The big attractions
Until now, I’ve avoided mentioning the big tourist attractions in Istanbul. Why is that? Because I hadn’t been to them! It’s taken me a few weeks, but I finally had a day to visit all of the major sites. Most of them are clustered in Sultanahmet, also known as the “historic district” and “Old Town” and what most people imagine when they think of Istanbul. The reality is that that district is a small fraction of the city and most residents avoid it as much as possible (like Times Square, they don’t really have any reason to go to it except to visit the sites or if they work there). Food is 10x more expensive than and not as good as the authentic, locally-owned cafes lining the streets of Ortaköy or Kadiköy. The only benefit is that it’s incredibly well connected to the rest of the city, so you may find yourself passing through if you need to get to the airport.
Enough neighborhood-bashing. Here are the big sites and what I thought of them.
It’s Istanbul’s most iconic (and Turkey’s most visited) landmark, perched on top of a hill and visible from miles away. It’s one of the most famous churches/mosques in the world, and caused the Russians to convert to Christianity. The Hagia Sophia is a remarkably well-preserved 1,500 year old house of worship. First constructed under the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it has survived fires, earthquakes, looting/sacking, and more, inspiring architects to this present day. The inside is what you’d expect: huge. Towering ceilings rise above you with both Christian icons and Islamic patterns. Beneath you lies 1,500 year old marble, cracked and worn from millions of feet. A must-see? Definitely.
Likely Istanbul’s second most famous mosque, the Blue Mosque was built by the Ottomans to make themselves feel more superior to their Hagia Sophia-building ancestors (heck, it’s right next door). However, it paid off. The Blue Mosque is stunning and features the most massive columns I’ve ever seen:
Intricate designs line the walls, which tower even higher (or so it seems) than the Hagia Sophia. The mosque is closed to the public during the ezan and 30 minutes following, so time your visit carefully (especially on Fridays). Oh, and one more tourist tip: letting shoes touch the carpet is a huge no-no (even if it’s outside).
I spent the most time inside Topkapi. The seat of power for hundreds of years is vast and intricate and sometimes a little confusing. However, it displays the wealth of the Ottoman Empire perfectly, with jeweled serving bowls, lush gardens, walls covered in expensive (hand-painted) tile, and living space for hundreds of staff. Of course, everyone wants to see the Harem, or the place where the Sultan and his family actually lived. It is definitely worth seeing, despite the extra 15 lira cost.
For me, however, the real excitement came in the treasure room. Five rooms filled with priceless items, each more valuable than the last. There’s a chest of jewels, the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, the Topkapi dagger, and hundreds of jeweled medals, rings, earrings, and swords. But then, you cross the yard into the former bathrooms, where the religious items are held. You’ll find pieces of the Ka’ba, Muhammad’s sword and beard, Moses’ staff (I’m a bit skeptical about that one), John’s turban, and more. How the Ottomans managed to get their hands on this incredible amount of wealth just goes to show how powerful Constantinople once was.
Another mosque, albeit less famous but no less grand. This was the ultimate Sultan who built his mosque on top of a hill so that it stands alongside Hagia Sophia as recognizable from miles away. It’s big- very big- and the views from the grounds are amazing (really nice view of the Bosphorus and Galata). It’s a bit far from the prior three sites and the tram, and required a separate day for me to visit. Still, because of its views and sheer size, it’s worth seeing (like the Blue Mosque, it closes during prayer).
Miles and miles of covered shops, selling everything from jewelry to carpets to gold, with passages twisting and turning every which way in order for you to get lost. What could be better in the former trading capital of the world? While its reputation certainly makes it a must-see, I found this site to be overly touristy and overrated. However, I’m neither a shopper, nor a crowded space person, and will happily accompany anyone who wants to visit. In the end it’s cool to see, but put it at the bottom of your list. If you do go, plan on spending an hour to 90 minutes trying to find your way out (hint: walk up).
It took me three tries to find it, but like the Grand Bazaar I discovered it to be slightly overrated. It is named correctly- there are spice shops everywhere and it smells wonderful, but it’s ruined by the tourist shops every five feet. If you’ve never seen spices in open bags, definitely make a visit (why can’t this exist in the US?), but again, don’t exclude Topkapi Palace for the sake of a few spices.
Just steps from my school in Beşiktaş is the “new” palace, which Ottomans built to appear more European in the face of the rising West. This palace is beautiful, with more natural light than Topkapi, gorgeous iron gates, and a location right on the edge of the Bosphorus. It’s far less of a tourist destination, being a mile away from the historic district, which means it’s easier to get around and find a quiet place. However, only guided tours are allowed inside, which means you have very little time to look at everything and you’re at the mercy of someone who either loves or hates their job. But that’s the only downside, so if you’re not palace-d out from Topkapi, it’s worth the trip. While you’re at it, take the opportunity to explore Kabataş, Besiktaş, and Ortaköy. They’re really nice neighborhoods.
TAKSIM SQUARE/ISTIKLAL STREET
It’s the Times Square of Istanbul- a massive space and a crowded shopping street in the heart of the city. It’s a fun way to get exercise (and a good place to go at night if you’re young), and be sure to stop in at St. Anthony’s Cathedral along the way. Just be wary of any protests- they can turn violent quickly and it’s best to head the other way if you see one.
Located across the Golden Horn from the main tourist zone and at the end of Istiklal Street, the Galata Tower towers over the rest of the surrounding neighborhood. It was the tallest building of its time and still offers panoramic views of Istanbul from its highest floors (plus a restaurant and night club). The line can get long as the day goes on (particularly at sunset) so plan your timing.