Few cities in the world can boast of centuries-old churches, elegant mosques, labyrinthine bazaars, sultan’s palaces, underground cities AND an intercontinental bridge. But then again, few cities in the world can compare to Istanbul.
Formerly known as Constantinople, Istanbul was the undisputed center of power in the ancient world after the fall of Rome. Much of its faded glory is still evident in the spectacular Haghia Sophia, a 1500-year-old church built by the Emperor Justinian as a symbol of his empire’s might. The church was built in six years (ironically, the current renovations are taking longer than the original construction) and its dome, which appears to float in the air, was a technological marvel. This would be enough to secure the Haghia Sophia’s importance in history, but the Ottoman invasion of 1453 only added to its legacy when they converted it into a mosque. Christian mosaics were covered in plaster and four minarets added to the exterior.
The Ottomans built hundreds of mosques in their new city of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is directly across the street from the Haghia Sophia, giving one the impression of being inside a matte painting. The two buildings are so perfect, so imposing yet beautiful, that it doesn’t seem possible that they are real. Visitors can enter the mosques for free, but women will be expected to cover their heads, shoulders and knees. And men aren’t immune from this treatment either. In the summer, shorts generally aren’t allowed and a man will have to wear a sarong that is provided for tourists outside the Blue Mosque. This isn’t necessary in the Haghia Sophia, which is no longer a working mosque, but was converted into a museum.
Most of Istanbul’s highlights can be found in the Sultanahmet region. Crossing to the other side of the street from the Haghia Sophia are the Basilica Cisterns, which look like they came out the Lord of the Rings films. This underground network of massive columns and graceful arches will have you feeling as though you have stumbled into the Mines of Moria. The steady dripping of water and otherworldly music only add to the effect. These Roman cisterns were forgotten for ages, and only rediscovered when western tourists were curious about how the locals were somehow able to go fishing in their basements.
Just down the road is the Ottoman palace of Topkapi, where tourists can gaze with dropped jaws at the sheer wealth and excess in which the sultans lived. The Spoonmaker’s Diamond is here, as well as the Topkapi dagger, the subject of a heist in the eponymous Hollywood movie. A visit to the harem lets you imagine the life of Scheherazade, subject to the will and whim of an all-powerful figure. With stroll along the pavilions, with the Sea of Marmara and Asian Istanbul in the background, it is just as easy to picture yourself as the sultan, eating breakfast every morning while checking out the panoramic view. When all this luxury leaves you thirsty and tired, a visit to the Tea Gardens just behind the palace is a great way to relax and enjoy some traditional Turkish tea at inflated tourist prices. But the view of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus as seen through the eyes of a sultan is worth it.
Let me know what you think. Do you agree that these four sites are the must-sees of Istanbul? Would you have included the Grand Bazaar? Drop me a comment below.