Istanbul is a large spread out city; it can be overwhelming trying to decide where and how to start exploring the city. Matt suggested we take a guided tour for our first day. A great idea to help us figure out the layout and learn some insider tips for the rest of the week. We booked with Neon Tours. Our guide, Gül, was fantastic. She was accommodating, had a contagious upbeat attitude and her knowledge of the city and history was impressive. Along with my below-detailed favorites, we toured the Basilica Cisterns, a Turkish carpet shop, Topkapi Palace, had lunch at the Ggrand Matbah Restaurant and were lastly escorted to the entrance of the Grand Bazaar.
Sultanahmet Meydani (Sultan Ahmet Square) – use to be the ancient Hippodrome of Constantinople. I am the worst when it comes to remembering any history, but the history describing this very spot; let alone all off Turkey, is so incredibly interesting. I would love to tell you all about it, but I know Wikipedia or the many books out there would do a much better job. Sultanahmet Meydani was the epicenter where people went to let off steam and socialize. As you stand in the square, try to imagine yourself at a race back in the day. Where would you rank among the social levels? It is amazing.
There are several statues and two obelisks in the square. In 390 Theodosius the Great moved a portion of the Obelisk of Thutmose III from Egypt to Constantinople. It has been standing for over 3500 years. The Walled Obelisk stone core remains of the obelisk erected in the 10th century by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The best time to visit is early in the day or at night. Less crowded and the sunrise/sunset views are breathtaking. [On the far end of the square, close to the entrance for the Cistern, you will find another smaller obelisk. This obelisk was the measuring point for all distances in the Roman Empire; it’s worth a look]
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) – located next to the Sultan Ahmet Square. Turkey has been the first Muslim-majority country I have visited, and I was excited to learn and see more. I was not disappointed. The mosques inside and out were jaw droppers. For me, the call to prayer was mesmerizing and soothing. I do not support nor condone anyone’s belief system; I’m simply stating that the buildings and the rituals were wonderful to see. The Blue Mosque, in particular, is probably one of the most well-known mosques in the world. And for good reason, the blue decorative inside tiles dazzle in the sunlight. We were able to get a few good photos while inside. It happened while we were there the electricity cut out, by the time it was restored it was time for us to move on.
Upon entering the mosque, everyone will be required to remove his/her shoes. Plastic bags are provided to carry your shoes during your visit. All women will be necessary to cover the top and back of their head. You are not required to cover your face just your hair. A wrapped scarf works best. All mosques close about 30 minutes before prayer. Make sure to plan accordingly. Take the time to observe the local worshipping community. Before prayer, worshippers gather outside to cleanse themselves and visit with each other. It is an excellent way to get a feel for the closeness of the local community.
Please note: When visiting any religious location be respectful. Cover up, take your hats off, observe quiet or whispering only signs, be prepared to remove your shoes, don’t disturb those that are worshipping, etc…Remember you are entering their house, respect their rules. You wouldn’t appreciate it if someone entered your home and disobeyed your requests, right?
Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) – a short walk from the Blue Mosque. From the outside, the museum is very mosque like, but I found the inside to be much more cathedral like. I recommend Hagia Sophia as a must do location in Istanbul. The first structure was built in 360 burned in 404, then rebuilt in 415 only to be demolished by riots in 532, and the remaining structure was built between 532 – 537. Between 537-1204 and 1262-1453, the building served as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral. From 1204-1261 the building served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral, and then between 1453 -1931 the building served as a mosque. Now as a museum it is a must see.
As you cross over the well-worn threshold where great rulers once walked, the building opens up into one of the most beautifully confusing rooms I have ever experienced. It is an enormous room of marble and gold Christian and Muslim decorations. The museum has done an incredible job to show the layers of change within this building. I found the gold angels in the corners particularly interesting.
In a mosque, you will never find faces decorating the walls because the focus should be on the God being worshiped without distractions. Cathedrals, however, it is common to see several different faces decorating the walls, ceilings and/or windows. As the cathedral was changed over to a mosque, the paintings and mosaics were altered to cover any faces. The museum has peeled back some of the layers to see the original faces. All the mosaics are beautiful, but the corner Angels were my favorite. Be sure to walk upstairs to see the mosaics and the views of the great room from above.
