On and Off the Beaten Path in Istanbul, Türkiye

Istanbul, Türkiye

It is hard to think of another city with a richer history or more blended cultures than the capital city of Türkiye, Istanbul. There’s evidence that Neolithic people lived in the region as long as 7,500 years ago. It has been an established city for 2,600 years, and it has been the center of Empires for a total of 1600 of those years.

And culture? Well, just remember when you speak of Byzantine Art that the city's original name was Byzantium, which should give you some idea of its impact on art and architecture.

Cultures have blended over time as well. First settled by the Greeks around 660 BCE, it was briefly in the hands of Persia until reclaimed by the Greeks in the Greco-Persian War. Greece gave way to Rome in the 4th Century AD when The Roman Empire moved in. Shortly after that, the name was changed to Constantinople to honor Emperor Constantine, and it became the new capital of the Holy Roman Empire and a center for Christianity. The famed Hagia Sophia, in fact, was originally constructed as a Christian church. For centuries, Constantinople was the most important city in the world.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and its conqueror, Sultan Mehmed, immediately began to rebuild the city, declaring it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, converting the Hagia Sophia to a Muslim Mosque, and in a surprising move, opening the city to European visitors and tradesmen. This was an important factor in today’s highly cosmopolitan Istanbul.

The city was not known as Istanbul until 1930, when the name was officially changed. Istanbul translates from Turkish through Greek as “to the city,”—which seems fitting since, for so many centuries, it was the city. Today it remains the most populous city in Europe with over 15 million residents, and is visited by almost 13 million tourists each year.

Tourist Attractions

The Obelisk of Theodosius in in the Sultanahmet Square.
The Obelisk of Theodosius in in the Sultanahmet Square. |©iStock/ZZ3701

Some of the more popular tourist destinations are all grouped within comfortable walking distance from each other in the Sultan Ahmet neighborhood. Central to this district is the Sultanahmet Meydani, a public square also known as the Hippodrome. It gets its name from the Greek word “hippodromos," a stadium for horse and chariot racing.

You can still walk along the oval path that was once a racetrack. In the center walkway of this large rectangular park is the Obelisk of Theodosius, transplanted from Egypt in the 4th century AD with hieroglyphics dating back to 1400 BCE. Just south of the Obelisk is the smaller Serpent Column, a Greek artifact commemorating an ancient battle, unfortunately missing the serpent’s heads that once adorned the top. At the north end of the Hippodrome is the relatively new German Fountain, built in 1898.

But most of the people who come to the Hippodrome are there for the two main attractions: the mosques of Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet, more popularly known as the Blue Mosque. These mosques are both open to the public free of charge when not in use—but the lines to get inside can be quite long.

You should also know that there is a strict dress code in place for these and a few other holy sites. Bare shoulders are not permitted, and men are not allowed to wear shorts. Women must cover their heads (shawls are provided for loan if needed) and also may not wear shorts or short skirts. Lastly, everyone must remove their shoes before entering, so wearing footwear that is easy to slip on and off is a good idea.

Hagia Sophia

Inside Hagia Sophia.
Inside Hagia Sophia. |©iStock/muharremz

The Hagia Sophia, which means “Holy Wisdom,” sits at the northeast corner of the Hippodrome and is arguably one of the oldest and most visited religious sites in the world, with a fascinating history. The site was originally an Eastern Orthodox church when the first version was built in 360AD. Most of the current structure was ordered built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I beginning in 532AD, and when it was completed five years later, it boasted the world’s largest interior space under a huge dome.

It remained an Orthodox Church until 1204, when, during the Fourth Crusade, it was sanctified as a Catholic Church. That lasted just 57 years, as control of the city once again fell into the hands of the Byzantine Empire. It stayed an Eastern Orthodox stronghold until the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. At this point, it became the largest mosque in the world, and the building was improved and expanded, with the minarets added to the grounds surrounding the edifice.

There have been several updates and improvements over the years since, especially starting in 1935 when the mosque was declared a museum. There were times in the 20th century when it looked like the famous structure might be allowed to deteriorate, but the World Monument Fund and the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism combined to save the structure. Finally, just as recently as 2020, the building was returned to the status of a functioning mosque, which still allows millions of tourists a year to visit.

