Generally, crowds detract from an experience - more so in a beautiful, serene, spiritual place. In Istanbul the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) suffers due to it's popularity - especially with the cruise ship populations! To see/feel it as it should be seen/felt go in the evening - no crowds and a bonus of gorgeous lighting effects. Avoid prayer times by visiting www.namazvacti.com/Main.php?WSLanguage=EN
If you’re going to visit a historical site, it makes good sense to enjoy the whole experience as people in the past did, so I recommend the Cagaloglu Haman in Istanbul. It’s one of the oldest Turkish baths in the world and has been visited by figures as diverse and illustrious as Florence Nightingale, King Edward VIII and Tony Curtis. This place was a gift to the city from Sultan Mahmud 1 in 1741and it retains the original features, such as beautiful high-domed ceilings and marble fountains as well as an interior garden. The bathing experience is still just as it was in the Ottoman days - you are given a brisk body exfoliation followed by a bubble massage as you lie on a smooth marble plinth. I skidded around like a beached seal as the masseur slapped and pummelled me before washing my hair with a deliciously herbal scented soap. Afterwards, wrapped in white fluffy towels and sipping tea, I could almost imagine myself back in the days of the Sultan.
Alemdar Mh. Cağaloğlu Hamamı Sk No:34, Fatih, Turkey
+90 212 522 2424
Google map: bit.ly/15fTNQg
If you have any interest in military or turkish history this is the musuem to visit. Floor after floor of Ottoman weapons ranging from stylish scimitars to giant cannons. And on some days (check site) you get a free live show from an Ottoman marching band (mehter band bit like a highland regiment band in full costume with massive drum and pipes - great fun and much enjoyed by the Turkish schoolchildren on our visit). The text for the exhibits gives the "Turkish perspective" on issues such as Cyprus (but no mention of Kurdish conflict) and some debatable ancient history claiming Attila the Hun for the Turks. There is is even a Turkish submarine. In the grounds there are some giant cannon used in WW1 and a fighter jet. Highly impressive and most exhibits have English text. Companion naval museum is also meant to be good but we did not manage to find it. Recommended
Spend Christmas with a difference in Istanbul. It’s business as usual on Christmas day so you can hit the streets for a truly magical experience. Wander through the alleys of the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, take a trip up the Bosporus to visit the Beylerbeyi Palace, enjoy the serene beauty of the Blue Mosque, indulge in a swanky meal at the restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art Istanbul. If you need something more Christmassy, then you can always pop into the Santa Maria Draperis Church just off the main pedestrianized shopping drag, Istiklal Avenue. Be prepared for some pretty inclement weather (a very warm coat and a sturdy umbrella definitely required) but otherwise you can avoid the Christmas panic and just enjoy amazing cafes and restaurants, local wine and a massive dollop of exotic. My teenage children agreed that it was the best Christmas present ever – along with the new suitcase to meet EasyJet hand-luggage specifications!
Google map: bit.ly/UcDm5K
Most people will argue that, while in Turkey, you should eat kebabs in all their different incarnations (İskender, döner, şiş, etc) or the pide, or baklava or any of the other amazing foods that Turkey has to offer.
However, if you truly want to get to the heart of Turkey’s crowning glory, Istanbul, there is no better nor faster way than the midye.
Midye, the little stuffed mussels with rice and lemon juice, are ubiquitous in most Turkish cities. But to walk across the Galata Bridge, eating midye, watching the sunrise, is another experience in itself. The rice in the overstuffed morsel, absorbs the saltiness of the sea and the sourness of the lemon, producing a combination much like Istanbul itself, that in the overcrowding of 11 million people and four empires, you can find peace in the calm waters of the Bosphorus, highlighted by the sharpness of the sun.
On this bridge, at this time, with this food, you can feel the overwhelming sense of beauty of the Queen of Cities.
Sold everywhere near the Bosphorus and the Galata Bridge.
Google map: bit.ly/GACD81
For all the ageing hippies who headed east in search of enlightenment The Pudding Shop in Istanbul is still there, still acting as a meeting point and still serving good food at a reasonable price. Opened in 1957 the restaurant became a place to stop off for travellers in the 1960s who were heading out towards the cultural nirvana of India and Nepal. In a pre-electronic age its bulletin board acted as a communication hub passing on messages offering and asking for lifts. Today it is a self-service café offering decent Turkish food in Sultanahmet close by the Blue Mosque, Saint Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. Don’t go for a gourmet experience. Go for a nostalgic experience. Remember the days when travelling meant hitch hiking, VW vans and Citroen 2CVs not easyJet and Ryanair.
