Where to Visit in Istanbul

Meeting Point of Two Continents, the Capital of Empires


Istanbul is like a painting which was delineated by the Byzantine Empire, and later colored by the monuments built by the Ottoman Sultans, Istanbul, where every vista exudes history and every corner turned brings a new splendor to your sight, served as the capital of the Byzantine and later Ottoman empires for more than 1500 years. Consequently it houses the most magnificent structures of both empires. It is the meeting point where two empires as well as two continents fused together. That geographic feature is reflected in the general characteristic of Istanbul, which introduces its European aspect while it keeps the mystery of Asia alive.
There are very few cities in the world like Istanbul that present matchless splendor. There are features of Istanbul that can only be learned by experience such as the cityscapes that are fit to be painted, monuments that are masterpieces of Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and a cultural fabric that is very difficult to define by words alone. With all those Istanbul deserves to be one of those places that should be visited at least once in a lifetime, and if visited once, it is never forgotten and captivates visitor for a repeat.

The Shortest Way to Learn the History of İstanbul: Excursion in the Historical Peninsula

The most magnificent monuments of İstanbul are located on the Historical Peninsula which is surrounded by the Marmara Sea to the west and south, and by the Golden Horn to the north. The Sultanahmet Square and its environs fit the definition of ‘open-air museum’ and it is the place where most of the magnificent monuments of Byzantine and Ottoman eras can be seen together.
The square which is full of tourists every day of the year and considered one of the most important tourism centres, used to be the centre of administration during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. During the Byzantine Era, the seat of power was Büyük Saray (Great Palace), the centre of religion was Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), and the centre of entertainment was the Hippodrome, and they were sited side-by-side. Ayasofya took its present form in 6th century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. Out of three central buildings of Byzantium, it is the one which stood the passage of time better. It is the masterpiece built during the zenith of the Byzantine Empire, and it resisted fifteen hundred years against several severe earthquakes and firestorms devastating the city. The sanctity of Ayasofya was not lost after the conquest of İstanbul by the Ottoman Empire, and the royal architect Mimar Sinan (Sinan the Architect) put his genius into hard work to ensure that Ayasofya would endure the time and tribulations to come. Its magnificent architecture and Byzantine mosaics dating to the period between the 9th and 12th centuries as well as the calligraphic masterpieces of the Ottoman Era render Ayasofya the place must be visited while in İstanbul.
Leaving Ayasofya behind, the Hippodrome marks itself with two obelisks and another monument in between them. Besides entertainment, it was also the scene of many riots, victories and massacres in the Byzantine Era. Only a small section of the southern part reached to our times, but even that is sufficient to indicate what a magnificent building the Hippodrome was in its time.

Three monuments marking the central line of the Hippodrome are still standing tall. Two of them are older than the Hippodrome, which is about two thousand years old. They were brought from different locations to beautify İstanbul during its foundation years. First of them is Dikilitaş (Obelisk) dating to 1550 BC, which was brought from Egypt and erected on the plinth with great difficulty. The plinth depicts the horse and chariot racing scenes as well as the wars and victories of Theodosius who erected the Obelisk in 390 AD onto the plinth.

The bronze Yılanlı Sütun (Serpentine Column) erected next to the Obelisk was made in the 5th century BC. It was made by melting the trophies from the Persians after a victory. It was brought to the present site from the Temple of Apollo in Delphi by Constantine and erected right in the centre of the Hippodrome. It depicted three entwined serpents; however, their heads were broken off at a later time. One of the heads was found during the excavations, and can be seen at the İstanbul Archaeological Museum.

The last monument is Örme Sütun (Walled Obelisk) from 944 AD. As the stud marks indicate, it used to be clad with gilded bronze plaques. Those plaques were removed, melted and used in making arms and minting coins during the Latin invasion of İstanbul.

The Great Palace which was the seat of power during the Byzantine Era has been used without interruption between the 4th and 10th centuries.  After the 10th century it has gradually lost its importance and abandoned, and today there are very few remains of the magnificent palace. The most important relic is the mosaic floor which might be related to a courtyard or a hall. The mosaics dating to 450-550 AD are one of the best examples of early Byzantine arts. They depict the daily life and contain many realistically rendered figures.

As we have already mentioned Sultanahmet Square and its environs maintained their importance as the administrative, religious and social centre during the Ottoman Era. In the foremost place was the Topkapi Palace as the centre of Ottoman administration and the residence of many Ottoman Sultans. The Palace was originally a complex of ancillary buildings which had been used about four centuries without a break; and during the mid-19th century when the palaces along the shores of Istanbul Strait were built, it was abandoned. Including courtyards such as Alay Meydanı (Parade Ground; the first courtyard) and Divan Meydanı (Courtyard of the Imperial Council; the second courtyard), administrative buildings and Harem (private apartments of the sultan), the Topkapi Palace serves as a museum today.