The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. |©iStock/Luca Vitiello

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque sits across a plaza from the Hagia Sophia and adjacent to the Hippodrome. It is stunningly beautiful on the outside and inside, featuring a large central dome surrounded by four smaller domes and six minarets. The light blue color of the domes gives it the more common name of the Blue Mosque, although it is also sometimes called the “new mosque” since it is “only” about 400 years old.

A large courtyard on the west side of the structure allows for breathtaking views of the arches along the entrances for the faithful. The interior is truly stunning, with incredibly intricate and detailed tile work and stained-glass windows.

Worth a visit on the grounds of the mosque in the Mausoleum of Ahmed I. It is a small domed structure that houses the tombs of Sultan Ahmet I, his wife, his sons, and dozens of others. The peaked coffins are arranged in neat rows and covered with elaborately embroidered fabric. The interior is a dazzling display of tile, calligraphy, and stained glass you can examine as you travel around the carpeted walkway that surrounds the tombs.

Other Sites Near the Hippodrome

There are several museums in this part of town as well worth exploring, the largest being the Hagia Sophia History Museum. Although a bit pricey at €25 per person, the multi-media tour does provide a fascinating and informative look at the long and varied history of the Hagia Sophia.

Another must-see attraction across the Alemdar Road from the Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. Open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day, for an entry fee of about $12, visitors can stroll along a metal walkway inside the largest underground cistern in the city. Built in the third and fourth centuries, it was the major water supply for the Constantinople and Topkapi Palaces.

The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern|©iStock/TommasoT

The size is truly impressive. The cistern is over 100,000 square feet and can hold almost 3,000,000 cubic feet of water. You walk on steel walkways above the water under the huge domed brick ceiling, supported by arches and 336 marble columns, each 30 feet tall. Nowadays, there is just a few feet of water maintained inside, and colorful lights cycle through displays to accent the beauty of some of the carvings at the bases of the columns, as well as the statues and other art scattered about the cistern.

A short walk north of the Hippodrome will bring you to the Topkapi Palace Complex. Today, it is a large, sprawling museum, but for almost 400 years, it was the home of the Sultans and the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. Admission fees begin around $30 and go up from there, depending on how much of the complex you wish to see, whether you would like to join a tour group or book a private tour, and so on.

The Palace grounds are divided into four courtyards and many buildings, taking up over 7 million square feet of real estate on the Golden Horn—where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Marmara Sea. In fact, there is a viewing area by the Bosphorus where you can look across the strait to see the Asian side of Istanbul.

In the many museums, you can view clothing, jewelry, cooking equipment and procedures, dinnerware, coins, and even a room of Holy Relics. On display, there are items purporting to be famous pieces of history, like the walking staff of Moses and the Sword of David. You can also tour the Sultan’s living quarters and even take a tour through the harem—currently unoccupied, unfortunately.

The Markets

The Grand Bazaar is one of the world's oldest markets.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the world's oldest markets. |©iStock/GISTEL Cezary Wojtkowski

Just a mile or so to the northwest of the Topkapi Palace are two famous marketplaces, the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. Both are large, covered markets and very much worth a visit. Both are accessible by tram line or cabs if you are not up to the walk.

The Grand Bazaar is probably the world’s first shopping mall, with its construction beginning back in 1455. It is certainly one of the largest covered markets in the world, as its shops and stalls take up over 330,000 square feet, contain 61 hallways, and over 4,000 shops.

It is also very busy, attracting anywhere from 250,000 to 400,000 shoppers every day. You enter through one of four main gates and are immediately surrounded by colorful shops and displays of all manner of goods. The curved ceilings arch high above and are decorated with colorful tiles and geometric panels. Large windows allow natural light to augment the brightly lit storefronts.

Although much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar, better known as the Spice Market, is still a very impressive establishment. Also known as the “new” market (construction started about 200 years after the Grand Bazaar), the Spice Market has only about 85 shops, most of them selling spices, nuts, dried fruit and Turkish Delight.