I've used the service of this company for my transportation in Istanbul and all was arranged in a perfect way.
Ogut Sokak No: 10,
Beyoglu 34437 Istanbul
Tel: +90 532 608 1470
Fax: +90 212 244 0649
A hunting lodge built by Sultan AbdulMecid in the middle of the 19th century on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus close to the second bridge (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge) and to the village of Anadolu Hisarı. It is Dolmabahce Palace in miniature. The guided tour is only in Turkish but there is often someone around who will translate for you. Open daily except Monday and Thursday, entrance is only 4TL. After your visit, turn left and walk the five mintues to see the ruined castle at Anadolu Hisari. There you can find several cafes on Kucuksu stream where you can have a meal and enjoy watching the fishermen and pleasure boaters pottering around.
Take a ferry to Uskudar and then hop on a number 15 (to BEYKOZ) bus from in front of the mosque opposite the ferry terminal for the 30 minute (or so!) journey up the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, passing the summer palace of Baylerbeyi on the way.
It is such a suitable apartment for family travellers. Location is superb just nearby Blue Mosque. We found the apartment extremely clean. Home owner Bahadir took a very good care of us during our stay in July.
A beautifully and sensitively restored church with outstanding mosaics depicting various biblical scenes.
It's not easy to get to but worth the effort.
Go to the bus terminus at Eminonu on the waterfront side of the street.
Find the bus stop for number 90.
It should say Draman on front.
Ride the bus all the way to the terminus. It goes through a fascinating neighbourhood. Then continue to walk straight on up the same street up the hill.
At a T junction go left and immediately right up Nester St.
The church, a brick building which looks like a mosque is over on a side street to the right.
Don't go on Wednesday - it's shut.
This is a new restaurant which is known as the best seafood restaurant in Sultanahmet. The food is outstanding, you should ask the staff for the special of the day.
The restaurant is on the shore of Marmara Sea with a view of Turkish islands. The "Boukoleon" name comes from the 5th century. There used to be a "Boukoleon Palace" standing right where you sit.
Now you can easily see the archeeological heritage of the old time palace. If you are interested in history, looking for a nice Istanbul view and also outstanding food, I would highly recommend you go to this restaurant.
Hagia Sofia, Sultanahmet, Istanbul
We took a day trip from Istanbul to Ephesus, the most famous ancient city in Turkey, by flying down in the morning and returning the same day in the evening.
It was a very convenient way of doing it for us as we only had a few days in Istanbul but this is somewhere we really wanted to visit as well.
Ephesus itself is only about 1 hours' drive away from Izmir airport and the flights take about an hour each way. We arranged it through a local tour company and found it very convenient as everything was included from the tour to flights and transfers. It was all very well organized so that we didn't find it too rushed or tiring, just as a very interesting day out.
You can see the day trip we did with them and some others here: www.toursistanbul.com/day-trips.htm
Even though it was just for a day, we found it very worthwhile and the city beautifully preserved.
There are plenty of grand mosques to visit in Istanbul thanks to master builder Mimar Siman, but this small jewel of his beats them all in terms of intimacy and decoration.
The tiles are simply sensational, full of stylised tulips, carnations and geometrical shapes. It is located not far from the Eminönü end of the Galata Bridge, though it is not easy to spot the entrance , but when you look lost local shopkeepers sympathetically show you how to get in.
The advantage is that few tourists seem to find it, and you may get to look around in glorious silence.
In the alleyways about 100m to the north-west of the Spice Bazaar at the end of Galata Bridge, not to be confused with the much larger Yeni Camii in front of the ferry terminals. There are two entrances, up steps between small shops - neither of them looks like it leads to a mosque, so persist.
I hired Byzas tours to bring me to both Ephesus and Cappadocia from Istanbul because I only had eight days in Istanbul and did not want to waste any time organising it all.
I found them to be affordable and flexible. I got to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it, but all I had to think about was being in my hotel lobby at a certain time. The guides were educated and interesting to talk to.
Some websites suggest doing things yourself, but there is so much history in Turkey that only a guide can put it in perspective (unless you plan on carrying a library with you).
Also, I compared Byzas' prices to the cost of doing it all myself separately, and it barely cost any more ... it might have been the same with all the things I didn't have to worry about such as highway tolls.
