Istanbul is an ancient city. In its 26 centuries, it has been a Roman city, the capital of Christian Byzantium, and a Muslim stronghold. It’s a city of fascinating contrasts, where East and West collide and mingle, and past and present intertwine. If you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, here are seven things you absolutely can’t miss:
The magnificent Hagia Sofia is a stunning example of Byzantine architecture which has endured for nearly a millennia and a half. Constructed in 537 by the emperor Justinian, it was the largest cathedral in Christendom for almost a thousand years, and its 184-foot high dome was one of the wonders of the medieval world.
In its long history, it has been both a Christian church and a Muslim mosque, and finally, in 1935, a museum. The interior is decorated with frescoes and spectacular Byzantine mosaics, and has the largest calligraphic panels in the world. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. April through October, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March. Admission is 30 Turkish Lira, or about $12. Hagia Sofia is closed during the first days of Ramadan.
While wandering through a water storage facility might not sound like an exciting proposition, the Basilica Cistern is also a superb piece of Byzantine architecture worth seeing. At 2.4 acres, its sheer size is impressive, but what makes it worth visiting are the 336 marble columns and arches rising from the water. Sometimes called the Sunken Palace, it was built by emperor Justinian to serve the Great Palace, but was lost to history until the 16th century.
Today, it’s one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions, with raised wooden walkways, atmospheric lighting, and even a café. Admission is 10 TL, or about $4, and it’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Although it doesn’t get the attention of its big sister Hagia Sofia, Chora Church is the Sistine Chapel of the Byzantine world. Nestled in the lee of Istanbul’s ancient city walls, Chora Church is home to some of the most beautiful and unique examples of Byzantine art in existence. It too has been both a church and a mosque, destroyed and rebuilt, most recently in the 14th century. During its period as a mosque, the lovely Byzantine art was hidden, but was uncovered during the mid-twentieth century after its conversion to a museum.
Today, visitors can enjoy it in all its splendor for 15 Lira, or about $6. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through September, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March.
Built in the 1470s, Topkapi Palace is both the oldest and the largest palace still in existence in Turkey — the walls of the palace complex stretch an amazing five miles, and the complex itself occupies 700,000 square meters. It’s a classic example of Turkish palace architecture, consisting of multiple buildings, including the harem, and many shaded courtyards opening onto one another. In typical Turkish style, nearly every surface is adorned with art in some form, and the effect is truly breathtaking.
Today, the palace is a museum open to the public, with many fine collections, from porcelain and clocks to costumes of the Sultans. Admission is 30 TL, or about $12, but if you want to tour the harem, you’ll need a special ticket which costs an additional 15 TL. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day but Tuesday from April to October, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. November through March.
Consider booking a stay at the Holiday Inn Istanbul City during your visit if you want to have easy access to Topkapi Palace. The four-star hotel is a 20-minute cab ride from the mosque. This Holiday Inn’s location also offers easy access to Istanbul’s tram system, which means sites like the Grand Bazaar and Blue Mosque are only a short tram ride away. But if you prefer a different hotel for your Istanbul stay, there are a variety of centrally located hotels to choose from.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered shopping areas in the world — it’s the size of a village, with 60 streets and several thousand shops and restaurants. It’s a labyrinth of commerce, and includes two domed buildings, four fountains, and two mosques within its walls. Like so much in Istanbul, it is centuries old, and began life as a humble warehouse in the 15th century, creeping outward as the years passed and roofs were constructed over the streets between the warehouse and adjoining shops.
The Grand Bazaar is much more than a tourist trap. Both tourists and locals shop here, and you can find practically anything under the sun, from beautiful Turkish carpets to furniture, antiques, jewelry, and souvenirs. For a taste of authentic Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day but Sunday.
Also called the Egyptian Market, this gastronomic shopping center was built in the 1660s with the taxes from goods imported from Egypt. As the name implies, spices are the primary item sold here, along with nuts, dried fruits, and sweets. You will also find a large selection of cheeses, snacks, and some housewares.
The spice bazaar is an intoxicating experience, full of rich colors and scents, and is less touristy than some other shopping venues. However, to get the most for your money, there are a few simple rules that may be helpful. First, taste before buying whenever possible, especially when it comes to nuts and ground spices. Second, pay in Lira. While most vendors will accept foreign currency, you may not get a good exchange rate. Finally, shop where the locals shop. While the sleeker shops may make great photo opportunities, they won’t necessarily have the highest quality goods.
The spice bazaar is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday.
Rustem Pasha Mosque
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to a mosque, and near the Spice Bazaar is one of Istanbul’s hidden gems. The Rustem Pasha, although one of the smaller mosques in Istanbul, is also one of the most exquisite. It’s beautifully proportioned, with soaring ceilings and plenty of light and air, and is decorated with some of the most superb faience tiles ever created. This 16th century holy place is truly somewhat hidden — its entrance lies above the stalls of a market in the Eminönü neighborhood. It’s open every day except at prayer times.