The Ottoman Sultans commissioned mosques which were designed and built to be stupendous structures while Topkapi Palace, their residential building, was a collection of quite simple buildings. This is a distinctive contrast which can only be construed by the deep seated belief system of Islam. Even the Harem, which was not seen by anybody but the Sultan and very few trusted servants for centuries, and consequently depicted by many fascinated European artists in stories and paintings on the basis of the romantic imagination, was actually quite a simple structure like the rest of the Palace. However, the internal decorations were not so simple. The tile decorations were eye dazzling, and many rooms were associated with the Sultan who commissioned them. Like whole Topkapi Palace, Harem has been expanded over the years by addition of diverse structures to reach to its present form. The most visited sections are Harem and the rooms clustered around the Third Courtyard. Most of the invaluable masterpieces of the Imperial Treasury, by their inherent value as well as by their association of the history, have been exhibited in that part.

There are many museums in İstanbul. However the most important ones are the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Ancient Orient, and Çinili Köşk (Tiled Kiosk) Museum, which are located side-by-side in the place called Sur-i Sultani within the royal walls encompassing the Topkapi Palace. The İstanbul Archaeological Museum is among the most prominent museums of the world, which houses a very rich collection of artefacts and masterpieces found in various sites in Anatolia and other lands used to be part of the Ottoman Empire. While a greater interest is shown to the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and the Sarcophagus of Crying Women, thoroughly enjoying the whole collection deserves spending hours. The Museum of Ancient Orient has a collection of 75.000 cuneiform tablets, and the tablet containing the Kadesh Peace Treaty, the oldest written agreement between states, is on permanent display. In the Çinili Köşk Museum, converted to a museum from a building which dates back to 1472, the rarest tile and ceramic works from the Seljuk and Ottoman eras are on display.

One of the most beautiful and attractive mosques of İstanbul is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, which is located next to Ayasofya. It is also known as the Blue Mosque due to the twenty-one thousand and forty-three tiles used for its internal decoration. Those tiles were handcrafted in 16th century at the workshops in İznik, the prime centre for glazed ceramics. Although they seem similar to each other, each tile was separately hand painted to a different pattern.

Although not comparable to the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, another mosque famous for its ceramic tiles is the Rüstem Paşa Mosque which was designed and built by the royal architect Mimar Sinan for the Grand Vizier Rüstem Pasha. It is one of those old structures hidden behind the buildings of later years along the coast of Haliç (Golden Horn), so a guide is needed to find it.

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As most of the prominent Byzantine structures, the monumental buildings of Ottoman Era are situated within the Historical Peninsula, and all can be seen in a daily excursion. Among those the most prominent ones are the structures designed and built by the royal architect, Mimar Sinan. Süleymaniye Mosque is conspicuous and visible from many parts of İstanbul, and it is the best example of masterpieces of Mimar Sinan in İstanbul. It has an impressive architecture on a side with commanding views over İstanbul. However, there are other features indicating the genius of Mimar Sinan in the design of the mosque. One of the most interesting features is the system of air current created by the architectural features of the building directing the soot of the hundreds of candles burning in the mosque to a single receptacle on top of the entrance gate, the so-called soot room, where the soot is accumulated. The Tomb of Süleyman the Magnificent with its dome internally decorated with precious stones creating the sensation of as if looking to the sky in a clear starry night is in the gardens of the mosque. Also the tomb of Hürrem Sultana (Roxelana), the beloved wife of Süleyman the Magnificent who was as famous as himself in the Ottoman history, is in the gardens of the mosque.

İstanbul is a city where the communities from different religions lived together in peace and harmony. Finding the structures and masterpieces of the three principal religions together is due to the tolerance and friendship. Following the coast of the Golden Horn towards Balat and Fener will bring some of those masterpieces before you. Synagogues, churches and mosques built during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras can be seen located next to each other. Towards the end of the Golden Horn of the Byzantine stands Eyüp, one of the holy sites of Ottoman Era, full of tombs and graves.

Other Sides of İstanbul

While the centre of tourism in İstanbul, where the most magnificent masterpieces are clustered, is the Historical Peninsula, there are many other spots worth a visit. Karaköy, the commercial harbour during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, and its environs as well as Kadıköy, the Asian side of İstanbul, are among them.

