Top Picks for Istanbul (Plus a Photo Diary)
Top Picks for Istanbul (Plus a Photo Diary)
Istanbul is a city that requires great reserves of energy from the very start of your visit. It is an ancient city – it was founded by the Greek colonists around 660BC – with a great, seemingly endless array of historical sights, museums, mosques, shops, bazaars, hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes and whatnots. After all, according to some Istanbul is the largest city in Europe with the population of almost 15 million; however, since a considerable chunk of it is located in Asia, the largest city in Europe is in fact Moscow. The location of the city is stunning: it overspills from Europe into Asia across the glittering waters of Bosporus Strait, which forms a natural border between the two continents.
I suppose, like any other metropolis, Istanbul is the kind of destination where one needs to spend at least a few weeks in order to make it even remotely possible to explore and understand this vibrant city to its fullest. This metropolis is best visited in late spring or early autumn, when the temperatures are pleasantly warm and sunshine is abundant; this summer I made the mistake of going there in late July, and it was sizzling hot.
For my Istanbul post, I have handpicked a number of attractions, which I think are the ones that you ought to see if you have limited time in Istanbul.
If you only visit one historical building in Istanbul, make it this venerable basilica, one of the most bold and innovative feats of architecture of its time, and testament to the genius of man. Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, “Holy Wisdom”) is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, the basilica was consecrated as a Greek Orthodox Church in 537. The building was later converted into an Ottoman Mosque in 1453 and eventually secularised as a national museum in 1935. Hagia Basilica is perhaps the greatest architectural feat of antiquity; personally, I find Hagia Sophia more imposing than the Pantheon or the Coliseum in Rome. The basilica’s sheer size, the massive dome and the soaring height of its walls – considerably more impressive once you set your foot inside – are what make Hagia Sophia such a stupendous building. Stunning, intricate and extensive Byzantine mosaics representing religious motifs have been recently uncovered during extensive restorations.
Kariye Museum (the Chora Church)
This small, off-the-beaten track museum is a real Byzantine treasure. Its walls and ceilings are embellished with spectacular original mosaics and frescoes: sublime art of antiquity inspired by zealous religious beliefs. Since in the past Muslim iconoclasts plastered over the Christian art, the mosaics here have remained more or less intact, as they have at Hagia Sophia. There are still some renovation works being undertaken to further improve the state of this beautiful Byzantine art. Also of note, since Kariye Museum is a little hard to find, it is much less crowded than all the big historical sights in Istanbul.
Rustem Pasha Mosque
Rustem Pasha Mosque, built in 1561 by the Grand Vizier Rustem Pasha, is another hidden gem in Istanbul. This lovely mosque is located in the Western Districts, a short stroll from the Chora Church. The inside of the mosque is decorated with gorgeous blue tiles, plush red carpet and intricate chandeliers. Once inside, you are instantly overwhelmed with a sense of utter peace, since the majority of the time this mosque is virtually empty except for the welcome soft breeze caressing your face on a hot summer’s day.
Harem at the Topkapi palace
Regardless of the fact that the Harem forms a large chunk of the Topkapi palace, it seems to be overlooked by many visitors, since it has a separate entrance and an accompanying separate fee. The word harem originally comes from Arabic meaning forbidden. However, most people are mistaken in the actual concept of the harem: harem was the living quarters of the sultan and his extensive family, rather the erotic hothouse many people assume it to be. The “forbidden” aspect of harem stems from the fact that the living quarters of the palace were out of bounds for any men apart from the sultan, his sons and the black eunuchs, preferably from Sudan, who looked after the women. It offers a fascinating glimpse into what the daily lives of the royal family might have been like. The three hundred beautifully tiled rooms (only a handful of which are now open to the public) were once the living quarters for over a 1,000 women, children and eunuchs. Since Islam forbade enslaving Muslims, most of the girls living in the harem came from a Christian or Jewish background. The harem was usually ruled with an iron fist by the most powerful woman in the Ottoman Empire, the valide sultan or mother of the current sultan. Unfortunately, since the competition to become the mother of the ruling sultan was so fierce, the harem was a place of violence and unhappiness for the majority of its inhabitants.
