So you’re thinking of visiting Istanbul, and you don’t know which of the Old Town sights might interest you? During my trip over Easter I visited the following famous tourist locations, so here’s my cheat’s guide to the most famous sights.
The Blue Mosque / Sultan Ahmet Camii
This mosque dates from the 17th century and was built by Sultan Ahmet. It’s known as the Blue mosque due to all the intricate blue tiles that cover the interior. It was controversial when it was built, as it was basically a vanity project for the Sultan, built using the city’s funds (not from the profits of war, as was usual) and was built directly over the remains of the Byzantine Grand Palace. Also, it directly faces off the Hagia Sophia across a park.
The positive by product of this however is that standing in the park between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia at prayer time, hearing these two huge buildings in call and response to each other, gave me chills.
> Entry is free
> There wasn’t really much of a queue to get in
> Photographs are allowed
> You’ll need to be respectfully hushed but not silent
> You can’t go in at all during prayer times
> You will need to cover yourself thoroughly if you are a woman. There is a man in a kiosk near the front of the queue who assesses what you need to be acceptable and hands over the garments free of charge. Usually this is just a headscarf but a girl in front of me got given a maxi skirt to go over her skinny jeans.
> Both men and women need to take off your shoes whilst in the mosque. Plastic bags are provided so you can carry your shoes with you whilst you are inside and there are places to take off your shoes and put them back on again. Although, there are no chairs as such in either location so if you have difficulty with mobility you may struggle a little.
Hagia Sophia / Ayasofya
Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century as a Greek Orthodox church, was converted through the years into a Roman Catholic church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. Clear signs of its time as both church and mosque remain in this delightful hodgepodge of a building; it’s a historical architect’s dream come true. The history and legacy of this building is quite fascinating, it having been by far the biggest church in the world for over 1000 years and influencing the design of churches and mosques for centuries after. It also contains the oldest mosaics and frescoes of Jesus that I have ever seen – some date from about 1200.
There are lots of these mosaics around the building, so take your time to look out for them. Some are in better condition than others, having been plastered over or obscured whilst the building was a mosque. They’re all beautiful, though.
> Entry is 30 TL but can be included in the Istanbul Museum Pass
> There’s quite a big queue to get in. We waited for around half an hour – bear in mind this was low season
> There are tour guides outside who try and offer you their services. They all have official looking badges and promise that if you engage them, you can jump the queue. They can be bargained with extensively, but bear in mind that you still have to pay entrance fees and you will need to tip them at the end, too
> There is an audio guide available
> There is also a fantastic view from upstairs out over the domes of the Hagia Sophia over to the Blue Mosque. I think this view is iconic as I’ve seen it in lots of other places! Still, I found it breathtaking nonetheless
> You aren’t allowed to take tripods into the museum. It will be taken off you during the security screening (they have a metal detector and x-ray like at the airport) and returned to you once you leave
This cistern is basically a huge water reservoir that was built under the city in the 6th century. It’s called the Basilica Cistern because it was built underneath a great basilica, which has now been lost to time. It’s famous for the beautiful construction and variety of stones that were used to build it, for example the famous medusas:
One is upside down, the other is sideways. These would have been brought from across the Byzantine empire, from old Roman buildings. It’s thought that these stones were placed in this fashion to negate the power of Medusa.
There is also a column carved with tears, which is supposed to commemorate the slaves who died building the cistern.
> Entry is 10TL and is not included with any other card
> Tripods are not allowed. They aren’t taken off you, but they say if you do use one inside you will be subject to a fee, which is unspecified. We decided not to risk it, and used the railings and self timer function to quite reasonable success
> You have to go down two flights of steps to get in, with no other means of access. Those who find steps hard may struggle – it’s also quite slippery underfoot
> There are walkways over the foot or so of water that remains in the basilica, and places to sit
> There’s even an underground cafe!
This is an ancient warren of stalls, generally catering to the tourist market. You’ll find beautiful lamps, Turkish towels, patterned crockery, handbags (both knock off and non), carpets, and oil lamps and candles of all sorts. It’s a fascinating place to wander, to see all the variety of wares on sale and to marvel at the beautiful old building.
> Entry is free
> It’s very busy inside but probably manageable with children
> All the shopkeepers will try and get you into their shops. To do so, they will tell you about all the famous people they have sold their wares to, usually tailored to your nationality. As we let on we were British, our celebrities of choice were Sting and the director of Skyfall.
> Therefore, you will need to take in the sights at a purposeful march to avoid being hassled too much by the stall owners
> There are a lot of similar stalls, so this is either great for bargaining purposes or you might find you get bored quickly
> Photography of the beautiful lamp displays is usually not allowed. I only discovered that after I took the picture above…
> Look up! There are interesting signs about the history of the building peppered along the lengths of the walkways, and the ceilings are beautifully painted
> It’s a good choice when the weather is poor as it’s all covered
> The prices inside the market are not usually the best you’ll find, as it is a tourist destination. Far better are the streets surrounding the bazaar, running out West and down to the Spice Markets. They look like this:
And crucially you will see normal Turkish people doing their shopping here, too. I think that’s usually a good sign.
Egyptian Spice Markets / Mısır Çarşısı
An easy walk from the Grand Bazaar (through the much more interesting side streets) is the Egyptian bazaar, or spice markets. It dates from 1660 and adjoins the New Mosque. In here you can find spices (funnily enough), but also dried fruits, lots of Turkish delight, and a few tourist souvenir shops.
> Entry is free
> It’s extremely busy inside so I’d worry about taking children in who might run off or get lost
> Again, shopkeepers will try and get you in to their stalls, but this is usually done in a very good natured manner
> If you want to buy Turkish delight, make sure you get the rolled kind, and not the stuff in squares like you usually buy. More on this to come…
> As you leave, you might even catch the sunset behind the New Mosque:
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