Travel to Turkey: 6 Favorite Highlights in Istanbul

Travel to Turkey: 6 Favorite Highlights in Istanbul

Istanbul is a layer cake, a city built over layer upon layer of civilizations, cultures, and cuisines. Food is a good analogy here, since the city is bursting with restaurants offering traditional and award-winning European and Asian cuisines that mingle past and present in this culinary, political, and geographical crossroads of Europe and Asia. 

Here is a quick taste of what Istanbul is along with six favorite highlights of the city I love, having lived in Turkey and returning eight times:

  1. Blue Mosque
  2. Hagia Sophia
  3. Topkapi Palace
  4. Bosphorus Strait
  5. Istiklal Cadessi
  6. Grand Bazaar

About IstanbulMore than 2,500 years old, Istanbul is at a continental crossroads: the eastern side of the city is rooted in Asia while the western side is grounded in Europe; the Bosphorus Strait is the dividing line. Many travelers spend their time only on the European side, exploring Istanbul’s historic treasures such as the Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace. Yet it is so easy to ferry across the waters to the Asian side for a peek at how “regular” local Turks live and relax, from Üsküdar to locals’ favorite Princes’ Islands with its seaside cafes and parks. A Silk Road city once called Constantinople, even today this metropolis – largest city in Turkey – still reveals layers upon layers of its Eastern Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman Empire and more recent Atatürk past – to the delight of travelers everywhere.

Rumeli Fortress (<i>Rumeli Hisari</i>) on Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait was built in just one year, completed in 1452 <br />  Photo credit: Helen Holter

Rumeli Fortress (Rumeli Hisari) on Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait was built in just one year, completed in 1452
Photo credit: Helen Holter

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1. Blue Mosque/Sultanahmet Camii (UNESCO)The first stop for many visitors to Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, built on the former Byzantine emperors’ Great Palace with its soaring ceilings, wagon-wheel chandeliers, 200 windows, and 20,000+ Iznik porcelain tiles glazed with blue tight floral motifs – and thus the mosque’s name.

It is a lifetime moment, standing in the Blue Mosque with its six minarets and 17th century domes along with 15,000 Muslim faithful at sundown and thousands more outside in the courtyards, listening to them pray aloud and waiting for the end of their final Ramadan fast and their three-day celebration to begin – this year on July 17th, 2015. It is holy, joyous, and a rare opportunity to share prayer time with Muslim faithful.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Cami in Turkish) has been an active mosque since its completion in 1616 Photo credit: Helen Holter

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) has been an active mosque since its completion in 1616
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: Dress modestly (coverings available), remove your shoes, and respectfully stay in the back and/or (for women) in the upper balcony. You usually must wait until prayers have ended before entering the mosque.

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2. Hagia Sofia /Aya Sofia (UNESCO)Be still and breathe in the upper galleries of Hagia Sophia, mesmerized by the juxtaposition of peeled-away frescoes of Christian saints, Jesus, and Byzantine rulers; massive leather medallions of Arabic calligraphy inscribed with the names of Allah, Mohammed, and holy Muslims; and a gravity-defying dome nearly 200 feet high and more than 100 feet wide, along with 30 million mosaic tiles embedded in the walls. Once the world’s largest church and then an Ottoman mosque, today Hagia Sofia is a world-class museum – symbolic of East and West, Christian and Muslim, past and present.

Istanbul's Hagia Sophia just before sundown, as crowds of Muslim believers end their Ramadan fast <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia just before sundown, as crowds of Muslim believers end their Ramadan fast
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: Arrive when the museum opens to stand in awe in the temporary stillness of this sacred, sublime place. As visitors crowd in, ascend the ancient stone stairs to the upper galleries for another nearly private viewing of this 1,500-year-old architectural wonder.

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3. Topkapi Palace /Topkapı Sarayı (UNESCO)Ottoman sultans lived here in splendor for 400 years, with hundreds of rooms, chambers, baths, and of course the famous Imperial Harem housing more than 300 wives, children, and concubines. Topkapi was strategically built high up on Seraglio Point, with outstanding views of the Golden Horn, Sea of Marmara, and Bosphorus Strait – a great place for tea or lunch.

A flower-filled park with shady trees leads to the Gate of Salutation entrance of Topkapi Palace Photo credit: Helen Holter

A flower-filled park with shady trees leads to the Gate of Salutation at Topkapi Palace
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: Join the crowds in the Treasury Room to view the Sultan’s “Emerald Dagger,” subject of the 1964 Hollywood thriller, “Topkapi.” In contrast, quietly observe reverential Muslims as they view the Prophet Mohammed’s belongings in the Chamber of Sacred Relics; it is quite moving.

