We booked our tickets to Turkey on a whim. We had heard of her charms and wonders, but we were completely unaware of the magical place that is Istanbul. Istanbul is perched on both sides of the mouth of the Bosporus Strait that connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
There are views of the water at every turn in the grand city. We were in for a few surprises during out limited time in the city on two continents. Here are a few of our ideas for a two-day stay.
If you follow the fighting couple at all you know Luci is a huge fan of breakfast. Istanbulians know a thing or two about breakfast. Due to the geography of the city, you are going to be hiking up and down hills. Eating a hearty breakfast is mandatory. We love their olives, honey, and flat breads. They usually offer a selection of cold meats as well. One of the delicacies of the Turkish breakfast is called Sucuklu Yumurta. It is a spicy mix of eggs and sausage. We are not big coffee drinkers, but Turkish coffee is world-renowned. We hear it can be on the strong side. Beware.
Strap on you good walking shoes and let’s go!
The Christian cathedral turned mosque turned museum was our next stop on our tour of Istanbul. Hagia Sophia means Holy Wisdom in Latin and built by the Emperor Justinian in 537ish. The cathedral was the largest building in the world for over a 1000 years. As we wandered around the place, we were struck about how huge it feels today, 1500 years later. As we mentioned earlier, it is no longer a function house of worship, so there are not any special clothing requirements to enter. Voices do carry in the dome, so keeping a respectable volume is appropriate.
In the mid 1450s the Ottomans captured the city and Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque. Many Turkish religious buildings would be built in the same manner. In 1931, the building became the functioning museum that it is today. You can see both religions on display within the wonderful dome. As you walk in there are two huge water vases that were used to wash prior to religious participation.
Our next stop is just across the way from the Hagia Sophia: The Blue Mosque. The mosque is nicked name for its deep azure blue tiles in the interior. The full name of the mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was constructed in the early 1600s and continues to function as a house of Islamic worship. Please keep this in mind during your visit. You will be asked to remove your shoes and the women are asked to wear modest clothing and cover their heads. Head coverings are available free of charge at the entry gate. Do you research on when to visit to avoid prayer time.
We hope, like us, you won’t let any of the requirements to visit deter you from entering this incredible structure. It is truly overwhelming inside. What struck us most was the deep red carpeting of the finest quality that adorns the floor and the huge dome of artistic tiles.
While the massive Blue Mosque and the enchanting Hagia Sophia are two icons of faith and are soaking with history, our favorite place of worship in all of Istanbul is a tiny little back alley church: Chora Church. The church is very difficult to find. We elected to engage our friends at Context Travel to give us a tour. It was well worth the money.
The church was built in 527 AD. What we love most about this small chapel are the intricate mosaics and frescoes. They were covered up with plaster when the Ottomans took over. Recently, these coverings were removed to expose of the most stunning religious art and better preserved than anything we have ever seen in Italy. Our favorite is Christ beckoning Adam and Eve from the grave with the great Satan bound below.
Are you ready for some Ottoman opulence? Take a taxi to the Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years! The complex has been added to over the years as the empire grew, but the construction began shortly after the Ottomans sacked the city in 1465. The entire palace housed over 4000 people during its hay-day. Residents besides the royal family included the royal harem, and an army of bakers, cooks, servants as well as intellectuals, craftsman and artists.
Visiting the palace is a good primer about the Ottoman rule. Today, the entire grounds have been transformed into a museum, imperial treasury and library. The treasury is not to be missed. It houses a number of religious and historical artifacts including the famed Topkapi dagger, the prophet Mohamed’s cloak and sword, as well as jewels from the dynasty. The museum can get a bit crowded during the tourist high season. Plan on visiting early in the day or late in the afternoon. You will need a half day to take it all in.
Read our post on this amazing palace that is full of history and intrigue.
One of the quirkier sites in Istanbul is the Roman Cisterns. This subterranean water collection fixture was built by the romans to maintain the potable water levels in the city. Today it can be easily visited. It is a collection of pillars and abandoned “mistakes.” Sculptures that were scrapped were taken here to form the pillar bases. The Medusa is by far the most famous.
This is often a great place to see in the heat of the afternoon, if you are visiting the city in the summer to avoid the heat. This location has been featured in James Bond movies as well as Dan Brown’s novel, Inferno. If you are able, book a ticket to one of the concerts held in the cavern. The acoustics are impressive.
Put your running shoes on, to do the Grand Bazaar you are going to have to hurry. You can easily spend a month in the Grand Bazaar and not see every bit and bobble for sale. Istanbul has a long tradition of wheeling and dealing. Counting on its prime location on the silk route, tradecrafts were brought from the east and west. It is said that you can buy and sell anything in the Bazaar. We found this to be true in our experience. The rug salesmen are some of the most talented pros in the world at separating you from your money. Yes, we bought a rug.
River Cruise up the Bosporus
Our last piece of advice for you Istanbul experience is to spend some time out on the water. There are a couple of different ways you can approach this. You can go cheap, like we did, and take the ferry up the Strait from little stop to the next for a reasonable price. If you are a little more well-heeled, why not take a dinner cruise up the Strait to the Black Sea? The city must be experienced from the water.
That is it! We didn’t outline which you should do and how long you should spend at each destination. The simple reason is every taste is different. Take your time. Move on if you feel like you have seen it all. Please offer feedback in the comments section below. What did you like best? Least?