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Istanbul Guide
Sightseeing in Istanbul

Istanbul or as we Greek-Americans call it: Constantinopolis, (the City of Constantine),is quite simply one of the great cities of the world. The first and most lasting impression is of countless layers of history and culture. Greek, Byzantine, Seljuk, Ottoman, Arab, French, Roma, Pontic--- the historical depth of every corner in the city is dizzying. It is also a city of conversions, so many churches turned into mosques, mosques into museums, prisons in to hotels, hotels into houses; the list of these metamorphoses is unending. It is also a city in constant flux and in conflict with itself. The strain between secularists who want to see Turkey a member of modern Europe, and the traditional Islamic party which prefers more traditional religious approach to many issues, is considerable. The headscarf issue among Turkish women, the taboos of drink and western influence, the sometimes uneasy relations with Greece, as well as internal issues with Kurds, do nothing to simplify matters. It is a city of immense contrast, and that is what makes it so interesting.

Historic Sites

obelisk, Hippodrome, Istanbul, TurkeyThe Hippodrome is one of the best places to start a walking tour of the city as it has been the central gathering point for thousands of years from the Byzantines, down through the Ottoman Sultans and modern Turks. It has often been fertile ground for revolutions and the legendary slaughter of the Janissary corps took place here in the 17th century. While much of the adorning wealth was stolen by the fourth century crusaders, certain monuments remain and speak of its illustrious past. Don’t miss Kaiser Willhelm’s fountain (he was a wonderful briber!) or the Obelisk of Theodosius which is said to be the most ancient monument in the city as it originated from the legendary temple at Amon Karnak in Egypt. Even more fascinating for philhellenes is the Spiral column which commemorates the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of Plataea. It was actually removed from the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece and brought to Constantinople by Constantine the Great. According to Herodotus, the bronze serpent was constructed from the melted armor and shields of the defeated Persian army. The Rough-Stone Obelisk is also of some interest, but not much is left of the gold and bronze clad monolith. Apparently, the crusaders removed the metal, as well as the legendary gold pine-cone which adorned it, leaving a somewhat naked looking stone for us to gaze at.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul, TurkeyAcross the street is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts which should be of great interest to anyone curious about the written and cartographic history of the Ottoman Empire, Islamic carpets, rare manuscripts and countless other ethnographic objects. Across the street from the museum is the side entrance to the Blue Mosque. This was Sultan Ahmet’s response to the Aya Sofya which was and is generally considered the finest and most interesting building in Istanbul. Because it was a Christian church, built by Greeks, Ahmet decided a Muslim built rival was necessary. Hence the Blue Mosque with its soaring minarets and rare blue tiles. In truth, the Blue Mosque, from the outside, captures a greater lightness and impresses with a truly organic elasticity--- it seems to leap toward the heavens and pierce the sky with those slender towers. In contrast the Aya Sofya, with its conversions is less impressive from a distance. But from the inside, there is no comparison. The superior architecture of the Aya Sofya is obvious, if even from a purely engineering point of view. The Blue Mosque’s dome is supported by four giant columns with clutter the interior, but still, the Iznik tiles that cover its walls are incredible and the giant iron chandeliers hand suspended from chains that disappear into the heights of the dome. It is a working mosque though, so visitors should treat it with respect and avoid visiting during prayer time, remember to carefully remove shoes and never set them on the carpets, women should cover their heads and shoulders if possible, and in general, one should avoid talking, snapping flash photographs or invasively videotaping people who are praying. I never thought these things needed to be explained to people, but the insensitivity of certain tourists borders the pathological. I was amazed at how many people insisted on flash photography when it was clearly forbidden, or moronic groups on bus tours whose power in numbers makes them feel immune to the rules of common courtesy. I wish them all a plate of bad seafood and five days of Montezuma’s revenge. The nearby Tomb of Sultan Ahmet is also of great interest and covered with stunning tile work.

