Istanbul, once called Constantinople during the Byzantine Empire, is the only metropolis in the world that spreads over two continents. One part of this cosmopolitan city lies in Asia, the other in Europe with the Bosphorus gracefully dividing the two sides. Here you can easily have lunch in Europe, an afternoon stroll in Asia before you settle down for an evening cocktail back in Europe and you don’t even need a passport to do it! The main tourist attractions, however, are found within the Sultanahmet district which we enjoyed exploring during our short stay in Istanbul.
Sultanahmet district with its beautiful historical sights lies on the European side of Istanbul. Fortunately all of the major sights are within walking distance from one another. The first sight we visited was the iconic Blue Mosque which was commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I to rival the grand Aya Sofya nearby. Built between 1609-1616 it is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period of Ottoman architecture.
The dome ceilings of the Blue Mosque are breathtakingly beautiful and the importance of looking up was something we learned rather quickly during our stay in Istanbul.
The vast interior prayer hall of the Blue Mosque is richly decorated with low hanging lights, ornate tiles that adorn the inner walls and a lush red carpet on which men kneel in prayer during prayer times.
When we came out of the Blue Mosque street vendors were setting up for the day. This man was selling Simit – Turkish bread rings that are topped with sesame seeds.
Not far from the Blue Mosque is Topkapi Palace – a large palace complex that offers a glimpse into the grandiose world of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than one single monumental structure it is made up of various buildings, opulent pavilions, chambers, fountains and a set of gardens. Located on the Seraglio Point, it offers fantastic views of the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphoros as well as the Asian side of Istanbul.
Topkapi was the first Ottoman palace – ordered by Mehmet II – it was built between 1466-1478 and for about 400 years it was the primary residence of Ottoman sultans and the political centre of the Ottoman Empire. The palace complex includes many fine examples of Ottoman architecture like the Neo-classic Enderûn Library (picture above) which holds more than 3,500 manuscripts.
It is worth to explore Topkapi Palace with an audio guide to fully understand the rich history of the place. You will come across the most grandiose chambers and pavilions and to listen to the colourful stories of past times, while you admire the opulent decorations – this certainly adds to the experience!
You can easily spend half a day at Topkapi Palace to fully explore this maze of structures which spreads over an area of about 400,000 square meters.
Topkapi Palace is one of the most visited sights in Istanbul, usually with long queues at the entrance. When we visited, shortly after the attempted military coup at the end of July 2016, Topkapi Palace, as many of the other sights were rather empty. Talking to taxi drivers, restaurant and shop owners, we heard about people’s concerns around their livelihoods and their big hopes that tourists will return soon.
Another major tourist attraction within Sultanahmet district is Aya Sofya, known as Hagia Sophia in Greek. It’s historic, religious and cultural importance is undeniable. Commissioned by the emperor Justinian I, it served as a Greek Orthodox church, was converted into a mosque in 1584 and declared as a museum in 1935 by Ataturk, the first president of Turkey.
Hagia Sophia is a museum to both christianity and islam with christian and islamic symbols side by side.
Don’t miss looking out of the windows on the first floor with views of the beautiful domes and the Blue Mosque in the distance.
Sultanahmet districted is lined with shops, cafe’s and restaurants and the perfect place to learn about the art of carpet weaving while drinking hot mint tea.
Nurusmaniye Mosque, located near one of the entryways to the Grand Bazaar, represents a turning point of Ottoman architecture. It was the first and larges mosque to be built in Ottoman Baroque style between 1748-1755. The inside of the mosque, lined with a light blue carpet and stunning marble columns, had an immediate calming effect on me.
The Grand Bazaar which is located right next to Nurusmaniye Mosque is home to thousands of shops where sellers and buyers haggle over prices. It is easy to get lost in the maze of narrow laneways where people started trading already started as far back as 1461.
Here you can find the finest silver, silk, shoes, garments, jewellery but never forget to engage in the friendly art of bargaining before you settle on a price.
Süleymaniye Mosque, commissioned by Sultan Suleiman ‘The Magnificent’, is the largest mosque in Istanbul. The Ottoman imperial mosque was built between 1550-1557 by the legendary architect Mimar Sinan. Located on the third hill of Istanbul it offers wonderful views of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus from the garden behind the mosque.
At washing stations, devoted muslims wash their feet before entering the mosque.
We immediately looked up to admire the colourful details on the ceiling of the domes.
Most impressive, however, was the awe-inspiring size of this elegantly decorated mosque.
On our way out we stumble across this cute little kitten, enjoying the attention of passersbyers.