Istanbul is one of the most Istanbul cities in the world. A city that has everything you would require in a modern tourist or leisure destination. From shopping to historic locations and off course seaside too. Its unique location makes it one and only city in the world that is situated in two continents. If you visit the city you would easily find that it is not one city but a city divided in two parts, two cultures on one location.
Istanbul is situated on the banks of strait of Bosporus, which connects Sea of Marmara to Black Sea. Sea of Marmara falls into Aegean Sea that finally ends up in Mediterranean. On my recent visit I as usual booked a flight on a budget airline from Middle east based in Sharjah and landed safely at Sabiha Gökçen airport. Just for the reference Istanbul has two international airports. The city’s main gateway is Atatürk International Airport located on the European side, about 24 kilometres west from the city centre. Initially it was located at the western edge of the metropolitan area but now lies within the city bounds. Sabiha Gökçen International Airport is the second international gateway mostly preferred by low cost airlines from across Europe and Middle east. Sabiha Gökçen is located on the Asian side, close to the Istanbul Park GP Racing Circuit, about 45 kilometres east of the European City centre.
After clearing the Immigration I headed straight out to the front because I was travelling with hand baggage only. Right in front of the arrivals you will see busses from the company Havas that acts as a shuttle between the city’s centre and airport. It cost me 10 YTL (Yeni Turk Lirasi – New Turkish Lira) to get the ticket for the one-way ride. In Turkey you will find some traces of old Lira still visible. Everything will have two prices mostly, one in TL (Turkish Lira) and second in YTL (New Turkish Lira). Most of the prices in TL will be scary as it is sometime in millions but always ask for YTL price and ignore the old Lira price.
The bus took nearly an hour to reach to the city centre know as Taksim Square. Taksim square is a huge boulevard right in the middle of Istanbul. It provides tram and bus links to all the main parts of city. ?stiklal Avenue starts from Taksim Square, which is Istanbul’s equivalent of Oxford Street in London or Champs Elysees in Paris. This whole area is situated in Beyo?lu district, which forms Istanbul’s commercial and entertainment centre. Istanbul is made up of 39 districts which all come under Istanbul Büyük?ehir Belediyesi or Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.
I booked my hotel on European side and right near the Istiklal Avenue because I was there to relax, shop and see around. The purpose of your visit is very important for you to decide where you will stay in Istanbul. If you visit Istanbul to see historical places then I would highly recommend staying on the Asian side of the city that is near the Blue Mosque and other historical attractions. If you are interested in social scene and shopping then I highly recommend staying around Istiklal Avenue in the European side. It is important to note that crossing from Asian side to European side is not difficult and it is nearly 40 minutes walk from Taksim Square to Blue mosque. There are regular transport links available too, but that would add extra cost to your budget.
Now coming to the important places to visit, top of the list is Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Sultanehmet) or commonly known as Blue Mosque. Sultanehmet was built between 1906-1916 by Sultan Ahmed 1. It is situated in the historical quarter of Istanbul on the Asian side. It is still used as a mosque and is normally full of people coming in and out for visit or prayers. From Taskim you can take a walk down to Tunnel or take the tram. From there you can take tram downwards then you get out at Galata bridge and walk across it to the main Eminono Station. You can walk further to the Mosque which is not very far from here.
Right in front of Sultanehmet is the second main historical attraction in Istanbul, Hagia Sophia. It was an Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later turned into a mosque and now houses a museum? In Turkish they call it Aya Sofya. It was dedicated in 360 and was used as the cathedral of Constantinople except between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral. From 20 May 1453 until 1934 it served as a mosque and later secularised. On 1 February 1935 it was turned into a museum. It has a massive dome, one of the main features of this structure. It was world’s largest cathedral till 1520. Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered for its construction, which was completed from 532 to 537.
Behind Hagia Sophia is the famous Topkapi Palace known as Topkapi Sarayi (It is also used in Urdu for nearly same meanings). It was the official and primary residence of Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years (between 1465-1856) of their 624-year reign. Sultan Mehmud II, whose title was the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople, ordered for its construction. The palace has four main courtyards with many smaller buildings.
