Istanbul: Mosques and Palaces
I did not have plans of visiting Eastern Europe again so soon, but life happens and it has taken me again to this part of the country. The last time I was in Europe was when I was in Prague the first half of 2011. This time, I’m planning on living in Thessaloniki, Greece, for about three months. Having about a month before needing to be in Thessaloniki, it gave us a great opportunity to travel a bit in Eastern Europe. We started the trip out in Istanbul, Turkey.
Istanbul is said to be one of the world’s greatest cities. It has a long and fascinating history, some of the world’s most beautiful mosques, and so many foods to try. Istanbul was the capital of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, called the Byzantine. This mostly Greek spoken empire was in power from 330 AD until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire took charge until after World War I. Turkey became the republic that it is today in 1923.
Istanbul has so many things to do, see, and eat, that 5 full days weren’t even enough to touch the surface. We saw the main tourist sites, but we continually found hidden surprises as we walked around the city. We easily could’ve spent another week or two there and never have gotten bored.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque)
Our first stop was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. Still an active mosque, Muslims still visit the mosque for the five prayers per day. It was built in 1616 and its purpose was for the Ottoman Empire to build a mosque bigger and better than the Byzantine’s Aya Sofya. It’s nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the strong presence of blue tiles on the inside.
I had never been inside of mosque, but I was extremely impressed with the architecture, inside decorations, and the size of it. Everyone must take their shoes off at the entrance, and women must cover their heads when inside. The entire floor is carpeted which makes walking around barefoot very pleasant. From the tall domed ceiling holds low-hanging lights in patterns typical of a mosque. Around the interior are signs written in Arabic calligraphy, looking very artsy but also containing quotes from the Quran.
The main section is marked off only for men to enter, whereas women can only stay behind this. The call to prayer, which happens five times per day, involves a man chanting which is then output through a sound system out of the church, telling the public that it’s time to pray. All of this is new to me, and I really enjoyed learning more about the religion and its practices.
Because it’s an active mosque, the Blue Mosque is free to enter but tourists can enter only at certain times around the prayer times.
The Aya Sofya is the other main mosque in Istanbul but is now turned into a museum. The entrance fee is 30 liras ($14) to visit. It was originally built in 537 AD as a Greek Orthodox basilica and was then turned into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
It’s obviously much older than the neighboring Blue Mosque, and the fact that it’s a museum gives it a much different feel. The size and details of the architecture are incredible.
The frescoes (religious paintings), including a few of Jesus and Mother Mary, are still the originals and well-preserved. How this could’ve been built that long ago is beyond me. It’s an astonishing place and a must-see in Istanbul.
Right next to the Aya Sofya is the Topkapi Palace, which was used as the primary residence of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1856. The entrance fee is 30 liras ($14) and we opted to pay for the audio tour for an extra 20 liras ($9). It turns out that the audio guide is pretty horrible and provided very little good information, so we would not rent that if we could go back. There is enough signage to give you more information for free than the audio guide!
The palace, as you can probably imagine, is enormous and only had best of the best for the Ottoman Empire. We were able to see the actual clothing of several of the sultans, expensive diamonds and gems worn by the family, and sacred relics of religious figures. Where else can you see Abraham’s pot, Joseph’s turbine, and Moses’s staff?
One must make time to really dive into the palace and what it offers. We spent three hours there, and we still didn’t see everything. It was very interesting to see with some elegant relics!
The third and final mosque that we visited, the Suleymaniye Mosque was even still so much different than the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya. This one was built in 1558, before the Blue Mosque, but looks so much more modern. The insides are neatly painted in mostly white; everything looks much simpler than the other mosques we had visited.
Because it’s an active mosque, it was free to get in. There was also a master’s student from Malaysia answering any questions, and we learned so much from talking to him. Because it’s somewhat far from the main tourist area, this mosque had many less tourists than the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya. Each mosque has a very different feel, making it worth the visit to see several.
Bosphourous River Boat Tour
Along the Bosphorous River are several boat tour companies, offering tours up and down the Bosphorous River, the river that divides Turkey into Europe and Asia. On the east is where Asia starts and to the west is where Europe ends. We decided to go with the official boat tour of the city, which I have now forgotten the name. It was just 12 liras ($5) for a two hour boat tour north on the river, almost getting up to the Black Sea. This was perfect for a nice and relaxing afternoon, which was much needed after several straight days of walking around Istanbul.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Market
Anyone who likes to shop pegs the Grand Bazaar as a must-see on their trip to the Istanbul. Even non-shoppers can walk through once and still be entertained for a bit. The Grand Bazaar has been in Istanbul for about 600 years now, once called the greatest market of the Mediterranean. Istanbul has always been a connection between the East and the West, especially for trade, and the Grand Bazaar is a culmination of this. Now, the Grand Bazaar is a large tourist market offering the opportunity to buy Turkish rugs, jewelry, souvenirs, and more. There are more than 3,000 shops and attract over 250,000 people per day. Most the market is covered and inside a large building, so you can go whether it’s rainy or sunny.
Not too far away is the Spice Market, a much smaller covered market selling all kinds of spices, teas, dried fruits, and souvenirs. It’s worth taking a look, and they’ll give some free samples along the way, as well.
Galata Tower and the Istiklal Street
On the north side of Istanbul, across the river, is a popular area of town which is considered the modern part. We initially took the train just across the river and then walked up to Istiklal Street. Istiklal Street is a long pedestrian street, spanning a mile and a half, and is full of international brand name stores like Mango, HM, and Zara. It also has many restaurants, ice cream shops selling typical Turkish sticky ice cream, and stores selling Turkish delights and other sweets.
The pedestrian street runs from Taksim Square, a historically important square for political demonstrations in Istanbul, all the way down to the river.
As the road gets closer to the river, it becomes a smaller cobblestone street with more local vendors. On the way down to the river, the street passes the Galata Tower, a 60 meter stone tower that was built in 1348 AD. Once used for the surveillance of the harbor, it is now used to get a nice view of the city.
The Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century to store the city’s water supply. Not really a basilica, it’s named that way because it was built under where a basilica used to be. How they were able to build this huge underground area is beyond me. The lighting is pretty cool, and the place is pretty big. The main highlights of the cistern are the Medusa heads used as column bases. Medusa is a figure in Greek mythology and the face is used to keep away evils. The origins of these Medusa heads used as column bases is unknown for sure but were brought from some other structure in the Roman period. .
Istanbul has so much to do that, even in 4 full days, we still felt like we could’ve used much more time. We always found something really nice by accident, just by walking while randomly walking around. I feel like I could probably walk around each day for a few weeks and continually find something unique and worth seeing. However, for doing the main sites and attractions, four days was sufficient. Unfortunately, it was very hot in Istanbul in mid-August, but we bared through it and made the most out of the days we had!
Other sights around Istanbul: