How To Enjoy Istanbul, Turkey In 9 Ways

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Channeling Bosporus Strait And The Port Of Istanbul

Bosporus Strait with the Bosporus Bridge that connects two continents – Europe and Asia.

Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and sitting on the Bosporus Strait. The old city is located on the peninsula between Europe and Asia covering both continents. It was the capital of the Byzantine Empire (Byzantium-Greek), then Constantine The Great (Roman Empire) occupied the city in 330 A.D. and the name changed to Constantinople. When the Ottoman Empire (Muslim) ascended, it was known as Konstantiniyye. In 1935, Ottoman rule ended and Turkey became a republic, and the modern Turkish name is Istanbul.

Located on a peninsula at the mouth of the Black Sea is Turkey’s biggest and busiest port, the Port of Istanbul. This is the country’s industrial center and most important hub of tourism. It is situated along the Bosporus Strait.

Bosporus Strait is a very important body of water in northwestern Turkey. It connects Black Sea to the world’s oceans. For centuries, this narrow strait has played a significant role in maritime industry. Many ships and oil carriers sail through each day. It also separates the European part of Istanbul from its Asian part. And because of its strategic location being the only passage from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean, Bosporus Strait holds an important role not only in maritime but also in the tourism industry of Turkey as well.

In all of my sailing years, I’ve been to Istanbul for 3 times – 1992 (M/T Knock Nevis), 2000 (M/T Knock Muir) and 2015 (IVS Wentworth). I always consider it as one of the mightiest and wealthiest city on earth. Everything about this city is fascinating being the cradle of Western and Eastern culture. Here’s how to enjoy the best of Istanbul, Turkey in 9 ways.

Visit the Hagia Sophia

Garden at the Hagia Sophia.

Considered by many as the 8th wonder of the world, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul never fails anyone to be mesmerized by its beauty. For centuries, it singled out the Constantinople skyline. And it is visible from many miles out to Bosporus Strait. An overwhelming sight in marble, it is still a major tourist sight to enjoy in Istanbul, Turkey.

Known as the “Church of the Holy Wisdom”, this dome-shaped ancient building was first built as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral (Greek) in 537 A.D. Then it fell into the hands of the Roman Catholic faith between 1204-1261 under Emperor Justinian I (Constantinople) of the Crusaders. The Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople in 1453. Hagia Sophia became a mosque. It remained an important Islamic house of prayer until Turkey became a republic in 1935. It has been converted into a museum since then. Millions of tourists visit Hagia Sophia each year to see its ingenuous architecture and awesome interiors. Or maybe they go there to get a sense of civilization from the different cultures that left their mark on Hagia Sophia.

Explore the Underground at the Basilica Cistern

Inverted head of Medusa found in Basilica Cistern

Another ancient wonder to enjoy while you are in Istanbul, Turkey is to explore Basilica Cistern. This is an underground water reservoir (or cistern) during the Byzantine times under Justinian I. It was then to ensure that Constantinople’s water supply lasts even in times of drought and attacks. The area was first the site of a grand Basilica which included impressive columns, hence the name -Basilica Cistern. These modern times, Turks call it the “sunken palace”.

You can make your way to Basilica Cistern across Hagia Sophia. This imposing underground reservoir can be reached by descending a flight of 52 stairs. You can take a stroll on the paved walkways while immersing yourself on the subdued lights and cool temperature with the background of classical music everywhere. Make sure not to miss the two columns of the cistern that depict the head of Medusa. And yes, even James Bond explored Basilica Cistern too in 1963 through the movie “From Russia With Love”.

Haggle for Bargains at the Grand Bazaar

To haggle for bargains at the Grand Bazaar is one way to enjoy your visit to Istanbul, Turkey. Located inside the walled city, this is one of the largest and the oldest covered market in the world. It is also listed as the topmost among the visited tourist attractions on earth. It has 61 covered streets with around 4,000 shops. You can chose from a very wide array of leather goods and hand-woven carpets down to antique jewelry and spices.

The Grand Bazaar was constructed in 1461. As soon as Sultan Mehmet II took over Constantinople, he declared it as a business center of his Ottoman Empire. By the beginning of the 17th century, this market has been the center of Mediterranean trade. In the modern times, Grand Bazaar sells more jewelry and bargaining is highly encouraged. Besides the shops, it also houses mosques, Turkish baths, hotels, cafes, and water wells. Two more James Bond films have featured Istanbul, Turkey with the Grand Bazaar as location – “The World Is Not Enough” and “Skyfall”. The latter filmed a motorcycle scene in this market.

