Turkey

My Top Five Favorite Istanbul Experiences

Suleymaniye-Mosque

As I knew (hoped) it would, Istanbul did not disappoint me (okay, save for that one horrific taxi ride coming back from the Asian side to the European side). I love big cities especially ones with such an incredible history and culture and my god, does the former capital of the defunct Ottoman Empire have both. I saw and did a lot when I was there but rather have this be a long winded generic post about Istanbul attractions, here are my top five favorite experiences and why I loved them so.

  • Hagia Sofia

It’s hard to choose a favorite…okay, no it’s not. Hagia Sofia was truly the number one attraction I wanted to visit in Istanbul and it did not disappoint (even if parts of the interior were under scaffolding thus ruining any attempts for that picture perfect guidebook photo but hey, can’t complain too much when we’re talking about a still-standing building that was built in the 6th century.

Tips-for-visiting-Ayasofya Visiting-Hagia-Sophia

Even with said scaffolding (I’m two for two, what with outside parts of the gorgeous Church of the Savior on Spilled blood in St. Petersburg also having been under restoration during my visit there in 2018) the interior was mind-blowing. It’s one of those attractions that if you were ever brought to tears this might be it when you see the stunning mosaics, some of which are nearly a thousand years old, or the striking calligraphic panes featuring Arabic script and the most dazzling array of colors. Save for my preferred clothing color of black (sorry mom), yellow, golds, and oranges are my favorite color hues and Hagia Sofia has all of it.

Top-things-to-do-in-Sultanahmet What-should-you-visit-in-Istanbul

Don’t let the crowds make you feel rushed. Tune them out and just try to imagine the centuries upon centuries old history that this magnificent structure has borne witness to, starting from its day as a Byzantine church to a mosque and lastly, a museum (it became one in the 1930s).

Hagia-Sophia-Museum

The Red Headed Traveler’s tips for visiting:

-Hagia Sofia is open seven days a week, slightly longer hours during the peak visitor season

-It DOES cost to enter because it is a museum and no longer a house of worship

-Purchasing the Museum Pass may save on money if you visit enough of the attractions included on it (Topkapi Palace, Chora Church, and the Archaeological Museum are three of the more popular attractions featured), however, the big draw is that you avoid having to wait in line to enter

-If you don’t have a tour guide, be sure you have a guidebook like Rick Steves’ Istanbul which features  wonderful self-guided walking tour detailing many of the interior features you may otherwise miss

  • Basilica Cistern

I’ve seen and done a lot of unique experiences in my travels to almost 30 countries around the world. But Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern might just be the most unique one of them all. That shouldn’t come as any surprise once you learn that this cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and was the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city (back in the day it could hold 80,000 cubic meters of water).

What-to-do-in-Sultanahmet

This was definitely a spot where you just want to put away the camera and truly just take it in, where you’re actually standing because let’s face it, your pictures aren’t going to be the best due to the semi-darkness of the inside although two columns that reuse blocks carved with the face of Medusa are visibly prominent.

Basilica-Cistern

Another reason why it’s cool to visit? Two popular Hollywood films, the James Bond film From Russia with Love and 2016 film adaptation of the Dan Brown book Inferno both feature the Basilica Cistern quite prominently.

Attractions-in-Sultanahmet

The Red Headed Traveler’s tips for visiting:

-The Basilica Cistern is located less than 200 meters from Hagia Sofia, definitely plan your visit to coincide with that

-The lines to purchase your ticket will be long (this is NOT part of the Museum Pass). So either go first thing when they open at 9AM or later in the day (it closes at 5:30PM). Once you get inside, the crowds do open up since touring and navigating is at your leisure

  • Topkapi Palace

Topkapi is the Turkish version of Versailles Palace which was once home to Ottoman sultans (Muslim sovereigns). It served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the sultans; however, after the 17th century, Topkapi’s importance started to diminish and then finally in the 1850s, the court was moved to the newly built Dolmabahçe Palace along the banks of the Bosphorous (where there were numerous other Ottoman palaces too, I saw many of these stunning structures during my Bosphorous cruise).

Best-places-to-visit-in-Istanbul Best-things-to-do-in-Istanbul

Because Topkapi is comprised of four courtyards (and many smaller buildings), I found it was difficult to become “immersed” in my visit since there’s no continuity with what you’re seeing. It’s just a very different feel and experience than when visiting a European royal palace. A lot of the palace grounds were closed during my visit (early September 2019) including the Imperial Treasury (home to the world famous emerald dagger) and sections of the Harem (where the sultan’s mother, wives, concubines, servants, and children lived) so that was quite disappointing.

