A melting pot. You can say that about Istanbul. A city that captured my imagination for a long time. From books, stories and tips from people who had visited the city.
A place where Europe meets Asia. People are loud and busy. Except for dozens of men standing on the huge bridges, fishing and therefore staring at the water. Relaxed, waiting for that fish to bite. Istanbul is a city with a very rich history. And when someone says history, then this history-nerd is definitely ready for a city trip.
Castles, churches, mosques, old towers, bridges, small streets, old markets. I can’t get enough of it. From an early age I carried my parents and sister along to buildings of old stacked stones. Why this fascination? No idea. Perhaps the children’s book writer Thea Beckman made me enthusiastic. Or just old-fashioned fairy tales. Let’s keep it to, wonder, awe and a little bit of mystery.
And so you walk through Istanbul, full of wonder. For all those beautiful buildings that are still there. Awe, for the fact that these walls, courtyards and rooms have seen and heard everything for ages. And a mystery, because we can only imagine how this city has developed over the centuries.
A city with so many sights and activities requires a good planning of your city trip. There are a number of things that you simply can’t miss. A few obvious choices, but hey, I think you will only get to know a city better if you stay for a long time or visit more often. So for all the Istanbul rookies, here are my favourites:
1. Hagia Sophia
Speaking of ancient buildings. Small fact. This church was completed in the year 537. In other words, this church is already standing for almost 1500 years. 1500 years! Unbelievable. Did I just write down church and not mosque? Correct. Until the Ottomans conquered the Christian city (Constantinople), the Hagia Sophia was a church, only then turned into a mosque. The dome is gigantic and from the inside it is overwhelming. When the sunlight is coming in through the countless windows the ceiling looks like pure gold. The walls and corridors have been painted, but luckily some of the ancient mosaics are preserved. They are absolutely stunning.
2. Blue Mosque
Like the Hagia Sophia the Blue Mosque is as beautiful. A mosque that calls for prayer five times a day. During prayer it is not possible to visit the mosque as a tourist, but in between it is. Everyone must take off their shoes before entering. Wearing shorts or sleeveless shirts are not allowed. Women are expected to cover their head. This lady has behaved nicely and fortunately almost everyone respected the rules of this mosque. You are constantly looking up at the many domes that are richly decorated. It was quiet inside and everyone spoke in a muted voice. A good place for meditation. If you are Muslim at least.
3. Yerebatan Sarayi
As a real water manager (oh, I studied for that) you can’t escape visiting this ancient water reservoir under the city. Through a small staircase you descend to a particularly beautiful colonnade below the ground. The columns and the immense space itself are illuminated with dim light from below. It smells like old water, but it is certainly not dirty. You can make a small tour on wooden platforms. A good space for telling ghost stories or for a film set if you ask me.
4. Grand Bazaar and Hamam
This is a market where you can get lost completely. There is so much to see, so much to smell. It is an orderly chaos. With lots of great food stalls, fruit, nuts, herbs, bread…you name it. Silverware, gold, clothing, beautiful scarves. You have to like crowded places otherwise you might have problem here. I thought it was a delight to wander around and take in all the liveliness of this colourful beehive.
Do not forget to visit the largest and oldest hammam located next to the entrance of the Grand Bazaar. Treat yourself with a good scrub, steam bath or massage. You need to undress completely, but you will receive a thin cotton towel to cover yourself. Within a kind of dome, there is this massive stone table where many people are washed and scrubbed at the same time. Big Turkish ladies with moustaches will treat you kind but are firm haha. Check for Çemberlitaş Hamami.
5. Topkapi Palace
Yes, Istanbul has a palace. A bit of a strange palace actually. Do not expect Versailles along the Bosporus. This palace is rather a small maze of all kinds of courtyards and small rooms. Ultimately a gigantic complex with an amazing view over the city and the river. There is lots of splendour at display that has been preserved over the centuries fortunately. Definitely worth a visit!
6. Boat trip on the Bosporus
Water. It always keeps attracting. It makes a city attractive, spatial. The feeling that you can escape from all the concrete and tarmac. Despite my wonder to all the old things, enough is enough. Time for a boat trip. There are dozens of ferries along the quays, so how we ended up on the right one I don’t know anymore. We chose to sail to the Asian part. Simply, just to literally set a foot on Asia. Get yourself a breath of fresh air, take some great pictures, enjoy the busy seagulls and get back into the city again.
In case you are going to book your trip to Istanbul soon, order your copy of the Lonely Planet via The Bookdepository and click here. Or order through Amazon and click on the book below.
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