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4. Bosphorus Strait /BoğaziçiRain or shine, private and public boats glide along the 17-mile strategic finger of the Bosphorus Strait; it’s a “must” to take a ride, truly an Istanbul highlight. Most boat rides begin in Eminönü – grab a ubiquitous grilled fish sandwich at the pier before boarding – and ride as far as the castle and lighthouse on the Black Sea, passing ancient yalis (wooden houses), palaces, mosques, and multi-million-dollar ultra-modern homes.

Mansions and renovated wooden <i>yali</i> houses – some $20 to $100 million – line the Bosphorus Strait <br /> Photo credit: Helen Holter

Mansions and renovated wooden yali houses – some $20 to $100 million – line the Bosphorus Strait
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: If you make it to Kanlıca, vendors often scramble aboard to sell their village’s famous yogurt topped with powdered sugar – it is delicious.

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5. Istiklal Cadessi /Independence StreetThis is the heart and social hotspot of modern-day Istanbul, a mile-long pedestrian walkway among 19th century neoclassical buildings, stretching from ancient Galata Tower to modern Taksim Square. Istiklal is jammed with cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, embassies, galleries, music, book, and souvenir shops, along with some of the city’s tastiest Turkish desserts, like baklava.

Istanbul's most famous street never sleeps; <i>Istiklal Cadessi </i>(Independence Street) bursts with restaurants, nightclubs, historic patisseries, and boutiques<br /> Photo credit: Helen Holter

Istanbul’s most famous street never sleeps; Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Street) bursts with restaurants, nightclubs, historic patisseries, and boutiques
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: Enjoy a Turkish coffee and baklava at a street-side café, watching the diversity of Turkey stroll by – from clothing and complexions to hairstyles and headscarves. It’s a young crowd, too: half of Turkey’s population is under 29.

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6. Grand Bazaar /Kapali Çarşi (UNESCO)Wander the labyrinthine passageways of Istanbul’s 15th century covered bazaar filled with 4,000 shops – give or take – and filled with more than a quarter-million people each day. Stop by the nearby Egyptian Spice Market (Mısır Çarşısı) for saffron, curry, dried fruits and nuts, Turkish coffee and more.

Operating since 1461, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world's top tourist attractions Photo credit: Helen Holter

Operating since 1461, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s top tourist attractions
Photo credit: Helen Holter

  • Tip: Shop carefully (there is junk!) to nab bargains in carpets, jewelry, precious gems, and leather goods. I especially like the Tajik and Turkmen dealers in precious stones. Near the Grand Bazaar are some of the country’s most famous Turkish baths; it’s a luxurious post-shopping indulgence.

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Travel to Istanbul with MIR
  • Hand-crafted Private Journeys in Istanbul: MIR travelers often book several additional days in Istanbul at the beginning or end of their journeys, offering them the opportunity to more deeply explore this ancient yet modern city, beyond the highlights. An Istanbul hand-crafted, custom itinerary might include:
    • Traditional crafts such as Iznik tile-making, a convenient side trip to the town where they originated, learning how and why these blue tiles adorn so many of Turkey’s mosques, including the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.
    • Culinary classes are also very popular in Istanbul; Turkey’s Mediterranean cuisine is fresh, healthy, and varied in its spices, meats, and vegetarian offerings – from ubiquitous lamb kebabs to countless eggplant dishes.
    • Istanbul is a logical place to learn about Turkish rugs, from how they are created to their colorful place in royal history, adorning the floors and walls of Topkapi Palace and beyond. The recently reopened Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (a former palace often dubbed the “Carpet Museum”) displays a world-renowned collection of approximately 1,700 carpets; some fragments are among the oldest in the world.
Carpet-buying is almost a sport in Turkey, but there are great beauties to be found Photo credit: Helen Holter

Carpet-buying is almost a sport in Turkey, but there are great beauties to be found
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Explore More of TurkeyBecause Turkey is so large – the size of Texas – it’s easier to comprehend and visit by focusing on its geographical regions, each one unique in its sights, history, and cuisine. What remains the same everywhere is Turkey’s legendary hospitality. Here is an overview of Turkey, along with key regions to visit:

View from the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia, looking out at the Blue Mosque <br>Photo credit: Helen Holter

View from the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia, looking out at the Blue Mosque
Photo credit: Helen Holter

Whatever your agenda for such Turkish delights, MIR’s experience and logistical expertise in crafting unique, custom journeys can transform your dream trip into an unforgettable travel adventure in the heartland of history – Turkey.

(Top photo: Majestic Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Photo credit: Helen Holter)

PUBLISHED: February 17, 2015

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