The capital of Turkey is so mind-blowingly rich in history that you can easily spend your entire visit there with your jaw dropped. The mighty city has been, under different names, a witness to centuries upon centuries of human history, and for a long time it stood as pretty much the capital of the world. It used to be that place where the fate of the world and its people was once laid out, and this glorious past is still very much palpable today in the heart of Istanbul.
One of the first things that strike a visitor to Istanbul is that there are swarms of people absolutely everywhere. The streets are packed with individuals going about their business moving in all directions. This is even more apparent in Taksim, the trendy neighbourhood that lies in the north part of central Istanbul opposite the Golden Horn and connected to it via bridges.
This bustling district is loaded with shops, restaurants, bars and shisha-smoking places that are generally geared to the young Istanbulites and that also attract many visitors. There are in fact many hotels and hostels in the area. Taksim Square is precisely where the 2013 rioting against government policies started. The students seized the park in the square as their headquarters and operated from there.
The Wonders of Sultanahmet
The neighbourhood that’s probably the safest and most pleasant for tourists is central Istanbul is Sultanahmet, with elegant hotels, cosy alleys and endless restaurants. It lies at the tip of the Golden Horn, which overlooks both the mighty Bosphorus, the strip of water that connects the two seemingly opposite worlds of East and West, and the Sea of Marmara to the south. This district holds many of the most attractive sights of interest in Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.
Hagia Sophia embodies the convivial cohabitation of religions. It was first erected as a basilica by the Greek Orthodox Christians and later turned into an imperial mosque by the Ottomans, with a 57-year stint in between as a Roman Catholic cathedral. Today it’s a secular museum of breath-taking beauty. The religious symbols of both faiths, which got covered upon each conquest, are now fully uncovered, so you can see side-by-side artistic signs devoted to the God of Christianity and of Islam.
The Blue Mosque, so called because of the hand-painted blue tiles that cover its walls, is one of the most representative Islamic temples in Istanbul and likewise beautifully striking on the outside and the inside. The Topkapi Palace dates from the fifteenth century, when it was built to house the headquarters of the Ottoman sultans, and holds a rich collection of items that have a lot of historical significance.
The Colourful Grand Bazaar
A must-do in Istanbul is, no doubt, the Grand Bazaar. One would be tempted to expect a somewhat ragged and filthy place, and one would be very wrong. It is in fact very well organised and presented, tidy and clean (although a bit confusing to navigate because of its tangled corridors), and the amount of everything you can find in there is mindboggling.
The colours of the spices and teas that pile up in almost industrial quantities everywhere you look are so bright it’s almost a bit dizzying; not to mention the smells and the exquisite richness of handmade rugs and pieces of gold and silver, crockery, chandeliers, cushions, tea cups, etc.
Standing there, it’s not hard to understand why this place was once considered the capital of the world, being so abundant in natural resources and so adept at making something useful or pretty out of them. But the most fun thing of all is that the sellers are consummated polyglots! They confidently come to you in perfectly spoken English, Spanish, French and other languages to introduce you to the charms of their wares.
This is just a little glimpse of what you can expect to find in Istanbul. It’s a vibrant and restless city with a lot to offer its visitors and it can definitely make for an unforgettable travel experience. If you would like to visit Istanbul or other parts of Turkey, we’re here to help. Please take a look at our Itinerary Planners based in Turkey. They know the country inside out and will be able to design a personalised itinerary based on your particular travel interests.