Top-attractions-in-Istanbul

Topkapi-ceilings

My favorite parts of Topkapi were the tiles, the ceilings, and the Harem. Even with the sections of it that were closed, it was still incredibly neat to enter this once closed off quarter of the palace. You would never guess when walking through the sections that are open to the public, that the Harem contains more than 400 rooms (remember, this is in ADDITION to the regular areas of Topkapi which is also massive). When I went through the Harem, the mobs of tour groups had not yet descended upon it so it was semi-quiet and deserted. Walking the long desolate feeling passage ways, you couldn’t help but think of the hundreds (if not thousands) of concubines and eunuchs who were captured as slaves in faraway lands and brought to Topkapi  to “serve.” You could definitely feel their presence still.

Top-places-to-visit-in-Istanbul Topkapi-Harem

The Red Headed Traveler’s tips for visiting:

-The Harem is a separate ticket from general admission to Topkapi and is NOT part of the Museum Pass

-If you wish to visit the Holy Relics Chamber or the mosque that is located on the grounds, you will need to have your shoulders, and knees covered, and for women, your head (remember to bring an extra scarf)

-Just be forewarned, the grounds of the palace will be BESET with large tour groups

-The palace is open everyday at 9 AM EXCEPT on Tuesdays when it is closed

Whats-the-best-way-to-see-Topkapi

Visiting-the-harem

  • Süleymaniye Mosque

Even though its one of Istanbul’s most photographed and famous landmarks, I’m not going to lie. I did not care for my visit to the Blue Mosque at all. Besides the fact that it was utterly mobbed with people, a lot of it was under restoration (as was all of Istanbul it seemed) so that made it somewhat difficult to fully enjoy and take in what you were seeing. With that said, I much preferred the slightly less visited and somewhat further afield Süleymaniye Mosque.

What-mosque-should-I-visit-in-Istanbul

As it’s not located in Sultanahmet but rather more in a residential/non-touristy area, it’s a little trickier to get to which is why most tourists would arrive either via tour bus or taxi. I was the former. I knew it would be beautiful but I had no idea just how beautiful it would be until I stepped inside and saw the magnificent interior.

How-to-visit-mosques-in-Istanbul

It was commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent and designed by the imperial architect Mimar Sinan (his apprentices later on would help design the Taj Mahal and the famous Stari Most bridge in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina). It’s the second largest mosque in the city and its largest Ottoman-era mosque. The interior so reminded me of La Mezquita in the Spanish city of Córdoba, especially the arches. It was definitely one of my favorite things to photograph when I was in Turkey.

Which-is-the-best-area-to-stay-in-Istanbul

The Red Headed Traveler’s tips for visiting:

-Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter during the call to prayer which takes place five times a day (in any mosque), just try to plan your visit accordingly or ask at your hotel when roughly they would be

-Be sure to go to the back of the mosque where you will be rewarded with the most incredible views of the Golden Horn and the “new” side of the European side (which is still centuries old)

-Females, you will need to have your heads covered, and both men and women, shorts/skirts/dresses must come below the knee, and shoulders also must be covered

Visiting-Suleymaniye-Mosque

Suleymaniye-Mosque

  • Chora Church

I know what you’re thinking, a church in Istanbul? But remember, Christianity in Turkey dates back to the 1st century-AD and was a prevalent part of its history up until the 15th when the Ottoman Turks seized what was then known as Constantinople. As such, Chora Church is a medieval Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church. Its rather nondescript from the outside but what most visitors come for are finest surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. What’s incredible is that these were only discovered after the building was secularized and turned into a museum (to think the mosacis were forgotten about and ignored from the time the church was turned into a mosque in the 16th century until 1948 when it became a museum).

Chora-Church Church-of-Chora

I found it most interesting when my tour guide told me that the “missing” parts of the mosaics were a result of the plunder and pillaging done by Crusaders. That’s how old they are…

Best-way-to-see-Chora-Museum

But no words can possibly do justice to these stunning works of art except seeing them in person (or at least by picture).

The Red Headed Traveler’s tips for visiting:

-Chora Church IS part of the museum pass

-Photography is permitted, just no flash (and they’re quite strict about enforcing this)

-As with many works of art, a guide to explain the scenes you’re looking at is invaluable. Otherwise you’ll leave there just feeling you’ve seen Jesus and Mary in some mosaics (never mind the pain staking level of detail)

Visiting-Chora-Museum

The Red Headed Traveler’s recommendation

Although I toured Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque on my own (armed with a reliable guidebook), I did book a half day tour with the company Guided Istanbul Tours. This allowed me to visit Süleymaniye Mosque and Chora Church, both of which are quite removed from Sultanahmet. The company was great (they always promptly responded to each and every one of my emails that I sent) and my guide Ozgur was fabulous (spoke wonderful English and extremely amiable and kind). I was picked up at my hotel and shuttled about in a private van. This tour was well worth the cost (just a note, they take cash only).

I also visited the Egyptian Spice Market and Taksim Square. I did a boat ride on the Bosphorous but since that was such a unique and memorable experience, I’ll be writing about that in a separate post.

What’s your favorite attraction in Istanbul?

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