We were so excited to finally visit Istanbul a spot we’ve been dreaming of visiting for years. It’s so distinct from the rest of Europe. The point of the European/Asia divide its like walking around one big archeological site.
While religiously neutral as a country it is mainly Muslim which is hard to miss as the prayer calls are heard throughout the city 5 times per day. We actually found the call quite beautiful. We spent about 4 days in Istanbul, here were some of our highlights and tips:
The good news for those tight on time is that despite Istanbul’s immense size, most of the top attractions are within 10-15 minutes walk from each other and with he 80Lira Museum pass (valid for 5 days) you’ll be able to get through most things quickly.
For around 1000 years Hagia Sofia was the world’s biggest church, at the heart of the new Roman Empire. Then at the fall of Istanbul at the hands of the Ottomans the church was converted into a mosque where it continued to be so for around 500 years. These days the Hagia Sofia is a museum. Despite being known for its size, the Hagia Sofia is also famous for housing and showcasing both Christian mosaics as well as Islamic Scripts. Its quite a profound sight. When you visit make sure you take a look at the altar which you’ll notice is a little off centre. This is because while the church was originally built to face Jerusalem, mosques face Mecca, so when it was converted into a mosque they decided to adjust by moving the alter over a little.
The Blue Mosque
This was definitely new territory for me, this is the first ever active mosque I’ve ever been inside of so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was actually really cool. Here are some handy hints for your visit: 1) if you hear the call to prayer, leave visiting for another 30-45 mins as it is not open to visitors during prayers. 2) cover up; ladies, pants or a long skirt, cover your shoulders, they will provide you with a free head scarf or something to wrap around your waist if needs be. Guys; pants not shorts, no tank tops. 3) Remove your shoes; they will provide you will a plastic bag to carry your shoes with. 4) Don’t take photos of people praying and don’t be too noisy. If you follow those steps you can’t really go wrong. The whole experience was user friendly and fascinating to experience.
Ironically upon seeing the Islamic Information Centres inside the mosque and the signs encouraging you to visit if you had any questions, I thought I’d visit – Its not often that I’ve had the opportunity to enquire about the religion away from wikipedia etc. Sadly upon entering he information centre I was informed that it was closed haha. Ah well, I’m sure I’ll meet someone I can ask questions to sometime.
The visit definitely gave me a greater appreciation for the Muslim faith, the piety of the prayers is evident, but sadly this appreciation partially came undone the next day as Jenny experienced the scorn of countless passerbys for wearing a dress through town than (barely) revealed her knees (even with shoulders covered etc). This was a disappointing experience for us. We also came to realise that around the 90% of those we encountered around Istanbul (shopkeepers etc) were men which made us a little sad and longing for a little gender equality, we were all men-ed out. So yes, definitely a greater appreciation but yes, a little work around gender equality needs to be done in my opinion.
This place is deceptively huge. We initially thought that we’d pop in for an hour and a half which initially seemed to be going to plan until we realised that we’d only visited the first section of 3 (+ The Harrem), we ended up rushing through in 2 and a half hours but could have stayed for much longer. Definitely worth a visit, there is plenty to see including an impressive set of jewels with an 86 carat diamond and a box of emeralds, an impressive clock collection, a vast armoury and a section that features religious artefacts. The Religious artefact section displays what they believe to be (from the bible) David’s sword, Abraham’s Saucepan, Joseph’s turban, a piece of John the Baptist’s bejewelled skull and arm bone although I was understandably skeptical considering the supposed age of many of these artefacts and the Islamic faith’s late beginning (around 500AD), nevertheless interesting. The Religious section is also said to hold bits of Mohammad’s beard and signant ring.
You can get affordable harbour views (and views of the European/Asian divide) pretty easily by hoping on one of the many ferry boats around Istanbul. However we were not in the mood to coordinating which ferries to catch and were deep into conversation with our new Australasian friend (and sudo auntie to our future kids if she ever moved to New Zealand) Sarah Speechley so we decided to hop on a harbour tour boat, which at 12 Lira we felt was actually reasonable value although lacked any commentary. It was a very relaxing hour and a half though and delivered some delightful vistas for us to dreamily feast upon.
As featured in Dan Brown’s Inferno, the Basilica Cistern is a fascinating visit, dimly lit, over 100 columns, mysterious medusa heads and eire music. Its an enjoyable stop especially on a hot day. We also couldn’t help ourselves and went ahead and opted for a photo shoot; enjoy.
Grand Bazaar/Spice Bazaar
Jenny and I are big fans of markets so the chance to visit both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar was awesome. The Grand Bazaar is huge, a rabbit warren of corridors and shops and as long as you can remain emotionally removed from the salesmen very enjoyable. We highly reccomend checking out the Old Market/Antique section which was fascinating. We also reccomend not buying your scarf from the Grand bazaar because their stock seemed heavily overpriced and most of the salesmen we encountered very pushy and rude. We found quality scarves just down the hill from the Grand Bazaar. The Spice bazaar is much smaller and impossible to get lost in, understandably some great aroma’s great aromas walking through there. We highlight reccomend trying both the walnut stuffed dried figs (which are colloquially called turkish viagra) which are one of best things I’ve ever eaten. Also contrary to popular opinion, rose is not the most popular turkish delight flavour in Turkey but pistachio a must try. While we’re taking about Pistachio, do yourself a favour and exit through the western gate of the spice bazaar and continue down the path until you reach the mosque on your right. Opposite the mosque you’ll encounter a fantastic Baklava store of whose main ingredient is pistachio; amazing, we had thirds.
Other Museum Pass Museums (Chora/Mosaic/Archaeological Museum)
If you have the museum pass it may be worth also visiting both the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum (very near the Blue Mosque) a the Chora museum famous for its well preserved mosaics (although most of it has been under renovation for the last two years and will be still be so for another year from now so yeah only really worth it with the Museum pass for now). We also spent of a couple of hours checking out the Archaeological museum but apart from a few pieces weren’t wowed by too much other than their large piles of excess archeological pieces; unfortunately when we visited the biggest drawcard of the museum (Alexander the Great’s tomb) was under renovation.
Definitely quite the experience, I’ll spare you too many details, gotta do it once in your life; it will either cure you from naked shyness or scar you for life. We went to quite a popular historic one, Cagaloglu Hamam, because we got a 20% discount with the museum pass and because it was recommended on a couple of websites but its pretty darn expensive for what you get so if I were to do it again, I’d definitely consider going to a cheaper local one of which we saw a few around.