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Complete Guide to Istanbul

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Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, is Turkey’s most populated city, and is known to be the country’s economic, cultural, and historic centre. This transcontinental city sits atop the Bosporus strait (separating Europe and Asia), with its commercial and historical centre lying on the European side, while a third of its population lives on the Asian side of the Bosporus Strait. Istanbul has served as a seat of power for four major empires – the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, resulting in an influx of history throughout the city. Thanks to intensive restoration and maintenance programmes, many of Istanbul’s landmarks are intact, from the Hagia Sophia to the house of the Ottoman Sultans. The food, too, is worth the visit, with food tours being organised to fully experience Turkish dishes, from their meat dishes to their desserts, coupled with intensely-flavoured street food in Istanbul. 

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, officially known as the Great Holy Mosque of Ayasofya, is an antique place of worship in Istanbul, and currently functions as a mosque. Initially built in 537 as the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, it remained the largest church of the Byzantine Empire, before being converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral in 1204. In 1453, it was converted to an Ottoman mosque, before being classified as a museum in 1935. This month, however, the government has turned this museum back into a mosque, annulling the site’s museum status. The Hagia Sophia is considered to be the epitome of Byzantine architecture, and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, garnering almost 3.3 million visitors every year. The mosque is worth the visit due to its stunning attention to detail, its vaulted dome, and its art within, featuring Islamic architectural features. The Hagia Sophia has inspired other religious buildings, from the Hagia Sophia in Greece to the Blue Mosque, and Süleymaniye Mosque, among other structures. The mosque includes a spiral ramp that leads up to the gallery, featuring Byzantine mosaic designs that feature Christian artwork.  

Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is an Ottoman-era mosque in Istanbul. The space still functions as a mosque while still attracting a large number of tourists. Initially built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque’s interior walls are decorated with hand-painted blue tiles, and the mosque contains five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes – the blue tiles ensure that the mosque is covered in soft blue light once the sun sets, as the lights frame the mosque’s impressive structure. The mosque is colloquially known as the ‘Blue Mosque’ thanks to the blue tiles that decorate its interior.  

The mosque’s architecture is interesting as it incorporates Byzantine elements (similar to the design of the mosque’s neighbour, the Hagia Sophia) along with traditional Islamic architecture, and is widely regarded to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The upper area contains approximately 20,000 hand-painted ceramic tiles in over 50 tulip designs, and the lower stories are illuminated by around 200 stained-glass windows. In front of the mosque lies the forecourt, complete with a large fountain and a special area for ablution (to be done before prayers). 

Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, covering over 61 streets and housing over 4,0000 shops, and attracting anywhere between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors every day. The Grand Bazaar is often regarded to be one of the world’s first shopping malls, and stretches roughly from west to east between the Beyazit mosque and the Nuruosmaniye mosque. Located inside the district of Fatih, in the walled city of Istanbul, the market was first constructed during the winter of 1455, as part of a broad initiative to stimulate Istanbul’s economy under the Ottoman reign, and the market grew over the centuries to attain the massive size it is today. 

Many guests enjoy a visit to the Grand Bazaar, for its opportunities to soak in some Turkish culture, take a look at handmade goods, chat with the locals, and try their hand at bargaining. The Grand Bazaar houses shops for almost any item imaginable, from textiles, to musical instruments, to souvenirs, complete with shops selling food and drinks to weary guests who’ve walked the length of the market.  

Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı) is one of the city’s top tourist attractions; being located on Seraglio Point in the historical part of Istanbul, the palace served as the heart of the Ottoman Empire and as the residence of the sultans for over three centuries, until the seat of the empire was moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1853. The palace consists of a series of pavilions that are contained by four large courtyards, and the entire palace was slowly constructed over the course of centuries, with various sultans adding parts to the palace during their reign. The palace has also undergone renovations, after the earthquake in 1509 and the fire in 1665, with the final version of the palace covering an area of a whopping 700,000 square metres, housing as many as 4,000 people.

The palace contains hundreds of rooms and chambers, from various bedrooms, audience chambers, portrait galleries, libraries, kiosks, prayer rooms, the Ottoman Imperial Harem, to the treasury – where the Topkapi Dagger and other famous weapons are on display. The collection within the palace (now a museum) contains Ottoman clothing, weapons, armour, miniature paintings, manuscripts, and religious relics. The palace forms a part of the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’, a group of sites that is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1985.

The Bosphorus Cruise

The city of Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait, an internationally significant waterway that forms part of the boundary that divides Europe and Asia, and is also the world’s narrowest strait used for international navigation. The Bosphorus has over 600 waterfront houses that were built during the Ottoman period, along the strait’s European and Asian shorelines, along with a number of mansions that are now identified as examples of Bosphorus architecture, along with historical buildings, like the Galatasaray University and the Egyptian Consulate, that cover the waterfront near the Bosphorus strait. During the Ottoman era, there was a tradition of building mosques and pier buildings in Bosphorus districts, with the Bebek Mosque and Beylerbeyi Mosque serving as reminders of these traditions.  

