportioned classic Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century, is one of the handful of mosques in the world to boast six minarets (an architectural feature of mosques, generally a tall spire with a conical crown) as well as 30 domes. Known as the national mosque of Turkey, you will find the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man who gave his name to both the mosque and the neighbourhood. You will see that all the walls are built with fine Iznik tiles that go along with spectacular interior decorations.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), is one building that surpasses the rest due to its historical importance, form and beauty. It was built as a church in the 6th century, turned into a mosque from the 15th century until 1935, and now a museum. Once inside you will appreciate the mesmerizing interior of this architectural masterpiece. Experiencing the extraordinary space of this famous church-turned-mosque-turned museum is thrilling. Along with the Blue Mosque, these two buildings provide Istanbul with one of the most brilliant skylines in the world.
Further explore an Ottoman mansion still owned by descendants of the family that built it, the Suleymaniye Mosque. As you stand on the Galata Bridge and look up, you will see this mosque located on a hill, which has magnificent views of the Golden Horn. This mosque was designed for Suleiman the Magnificent and it is generally regarded as the finest of the 42 surviving mosques designed for Istanbul and is an architectural counterpoint to Hagia Sophia. This is the largest mosque in Istanbul. Istanbul is surrounded by water, making it the perfect place to explore by boat. For great views make sure to take a day or sunset cruise on the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Europe and Asia, it is the link between the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. Along the shore of Bosphorus you can see the stunning Dolmabahçe Palace. Built between 1843 and 1856, Dolmabahçe embraced neoclassical, baroque and rococo styles. It’s just as a sultan’s palace should be, with 285 rooms, 43 large salons, a 4000 kg Bohemian glass chandelier.
Continue to Topkapi Palace, the lavish residence of generations of sultans and their families for nearly 400 years. See its vast lush green courtyards, buildings, treasury and elaborately tiled Harem. This is one absolute must-see in Istanbul. The Topkapi boasts a magnificent treasury of jewels, as well as scenic views over the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The historic complex, cultural monument and museum draws many visitors.
Then venture into the ancient Basilica Cistern, also known as the Sunken Palace, an important water source during the Byzantine era. This attraction offers an insight into the complicated system that brought drinking water into Istanbul from Thrace. Constructed in the 6th century. There are 336 columns that support the ceiling including an upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column. The cisterns of the city are masterpieces of design.
A little way west of Sultanahmet is the massive Grand Bazaar. Visit the renowned, covered labyrinthine Bazaar, to see the colourful Turkish lifestyle. There are more than 3,000 shops along more than 50 streets with jewelry, textiles, pottery, glazed tiles, bronze, leather, carpets and much more. Spice Bazaar in another place worth visiting. Together these two Bazaars are the two largest covered shopping complexes in the world with over 500,000 daily visitors.
For variety, Galata district and Beyoglu carry a significantly different outlook than the old city in Istanbul. Here you can find Galata Tower which offers the best panoramic views of the city. For relaxation, visit one of the city’s world-famous hamams (Turkish baths), which offer a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in history and architecture as well. There are several bathhouses to choose from in the city, including the Çemberlitaş, Cağaloğlu, Galatasaray and Sülemaniye baths. Since 2011 it’s also possible for visitors to try out the 16th-century Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam designed for Suleiman the Magnificent’s wife. The many acres of marble along with the sound of water echoing around the domes make a great spot for a massage.
You will find Istanbul to be a city of extreme contrasts, from the wealthy to the poor, the traditionalist to the liberals, fabulous shopping malls to markets, all making the city beautiful. This is a city that can keep visitors busy for weeks. Although no longer Turkey’s capital, the city remains vibrant with many restaurants, bars, and different cultural experiences for everyone to enjoy.
Photo Credit: RJ P.