There’s a bit of a stigma among experienced travellers when it comes to visiting ‘touristy spots’. All this talk of ‘finding off-the-beaten-track places’ and ‘seeking out local hideaways’ sometimes makes me feel like I’m somehow being a bad traveller if I only visit the main attractions…but when did the top attractions somehow become second class attractions?
Would you go to Berlin and not visit the East Side Gallery? To Prague and not walk across Charles Bridge? To Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower?
These places may be considered touristy, but for good reason! They’ve earned themselves the title and I don’t think a few camera-wielding tourists should keep me away from these sites..after all, aren’t I one of them?
During my trip to Istanbul last autumn, I visited every touristy site in the city, and you know what? I loved it! These places were drenched with history and the architecture had me craning my neck in every direction.
One of my favourite classes during my undergraduate degree was Islamic art and architecture. As you can probably imagine, many of Istanbul’s mosques made an appearance in my textbook. I was particularly fascinated by Hagia Sophia because this is a structure that changed roles multiple times over the centuries. It went from Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, to Roman Catholic cathedral, back to Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, to mosque, to museum. It saw empires rise and fall, and it’s still standing!
It’s an especially cool place if you’re an art history buff because you can see both Islamic and Christian elements in the structure and the decor. While the colourful Christian mosaics were plastered over once the cathedral was repurposed as a mosque, today many of those pieces have been uncovered and you can see striking images made up of tiny glass mosaics in shades of cobalt and gold. Meanwhile, inside Hagia Sophia you’ll also find Arabic scriptures from the Koran and structures like the minbar which allude to the building’s Islamic past. And let’s not forget about the 4 minarets which were added after its construction.
Another interesting little fact about Hagia Sophia is that it was built in 5 years and 10 months. To put it into perspective, it took medieval builders nearly a century to construct the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris! Of course, the short construction period of Hagia Sophia eventually lead to problems like the roof collapsing two decades later…
While in town, I couldn’t resist a visit to Topkapi Palace. This was the primary residence of the Ottomans for over 400 years and it’s one of the largest and oldest palaces to survive to our day.
To say this place oozes luxury is an understatement! The Ottomans spared no luxury and you can see this in the hand painted tiles, white marble floors, and intricate details around each doorway.
I found the Harem to be the most impressive part of Topkapi Palace. The Harem is where the living quarters were located, and this is where the Sultan and his many wives, concubines, and children would have lived. Topkapi Palace was much larger in its heyday than it is today, and back then the harem would have held around 400 rooms!
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the most iconic structures in Istanbul. While this isn’t the largest mosque in the city – that title goes off to the Süleymaniye Mosque – it is considered to be one of the greatest structures of the Ottoman Classical Period.
One of the features that immediately sets this mosque apart from the rest is that the Blue Mosque incorporated 6 minarets into its design rather than the standard 4.
While its interior is quite beautiful, it was the scale of the mosque as seen from the exterior that really wowed me.
If you get the chance, I would recommend sitting at the park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque during the call to prayer. Because the two buildings are so close to each other, the muezzins (the men who recite the prayers) have orchestrated it so that the cry goes back and forth between the two mosques. Rather than reciting the prayer over each other’s voices, they take turns reciting each of the verses and the result is a hauntingly beautiful song.
Because this mosque is still in use to this day, you need to time your visit just right. The call to prayer happens 5 times a day and the mosque closes for 90 minutes each time. You may want to avoid going on a Friday seeing as the mosque closes for 2 hours during the Friday midday prayers. You’ll also want to dress modestly. No shorts or sleeveless shirts on either men or women, and women will also be required to cover their heads with a scarf.
After visiting the Blue Mosque, it was a hop and a skip over to the Basilica Cistern. The cistern gets its name because it sits on the very same site where a great basilica from the Early Roman Age once stood.
As you step into this underworld you are met with rows upon rows of marble columns which were recycled from other buildings, so the place looks a lot more like a basilica than the water tank it really is.
Also, I liked the veil of mystery that surrounds the Basilica Cistern; at one corner of the cistern there are two giant Medusa heads but no one really knows how or why they ended up there. One head is upside down while the other is sitting on its side, and one of the rumours surrounding this is that this positioning was meant to negate the power of Medusa’s magic so that her gaze wouldn’t turn people into stone.
The Grand Bazaar
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without browsing through one of the largest markets in the world. The Grand Bazaar is believed to hold somewhere over 3,000 shops and it covers more than 60 streets. Add to that the fact that over a quarter of a million people visit this place daily, and you have a very dizzying maze.
To make things a little easier for shoppers, the market is actually divided into different sections specializing in different goods. Some alleys only sell teas and spices, others handwoven carpets, there are rows of shops that sell nothing but leather goods, and then there are sections that specialize in those beautiful glass lanterns that pop up whenever you google images of Istanbul.
Before you make it all the way out to the Grand Bazaar, however, just keep in mind that it is closed on Sundays and certain national and religious holiday. I managed to end up there on Republic Day and the gates were bolted shut. I took a little peek through the cracks and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to come back the following day.
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And that was my personal introduction to Istanbul. On top of that I ate plenty of Turkish delight, rode the red streetcar down Istiklal Avenue, attended a whirling dervish performance, took a boat ride down the Bosphorous, played with the city’s stray cats, ate lots of kofte and pide, and did just about every other touristy thing you can think of.
Yes, these are all things that have been done by travellers a million times before, but I couldn’t imagine visiting Istanbul without personally experiencing these things. So don’t shy away from the famed attractions – they’ve earned their status.
Have you been to Istanbul? What was your favourite attraction?