Istanbul Modern Museum
Istanbul Modern Museum is a pleasant departure from the usual, expected Istanbul attractions. At some point during your visit, it is actually refreshing to take a break from the overwhelming abundance of history and get a feel for vibrant contemporary Turkish life and art.
This museum shows that contemporary Istanbul is so much more than grand mosques and palaces. Here you will find some permanent and temporary art exhibitions in different types of media: paintings, sculpture, photography, film. The location of the museum just by the waterfront is wonderful, which allows for a break for a lovely cup of coffee or an iced tea overlooking the Bosporus following a couple of hours of strolling through the galleries. Another great advantage of the museum is that it is light, airy and uncrowded, offering an oasis of cool, which is much needed in the scorching summer months.
Dolmabahçe Palace is a stunning palace, made even more so by the fact that it contains the largest collection of Baccarat and Bohemian crystal chandeliers in the world (and personally, I have a real weakness for crystal chandeliers)! This palace is quite a drastic departure from the medieval Topkapi palace, which by 19th century was becoming out-dated and much less luxurious and comfortable compared to contemporary European palaces. Located on the European coastline of the Bosporus, this was the home of the six ruling sultans from 1856 until 1922. The largest palace in Turkey is an eclectic mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and Rococo styles interspersed with elements of Ottoman architecture. The highlight of the palace is the magnificent ceremonial hall at the end of the tour with a huge 4.5 tonne chandelier gifted by Queen Victoria – the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier – as its centrepiece.
Have a lunch, dinner or drinks with a view
You cannot leave Istanbul without experiencing some of the best panoramic city views from the numerous rooftop restaurants and bars that this great city has to offer. Here are my favourites from all the ones that I tried:
Best for lunch: Cihannuma Restaurant
This restaurant is located on top of And Hotel in Sultanahmet , a stone throw’s away from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. This is actually the best place to get a coffee or a snack, since the area is teeming with overcrowded tourist traps. Cihannuma Restaurant has the most magnificent 360 degree views of the historical monuments and the Bosphorus. The food perhaps could be a little better, but I suppose most people (in the know) come here for the views.
Best for dinner: Topaz Restaurant
This fine dining restaurant with floor to ceiling windows has stunning views of the Bosphorus, the first bridge and the Dolmabahçe Mosque to go with delectable Turkish and Ottoman food. The prices are on the expensive side, but come here for a special occasion.
Best for a drink: NuTeras
From all the rooftop bars I tried, NuTeras offered the most incredible views. The bar itself is on the very edge of the roof, in the style of an infinity pool, ending with the beautiful view of the Bosphorus and city skyline. Try to go there on a weekday, since the bar gets incredibly busy on weekends, which would in defeat going the purpose of going there for a magnificent view.
Best places to eat
Best for modern Turkish: Lokanta Maya
Very chic interior, dimmed lighting and delicious contemporary take on Turkish cuisine. I think this might be my favourite dinner spot in Istanbul from my last visit!
Best for lokrum and all other things sweet: Hafiz Mustafa 1864
You cannot leave Istanbul without gorging, at least once, on some Turkish delight and baklava. “I do not have a sweet tooth” is not good enough of an excuse… Hafiz Mustafa is an inviting, bustling café just off Taksim square selling delicious local sweets, Turkish tea and coffee. It is open until late, so it is also perfect for a late night snack.
Best for Ottoman food: Asitane restaurant
A very elegant establishment with beautiful al fresco dining area. Just like the Chora Church, this restaurant is tucked away in a quiet street, slightly off-the-beaten path. Actually, SO off-the-beaten path, that our taxi driver accidentally dropped us off two miles away, pointing down some random busy street and telling us “ Go straight. Very close” Well, I always think its good to get some exercise to work up that appetite. I had a delicately delicious almond soup to start with, followed by some local white fish prepared simply but apparently ottoman style.
Best for coffee: Manuel Deli & Coffee
If you start craving some some excellent, Western-style coffee, head to this trendy coffee shop and deli, in the quiet street not far from the bustling İstiklal Avenue.
And of course a photo diary to finish this post!!!