Friday, 13 April 2012

Istanbul: Mosques, museums and modernity

A minaret-topped hill, bustling bazaars and the lamp-lit fusion of East and West that is the Hagia Sophia. We've all seen the postcard images of Istanbul, but there's much more to this city than the sights of the Sultanahmet district responsible for its fame.

If Taksim Square is 'new' Istanbul's hub, across the Bosphorus in the 'old' European side of the city, Sultanahmet Square is the centre of the district of the same name. It's also a key fixture on all tourists' agendas. As first-time visitors with only a few days to experience the city, we chose to base ourselves in Sultanahmet, close to the sights. After the comedy caper that was arrival at our hotel, the experience picked up: comfortable and friendly, the Esans Hotel was also within easy walking distance of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, all of which cluster conveniently around Sultanahmet Square. What it's less close to are restaurants that don't appear to cater purely to tourists: given the neighbourhood's beauty and excellent sights per square metre ratio, you can now barely take a few steps without being accosted by a restaurant tout. Not since I was an 18 year old on holiday in Albufeira have I felt so wanted.

Sultanahmet sights

Topkapi Palace

Its no wonder the Sultanahmet area's packed with monuments: for centuries, it was the hub of the Ottoman Empire. Topkapi Palace was where all the strategising and the top-flight fun took place: this well-preserved site was part fortress, part pleasure palace. At 20 Turkish Lira (plus another 15 if you want to visit the harem), admission doesn't come cheap, but there's enough here to keep you occupied for hours. Vast public courtyards give way to smaller, more intimate ones where courtly life played out. As well as admiring the architecture and tile work of the buildings scattered around the complex, visitors can peruse exhibitions of weapons through the ages, Ottoman costumes and relics - including many individual strands of the Prophet Mohammed's beard. Bling-lovers can also cast their eyes over the jewels in the Imperial Treasury. For me, the final court was the most impressive, particularly the Baghdad Kiosk with its tiled walls and mother-of-pearl furniture.

Hagia Sophia

Splendid though Topkapi Palace was (and it's not every day you get to see the Prophet's beard), I'd been holding out for the Hagia Sophia. A former church built in AD357 and turned into a mosque after the Ottoman Turk army reclaimed Constantinople in 1453, the outwardly unassuming building is inwardly stunning in its simplicity. On one level, it is an empty shell: there are no altars, no pews in this deconsecrated place of worship. Instead, there's a hum of snap-happy tourists, happily dwarfed by the scale of the structure. The high ceilings tower above them, arches and columns reaching skywards. Suspended from the ceiling, the simple glass lamps common to mosques across the city cast a dim glow on the awe-struck visitors. It's stunning from every angle: the balcony above, the doorway, the middle of the floor. There's very little to see - but plenty to marvel at.

Visiting Istanbul's mosques requires a little more planning. Although visitors seem to be welcome at all of the city's mosques, some are much more accustomed to them than others. As the most famous mosque on the block, the Blue Mosque certainly receives its share of visitors. When it was constructed, its 6 minarets provoked contoversy, as according to Islam only the Prophet's mosque at Mecca was allowed this number. Tourists should time their visits to as not to coincide with any of the 5 daily prayers: listen out for the unmistakable call to prayer, then leave it at least half an hour before visiting. If there are any guidelines (separate entrances or placing your shoes in a plastic bag), be sure to follow them, but otherwise make sure to remove your shoes, dress modestly and cover your hair if female. Although my guidebook declared that the Blue Mosque (unlike the Hagia Sophia) was much more impressive outside than in, we were still captivated by its vast, tile-adorned interior. Down the hill at the water's edge, the huge New Mosque is very much a working place of worship, making it worth a visit for this reason alone.

I have to admit, a visit to the Grand Bazaar was about as appealing to me as rifling through the sale rail at Primark on a Saturday afternoon. All that haggling over tourist tat isn't really my cup of tea. But my travel companion A wanted to test out her bargaining skills over the purchase of some ceramics, so I went along for the ride. A much more sanitised experience than the souks of Marrakech, you can nonetheless easily get lost here in the lanes of shops, divided into areas according to the wares sold - so jewellery, leather, textiles and ceramics all had their own sections. We managed to inadvertently choose non-Turkish stall holders to haggle with, but A came away with some pretty painted bowls and a scarf, and we enjoyed an apple tea and a chat with the Syrian scarf-seller, so I revised my opinion of bazaar-buying slightly. We headed downhill through an area brimming with small, local shops to the Spice Bazaar, the place to go for erm, spices and Turkish delight. Caught in a crowd of Saturday-afternoon shoppers, actually getting into the bazaar was something of an ordeal, but the free tea and Turkish delight I consumed while A purchased almost made up for it. The bazaars are an experience, sure - just not one I would feel the need to repeat.