In 1921 at the end of Ottoman Empire in 1921, Topkap? Palace was transformed by government decree on April 3, 1924, into a museum of the imperial era. The palace’s main attraction are the holy relics of Muslim world specially those of the Prophet Muhammed SAW. The prophet SAW cloak, sword, teeth and hair are on display inside the museum. There is a special room designated for these relics and a Qari continuously recites Qur’an live within that room throughout the time it is open for public. The recitation of Qur’an and the holy relics create an amazing environment that is an experience out of this world and one must go through it if it ever gets a chance to visit Istanbul. Topkapi has historic artifacts spread all over it; it is a living testament of Ottoman architecture. You will find a massive collection of murals, shields, robes, porcelain, weapons, amour, Ottoman miniatures and Islamic calligraphic manuscripts. In 1985 it was declared UNESCO world heritage site.
All the above three buildings are situated in one area right next to each other. If you go through all of them it will easily take a whole day. For lunch you can go to some really good restaurants situated nearby that serve excellent food of all types. There are many souvenir shops situated all around this area. There are some great shops before the initial entrance of Topkapi Palace beside the walls of Hagia Sophia on he left side. There is also a shop run by Turkish ministry of culture right beside the main entrance of Topkapi Palace. You will need a ticket in order to enter the palace and the ticket counter is situated right beside this souvenir shop. I would recommend buying from this shop as it is really good value for money.
On the right side of Sultanahmet you will find a huge tower known as the Obelisk of Theodosius (In Turkish Dikilitas). Roman Emperor brought it to Istanbul all the way from Luxor Egypt in the 4th Century AD.
There is another very important building which you should visit after the above and that is The Süleymaniye Mosque (Turkish: Süleymaniye Camii). In Turkish C is pronounced as J so you will read it Jami, which is what we call our big mosques in Sub Continent Jami Masjid. Süleymaniye Mosque located on the third hill of Istanbul is an Ottoman imperial mosque. It’s the second largest mosque in Istanbul after Sultanahmet, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul.
The Süleymaniye Mosque was built on the order of Sultan Süleyman (Süleyman the Magnificent) “was fortunate to be able to draw on the talents of the architectural genius of Sinan Pasha” also known as Mimar Sinan. The mosque was built between 1550 and 1558, completed well within eight years. This beautiful mosque is huge religious complex. Mimar Sinan blended Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements while designing it. It combines large domed buildings that are supported by half domes in the style of Hagia Sophia with tall, slender minarets. Suleyman’s self-conscious represented him as a ‘second Solomon’ and many believe the design of the Süleymaniye mosque plays on the same instinct. It refers to the Dome of the Rock, which was built on the site of the Temple of Solomon.
The Süleymaniye mosque received a lot of damages through the hands of natural and man made elements. A fire ravaged it in 1660 and Sultan Mehmed IV restored it. Nearly a century later part of its dome collapsed again during the earthquake of 1766. All the repairs done after this damaged what was left of the original decoration of Sinan. During recent cleaning it was discovered that Sinan tried blue, before turning red as the dominant colour of the dome.
During World War I there was a huge fire because its courtyard was used as a weapons depot. By 1956 the mosque was fully restored after all these disasters. Still you will find that some work is being undertaken in the mosque. Some of the other important mosques in Istanbul are Eyup, Fatih (the Conqueror), Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Ortaköy mosque, Beyazit complex, Dolmabahce mosque and Zeyrek mosque
As we read about Dolmabahçe mosque, so let me introduce the famous Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ottoman’s seat of government during the late period of their 624 years rule. It is located in the Be?ikta? area, just north of Beyo?lu, across from BJK ?nönü Stadium, which is home to Turkey’s oldest football club. Sultan, Abdülmecid I, who was the 31st ruler of the empire, ordered the building of Dolmabahçe Palace in 1843, by 1856 the palace was complete. Where the palace is built there used to be a bay on the Bosporus, as the land was gradually reclaimed during the 18th century for the construction of an imperial garden the bay slowly disappeared. The name Dolmabahçe (Filled Garden) is derived from, dolma meaning “filled” and bahçe meaning “garden.”
As I wrote earlier the Sultan and his family used to live at the Topkap? Palace, but because Topkapi lacked in up-to-date luxury and style, Abdülmecid decided to order building the Dolmabahçe Palace near the site of the former Be?ikta? Palace on the Bosporus, which was demolished. Dolmabahçe palace contains gold and crystal as compared to Topkap?, where exquisite examples of Iznik tiles and Ottoman carving are ample. The difference is still kept to date as you can freely around in Topkap? at your leisure, while at Dolmabahçe you have to book a guided tour.