Agia Sophia, IstanbulThe entrance to the Blue Mosque faces the entrance of the legendary Aya Sofya (Aghia Sofia Church of Divine Wisdom) which was designated a museum by Ataturk and recently turned into a mosque. The gardens that separate them make for a nice stroll among the fountains and palm trees. The Aya Sofya is in many ways the crowning glory of Istanbul. No other monument is as visited or as famous. This church was designed by Justinian to bring back the glory that was Rome. It remained the greatest Christian church in the empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and for a thousand years was the largest cathedral known to man. Designed by Greek architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, the church was the Patriarchate and the absolute religious focal point of Eastern Orthodoxy for over a millennium. Sadly, when Mehmet the Conqueror sacked the city in 1453, he ordered that the bells be taken out, the cross was replaced with the sickle moon and most of the beautiful mosaics were plastered over or destroyed. The Minarets were added onto the dome and the church was pronounced a mosque. The interior of this church is for me the most breathtaking architectural experience in Istanbul. If you can avoid the crowds and the scaffolding and allow yourself to sink into the history of this building, it will move you with its revolutionary building techniques, its dome which seems to hang in ethereal space, defying logic, its mosaics and frescos. It basically served as the receptacle for the collective suffering and religious agony to millions of worshipers around the world, as the last foothold of Christendom in the east. Be sure not to miss the mosaics on the upstairs galleries. You will notice that a number of the portraits resemble classical Greek mythological faces. I find this to be an interesting connection between the Greek Pagans and their Christian descendants who could not escape those early influences.

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, TurkeyYour next stop should of course be the Topkapi Palace which is a sight no classic film lover or traveler to Istanbul should miss. Before coming to Istanbul rent the movie Topkapi with Peter Ustinov, Maximillian Schell and Melina Mercouri directed by Jules Dasin about a heist at the museum, filmed on location at the Palace and around Istanbul. Leave yourself a full half day at the very least to see the Palace and its grounds as this is one of the highlights of any tip to the city. The Palace is huge, former home to some of the most colorful Sultans and their heirs, as well the tales of their madness and guile. The passageways, palaces, libraries, treasure dens and harems are filled with enough stories of incest, murder and malevolence to make Caligula or Nero cringe. There is too much to cover in a paragraph or two, so just be sure to visit, and don’t miss the Palace harem, the gems and treasures, and the holy Koran relics as well as the gardens and grounds in general. The complex was initially commissioned by Mehmet the Conqueror after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It was inhabited by various sultans up until the 19th century after which the allure of the water, and possibly the safety of distance from the masses, led them to take up residence along the shores of the Bosporus in later palaces and private mansions. The Topkapi is built on a four court plan, so take your time exploring each, and take a break for lunch at the museum café which has incredible views of the Bosporus and the far shores of Istanbul’s suburbs.

Basilica Cistern, IstanbulWhen you leave the palace, stop in at the Basilica Cistern. The admission is highly overpriced considering it costs as much to see the Topkapi, but it’s still a unique underground experience. 336 columns salvaged from demolished temples support the roof of the cistern which once held 80,000 cubic meters of water. It was built by Justinian in the 6th century AD and is thought to have supplied the Palace with water. You get to walk through the spooky columns under which giant carp swim in the dark as water drips from the ceiling and a red lights cast shadows on the ceiling. It’s cool and quiet and there is a café you can sit at with candles and little metal table--- a surreal experience when the city above blazes with heat and traffic and suddenly you need a sweatshirt because you’re cold! The Istanbul Archaeological Museum is just a short walk from here and well worth a visit for those interested in the history of the region, especially the powerful Greek presence in Ionia and Anatolia, as well Lydian and Phrygian cultures. There are rare and powerful pieces from the Greek and Roman periods, as well as a stunning collection of sarcophagi. Housed in a neoclassical Greek building, the museum is under visited, well maintained and very beautiful. It’s the perfect place to get away from the hordes of tourists, and there is wonderful little garden café set among broken columns and blocks of stone where you can sit in the shade and have a coffee or read a book.


If you feel a little weary from all this tourism you can always go to a nice refreshing hammam (Turkish Bath) which are all over the city. The two most popular are the Cagaloglu Hammam, featured in Patricia Schultz's 1000 Places to See Before You Die and located at Kazım İsmail Gürkan Cad. 34, just a short walk from Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and Cemberlitas Hammam is located on Çemberlitas Square on Divanyolu Street which is a little more difficult to find without google-maps. It is next to the Vezirhan monument erected by Constantine I (324 – 327) and the Köprülü Mahmud Pasa mosque. For more about hammam etiquette and what to expect see Hammams

The Streets of Istanbul

Sultanahmet Tram, Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul’s greatest glory is the streets. There is nothing more fulfilling than setting out to explore the seven hills of this historic city on foot. Get lost and just wander though the endless succession of neighborhoods that make up this fascinating city. Most tourists stick to the side streets of Sultanahmet (similar to the Plaka in Athens) which are interesting, but only to an extent. The sights are many, but everything is overpriced, the hotels are all vying for the best roof terrace award, and you are constantly bombarded by annoying carpet salesmen with their generic questions about your country of residence. Sadly, even the most spontaneous and seemingly innocent exchange degenerated into a rug pitch. My favorite exchange occurred with guy who started to ask me about my “mother in law” then stopped, eyed me for second and said “you’re not gonna buy a rug are you?” 

