Istanbul is so big that it can be difficult to know where to start. If you just arrived in the city for the first time, you should begin with historical sightseeing. This is easy as history is everywhere in the old city: Sultanahmet, Constantinople, Byzantium, etc. The city has changed throughout time and history as various cultures occupied it and left their mark. This is what makes it so rich and interesting. However, if you look at the city from the river in Galata, you will have another view of Istanbul.
If your faith is either Christian or Muslim, your feet will naturally take you to Hagia Sophia Museum. During the Byzantine period it was known as Santa Sophia Basilica, the church of the Holy Wisdom. It was built in the 6th century AD by Emperor Justinian I. Back then the domed monument was one of the largest churches in the world. It was transformed into a mosque by Mehmed the Conqueror’s order in 1453. All Christian iconography was removed and replaced with Muslim adornments. These include a minbar which is a pulpit used by the Imam during the prayers, as well as four minarets. Now a museum, the inside of the monument is currently undergoing repairs and light is scarce. However, the view over Hagia Sophia at dusk is incredible because of the pink colour of its walls. It invokes a powerful feeling of peace and wellness.
We suggest purchasing a museum pass for TL 85 if you will visit more monuments. If you visit more than one attraction, the museum pass will help you save money. It is valid for five days and can also be bought online. Visiting hours are from 9 am to 7 pm from April to October and until 5 pm during the rest of the year.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Your next stop should be the Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiles. It was built during the 17th century under the Ahmed I sultanate and is one of only three mosques in Turkey that has six minarets. Hopefully, you will be lucky enough to visit outside of prayer times, when the mosque is open to non-Muslims. Prayer is signalled with the first muezzin’s call and some minutes after you will hear the neighbour mosque’s call. It is an interesting experience to hear the muezzins singing as if answering one another.
To enter the mosque you will have to comply with the clothing policy but they make it very easy for tourists and provide everything needed. Once in the mosque, you will again be overwhelmed by the feeling of peace as you walk barefoot on the soft carpet. Entrance is free but you will be asked to make a donation at the exit. There are no fixed times for the Ezan (prayer call) as it changes every day but there are six calls over a 24-hour period which means that you can visit at some point in the morning or in the afternoon.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern, also known as yerebatan sarnici in Turkish, is not easy to find (follow the sign southwest from Hagia Sophia or ask a guard). It was built by Byzantine emperor Justinian the First in 532 and has an impressive 336 columns. It could store 80,000 cubic metres of water to serve the Great Palace at the time. Then the palace was moved to another location and the cistern remained largely forgotten until the 16th century. It was only in the 1980s that the cistern was revived and opened to the public after a deep cleaning and renovation were completed.
Although it is a kind of mystical place that has inspired at least two prestigious filmmakers, the truth is that the light is poor and it is very humid inside. The two Medusa heads are probably the most interesting pieces, in spite of their position in a dark place with little light. One of them lays upside down and, according to the Greek mythology, turns anyone who looks into her eyes into stone. Their source is still unknown.
The entrance fee to the cistern is TL 20 and it is opened from 9 am to 5.30 pm. Sadly the museum pass doesn’t include the monument.
Located on the highest hill in the old city, this huge palace was built by Mehmed the Conqueror during the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. Construction started around the year 1466 and the palace remained a symbol of the administrative, cultural and political centre of the empire until the 19th century. The figures are impressive: from 800 inhabitants at the beginning, it increased to 5,000 and even as high as 10,000 visitors during celebrations; it was once 700,000sqm; 22 sultans lived there over four centuries; 400 rooms are in the harem and if you really want to visit everything you will spend a half day. Each sultan added to the building and it is now composed of four courtyards, each of them with its own entrance gate.
If you visit, do not miss the following: the treasury with the famous 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond found by a fisherman who exchanged it for some spoons and the harem which is a separate museum inside the palace, where you can admire the beautiful Ottoman Iznik tiles outside. The harem had a record population of nearly 500 women among them sultan’ wives, wives’ mothers, children and eunuchs.
Finally, the lush gardens are also worth visiting and have a restaurant in front of the Bosphorus. On your way out, walk through the beautiful and shadowy Gülhane Park. Entrance fee is TL 40 and is included in the museum pass mentioned above. A visit to the harem museum costs an extra TL 25 (also included in the museum pass). The palace is open from 9 am to 6:45 pm from April to October and until 4:45 pm during the rest of the year. It is usually closed on Tuesdays.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
Both are located in the old city but are not side by side. The Grand Bazaar, whether you intend to buy something or not, is an experience in itself with its colourful and overcrowded alleys. It is considered to be the oldest shopping centre and was part of the ancient Silk Road. Nowadays it consists of around 70 streets and over 4,000 shops, and among them, you will find real quality goods and handicrafts made by real artisans.
If you go there with the intention to buy something, remember to decide exactly what beforehand and how much you are prepared to spend. Given this, look for the shops that really show quality goods and be aware of fakes and imitations. Remember to bargain otherwise you will disappoint the owner! Some local goods that are worth buying include silk pashminas scarves, Turkish tiles, carpets and antiques. The bazaars are open from Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 7 pm.
The Spice Bazaar is an old bazaar built in the 17th century and was formerly called the Egyptian Bazaar. You will be delighted by the stalls full of colourful spices and it will be hard to choose which one you wish to take back home. They have vacuum packages perfect for travelling. You can also buy the famous Turkish apple tea and even Iran caviar and saffron, not forgetting about the delicious Turkish sweets.
Do not leave Istanbul without taking a boat tour! You can choose from a morning cruise, a sunset cruise or a cruise with dinner on board. You can also book a private tour or a hop-off-hop-on tour. Prices vary from TL 10 to more than TL 100. A half-day tour is also available and will take you all along the Bosphorus to the bridge crossing over to Asia. This 4-hour tour costs around TL 35, with pickup included (some tours include a visit to the Spice Bazaar).
Most boats start from Eminonu down by the river and Galata Bridge, in the Golden Horn area. You can also walk around this same area and most likely someone will offer you a cruise. You will need to bargain with them and be aware that the photo you are being shown might not be the exact cruise you will be on. For TL 10 per person, you will be driven to the pier by van. Then your guide will take you to the pier where he will look for an available boat.
You cannot miss Galata Tower if you want to enjoy the best view across the river. It is easy to see the tall stone tower which was built during the 14th century by the Genovese and is a 9-floor building. There is a restaurant (and a discotheque!) on the top floor reachable by elevator. It will cost you TL 18.50 per person to reach the top and it is worth it! Once at the top, you can enjoy the breathtaking view over the city. The ticket office is opened from 9 am to 9 pm.
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