In my last travel story I wrote about my visit to Istanbul during the summer of 2019. It is exactly two years ago on the last weekend of July I visited Istanbul for a short break. During my stay in this beautiful city, I spent an entire day exploring the wonderful sights and ended the day enjoying a performance by Sufi mystics at the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre.
I was picked up after breakfast from my hotel, and in this travel story I will share brief details of the sights that I visited along with some photos of each. My tour started off from the Hippodrome.
Hippodrome of Constantinople – Sultanahmet Square (Sultanahmet Meydanı)
During the Byzantine times the Hippodrome area was the centre of the city’s sports like chariot races, athletics and also a social gathering centre. There are quite a few ancient monuments that can be seen in the Hippodrome area.
Having visited Egypt few months before Istanbul, I was struck by the Obelisk of Theodosius. It was made using granite stone in the Temple of Karnak in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III. Only the top part of obelisk survives today and it is placed on a pedestal.
As you walk on in the Hippodrome, next you’ll see the Serpent Column, which was originally a sacrificial tripod and moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. What you see today is only the base of the tripod.
Other monuments in the Hippodrome are the Walled Obelisk and the German Fountain. Crossing the Hippodrome area you enter the Blue Mosque complex.
Sultanahmet Mosque – Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque is one of the most stunning sights in Istanbul. This Ottoman-era Mosque was constructed between 1609 and 1616 at the bequest of Sultan Ahmet I. It is still a functioning mosque. It has five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. The interior walls of the Blue Mosque are decorated by blue Iznik tiles in ornate designs.
Tourists are allowed inside the mosque, which is a great way to admire it’s exceptional beauty and architecture. Sultan Ahmet I’s tomb, a madrasah and a hospice are part of the huge complex. The Blue Mosque was included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı)
Leaving the Blue Mosque complex, it is a short walk to the next grand sight in Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace. There are ticket counters at the entrance gate. I was part of a small group tour so had the advantage of just following the guide and hear about the history of the Palace.
Topkapi Palace was once the residence of Ottoman Sultans and is located on the promontory overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, which is called Seraglio Point.
Once inside the palace complex, it feels like walking within a walled city of multiple buildings. The famous ones are normally quite crowded but worth the wait to appreciate the treasures within.
The architecture and the intricate designs on the walls, floors and ceilings can keep you fixated to look around, beneath and above you. It is best to take your own time to stroll through the palace complex and the museums exhibiting imperial treasury items, sacred Islamic relics of Prophet Mohammed, Chinese porcelains, calligraphy items to name a few.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
Next sight on my tour was the Hagia Sophia, another UNESCO World Heritage site in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, was constructed in the 6th century as a basilica by Emperor Justinian. After the fall of Constantinople, this was converted into a mosque in 1453. In 1935, the Turkish Republic turned this into a museum. During my visit, this was still a museum but since 2020 has been reclassified as a mosque.
Once you walk inside, you are bound to be awestruck by the beauty of the interiors. Look up to admire the chandeliers, the domes with light piercing inside through the oculi. Holy Islamic texts are inscribed and designs from the Ottoman period can be seen throughout. The beautiful marble door on the upper level opens into a space that was used for important meetings.
The beauty of Hagia Sophia is that you can still see and admire some famous mosaics from the 9th to 11th centuries. A few of these are:
Empress Zoe mosaic – This dates back to 11th century and depicts Christ in the centre holding a Bible in his left hand. On his right is Emperor Constantine and Empress Zoe can be seen on his left.
Deesis mosaic– This 12th century mosaic considered the finest in Hagia Sophia depicts Virgin Mary and John the Baptist praying to Christ for Judgement Day.
Comnenos mosaic – This 11th century mosaic shows Madonna holding Christ with Constantine the Great on her right and Emperor Justinianus on her left.
Other notable mosaics include the Apse mosaic of the Virgin and Child, the Virgin sitting on a throne holding baby Christ, the Imperial Gate mosaic depicting Christ sitting on a throne and giving his blessing.
Basilica Cistern Underground Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı)
Located opposite Hagia Sophia is the last cistern constructed by Byzantine Emperor Justinianus in the 6th century. This is one of the biggest ancient cisterns in Istanbul that is below ground level. You can still see some parts of the cistern covered in water. Inside the cisterns stands 336 marble columns with Corinthian or Ionic style capitals.