Istanbul shoe shiners have developed a unique approach to getting customers that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. You are walking along and suddenly a shoe shine man crosses your path and “drops” his polishing brush by accident and keeps walking. You, being a nice, dumb and well meaning tourist, pick it up and run after him to hand it back. He turns, ecstatic that you are so kind and with a huge smile of gratitude insists of returning the favor and showing thanks by giving you a free shine. This is when the expression, “no such thing as free lunch” should remind you that you are a traveler and not necessarily a fool, so keep moving. These guys are preying on the most basic human courtesies, so feel no embarrassment and give them the cold, cold shoulder, unless of course you actually need your shoe shined in which case you should reward them for their ingenuity. To all the honest shoe shiners of Istanbul--- my deepest apologies and just keep doing what you have been doing and if you are not rewarded in this life you will be in the next.

Spice Market, IstanbulWhile we are on the subject of sales, the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) and the bazaar district in general is the place everyone visits in Istanbul. It is still a must see, because the architecture and organic design of this labyrinthine market is absolutely amazing, but the most interesting aspects are to be found on the outskirts and in the market areas outside the perimeter of the central bazaar especially in the western end of the area where you’ll find the Turks shopping for tin, cloth, razors, string and anything else you can possibly imagine. The glitzy Bazaar has wonderful gold and ceramics as well as jewelry and lamps, but be prepared for endless harassment by overzealous salesmen. My philosophy is to buy from the guys that hassle me the least or those who have something I really want since so many of the shops sell the same popular tourist items. Across from the docks at Eminonu, the Spice Bazaar(photo), once known as the Egyptian market, is also worth seeing, though they are being slowly but surely infiltrated by tourist shops. That's OK. Istanbul is a commercial city and if a space is empty then there is no reason a tourist shop can't open in a spice market and there are still more spice shops than you will probably have ever seen in one place west of the Bosphorus. The neighborhoods around the Spice Bazaar have a lot of shops with every-day items that you might buy if you happened to live in Istanbul and this is just as interesting a way to enjoy your morning or afternoon. Spend some time wandering around Istanbul’s western neighborhoods during the market hours for a deeper understanding of how this with city really operates.

Galata Bridge, Istanbul, TurkeyEach city has many hearts, and those centers tend to vary according to function as well as the travelers perception. While Taksim square may be the center for many public events and demonstrations, for me, the Bosporus is the heart and artery of this city. The best place to get your first glimpse of the water and the spectacular views of the city at dusk is the Galata Bridge which links Eminonu to the now hip district of Beyoglu. The original floating bridge was dismantled and can now be seen tied up to the banks to rust at the northern tip of the Golden Horn. At sunset, the Galata bridge is packed with fishermen and people out strolling. The underside of the bridge holds a series of bars and fish restaurants most of which are there to cater to tourists and visitors, but the views they offer make it worth a stop for a beer. If you want to try the famous Balik fish sandwich, go down to the docks of Eminonu and look for the floating fish stands located on three of four boats tied to the dock. The fish is cooked wide grills and greasy, salty fillet from the Black Sea is slapped on a rough half-loaf stuffed with raw onions and lettuce. Douse this with salt and lemon juice and you’ll never forget it. On the nearby Galata bridge the seagulls scream overhead, the ferries crisscross the busy waterway blowing their foghorns, the tram rumbles across the ironwork and the sun goes down behind the many minarets that stab the skyline. It is the most perfect synthesis of all the beauty and confusion that is Istanbul.

Istiklal Caddesi Tram, Istanbul, TurkeyAcross the bridge there is a funicular that will take you up the hill to the center of Beyoglu, but it’s a short and unnecessary ride when you can easily walk the hill through interesting streets and end up at the Galata Tower for the best views of Istanbul. This was originally a Genoese area, hence the style of the stone fortification tower. There are some great cafes around the base of the tower where you can have a coffee, or the famous baked rice pudding. Keep walking up the hill and you’ll arrive at the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi. This is Tunel Square, where the funicular stops. Istiklal Caddesi runs between this stop and Taksim Square, bisecting Beyoglu, which is without a doubt the heart of young Istanbul. If you are looking for the best bars, restaurants and cafes, the side streets leading off Istiklal Caddesi are the place to go. There is an antique tram that runs along the street, lending an added bit of charm, but it’s much more interesting to walk. The main drag is astonishing for a number of reasons. It feels like a cross between Paris and Rome. The sheer volume of people, primarily young Istanbullus, who stroll this pedestrian heaven, is overwhelming. Then there is the social mix, the high end cafes and shops next to street vendors selling corn or various trinkets, the Starbucks nestled in alongside cafes with nargiles (water pipes or hookahs), the gaggles of young women, some in headscarves, others in miniskirts and heels---everything emphasizes the meeting of east and west, the dramatic climax of two radically different cultures, and the results are fascinating but still unclear. There is also a great English bookstore called Robinson Crusoe(389 Isiklal Caddesi) with numerous titles on Turkish culture, a good fiction and poetry section, magazines and newspapers.

