Visit Istanbul and you’re in for a sensory treat. The restaurants, the amazing architecture, the minarets which are literally everywhere, the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, the blue Iznic tiles, the colorful Turkish lamps. I have spent four days in Istanbul and I just couldn’t get enough of it.
Istanbul is a city where East meets West, clearly marking it as a city like no other. Thanks to the Greeks, Romans, Venetians and the Ottomans, who have shaped Istanbul’s glorious history, an Istanbul visit provides anyone with an extraordinary cultural experience.
In here, I’ve put together 20 places to visit in Istanbul. The list is absolutely not exhaustive. I just want to share the interesting places I visited in this wonderful city.
A. Sultanahment Area
Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque
You can never visit Istanbul without a visit to one of its many mosques. The most popular is of course the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque is apparently a name coined by Western visitors to the mosque who found the dominant blue Iznic tiles in the mosque’s interior. Turks call it the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Upon getting to the mosque for the first time, seeing the six minarets on the skyline made my heart skip. The interior is as astonishing as the exterior architecture. The large chandeliers, the massive domes and the ray of light coming from the windows give the mosque an air of mystery.
Hagia Sofia or Ayasofya
Just opposite the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia with a distinguished pink landmark. First built as a Christian Church, the structure was converted into a mosque after conquest by the Ottomans. Now, Hagia Sophia serves as a museum. This explains the presence of stunning Christian mosaics inside, the four minarets, the Islamic pulpit and medallions, all in one building.
Getting inside the Hagia Sophia topped with the interior dim lighting is like being transported to the old medieval world. The grandeur plus dimness makes me think of Dracula.
The Deësis Mosaic at the Upper Gallery depicts Jesus at the center, Mother Mary to the left and John the Baptist to the right.
Hippodrome/ Sultanahmet Park
The present day Sultanahmet Park is formerly a Hippodrome in the Roman times, where chariot races were held. Today, the Hippodrome has retained the Obelisk of Theodosius, a fountain and the Serpentine Column.
If you want to literally go to the depths of history when you visit Istanbul, make a go to the Basilica Cistern. Dan Brown’s depiction of the Basilica Cistern in his Inferno novel is as mystical as the real thing. Basilica Cistern, more known as Yerbatan Sarayi by the Turks, was used to supply the water needs of the Great Palace.
There are two large Medusa heads used as a block under two columns at the far end of the 336 columns supporting the cistern. One head sits sideways and the other is upside down. Medusa is already a mythical personality and seeing her big head upside down inside a dark cistern is even more mysterious.
Great Palace Mosaic Museum
We nearly missed the Great Palace Museum. We were not expecting it to be located on the same stretch as the Arasta Bazaar, which we passed through on our way to the Blue Mosque. The mosaics in this museum represent some of the pavements of Constantinople’s Great Palace that were discovered in the 1950s under some shops. These mosaics, depicting hunting scenes, wild animals and scenes from everyday life were painstakingly “rescued” and restored.
Arasta Bazaar on the southeast side of the Blue Mosque is a series of shops selling souvenirs, carpets, kilims, Turkish tiles, ceramics and apparels. We always pass by this bazaar from our hotel to the tram station.
Much as my eyes would like to linger on the blue Iznic designed tiles, I try to avoid making eye contact with its sellers. I definitely have no plans of inserting some tiles into my luggage, but I’m afraid they would see through my hidden desire and use that to their own advantage.
I’ve spent more than a week in Turkey and by then, I would have already known how Turkish salesmanship works – they’ll use humor, ask you to have a look (persistently) and invite you for a sip of tea. Probably, the next thing you’ll know, you’ve already bought more than what you’ve planned to buy…or not buy.
This palace is the home of the sultans that ruled during the Ottoman period. At the outer courtyard is the Hagia Irene or the Basilica of Divine Peace. Hagia Irene was empty when we visited, but it also occasionally serves as a concert hall.
Inside the palace grounds are a vast collection of high-value items, among them a dagger with emeralds and diamonds sent as gift to the sultan, weaponries and porcelains. There’s also a Chamber of Holy Relics containing important religious objects such as their Prophet Muhammad’s beard. What have caught my attention are the staff of Moses, the sword of David and the robe of Joseph. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed in these rooms.
Another must see section of the palace is the Harem, from the word “forbidden”, where the sultans spend their private time with their wives, children, concubines and girlfriends. That goes to show how important it is to have an heir to the throne. The most amazing thing about the Harem is the explosion of turquoise blue ornate tiles in almost all of the rooms. However, there’s something about the Harem that made me feel heavy and lonely. Have I been an expert in the hugot arena, I would have complied a book of hugot lines in one corner of the Harem. 🙂
The massive palace complex is a display of opulence and grandiose. Exiting the Topkapi Palace, one thing struck my mind. All the earthly riches and honor are useless because in the end, all these things you’ll leave behind.