Six sultans from 1856 inhabited the palace, up until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924: Caliph Abdülmecid Efendi was the last Sultan or Caliph to live in Dolmabahçe palace. On March 3, 1924, the ownership of the palace was transferred to the national heritage of the new Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, used the palace as a presidential residence during the summers. He enacted some of his most historical works here. Atatürk also spent the last days of his medical treatment in this palace, and died here on November 10, 1938.
Dolmabahçe have the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in its centre hall. The chandelier, was gifted by Queen Victoria, and has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tonnes. Dolmabahçe also has the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world, and one of the great staircases has banisters of Baccarat crystal.
The next place to visit in Istanbul is the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi in Turkish) — called Christea Turris (the Tower of Christ in Latin). It is a medieval stone tower located in the Galata district of Istanbul. It is Istanbul’s most striking landmarks, with its high, cone-capped cylinder that dominates the skyline and affords a panoramic vista of old Istanbul and its environs.
Galata Tower is a nine-story tower and it is 66.90 meters tall. On the upper floor there is a restaurant and café, which provides a commanding view of Istanbul and the Bosporus. A nightclub is also located on the upper floor, which hosts a Turkish show. Visitors have to buy a ticket in order to enter the tower and there are two lifts provided to take visitors to the top.
After visiting all the historical places it is time to go shopping, which is an integral part of any trip I make. Turkey is every shopper’s dream, a great shopping destination where you can buy everything for a very cheap price. From clothes to shoes it has everything a shopper could dream of. This brings us to our first shopping destination in Istanbul and that is The Grand Bazaar (Turkish: Kapal?çar??, meaning Covered Bazaar). It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 covered streets and over 4000 shops, which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.
The Bazaar was opened in 1461, it is well known for its jewellers, pottery, spice, and carpet shops. The Bazaar has stalls grouped by the type of goods, with special areas for leather coats, gold jewellers and the like. The bazaar has domed structures for shop owners to store their goods and keep them safe. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror ordered these to be constructed in 1455 and 1461. In the 16th century the bazaar was vastly enlarged by the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. In 1894 a major restoration was undertaken after an earthquake damaged various areas of bazaar. This amazing shopping centre of old times has 22 doors and houses 12 major buildings.
The second main shopping destination in Istanbul is ?stiklal Avenue known in Turkish as ?stiklâl Caddesi. One of the main and famous avenues in Istanbul, visited is daily visited by nearly 3 million people. When I first time reached Taksim Square and turned towards the avenue I only saw hundreds of heads. I never saw that many head of humans in my life ever again anywhere else in the whole world. This avenue is located in the historic Beyo?lu district, and precisely it is an elegant pedestrian street, stretched to approximately three kilometres. It has exquisite boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, pubs, and nightclubs with live music, historical patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants.
Galatasaray Square is located at approximately the centre of the avenue and is home to one of the finest educational institutions established in Turkey at the time of the Ottoman Empire; originally known as the Galata Saray? Enderun-u Hümayunu (Galata Palace Imperial School) and today known as Galatasaray Lisesi.
Towards the end of the avenue you will end up in the historic Karaköy district. From here there is subway service going right to the mouth of Bosporus. It is world’s second-oldest subway station, commonly known and referred to as simply Tünel (The Tunnel). The tunnel station started services in 1875. The same area around the tunnel is home to a lot of music instruments manufacturers, where you will find all sorts of music instruments being made and available for sale. Spanish guitars to conventional Turkish music instruments known as Saaz, everything is available here.
There are many historical and politically significant buildings around the avenue, such as the Çiçek Pasaj? (Flower Passage) where small, intimate restaurants and taverns are found; Bal?k Pazar? (The Fish Market), the Roman Catholic churches of Santa Maria and S. Antonio di Padova, the Greek Orthodox Haghia Triada, the Armenian Church, several synagogues, mosques, academic institutions established by various European nations such as Austria, France, Germany and Italy in the early 19th century. There are consulates (former embassies before 1923) of several nations including France, Greece, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
All in all Istanbul is a dream city where life moves on its own pace, where you will find sex workers roaming the main streets and openly inviting you sometime provoking you. It is a classic place living in two different eras and two different times, a City on two continents.