Flowerpassage, Istanbul, TurkeyThe real heart of Beyoglu is the Meyhanes (Taverns) the most famous being on Nevizade Sokak, one of the small streets that run off the main drag like a thousand capillaries. The best way to find it is to look for the Cicek Pasaji (the Flower Market Passage) The Flower passage no longer sells flowers, but it is one of the highlights of this area. Built to mimic a Parisian arcade, this passageway is now home to at least 20 meyanes, as well as frequented by gypsy musicians who walk from table to table, playing for money. Do not invite them to play unless you are willing to leave them a generous tip, not the loose change in your pocket. The whole place is very touristy, but still worth seeing, you will find Turks eating there, which is always a good sign, but the food is more expensive and of no better quality, so you are essentially paying for the experience of sitting in a historic alley. Nevizade Sokak is also over-advertised, and therefore overcrowded. It is virtually impossible to recommend one place over another because of the sheer volume. My own personal rule is to avoid any place where the waiter or owner stands on the street and tries to cajole you to sit down. Look for busy, indifferent waiters and large crowds of boisterous Turks---those are the places to spend your money. The Meyhanes in the less visited neighborhood of Kumpkapi are probably the best in all of Istanbul. They are not as frequented by tourists because it is generally a very poor neighborhood, and according to certain guide books there are some safety issues (so they say) late at night, but I would recommend these streets as my favorite place to eat and wander in Istanbul.

Taksim Square, Istanbul, TurkeyThe side streets of Beyoglu are fascinating and it’s easy to understand the changes that have taken place in this city as it shifts into a 21st century role. It was formerly considered “the European” neighborhood and the fist to adopt the fashions and tastes for western culture. There was once a relatively strong Greek and Genoese community in Beyoglu, and the houses and apartments of vanished merchant and diplomatic class still line the streets in neoclassical splendor. There is a large Greek Orthodox cathedral on a side street to your right as you climb Istiklal Caddesi (just below Taksim square). Laki, the caretaker, will show you around if you are nice. While Beyoglu may have lost the old world charm and status it once held, there is no doubt that this is the modern heart of Istanbul and the youthful epicenter of all things hip and trendy. At the top of Istiklal Caddesi you will find yourself in the massive open space of Taksim Square (photo). Considered by many to be the “heart of modern Istanbul” it feels more like an outdoor train station without any trains. Dominated by an patriotic statue depicting Ataturk and various other revolutionaries, it seems a good place for mass protests and political rallies, but architecturally and aesthetically it’s a total disaster. The good news is you can catch the T4 bus from the bus station on the square which will take you all the way back to Sultanahmet, and presumably, your hotel or walk down to the Galata Bridge and take the tram.

By the Bosphorus

ferry, istanbul turkeyIf you leave Istanbul without a ride on one of the innumerable ferry boats chugging back and forth across the Bosphorus you will have missed the quintessential Istanbul experience. For all its mosques and museums and ruined cathedrals the true essence of this amazing city lies in the water. There is nothing more beautiful in Istanbul than watching the stunning skyline at sunset while your boat shudders away from one of the many harbors. The ferries in Istanbul function like buses in most cities. They are cheap, and stop near enough to just about any neighborhood you chose to visit. The best way to get a taste for this is to walk down to the docks at Eminonu and simply choose a destination. You can buy a token right at the docks and just follow the crowds waiting for the next ferry. The boats dock and disembark with incredible speed, so be prepared to run. The entire docking, disembarking, embarking and push off can be accomplished in less than a minute. It’s so much more exiting to jump over a coiled rope onto the greasy deck of a small boat than to hail another boring taxi, and there is nothing better that arriving at a new neighborhood via boat. It’s almost feels like visits to individual islands and one forgets (luckily) that most of the city is accessible by car if absolutely necessary. An added luxury is the tea man who wanders up and down the deck of the ferry with a tray full of hot Turkish tea in those ubiquitous shot-like glasses. For 1 Turkish lira, you can sip your sweet tea and watch city docks roll by. You can also choose to take the public ferry all the way up the Bosphorus to the entrance of the Black Sea and back. There are private tours who offer this route, but the public ferry allows you to get off wherever you want and you can chose to stay on for the whole circuitous journey. The boat leaves from the docks at Eminonu and stops at Besiktas, Kanlika, Yenikoy, Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi, Anadolu Kavagi with some possible variation. The last stop is a little fishing town with a massive medieval castle perched on the hill which overlooks the Black Sea. The boat stops here and allows passengers a 2-3 hour break for lunch. It is something of a tourist trap in spite of the beautiful setting, and you will find yourself accosted by 500 restaurateurs who have you captive for 3 hours. You can choose to eat at the fish restaurants on the docks or to explore the less touristy back streets. The last boat leaves at around 6pm. But be sure to check the schedules. The best part of this trip is simply the boat ride up and down the Bosporus and the glimpses of lush green hills, palatial summer homes on the water and beautiful fishing docks and sailboats. It’s fascinating to feel the presence of both Asia and Europe to your right and left and to imagine that this little strip of water is what separates them. Check out Matt's Bosphorus Photos

