By Jim Ferri
Whether you come to Istanbul for the culture or the food, the shopping or just to get enveloped in the sights and sounds of an intriguing place, you can’t help but be amazed by the city.
It’s an fascinating city that takes you back in time with all the modern conveniences, a place where minarets pierce the skyline and vendors still sell from their pushcarts, where you can dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus or sit on the river’s bank dining on freshly caught fish right off the grill.
It’s a place where East still meets West, and the traveler is all the better for it.
If you’re visiting Istanbul for only two or three days, as most people do, forget all the guidebook hype. Here are 10 of the best things to see and do on your own to make your trip memorable, without breaking the bank.
Completed in 1616, and still one of the world’s most recognizable religious buildings, it sits in the middle of a huge marble courtyard that is as large as the interior prayer area of the building. It’s widely known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles gracing its interior.
You should visit it both in the morning when the filtered sunlight gives a spectacular feel to the interior, and in the evening when its minarets are set ablaze by the setting sun.
Be ready though for the muezzin’s call to prayer that blares loudly from the many loudspeakers hanging from the minarets, a cacophony that will startle you haven’t heard it before. You’ll soon hear the call coming from other minarets across the city as well.
Then stay until the spotlights bathe the mosque in the soft evening light, maybe enjoying a drink or dinner at one of the many restaurants and cafés in the nearby streets.
Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is beautiful Hagia Sophia, another of the city’s celebrated landmarks. Originally built as a basilica and later turned into a mosque, it now enjoys another life as a museum.
It’s incredible that it’s still standing since the building you see today (the previous two were destroyed) is more than 1500 years old. It has survived earthquakes, wars, and fires and outlived two empires.
Incorporating both Christian and Muslim influences, It’s one of the most spectacular buildings in Istanbul. Its huge dome, over 100 feet in diameter and nearly 200 feet high, soars above marble floors cracked and worn away by time. Huge hanging chandeliers give its interior an otherworldly effect.
Don’t miss going to the upper level and try to visit early in the morning before tour groups arrive. And be careful walking outside since the large stones can be quite uneven in some places.
Home of the Sultans and the court of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century, Topkapi Palace is set in a beautiful park just a few minutes walk from Hagia Sophia.
A series of pavilions renown for intrigue and drama, Topkapi Palace at one time housed 5,000 people, including the Sultan and his concubines, slaves and eunuchs. Today its Treasury is home to an incredible display of wealth including the 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker Diamond.
Don’t miss the incredible Harem, a labyrinth of 400 or so apartments, rooms, and halls in which the sultan’s wives, along with the Queen Mother, eunuchs and the sultan’s concubines lived. It’s one of the most popular attractions in Topkapi, and although you only get to see about 40 of the rooms, they provide a sense of the beauty and opulence of the place. You’ll need to purchase a separate ticket for the Harem.
To get a real feel for Istanbul and its people, spend some time each day walking about the Sultanahmet District, the old heart of the ancient city. You’ll find it incredibly fascinating, colorful and energetic.
Walking through Sultanahmet one day I watched men having their cigarettes and coffee at curbside chairs and tables outside numerous little shops. Further along were vendors offering hot chestnuts and corn, both eaten as you stroll. I passed a woman on a bench knitting while feeding a small flock of pigeons. Around the corner, an entrepreneur had set a bathroom scale on the sidewalk and was charging people to weigh themselves. It was a gaggle of sights difficult to replicate anywhere else.
The Grand Bazaar
For many travelers, the fabled Grand Bazaar epitomizes Istanbul. It is a riot of color, confusion and crowds that percolates with the hubbub of any Middle Eastern bazaar.
The old bazaar, with it’s legendary pickpockets and other elements, has been cleaned up over the past decades (but it’s still smart to hide your wallet here and elsewhere in the city). Now you’ll even find a police station among the legions of carpet sellers, jewelers, restaurants, cafés, lamp dealers, shoe shops, etc.
Enter and you’ll quickly be immersed in a maze of crowded alleyways surrounded by locals seeking deals, women in veils, tourists and boys running about delivering little glasses of coffee here and there. Tiny cafés allow them all to enjoy a drink or bite to eat.
It’s the oldest covered market in the world, a mini-city of 4,500 shops on 60+ streets with 22 entrances and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere.
Egyptian Bazaar / Spice Bazaar
About a 15-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, in the direction of the Galata Bridge, you’ll find the Egyptian Bazaar. It’s much smaller and less raucous than the Grand, and it’s a place where you’ll find more Turks buying their foodstuffs than tourists in search of trinkets. It’s officially called the Egyptian since to finance its construction in 1660 taxes were levied on Egyptian imports.
In later centuries, it became known as the Spice Bazaar because spices were the main products sold within its walls. Today you still find an abundance of spices along its aisles, but also many other things, including plenty of better-priced tourist knickknacks then at the Grand.
Built in the 6th century as a huge underground water-storage tank to ensure a constant supply of water for the city, it once held more than 21 million gallons of water. It covers an area of 105,000+ square feet; go down into it and you’ll find a maze of Byzantine marble columns, and fish still swimming in the water.
If you’re pressed for time give the Cistern a pass, but if you’ve never seen one before, especially one this immense, it’s worth a look for the 10-lire entry fee. You’ll also find a little café down in it and (surprise!) a gift shop on the way out. Be careful, however, since the marble steps can be quite slippery so take you time going in and out. It’s less than 10 minutes from Hagia Sophia.
Church of St. Savior in Chora
This is a gem – one of the finest collections of Byzantine art in the world. Unfortunately, most people never see it since it’s located outside the city, although it’s only a 20-minute / 22-lire cab ride from the old city.
It’s a beautiful 11th-century church, quite quaint and historic, with about 100 stunning 14th-century frescoes and mosaics that depict biblical images. (Unfortunately the day I visited the main part of the church was closed for restoration work, but it was still worth the trip).
Leave yourself time to wander about the small neighborhood to see an authentic slice of working-class Istanbul. It’s all quite clean and slightly hilly but you’ll likely find its narrow cobbled lanes and old wooden houses interesting.
Taxim Square and the Trolley
From the Galata Bridge take a taxi to Taksim Square, the hub of busy Beyoglu, the modern area of the city. All is not modern here though.
From the square, catch the old Taksim-Tünel bright-red trolley that wends its way along crowded Istiklal Street back down to the area near the Galata Tower.
It’s a great, fun ride, much like those in San Francisco and Lisbon, with the exception of the small boys who try to jump on the rear of the car as it sets off on its journey.
Galata Tower Area
You can see the Galata Tower across the Bosphorus from the old city, and reach it by taxi or by walking across the Galata Bridge. Go up to the top for a good view of Istanbul.
After you come down walk around the streets of Karakoy, a great little area on the European side of Istanbul, where you’ll get a feel for the real life of the city. It’s safe and fantastic; just wind through the streets always walking downhill towards the river.
When you reach the Galata Bridge go down to the riverside on the right and you’ll find the bank lined with outdoor grills where chefs are cooking fish sandwiches (5 lire each) that you then eat at the tables along the water’s edge. You’ll find just as many Turks here as tourists.
After a while you’ll likely feel you could care less about that Michelin-starred restaurant in that maze of buildings on the other side of the river.
If you go:
Turkish Tourist Office
821 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017
Tel: (212) 687-2194