This past weekend I went somewhere completely new to me that I am so excited to share with you over the next couple of weeks. Istanbul encompasses so much more than I could possibly say to you in one post, and I hope you’ll stick with me to get to know a city that is truly deserving of a spot on your bucket list. There are so many things that I could say about Istanbul, but none would truly describe the city. It’s really a place that you have to experience yourself, and I couldn’t speak more highly of it. I have been wanting to visit Istanbul for some time, but it’s more complicated to tack onto a Eurotour because it is further away, making flights more limited and train access longer and not as accessible. To top that off, I had heard mixed things about Istanbul and I just wasn’t sure about exploring the city on my own.
This year I was lucky enough to meet someone else who had an interest in traveling to Istanbul, and we were able to get the same week off work so a couple of months ago we booked five days in the city of Istanbul. I did a ton of research in advance because there are just so many things to see that with limited time we didn’t want to miss, but even so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had a vision in mind, and in some ways, Istanbul was exactly how I imagined it; in others, it was so entirely different. The whole city has a really unique feel, and I attribute that to the unique history of the city that has created a completely diverse culture. Istanbul was part of the Roman Empire and the seat of the Ottoman Empire, two completely different empires that contributed greatly to the establishment of much of the modern city. It is both Europe and Asia, ancient and modern, Islamic, Christian and secular. All of this contributes to such an interesting feel when you are walking around the city– almost like you have been transported to the past, with the amenities of the present. It’s hard to describe, but it’s entirely unique and very peaceful.
We hit many of the big tourist sites while exploring Istanbul, including the Topkapi palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Süleymaniye mosque, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). There were so many other things we could have seen; in particular we really wanted to go to the archeological museums but we simply didn’t have time; we weren’t willing to compromise on other things to squeeze it in, so mark that down if I make it back to Istanbul someday. Istanbul is a bustling metropolis and in most ways is very similar to any other major city: there is a metro, buses and a tram system. The teens on the metro are just as giggly and annoying as the ones in the US. Still, there are marked differences as well. The call to prayer resonates throughout the city during the day, and in the wee hours of the morning as well, before sunup, defining the day. Personally I found it very peaceful, and very different and yet similar to the clanging church bells that can be heard on the hour all over Italy.
Did you have any idea that there would be an Egyptian obelisk in Istanbul? Yeah, me either. There is a surprising number of things imported into Istanbul, from ancient pillars to the notably more recent Shake Shack. Still, the ancient history is what the city is noted for and what enabled it to become what it is today. Below you can see the inner courtyard of the massive Topkapi palace, seat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans ran most of their business out of the palace; meeting rooms were next to the harem and were actually damaged in the harem fire that occurred, but you can still see much of the buildings. Many of the rooms have been converted to display artifacts belonging to the Ottomans, but some, like the meeting rooms and the harem, were left as they were to be seen as the rooms they were at the time. In the display rooms you can see a wide variety of historical objects, including weapons the Ottomans used over the course of their reign, clothes the Sultan wore, and items such as vases and jewels that were either gifted to the Sultan or taken as spoils of war.
The harem was particularly interesting because it was where many women and the Sultan lived during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. When you first enter the harem and go inside a bit more, there are three doorways: one leads to the concubines, one to the head wife and one to the Sultan. The tile work is incredibly intricate throughout the palace and leans toward blue and teal tones.
And the view isn’t bad from the palace either…
The frescoes throughout the harem were quite intricate and beautiful.
And surely the Sultan couldn’t complain about this bed…
Learning more about the Ottoman Empire’s home was really interesting, but for our next stop we completely switched tracks and went to see something Roman left in the city… one of the aqueducts. Below you can see some shots of the aqueducts including the famed Medusa head. It was pretty dark underground so I didn’t have a ton of photos that turned out, but it was SO cool, definitely a must-see when in Istanbul.
Perhaps the most interesting things we saw in terms of big tourist sites, however, were the contrasting Ayasofya and Blue Mosque which face each other in the heart of the tourist district of the city. They are such a contrast to each other and both have such interesting history. The Blue Mosque was built to counter the Ayasofya and is known as the “blue” mosque because of the blue tiling on the balcony level of the mosque (not that, as a tourist, you go that high. You stay on the floor, so the blue didn’t seem as predominant, at least to me). It was really stunningly beautiful. We had visited the Süleymaniye mosque the day before, and it was much more intricate than that mosque, but they were both really beautiful. Below in the gallery the Süleymaniye mosque is shown above and the Blue Mosque below it.
Below you can see some photos where I tried to zoom in on the infamous blue tiles.
The Ayasofya is probably one, if not the sole most interesting historical building in the city. Built as a church, it was converted to a mosque under the Ottomans before eventually being secularized by Ataturk and made into a museum, which is how it stands today. There are still some who would prefer it be returned to being a living mosque, however, so occasionally there is debate around it. Because it has such an interesting history, it is a really interesting building to explore. For example, when it was converted into a mosque, the mosaics of the Byzantine church were covered in plaster. Some have been uncovered; in parts of the building you can see areas where the plaster has been pulled back just enough to view that there is something else beneath; there are also many mosaics still beneath the plaster that have not been uncovered yet. Side by side in the same building you are able to see these Byzantine frescoes and the sweeping letters of the Islamic art and it’s a little surreal. Below you can see a bit where the plaster is pulling back to reveal what lies beneath.
The interior of the church is really interesting and really beautiful. The combination of Christian and Islamic themes is so interesting.
The light messed with the picture above but you can see the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child next to the Islamic script. You can clearly see the influences from the Ottoman Empire in the photos below. The lowermost shows the box where the Sultan would sit if he came to prayer.
There are so many truly amazing things that I could show you images of, but the truth is you will only capture the essence of the city if you see it for yourself. Tune in next week when I share more off the beaten track treasures from Istanbul– I hope you are enjoying hearing about this amazing city as much as I enjoyed exploring it.