fener, istanbul, turkeyMy favorite ferry journey is to take the local public ferry from Eminonu docks all the way up the Golden Horn and back. This is the best way to get to the famous Greek neighborhood of Fener (Fanari in Greek) home to the Ecumenical Orthodox Patriachate, the abandoned Greek School and the amazing Bulgarian cast Iron church of St. Stephen. The Patriarchate is the last remnant of Greek influence from former Byzantium and the church of St. George with its stunning frescoes is where the Greek clergy moved after they lost the Aya Sofya to the Ottoman Empire. You will have to deal with busloads of Greek tourists who tent to make a kind of pilgrimage to this site, and while they can be annoying, it’s good to remember that many of them are children of Greeks who were once citizens of the city and part if its educated merchant class. More interesting than the church is the former Greek College perched on the hill above the town, also called The Great School of the Nation ( Μεγάλη του Γένους Σχολή). It was founded in 1454 and is impossible to miss as it looks like a giant Reichstag in red sandstone with massive iron gates and soaring windows. This school is something of an architectural wonder and there is an antique telescope in the observatory sometimes used by astronomy students. It was the leading college for the Phanariots, the wealthy Greek business class in Constantinople. The college dominates the hill, but is permeated with a feeling of decay and stagnancy. There has been a long debate about the possibility of the school reopening, but due to the mercurial nature of Greco-Turkish relations, there is no definite solution in sight. The Greek and Jewish neighborhoods below the school are captivating, if run down and poor. You will find amazing alleys filled with children playing ball or skipping ropes, ancient faces staring at you from barred windows, gorgeous walls of fading stucco and overgrown gardens---- it is a national treasure and was at one time listed as a possible Unesco World Heritage Site. Greeks and Turks once lived in total harmony in these streets and the friendliness of the local people to Greek tourists is a sign that the issues are political and not personal.

Down at the docks you will notice the Cast iron church of St. Stephen the Bulgar. You have to find the local caretaker and have him unlock the gates, but the visit is well worth it. It is a completely pre fabricated cast iron church constructed in the 19th century in Vienna and brought in pieces down the Danube, across the Black Sea and down the Golden Horn. It is a little known fact that Gustav Eiffel who designed the Eiffel tower in Paris had patents a series of cast iron churches which were to be sent to various far flung colonies. They assumed a cast Iron church in the jungle or desert is exactly what the “natives” needed. This is one of the few surviving examples in the world this Neo Gothic/Baroque structure is an amazing feat of architecture and design.

Kumkapi, Istanbul, TurkeyThe Armenian neighborhood of Kumkapi is one of the most fascinating in all of Istanbul, but it should be approached with care and sensitivity because it is a very poor area and the residents do not necessarily appreciate being photographed by rich tourists with cameras that cost more than six months rent. On the other hand I found the residents of Kumkapi to be gracious, extremely polite and simply curious about us wandering those tumbledown streets. It is a neighborhood famous for its fish restaurants, and there are scores of them, with far better prices and better food than anywhere else. The variety and selection is amazing---- like Greek food, but with more variation and spice. The narrow streets are lined with gorgeous old houses in various states of disrepair, laundry hangs from makeshift clotheslines, old people gather on stoops to chat and drink tea and smoke. It is alive, and it is fairer glimpse at what the real population of Turkey faces daily. Filled with immigrants from Kurdistan, Iraq, Iran and Armenia, it is also a cross section of the confusing political situation in Turkey and the delicacy of its relations with its neighbors and internal minorities. The train that runs between Istanbul and Thessaloniki cuts right through the back of Kumkapi as you leave Istanbul, and it is a fitting goodbye to this most amazing city.

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