Admitting to the lack of sense of direction, I was easily lost in the Grand Bazaar. It’s like going through a maze of columned spaces. The explosion of colors is a visual treat. If you’re looking for something to take home from Istanbul, this is the place to find it.
Oh! There’s another Bazaar called the Spice Bazaar which is a few minutes walk from the Eminönü tram station, and located beside the New Mosque. I didn’t have any photos in this bazaar, but the place is filled with aroma and colors of spices.
Rüstem Pasha Mosque
This mosque is often overlooked when people visit Istanbul. The mosque is only about 2 minutes walking distance from the Spice Bazaar. Seeing the mosque’s minarets guided me at first to where the mosque is but finding the entrance to the mosque is a bit tricky. I had to walk through a narrow street with market stalls on the side and the stairs leading up to the mosque is fairly hidden.
I was the lone person in this relatively small mosque when I arrived. It is small but there’s a high concentration of the blue Iznic tiles inside and out. I love how the patterns are different from each other. Some tiles are notably painted with emerald green and red tints, adding more emotions to the tiles.
The different tile patterns inside the mosque
The New Mosque is easy to spot once you’re at the Eminönü station. Istanbul has such an old history that they have a different concept of “new”. The New Mosque is more than 350 years old, that’s about 55 years “younger” than the oldest university in the Philippines.
This mosque is about 10 minutes walk away from the New Mosque. We arrived here close to the Muslim prayer time. What I love about this mosque is that it lies in an elevated location with a garden area outside where you could just sit, relax and view the Bosphorus.
Chora Church (Kariye Müzesi)
The Chora Church is quite away from the Sultanahmet sights, but is undeniably worth a visit. We reached Chora Church from the Eminönü bus station through Bus 31B. On the way, we had a chance to see the Valens’ Aqueduct from the bus window. We got off at the Edirnekapi bus stop and from here, it’s just a short walk to the church. The old Ottoman houses along the way are a sight in their own right.
The mosaics and frescoes inside the church, now a museum, are breathtaking. These depict scenes from the Bible. My photos simply couldn’t capture the shining shimmering splendid that Chora museum’s mosaics are. We were not lucky to view the entire church as most parts are under restoration at that time.
The Old City Walls
On the way back to the bus stop, we passed by what looks like a city wall in ruins and saw two young Asians at the top of the wall. We were of course curious and it wasn’t much longer before we started climbing up as well. The stairs were quite challenging because other than being steep with no railings, the width of the steps were the size of half my foot. It was like wall climbing with the aid of steep stairs.
It’s always amazing to take a bird’s eye view of an area from the top, but more than the view from that city wall we climbed was the unforgettable sound of the call to prayer echoing from the numerous minarets around. For a moment, I stopped just to take all the sights and sounds in.
C. Bosphorus Cruise
Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul into two continents: Europe and Asia. That fact alone makes Bosphorus Cruise interesting. We got a roundtrip ticket for 12 TL to take a short Bosphorus cruise from the Eminönü dock at one end of the Galata Bridge. While waiting for our ferry, I roamed on the side of the dock to find the Karaköy fish market.
Back on the cruise, sights aside from the Dolmabahçe Palace and Maiden Tower are medieval fortresses, mosques, traditional and modern houses.
D. Europe Side
When you visit Istanbul, you can say that you crossed over from Asia to Europe in a matter of minutes if you crossed the Galata Bridge. Pedestrians can walk on both sides of the bridge, where fishermen are also lined up with their fishing rods towards the Bosphorus.
One level below the bridge are restaurant stalls, one of which is where we chose to have our lunch. I thought that this is the best place to go for a sampling of their fish dish so I ordered crunchy fried fish. I didn’t know that they will place a school of fish on my plate. In our next few days of passing through the bridge, I would always smell that familiar fried fish. Sorry, but the memory of that meal makes me want to throw up each time.
Taksim square to Istiklal Caddesi
We took the tram all the way to Kabataş station, then transferred to the underground funicular and got off at Taksim station. From Taksim, we just followed the historic Red Tram rail and walked our way to Istiklal Caddesi or Independence Avenue. A week before that was the March 2016 bombing incident in Taksim area. I didn’t feel nervous at that time but I was cautious of our surrounding.
European air along Istiklal Caddesi is very strong, reminding me of Champs Elysees of Paris. This avenue is lined with signature shops, cafes and restaurants. We also passed by Christian churches and a number of European embassies.