Visit the Blue Mosque

Interior of the Blue Mosque

It has around 20,000 ceramic blue tiles adorning the interior hence the name “blue mosque”. The architecture is a blend of both Byzantine and Ottoman influences. Constructed between 1609-1616 when Ahmed I ruled during the Ottoman period. His remains was buried in the Blue Mosque and this sight should be on your list in order to enjoy more of Istanbul, Turkey.

The mosque has an outer courtyard and is accessible by some gates. Another elevated inner courtyard can be found which is cemented with marble. Blue Mosque is generally open to visitors in the day, however it is closed for a short period during prayers.

Walk Along the Walls of Constantinople

Built by Constantine The Great during the Byzantine Empire so as to protect Istanbul from attack by enemies were stone walls known these days as Walls of Constantinople. When Emperor Theodosius II succeeded Constantine, he even made Istanbul safer by adding another set of double walls around the city. Today, these walls are considered by historians as an ancient engineering wonder. They had withstood numerous attacks through the centuries. However, some of the portions were destroyed in the 19th century as Istanbul outgrew its medieval boundaries. Still many parts of the walls survived and is one of the ways to enjoy Istanbul, Turkey.

In so many aspects, exploring the Walls of Constantinople is an unforgettable way to know more of Istanbul’s, past, present and into the future. Some of the restored sections are open for climbing which offer a 360 degrees view of this sprawling city. Along the way, you will encounter interesting neighborhoods and other unique areas of interests.

Experience Royalty at the Topkapi Palace

Harem court of the Topkapi Palace

A truly remarkable stately home which is still haunted even to these days with the mysteries of sultans and harems during the Ottoman Empire is the Topkapi Palace. It is among the ways to enjoy Istanbul, Turkey. Located at Seraglio Point, a cape with a view of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara ( this would open to Mediterranean Sea). This palace has been the private residence of the sultans for 400 years in their 624-year rule. Topkapi is actually the biggest and oldest palace (built in 1478 surpassing Buckingham Palace in London) to exist in modern times.

Topkapi stands directly behind Hagia Sophia and it was the center of the Ottoman Empire. In the days of the sultans, there were about 300 concubines that lived in their harem. The most splendid spot in the palace is standing by the sultan’s private quarters. Looking out by the windows, it commands a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus Strait that leads to Russia, then on your left side is Europe and to the right is Asia. Topkapi Palace once housed a university, a mosque council and the imperial mint (producer of the empire’s coins).

Admire Biblical Scenes at Chora Church

Mosaics and frescoes of Chora Church (Kariye Museum)

Originally built during the 4th century outside the Walls of Constantinople is the Chora Church or Kariye Museum. As compared to other Byzatine architectures in Istanbul, Kariye Museum (Chora Church) has an unusual design with astonishing array of frescoe paintings. To admire such ancient works in Kariye Museum is one way to enjoy Istanbul, Turkey.

Chora Church may not be as grand in size but it makes up for the interior design. Made up of 3 areas – the entrance hall, main Church and side Chapel, guests can marvel at the mosaics found inside. You will see Joseph’s dream and his journey, the nativity, the exodus from Egypt… to name a few. That can be followed like a graphic novel.

Take a Bite of Doner Kebab Paired With Ayran (Turkish Drink)

Beef doner with Ayran

And of course, the best way to enjoy Istanbul, Turkey is to try its national dish – doner kebab. It is the country’s best gift to the world’s culinary map. Literally translated to “rotating kebab”, this is a huge stack of meat (preferably lamb and beef) roasted vertically in a rotating position. In Istanbul, doner kebab is mostly a mixture of lamb and beef. The fat melts away as if to marinate the leaner part resulting to a melt-in-your-mouth kind of flavor. It is served in a plate with a side dish of onions, tomatoes and yogurt. Or it may rolled in a pita bread with no garnishes.

Doner comes best with ayran – the national drink of Turkey. It is made of yogurt, water and salt. A simple yet delicious drink served in all over Istanbul.

Join a Boat Tour Along Bosphorus Strait

Old villages By the shores of Bosporus Strait

Another way to enjoy more of Istanbul, Turkey is joining a ferry tour along the Bosphorus Strait. The sparkling stretch of this body of water divides the city’s European and Asian sides. Viewing Istanbul from the strait offers plausibly the finest panorama of this mesmerizing city. Sailing down the Bosporus gives you a great view of the scenic spots on each side together with the beauty of the strait itself.

Istanbul indeed is a city where you have the best of European experience mixed with a flair of Islamic grace. Spires of mosques as well as medieval architecture dominates its skyline. At the early hours, people go to mosques to pray while some bar habitues make their way home from partying through the night. It is only in Istanbul that has the ability to bring diverse activities that rhyme together. One day, when you least expect it, you will also find yourself in this amazing city and be able to say: “Oh yes, I’ve been there”.

Reference: Wikipedia; Rick Steeves’ Istanbul