There are many public and private ferries that traverse the strait, allowing guests to soak in the city’s skyline. A cruise on the Bosphorus is an underrated tourist attraction, but a welcome one, and the tour of Istanbul on the water certainly is an iconic one, particularly if your holiday is scheduled during the cooler autumn months. The full cruise takes several hours, as the cruise takes you from Eminönü, one of Istanbul’s ports, all the way to the Black Sea, and back to the port. Cruise tours include dine-in options, with other cruises offering sight-seeing options complete with tour guides to explain Istanbul’s rich history.

Istiklal Avenue

Istiklal Avenue, or Istiklal Street, is one of Istanbul’s most famous avenues, garnering over 3 million visitors in a single day (on average). Located in the historic Beyoğlu district, this pedestrian street is a little under a mile long (1.4 kilometres) and houses boutiques, music stores, bookshops, art galleries, theatres, libraries, cafés, pubs, nightclubs, restaurants, and chocolateries. The tram is available for guests

The avenue is surrounded by late Ottoman-era buildings (from the 19th and early 20th centuries), and the buildings are designed with Neo-Classical, Renaissance Revival, Art Nouveau, and Turkish National Architecture styles, along with a few art-deco style buildings from the early years of the Turkish Republic. For more recent examples of modern architecture, guests can turn to the neighbourhood around the Galata Tower, ultimately leading to Taksim Square. The avenue is surrounded by historically and politically significant buildings as well, including churches, synagogues, and mosques, along with academic institutions established by European nations in the 19th century, and consulates of several European nations, too, line the avenue’s streets.  

The Whirling Dervishes

The ‘whirling Dervishes’, also known as the Mevlevis, are popular due to their practice of whirling as a form of remembrance of God. A Dervish is a common term for a person following the Sufi path, and the participants of the ceremony are formally known as ‘semazens’. The dancers wear long white robes with full skirts, symbolising the shrouds of their egos; on their heads are tall conical felt hats (known as ‘sikke’) representing the tombstones of their egos. The dancers begin the dance with long dark cloaks, symbolising the dancers’ worldly life, which gets cast off during the ceremony. The ceremony is accompanied with music, comprising of a singer, a flute-player, a kettle-drummer, and a cymbal player.

Many guests can catch a few performances at Hodjapasha, a cultural centre built in a restored Turkish hammam (a traditional bathhouse), with the centre containing a small gallery showing carious styles of dervish cloth, along with information on the instruments and the history of the ritual. The entire ceremony lasts a few hours long, and the full attention of the audience is integral to the success of the performance.  

The Hammam

A Turkish bath, or hammam, combines the techniques of the Roman bath with the central Asian steam bath. The hammam is a gently heated, tiled room with a heated marble slab, and guests lie down on the stone slab and are scrubbed with exfoliants, massaged with oils, and finally washed clean with hot water. Each hammam offers a number of different packages, from self-service, to more traditional massages, to aromatherapies, reflexologies, facial masks, and a range of other options. 

The Arabs built versions of the Greek-Roman baths following their conquest of Alexandria in 641 AD, and their following conquest of the Turks resulted in Turkish culture meeting Arabic culture. By the 15th century, however, the Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, and it was during this period that the Turkish bath was born, following a fusion of Hellenised Roman and Turkish culture. Some of the early Turkish baths were built next to mosques, serving as communal centres and as houses of worship. A majority of Turkish hammams were built under the Ottoman empire, with many built in Istanbul (then Constantinople), though there was a hammam built in every Ottoman city. 

Turkish Delights

Turkish cuisine can largely be defined as the heritage of Ottoman cuisine, a heady mix of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Eastern European, and Armenian cuisines; Turkish cuisine, in turn, has influenced the food styles of surrounding countries, including Southeast, Central, and Western Europe. Meat favours heavily in Turkish cuisine, thanks to the popularity of kebabs, though a native Turkish meal will large centre around rice, vegetables, and bread. Istanbul itself has a wide range of restaurants that cater to its local Turkish audience and visitors, including restaurants that feature cuisines from other regions in Turkey

Turkish cuisine itself is an umbrella term, with ingredients and dishes varying from district to district. In Istanbul, for example, the food inherits many elements of Ottoman cuisine, with a lighter use of spices, and a preference of eggplant, vegetable stews, rice, and fish. Near the Black Sea, the use of fish increases, particularly the Black Sea anchovy. Down in the Southeast, however, the region is famous for its kebabs, mezes, and dough-based desserts, especially the ever-popular baklava. 

The city’s chock-full of landmarks to photograph, sites to see, foods to eat, and shops to visit – Istanbul is also famed for its shopping, from the Grand Bazaar to Istiklal Avenue, and its lively nightlife, with many clubs seated near the Bosphorus river – adding a stunning view to a fun party. The city itself is worth the visit just to take everything in – the city’s natural beauty, its crystalline waters (from the strait), and its many, many landmarks from the empires that passed its shores. 

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual. We take no liability for the accuracy of the information and cannot be held liable for any third-party claims or losses of any damages.

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