Built as a lighthouse, Galata Tower is one of the oldest tower in the world. It rises above Istanbul as a witness to its history. The Galata Tower is always an imposing sight as you walk along the Galata Bridge.
Going up the tower, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of Istanbul. The balcony, however, was filled with other visitors when we went up. Hence, we had to wait for others to remove themselves from the viewing spots around the railings before we were able to insert ourselves for the views.
Galata Mevlana Museum, The Whirling Dervishes
Near the Beyoğlu funicular station is the Galata Mevlevi Museum. Mevlevi is a Sufi order which originated in Konya and was founded by the followers of Mevalana Rumi, a poet and Islam theologian. The Mevlevi are also known as the Whirling Dervishes because they perform a religious ceremony called Sama, which involves chants, prayers, beautiful music and a whirling dance.
The hall where Sama is solemnly performed
With the help of our hotel in Istanbul, we were able to luckily reserve for our seats to watch the Whirling Dervishes during their religious ritual at the Hodjapasha Center. The venue is a few minutes walk away from Sirkeci tram station. The dervishes perform Sama in this hamam-turned theater only during Thursdays at 7:00 PM. We bought our tickets at 70 TL each.
The experience of watching the Whirling Dervishes is…how to say it?…very enthralling. It almost feels like being under a spell, with the constant whirling hypnotizing me. It’s not easy to be whirling almost constantly in their own axis while also whirling in an orbit for close to an hour, and maintaining a graceful fashion at that. It dawned on me that they must really be in a state of deep meditation to be able to do that without feeling every bit dizzy.
It is difficult to explain the meaning of Sama but I found a beautiful excerpt from a book (Rumi and His Path of Love by Hüseyin Bingül) I borrowed from a friend, which I haven’t finished reading until now.
“The Sama is contemplation in action….Contemplation became the union of the soul, sound and motion, as both the heart and body achieved a state of meditation. Thus, the Sama symbolizes the escalation of the human spirit; the servant’s turning of his face towards the Truth; being exalted with Divine love; abandoning personal identity and the self to become lost in God; and finally returning to servanthood, mature and purified.”
During Sama, a dervish’ right hands is turned to the sky to receive honor from God. His left hand turned down, transferring the blessings from the Lord to those who are willing to receive them.
This contemporary art museum is a few minutes walk away from the Tophane tram station. At 25 TL, I had a taste of the works of Turkish artists. I may find other artworks weird but I enjoyed the way their art forms left a question and curiosity in my mind.
E. Princes’ Island
Princes’ Islands or locally known as Adanar, are a cluster of islands along the Sea of Marmara, southeast of Old Istanbul. We took a ferry at the Kabataş station going to Adanar. The boat ride at 10 TL one way to Buyukada (the biggest of the islands) took us 1.5 hours.
Tourists from the ferry were feeding the birds while we’re cruising. It’s amusing to see a bunch of birds trailing us, but what about its impacts to the natural feeding habits of these seagulls.
The birds were amusing but this guy also deserves attention. He had a funny way of selling those portable fruit juicers, it actually works! In my estimate, he can probably earn in a 1.5 hour trip more than what an average Filipino employee can earn in a day.
A unique feature of the island is the banned status of motorized vehicles. Hence, bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the ways of getting around. We rode a horse cart which went around the island. We thought the ride would include stops to interesting sights but our horsecart driver just kept moving the entire time. Not happy with the horsecart ride, we got off our feet and learned the hard way that walking is a better alternative.
The island is home to old Victorian houses. Seeing horsecarts and bicycles passing by on the streets in front of the Victorian-style houses made me want to dress up in a large skirted, long sleeved dress and wear a lacy bonnet hat. That was a joke, of course.
Honestly, I imagine Buyukada to be like a ghostown if not for the tourists roaming its streets. But the peaceful atmosphere was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
Last Words on Istanbul
I certainly would love to go back to visit Istanbul given another opportunity. I did not feel any fear of terror attacks while roaming around this beautiful city. However, after hearing the sad news of a sudden death of a Japanese consultant in a blast in Dhaka just last month, with whom our company in the Philippines has worked with, it personally hit me that it could happen to anyone, including myself.
The prospect of tourism in Istanbul getting back to normal is unclear. Let me just end this blog with this – I went to Istanbul for four days and found the city peaceful overall. The place is beautiful, the people are friendly, and my experience had been great. Four days exploring and I thought that there’s still so much to experience in Istanbul.
My best advice is to be aware of the travel advisories by your own countries and if you personally think that you will not feel comfortably safe, then don’t go. Should you have plans of coming in the future, then I hope this article has inspired you and will help you to enjoy Istanbul.