I wish we had invested in the audio tour. There are so many special spots in this museum and so much history I wish I had learned more while I was there. As you are in the exit hallway be sure to turn around and look at the mosaic above the door. It is easy to miss, but it is one of the most impressive.
[Matthew – There is a mirror on the outside door to help remind you to look back, take Heather’s advice and give it a look. Another interesting tidbit is that Hagia Sophia translates into “Holy Wisdom”, I think it is a very fitting name for a building with such a varied past.]
The museum is closed on Mondays and some local holidays. Price is 25TL = $12 USD. Check their website for operating hours and any price updates.
Cats and Dogs – One of the things you can’t help but notice is the abundance of cats and dogs lounging around Istanbul. This led to my favorite tidbit of the day. In 2004, Istanbul instituted a catch, sterilize and release program for street animals. The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality catches, vaccinates, sterilizes, tags and releases the homeless animals. There are far fewer dogs on the street than cats. The dog ear tag is readily visible and trackable. The cats are a bit of a different story. There are so many “neighborhood” cats in Istanbul. I imagine it has to be near impossible to keep up with the cat population.
Overall in Istanbul, these animals are treated better than most strays, but the cats are the star players. It is common to see cats in stores, restaurant doorways, in and around all parts of town. Food and water are commonly left out. It has become a neighborhood effort not just a city responsibility to take care of the cats. We were told that the Muslim culture has a high respect for all life, cats being high on their list due to various stories. Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the large stray population, but I commend the city for trying and showing their compassion for all life. And I have to admit it lessened my guilt about an attempt to feed every stray. Knowing the locals cared for the animals made me feel better.
The food at Matbah Restaurant was delicious, and the service outstanding.
…If you have time for both the Topkapi Palace and the Dolmabahçe Palace that is wonderful, if you only have time for one, I would recommend Dolmabahçe Palace.
The historical information on this tour was fascinating, and I would bet it would be interesting even for those out there that found it hard to pay attention in history class. However, I was most impressed at how Gül easily explained Islam; she did a much better job than any college professor I have ever had. One central point opened up a lot of doors for me, regarding images. There are no images inside mosques, so there is nothing to detract you from your time of prayer; if you saw an image you might have that in your mind when you are praying.
Due to this one rule Muslims have become very prolific when it comes to calligraphy and geometric patterns. This is used to decorate the insides of the mosques, and it does have quite the calming effect as you look around. Simple things like this are why one associates such intricate patterns with areas of the world where Islam plays a large role.
I really can’t say enough nice things about the tour and Gül. Also, it was very useful to get all that information about the city we were visiting and its history upfront. It made understanding the other sights we visited that much easier and gave you a good perspective from which to absorb your surroundings better. One thing to be aware of is the stop at the carpet shop is designed not only to show you an aspect of their culture but to get you to purchase something from a local merchant. Do not feel obligated to buy anything, though; knowing this going in should help you feel less trapped or awkward about declining an exquisitely made rug.
Advice: Don’t be afraid to take some notes on your tour, they can be especially useful if you want to go back to something later. Of course, by all means, ask questions, this is your chance to get the perspective of a local with a good handle on the subject matter.
Photo Tips: 1) Photography wise remember that flash is not allowed in mosques and churches. Tripods are permitted in the Blue Mosque, but not in Hagia Sophia, so that will help out there. When you find yourself without a tripod for whatever reason, look to lenses or ISO. So if you have lens options pick a fast one (as close to f/1.2 as possible) or as a last resort adjust your ISO to 400 or 800 respectively to keep your shutter speed above 60 thus eliminating blurry photos. Because there is nothing worse than coming home and realizing that the picture you took, that looked ok in the little 2-inch screen on your camera, is blurry.
2) If you have the option bring the widest lens you have as these buildings are massive inside, I used an 18mm and still wasn’t able to capture everything. If this isn’t an option a lot of cameras are now using auto stitching to make panoramas, this would be a good time to play with that feature.
- Neon Tours – This is the tour company we used.
- Hagia Sophia
- The Blue Mosque
- The Basilica Cistern
- Matbah Restaurant
Recommendable: Yes! If you are not able to take a guided tour invest in an excellent tour guide book. One of the best parts of the Sultanahmet area is the history. A tour guide is a perfect way to hear all of the history and hit all the best places.