The notable ones are:
Hen’s Eye column – One of the columns is engraved with Hen’s Eye and what looks like tears. Some documents suggest that the tears are a tribute to the slaves who lost their lives during the construction of the Basilica Cistern.
Medusa column bases – Two of the columns have faces of Medusa carved upside down and sideways. This was most likely to adjust the height of the columns to match up.
Carpet making at Istanbul Handicraft Centre
After visiting these sights and trying to absorb all that I had learnt during the day, our group was taken to the Istanbul Handicraft Centre where we saw a live demonstration of carpet making and there was also the option to buy carpets in various sizes, materials and gorgeous designs. They ship the carpets to most places in the world.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)
Next it was time to visit the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul which has been operating since the 14th century. This place was somewhat as I had expected from an Asian market place. This is one of the world’s largest covered markets and has around 58 streets and over 4000 shops selling everything from spices, ceramics, leather items to jewelleries. You can feel overwhelmed with the crowd but it is a world in it’s own to experience and take in the sight, sound and smell of the place.
After an excellent day of touring the world famous sights, I met my friend in the evening and we enjoyed a wonderful show at the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre.
Whirling Dervishes at Hodjapasha
At Istanbul’s Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, we were served a welcome drink and explored the Whirling Dervishes’ museum to learn about their history. Next we walked into a circular hall with a dome and were seated around the round performance area.
In the theatre we witnessed a nearly 800 year old tradition which comes from Sufism. Sufi mystics perform the Mevlevi Sema Ceremony which is recognised by UNESCO as an Intangible Heritage of Humanity. They perform with a live orchestra and drift to their own spiritual world during the performance. It is a totally different experience to be part of the crowd and yet feel totally absorbed by the mystics’ performance.
Turkish food and drinks
While in Istanbul, you must try the local food, baklava, locum and of course Turkish tea and coffee. I enjoyed some nice meals and snacks during my visit including meze, dolma, kebabs and also tasted Raki, the national drink of Turkey made using twice-distilled grapes and anise. While we all are used to various Turkish food worldwide, I learned some stuff about Turkish Tea and Coffee which I am sharing here.
Turkish tea can be found everywhere and anywhere you go. No wonder Turkey is supposed to have the highest per capita tea consumption in the world. Other than black tea, herbal teas like apple, hibiscus, rose teas are also very popular in Turkey.
Turkish Tea is always served in the traditional way in a tulip shaped glass on a small saucer. The typical saucer has the design of red and white petals with gilded flower patterns on the white petals and the centre. The red colour is to signify the colour of a well brewed tea and the white colour represents the transparency and brightness of the tea.
Turkish Coffee is made using very fine ground coffee from Arabica beans. It is brewed by boiling the coffee without filtering in a traditional long-handled pot called a cezve which used to be made of brass or copper, while modern ones are made using stainless steel or aluminium.
Turkish coffee is always served with a glass of water to cleanse the palate to taste and enjoy the full flavour of the coffee. We can still find this Ottoman influence in Viennese cafes. The other thing which is served with the coffee is lokum.
Mehmet Efendi is the oldest coffee company in Turkey and has been roasting coffee since 1871. You can buy their coffee in specially designed tins which are supposed to keep the coffee fresh for longer periods of time.
One of the most popular sweets of the Ottoman cuisine is Baklava and it is a layered filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and smothered with syrup.
Turkish Delights (Lokum)
Turkish delight is a confectionary made with starch gel, sugar and flavoured with rosewater, orange and variety of other flavours. These are generally shaped as small cubes and dusted with icing sugar to prevent them from sticking with each other.
- Turkish Visa can be applied online and the process is quite simple.
- From Istanbul Airport station to the city centre is around an hour on the Airport Bus.
- Istanbul Card is very useful to have and can be used on the Airport Bus, local buses, trams and the Metro.
- Do try to take a tram ride across the city. It a nice experience.
- Some roads in Istanbul are up and down hill, so proper walking shoes are recommended.
- You’ll need a scarf to enter any Mosque. Also no shoes are allowed but you can wear your socks. For women, a long skirt to wear on top of your trousers is jeans is provided at the entrance by a group of lady.
Hope you enjoyed reading this travel story about Istanbul. Please share using links below.
Your comments and suggestions are most welcome. You can also subscribe for new posts.