Turkish Delight is a type of sweet treat formed into a roll and then served by cutting off segments. There is a stunning variety of Delights available, but most contain some combination of sugar, gelatin, chocolate or caramel, and crushed nuts. You can make quite a meal by sampling all of the varieties—and seems as if every vendor wants to give out free samples.

Like its larger cousin, the Spice Market has curved vaulted ceilings and semi-circular windows, decorated with tiles and designs. Famous around the world as the place to buy the best and freshest spices, in recent years, other types of shops have begun to move in as well. During my visit, for example, I found a shop selling musical instruments, several jewelry outlets, hookahs, the inevitable rug merchants, and, of course, the popular multi-colored Turkish Lamps.

The Neighborhoods

Any visit to Istanbul should also include some time just exploring the neighborhoods away from the tourist attractions in this ancient city. Each section has its own charm and ambiance, and you don’t need to walk very far before you are in a different section with a unique identity. As is true in most cities, some of the best food can be found in the smaller, family-run restaurants populated mainly by the locals.

For those into tours, there are agencies all about the city offering guided tours of the local sites, dinner cruises on the Bosphorus, sightseeing trips out into the countryside, and even hot air balloon adventures. Whether you have a few days, a few weeks, or even longer to visit, you will find something for everyone and plenty of fascinating things to see and do in Istanbul, a city overflowing with history and culture.

Travel to Asia and Back For Only $2.20

Have you always wanted to visit Asia, but it seemed like just a little too expensive to get there and back? Well, I found a way to visit the continent for just a couple of bucks! In fact, it was so cheap and easy to get there that my wife and I popped over to Asia just to have lunch.

Of course, we cheated a bit—we were already in Istanbul, Türkiye. Türkiye is a little unique in that while part of the country is in Eastern Europe, the bulk of the nation is across the Bosphorus Strait in the continent of Asia. Most of the famous tourist attractions in its largest city and the capital, Istanbul, are on the western bank of Europe—but Istanbul also includes a section of the eastern shore in Asia.

In addition to two bridges for vehicle traffic, there is regular ferry service between the two continents. We were able to catch the short ride from the Eminönü station on the European side to the Karaköy station in Asia for just under 1 Euro each—$1.10 at that day’s exchange rate.

Rather surprisingly, there was a recognizable difference on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Not only superficial things, like trolleys and busses of different styles and colors but even the architecture was somewhat changed. There were also different food items on the menus as we explored our options in the busy marketplace.

After a great lunch at the Café Raga, we worked our way back to the docks and handed over another $1.10 to return to Europe, as, unfortunately, it was our last day in Istanbul. But you can be sure if we ever return, we will definitely invest a couple of dollars on a longer visit to the Asian continent!

Visiting Türkiye? You’ll Need This!

In the November 2023 issue of International Living Magazine, readers were alerted that the new ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorization System) is going into effect sometime in 2024, requiring online registration and a fee. Travelers planning a trip to visit The Republic of Türkiye should also know that there is already a new entry permit procedure in effect.

Even those entering the country on a valid passport that allows a 90-day stay must still complete the new “A2” form and pay a fee of $50 (for US and Canadian citizens. Fee may vary for different countries) to clear passport control. If you arrive without one, you can purchase one at the airport. However, if your flight arrives early in the day or late in the evening, you may have a long wait—and be prepared to pay in cash.

Fortunately, there is a much easier method. I personally did not know about this new visa requirement until I was checking in for a flight from Athens, Greece, to Istanbul. While we waited for our flight, I was able to log into the Electronic Visa Application System (https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/) on my phone.

The process is simple: just enter the requested information from your passport and your arrival date in Türkiye, and pay the fee. All major credit cards are accepted, along with other payment methods. You will quickly receive an email with a link to download the e-visa. This can be saved to your phone, so it is available even offline.

At passport control in Istanbul, I simply held up my phone, showing the e-visa. The agent just glanced and nodded, never asking to see the one for my wife, as the e-visa is linked to your passport number. Only those with paper copies were required to show the documentation.

So, if your travel plans include a visit to The Republic of Türkiye, save yourself some time and hassle by applying for your e-visa in advance.