Across the water

Looking from new to old Istanbul

Separated from Sultanahmet and the outlying districts by the Bosphorus, the 'new' European city lies across Galata Bridge. Traversed by tram or on foot, the bridge is a major thoroughfare at all hours of the day. It's also lined with fishermen, patiently hoping to reel in a catch. The area around the water's edge heaves with street food: on our winter visit, roasted chestnuts and boiled sweet corn cobs were very much in evidence, while grilled fish is a year-round constant, especially in 'new' Istanbul. If you're looking for a decent meal without paying tourist-inflated rates, it's definitely worth crossing the Golden Horn and branching out into the Beyoglu district.

Sights situated on this side of the Bosphorus include the Galata Tower, but for me this area was all about the atmosphere. Tourists are much harder to spot among the crowds of Istanbullus seeking retail and eating opportunities and touts are thankfully scarce on this side of the water. Shop-lined Istiklal Caddesi is Istanbul's main thoroughfare, teeming with life at any hour of the day. Tucked down the many lanes and alleys branching off this kilometre-long stretch are endless eateries - and more than a little nightlife. On Saturday evening, A and I followed city food blog Istanbul Eats's recommendation to dine at fish restaurant Furreya Galata Balikcisi, a pocket-sized place in the shadow of the Galata Tower. After feasting on flaky fish wraps, we let our instincts guide us to a pedestrianised alley packed with bars, locals spilling out of them with bottles of beer, chatting in huddles and enjoying their evenings. I couldn't find it again, but the experience was worth the wander.

The following day, we returned to Beyoglu to soak up some of Istanbul's cafe society. Too tired to contemplate the trek up Galata Tower, we got our views from Litera, the Goethe Institute's top-floor bar. Fortunately no penchant for German literature was required to partake of the panoramic views over to Sultanahmet and the sea, just a thirst. Our appetite was similarly satisfied in Krependeki Imroz, one of the meyhanes (traditional meze restaurants) on Nevizade Sokak, the most bustling backstreet in town. Choosing from a selection of hot and cold mini dishes, we created a substantial meal for around £10 each. And there wasn't a tout in sight.

Into Asia

Although the majority of the city's sights are on its European side, it would have been rude not to pop across the Black Sea to Asia. Ferries to Kadikoy and Uskudar depart from both sides of the Golden Horn; uninformed about both of them, we plumped for the former and queued up with our fellow passengers. Once on board, we clambered up to the outside deck and took our seats among over-excited children, camera-toting tourists and a few Sunday morning sleepy-heads waiting to be revived by the sea air. Istanbullus love their tea, so the on-board vendor was no surprise: but the lack of paper commuter-cups was. No tea-to-go here, the vendor whisked round with a tray bearing steaming traditional tea glasses. The perfect way to keep warm on a fresh February morning. Unfortunately there was also a simit seller. This pretzel-shaped, sesame seed-covered bread roll is a street food staple - and unfortunately, it also makes a seagull-friendly snack. The blighters swooped down towards the boat as it chugged its way to the Asian side, anticipating the chunks of dough flying their way. Although they got a little too close for my liking, they ultimately enhanced the stunning views over to Sultanahmet.

Clueless about what to see over on the Asian side (the tourist information office gave us a blank look and directions to a shopping mall), we bussed it up to Uskudar, soaking up more of the residential side of the city. The Asian side certainly has a more homely feel - we passed through neighbourhood after neighbourhood on the bus, with not a tourist in sight. Arriving in Uskudar, we purchased some street snacks and boarded another ferry (making sure not to share with the seagulls).

Istanbul is a city of contrasts. The European and the Asian, the modern and the traditional, the religious and the secular. But it works. The city has a harmonious, happy feel. While initially a little inaccessible to tourists (until the help of a moustachioed metro worker is enlisted at least), it's worth scratching the surface and exploring both Sultanahmet and beyond.

For more details on where to eat in Istanbul, see this post.


  1. Thank you for the interesting article, I have heard about Istanbul so much before, but now when I am looking at these photos and places makes me want to visit it soon.I will add it to my list.

  2. Thanks for your comment! Glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful.


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