An excursion from Karaköy to Ortaköy along the Strait will bring you successive masterpieces, most of which were built by Mimar Sinan. Among those buildings the following are remarkable examples: Sokollu Mehmet Paşa Mosque, located near the Atatürk Bridge which is connecting the Historical Peninsula and Galata; Rüstem Paşa Caravanserai, which welcomed the traders and visitors of İstanbul for centuries; Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque and Complex, built for the Ottoman Grand Admiral Kılıç Ali Pasha; Cihangir Mosque, which experienced seven fire disasters and altered substantially during repairs, but the original features can be seen in the courtyard; Fındıklı-Mosque, which was built right at the shore of the Strait; Tomb of Barbaros Hayrettin Paşa, one of the most revered grand admirals of the Ottoman Empire; Sinan Paşa Mosque, which was the mariners’ mosque where they performed namaz (Islamic prayer session) before departing for a campaign; Tomb of Yahya Efendi, the sentinel of the Strait; Hüsrev Kethüda Hammam, the former bathhouse which is now serving as a restaurant.

Most of those buildings are works of the architect royal, Mimar Sinan. There are also masterpieces of late Ottoman Era. Following the abandonment of the Topkapi Palace, the Ottoman Sultans and their families lived in palaces built along the shore of the Strait. While walking from Karaköy to Ortaköy, the visitors will see first the Dolmabahçe Palace, and then the Çırağan Palace. The Yıldız Palace is not on the shore, but set in the Yıldız Park on top of the hill with a commanding view over İstanbul.

Mosques belonging to the late Ottoman Era can also be seen here. Those structures reflect the impressions of the European styles in Ottoman architecture, and differ from the classical Ottoman architecture in many aspects. As we have seen in the structures designed and built by Mimar Sinan, the Ottoman mosques used to have quite simple facades, however, those structures have exaggeratedly decorated facades. The most remarkable examples of the new style are the Dolmabahçe Mosque from 1853, and the Ortaköy Mosque which is the symbol of Ortaköy.

The lively venues of entertainment of Istanbul are situated in Beyoğlu, especially along the İstiklal Caddesi (İstiklal Street), the spine of entertainment and fun. The shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants lining the İstiklal Street, is open for entertainment and shopping during the day and night.

The Asian side of İstanbul used to serve as the hunting grounds and hideaway site of the emperors during the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Even today that area is not as crowded as the central parts of İstanbul. Two remarkable structures of the Asian side are the Beylerbeyi Palace, which is yet another example of palaces of the late Ottoman Era, and the Haydarpaşa Train Station, which was built in 1908 and was the first site of arrival for anyone coming from Anatolia. A very prominent area of the Asian side of İstanbul was dedicated to graveyards. Moslem, Christian and Jewish cemeteries located side-by-side reflect the cheek by jowl characteristic of existence of different religions in the Ottoman Empire.

A structure hard to decide in which side of İstanbul, the Asian or European side, it is located is also an important landmark of İstanbul. Kız Kulesi (Leander’s Tower) set in the middle of the Strait, and has been subject of many legends and tales. Those legends and tales render the structure more interesting to visit. Although it was used for a while as a prison the structure was actually built as a lighthouse in 12th century during the Byzantine Era to direct the ships.

Shopping, Food and Drink Venues

At present Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar) and Mısır Çarşısı (Spice Bazaar) are among the first stops in İstanbul both for foreign and domestic visitors. Thousands of shops are clustered in those markets, and visitors looking for antique dealers, jewelers, accessories and souvenirs of İstanbul must drop by. The street along the rear side of the Grand Bazaar, there are shops selling carpets and kilims, and gift items and souvenirs can be purchased at the Arasta Market behind the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, and at many shops scattered around the Sultanahmet Square.

Along the both sides of İstiklal Street, there are shops and boutiques selling worldwide brands, and there are many smaller shops in the side passages where clothing items and accessories can be found. Also the internationally renowned brands can be found in Rumeli Street at Harbiye, and Bağdat Street in Kadıköy. Of course, if you do not want to walk along the streets for shopping, you can find almost all brands and products in modern shopping centres scattered around İstanbul.

The finest examples of Turkish and international cuisine can be found at the luxurious restaurants providing fantastic vistas over İstanbul, as well as historical buildings such as Galata Tower and Leander’s Tower. Our advice to visitors is to taste the Turkish cuisine which is considered to be one of the three grand cuisines of the world. However, if your preference is different cuisines of the world, there are restaurants serving Iranian, Russian, Argentinean cuisines and many others along the İstiklal Street. One of the privileges of being in İstanbul is to eat grilled fresh fish and other seafood in one of those seafood restaurants scattered along the coast of the P İstanbul Strait enjoying the seascapes of this unique city.

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