Must-Sees – and Skips – in Istanbul’s Old City

If you’re planning to spend more than three days in Istanbul – and you should – put on your walking shoes, slather on sunscreen and prepare to spend time hiking around the hills and windy streets of the Old City. My top two recommendations are no-brainers:

Aya Sophia/Hagia Sophia. If one reason Istanbul is so interesting is that it sits at the crossroads of civilizations, religions and continents, Aya Sophia is the prime example. The original church was built by Constantine, then converted to a mosque after the Ottoman Conquest and today is a  major tourist site. To me, it wasn’t as impressive as St. Peter’s in Rome, but it’s older and almost as large. The blend of religious art is fascinating – wooden seals of stylized calligraphy of the Prophet’s name, hanging alongside church windows and altars.

Blue Mosque. It’s pretty clear that Islam was founded and spread in warm climates. Mosques are peaceful and spacious, but also cool and airy, and because they are covered in carpets, comfortable for a quiet rest lounging against a pillar. We even saw tourists lying down (for a nap?) in the Blue Mosque.

Proper etiquette for visiting a mosque isn’t that different from going to a church in Rome. Be respectful, wear something that covers your arms and legs. The more touristy mosques provides “loaner” scarves for women to cover their hair and also sarong-style wrap scarves for women wearing shorts. They hand out plastic bags for you to carry your shoes as well. When you go inside, it’s a wonderful oasis from the noise, commotion and heat. If places of worship are supposed to inspire and provide places for contemplation, then the Blue Mosque meets the mark.

Pillars and waters of the Basilica Cisterns

Cisterns – The basillica cisterns were on our list because they played a key role in a novel we read in preparation for our trip. A friend also highly recommended the site as a nice way to get relief from the heat. It was creepy, like something straight out of Phantom of the Opera, and beautiful. The immense goldfish and semi-blind carp swimming in the dark waters were lovely, eerie and bizarre all at the same time.

Topkapi Palace was huge and amazing. We toured both the palace and the harem, and while it was very easy to get “lost” in the windy rooms and corridors, it was a glimpse into how the Sultans and his households lived – very well. Breakfast on a private patio overlooking the water, anyone?

Suleymaniye – Although it was a little off the beaten path – we took a cab to Sinan‘s masterpiece – the mosque was lovely and less traveled, giving us more time and space to enjoy the architecture. On the grounds outside, Suleyman the Magnificent and his wife Roxelana‘s tombs were under renovation, but you could see them through the scaffolding.

Outside the grounds, there’s a small set of structures that look like mini masoleums, like the above ground cemetaries in New Orleans or Savannah. It’s Sinan’s house and tomb. The plaque is fascinating. The famous architect lived to be old, nearly 100, and he started off as a Jannisary. Okay, maybe he wasn’t officially a Janissary, but he was recruited from a Christian family in the Balkans as tribute and fought with the Ottomans. He probably stood out for his excellent siege engines and forts, so they let him design other things, like mosques … I’m sure there’s an interesting back story there.

Tour of world religions – From Suleymaniye, we walked along the Golden Horn north for 30 minutes or so, looking for the Fener, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The map wasn’t all that clear and certainly not to scale, so we weren’t really sure how far to go. For once in our lives, we were excited to see tour buses. It meant we were close to to a major site! Indeed, the old Greek Orthodox church was barely marked, other than by the group of black robed, bearded old men and the tourists crowding in to see the icons and relics. The church itself was small and, well, Byzantine in style. It reminded me of St. Mark’s in Venice, with that same style of art and ornamentation.

Ultimately, we were walking toward the Chora Church. Later, we would realize we had seen the tall towers from afar and just needed to keep walking … On the way, we also wanted to see the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which we found along the water, but was closed for renovation. We never got to the Synagogue because we turned up the wrong street in our quest for the Chora Church. And after another 30 minutes of trudging, getting pantomimed directions from the residents and sometimes losing sight of the towers behind apartment buildings, but ultimately found our destination.

The Chora Church, near Asitane restaurant, was spectacular, but it was tiny and packed. After walking for more than an hour in the hot sun, we decided to enjoy the frescoes and mosaics, but not to dwell on each room. We then sat on the patio in the square across the way and rested up for our next destination.

I wanted to find the “assault gate” where the Ottomans broke through the defenses of Constantinople. The maps and books identify it as Top Kapi (as in Topkapi Palace, I guess), but it’s not a tourist destination. Much of the city walls are still standing and ring the Old City, with highways and major roads piercing the crumbling walls and gates.

To commemorate the occasion and location, the Turks built a museum on the other side of the gate. I suspect that school kids from around Turkey go there for field trips. We had a cab take us to the 1453 Panorama Museum – the Panorama being an immense painting of the final siege, a collaboration of several artists which was goofy and yet vaguely cool – and since it was only a few Turkish lira, we went for a spin.

One of the staff said something to us about an audio guide, but we waved him off. We could read the exhibits as well as anyone. We got to the first wall, saw the Turkish, and went to start reading the other side, only to realize that all the writing was in Turkish (!). Good thing the museum was easy to understand, and we knew the story already. There was also a helpful video – very little narration, mostly action – that showed the Ottomans besieging Constantinople, being repelled and then dragging their ships across Beyoglu to the Golden Horn. Anyhow, you get the idea.

The Gate itself was topped with a large flag, but hard to see and impossible to get to …

Now for the tourist traps. While we walked through the spice market and the Grand Bazaar, neither really did it for me. Maybe it’s because we had been to that style of indoor market in the past. The Bazaar reminded me of China or Tunisia – indoor stalls arranged by category, so you’re in the leather good section or the jewelry section – with shop after shop. It’s overwhelming, and probably fun, if you’re in the mood.

However, our first stop, which was at a handbag place, turned me off, and then we just walked through the Bazaar quickly. The proprietor was very nice, spoke excellent English and told us he also made the bags himself. Right. He then showed me a few bags and sized us up. Even though we were wearing our jeans and khakis that we had worn for several days in a row and J Crew t-shirts, he pegged us for Americans right away. I guess in other parts of the world women would wear heels? I wore Merrell walking shoes (have you seen the hills in Istanbul?) and no jewelry other than a silver ring I bought in a market in Peru. Perhaps the Blue Guide G carried gave us away? In any case, he was super aggressive and turned us off to the market experience.

To me, there was so much history, culture, art and architecture to see, why waste time on a less-than-genuine experience?

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