In a perfect world, I would be able to go to every place I have travelled to twice. Once to see all of the noted tourists sights – because they are noted for a reason – and again to take the roads slightly less travelled, seeing the back streets and local secrets. I fell in love with Istanbul, from the moment I arrived, late last year. My eager anticipation of this historic city grew excitedly on the drive in from the airport. The first, hypnotic call to prayer I heard while checking in to my charming little hotel thrilled me to my toes and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Istanbul is a long way from Adelaide in every sense of the word.
I’ve written previously about some of the backs street secrets I learned while doing the fabulous Istanbul Eats food tour there, but now I’m going to share a few of the more obvious Istanbul sights that really shouldn’t be missed. (You’ll need a cup of tea for this post, there are LOTS of photos.)
One thing that really can’t be missed is the incredible amount of street dogs and cats in Istanbul. I had seen lots of sad strays the previous week in Bulgaria, but these Turkish animals were certainly not in the same sick and neglected state. The dogs often move in packs – a situation which initially I found alarming, but they are all very friendly and I saw no fights. Every dog I saw was sleek, shiny and healthy, and the same goes for the many street cats. I enjoyed having a friendly cat to pet while I waited for my lunch at most of the outdoor cafes and none of them were bad mannered at the table.
Now – to those noted sights. One of the most famous landmarks in Istanbul is the absolutely breathtaking Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque. It was built early in the 17th century and houses the tomb of Ahmed I, it’s founder. Only worshippers are allowed to enter through the main door, all tourists must enter from the southern door. It was visited by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, although he wouldn’t have got a look in on the day I was there as I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a gazillion other tourists. I’d love to have been able to spend some contemplative time in there as it is utterly beautiful. I guess I’ll have to plan my next visit at a different time of the year.
Across the road from the Blue Mosque is the much less crowded and slightly smaller, but no less significant, Hagia Sophia. Built over 1,000 years before it’s neighbour, this ancient place has seen it all. It was first built as a Greek Orthodox basilica in 537 which was it’s purpose through the centuries, with a slight hiccough from 1204 to 1261 when it was a Roman Catholic cathedral, until it’s conversion to a mosque in 1453. It is now a museum and was partially under scaffolding while I was there. I have since learned that this seems to be a permanent state of affairs with the scaffolding not moving and the renovations not advancing for years now.
The Basilica Cistern, under the hectic streets of Istanbul, came as something of a surprise to me. Just south of the Hagia Sophia, this was built in the 6th century on the site of a Roman basilica. Built by slaves, the cistern can hold up to 80,000 cubic metres of water which was originally used to supply the Great Palace of Constantinople and the roof is supported by 336 marble columns. It is beautifully lit and is navigated by raised boardwalks. On a hot day this is the best place to while away a half hour or so, checking out the gorgeously carved stonework and the ghostly fish swimming around underfoot.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without taking a cruise up the Bosphorus. There are plenty to choose from, with lots of sightseeing options, but the one I chose dropped us at the remarkably extravagant Küçüksu Palace. The Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world and the sultans ruled for hundreds of years. In later years the rulers became more and more self-indulgent and this little summer palace is indicative of that. Built in the mid-1800’s, the palace was used by the sultans for hunting excursions and day trips – their very ornate version of a cabin, I suppose. We were not allowed to take any photos inside the palace, but the elaboration and flourish on the outside gives some small indication of what it is like inside.
I’ve raved about Istanbul to anyone who would listen, ever since I got back, and hopefully you can see why. Quite a few of my friends are now heading there for their next holiday and I’ll definitely be back. Have I tempted you?[mc4wp_form id="16750"]