We had made friends for life while on a group backpacking trip across south-western Turkey. After a 10-day road trip, we were finally in the city of Istanbul. The sky had turned copper-sulphate-blue, and our camper-van did a continental crossing over the Bosphorus bridge – Asia was behind us, and Europe beckoned.
Bosphorous bridge in Istanbul that connects Asia and Europe.
Istanbul has fascinating layers of history and culture, acquired over time and its rulers. It is amongst the oldest still-inhabited spots in the world and had come to be known by many names – Constantinople, Byzantium and eventually, Istanbul. Taking a trip down memory lane, I have listed places to visit in Istanbul.
Get lost in Istanbul
1) Strolling around Sultanahmet
After checking in to our hotel, we decided to explore the Sultanahmet district. This is the old city of Constantinople surrounded by three water bodies – the Golden Horn, Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. We enjoyed strolling the cobbled streets with a nippy sea breeze and cries of seagulls for company. I chanced upon a shop selling lovely Turkish carpets, but dropped my plan to pick one up when the shopkeeper told me he sourced the carpets from Agra in India! I made a mental note to visit the carpet stores in Agra instead. The day ended with a farewell dinner at Sofa Cafe on Mimar Mehmet Ağa Cd, as we all continued on our respective journeys. I had decided to stay put in Istanbul for three more days. On the rooftop terrace, we enjoyed the sight of the six minars of the Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
2) Start the day with a visit to the Blue Mosque
Having been forewarned about the long queues, we decided to visit the Blue Mosque early in the morning. The Blue Mosque was built at the start of the 17th century, at the behest of Sultan Ahmet I of the Ottoman empire. With its high ornate ceilings and stained glass windows, I craned my neck up and marvelled at the beauty and scale. Note that you should dress appropriately and carry a headscarf when visiting the mosque. It’s an active mosque, so it’s important to make sure that you do not disturb the people at prayer.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
3) Get invigorated at a Turkish Hamam
One can thank the mighty Ottomans for having introduced the world to the indulgent bathing ritual of the Hamams. Istanbul has a number of historic Hamams, and you can choose from the Çemberlitaş Hamam (dating back to 1584), Cağaloğlu Hamam (built in 1741), Ağa Hamam, Çukurcuma (built in 1454) amongst others. A Hamam experience includes a shower, a sauna, an exfoliating scrub, a massage and lounging on a hot stone platform. You will be shaken, stirred and scrubbed squeaky clean.
4) Witness the sheer spectacle of Hagia Sofia
Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
Originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 AD by the Byzantine Emperor – Justinian I, the Hagia Sofia has metamorphosed from a Christian Cathedral of the Roman empire to an Eastern Orthodox cathedral to an Ottoman mosque to the present day secular museum (Ayasofya Müzesi). I will rank spending time here at the top of the list of things to do in Istanbul. You can spot ancient Christian mosaics, Islamic motifs and beautiful images of the Seraph, the six-winged angels. The massive central dome is about 180 feet high. From Hagia Sofia, head to the 15th-century Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman empire and admire the opulent architecture and interiors.
5) Enjoy Istanbul food along the Bosphorous
Istanbul street food
Take a tram to the Eminönü station at the southern end of the Galata bridge. You can spot locals lined up on the bridge and angling. Below the bridge are numerous cafes and eateries selling an assortment of Turkish delicacies, including ‘balik ekmek’ or fish bread sandwich, doner (Turkish kebab) and lahmacun (round, thin dough topped with minced meat, vegetables and herbs). After a hearty meal, you can catch a ferry from the Eminönü docks and set sail on the Bosphorus.
There are four piers with the destinations mentioned: Bosphorus (Boğaz), Golden Horn (Haliç), Kadıköy and Üsküdar and the ferries leave every half-hour. If a ferry ride is not your cup of tea, walk across the Galata bridge and check out the Galata tower. The nine-storeyed medieval stone tower is a top sight in Istanbul, and if you head to the restaurant on the upper floors, you will be rewarded with panoramic views of Istanbul. (Sunset views from the Galata Tower are highly recommended.)
6) At night, party at the Beyoğlu district.
On weekends, the party central of Istanbul comes alive. The main road – İstiklal Caddesi – is dotted with shops, rooftop bars, clubs, jazz cafes, dance clubs, and what not. Take a delightfully-slow ride on the classic red vintage trams running on the street. Check out the historic Çiçek Pasajı passage, now a covered arcade with cafes, pubs and wine-houses. For sweet tooth cravings, the heavenly baklava at the Turkish restaurant – Saray Muhallebicisi – Beyoğlu is a must.
İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul
For shopping at Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is a one stop shop, it is among the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. For souvenirs, pick up evil eye charms, spices, tea, rugs etc. For Turkish bath towels, Jennifer’s Hamam at Arasta Bazaar is a great store.