This tower's history goes back to 340 BC. It is in the middle of Bosphorus, and it has recently been renovated. It has 5 floors, top floor being the bar, and you get a free soft drink here, which is included in your ticket from the shore.
You can get the best scenery for the Bosphorus from this floor. Don't forget you are in the middle of Asia and Europe here. Ground floor is a very good restaurant, although prices are above the Turkish average, you're guaranteed to have good food here.
There are frequent boats from Uskudar, Salacak, it takes aroung3 minutes, but you can also take the boat from Ortakoy (though as not frequent as from Uskudar)
Between 408 and 450 Theodosius II constructed a wall arching round the city of Constantinople and providing a land defence running 4 miles (6.5 km) from the Sea of Mamara to the Golden Horn.
The walls served the city well protecting it from invading forces for nearly 1000 years until, in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror breached the walls and entered the city.
The walls consisted of a main inner wall, 16 feet (5 m) think and 40 feet (12 m) high, a terrace, then an outer wall 7 feet (2m) thick) and about 30 feet (8.5 m) high, this outer wall overlooking a moat. The double walls also included a total of 192 towers plus 11 fortified gateways which gave access to the city. It was an amazing feat of engineering and must have been an incredible site to those approaching the city, especially if contemplating how to overcome this almost impenetrable barrier.
Now the ravages of time and neglect have meant that many areas of the wall have fallen into disrepair, though they are, as ruins so often can be, still very impressive, their shapes making jagged shapes, like broken teeth, against the sky. Other sections have been restored and these give a good indication of how the walls used to look.
We decided to walk along the walls from Yedikule Fortress to Edirnekapi before cutting inwards to the Kariye Camii Museum – a distance of about 3 miles. Walking ‘along’ the walls is a bit of a misnomer as though some guide books say it is possible to climb onto the inner or outer walls, access is not easy and the walls themselves, at times almost in a state of collapse, don’t always look safe enough to climb on. This did mean that for the first part of our journey following the route of the walls we were walking next to a busy main road and exhaust fumes are not the most pleasant accompaniment. However, next to the walls, in, I assume, the old moat are a string of allotments and the exhaust fumes were mitigated by the smell of growing vegetables and plants drifting across from them.
The old gates to the city are generally in quite good repair and close to one we were able to gain access onto the, reconstructed, outer wall and terrace, the latter also filled with allotments.
Though a bit ramshackle and rather a rubbish dump in places this part of the walk was fantastic as hidden from view we walked in solitude between the inner and outer walls watching butterflies flit between vegetables and trying to imagine what it must have felt like to be hunkered down in one of the towers waiting for an incursion or attack.
Later we passed through some more traditional neighbourhoods and stopped for tea at an outside café near the Topkapi Gate where we had a wonderful part English, part Turkish, part sign language conversation with some of the other customers who were interested to know where we had been, where we were going and how we liked Istanbul.
All in all it took us about 2 hours to complete our walk, arriving at the Kariye Camii Museum with a sense of achievement and some good memories. I wouldn’t recommend this walk for everyone it was tiring, it wasn’t always attractive – meaning the main road really – and certain sections of the walls are rather deserted and I wouldn’t want to tackle them on my own, however, it provided some of my most abiding memories of Istanbul and I am really pleased we did it.
You can join the walls at various places – bus 80 goes from Eminonu to Yedikule and buses 37E and 38E go from Edirnekapi, near the Kariye Camii Museum
The Fortress of the Seven Towers was built around the Porta Aurea (Golden Gate) constructed circa AD390 by Theodosius I and through which Emperors entered the city. The gate became part of the city walls, buolt during the reign of Theodsius II, and then after the Ottoman capture of Istanbul, Memhet the Conqueror began remodelling the fortress adding 5 towers until it took the shape that it retains today.
The fortress was originally used as a treasury but then became a prison in which foreign dignitaries, members of the ruling elite and deposed Sultan’s were held – and executed. Now as well as being a historical attraction the fortress is used as a concert arena.
You can still see the remains of the Golden Gate - now bricked up – and also the aptly descriptive Well of Blood into which served heads were tossed. The great pleasure of Yedikule though is scrambling up and down the fortifications, in and out of towers and gazing out over the Sea of Mamara and towards Sultanahmet in the distance.
Its not for the faint hearted, there are no guard rails on the fortifications or ramparts, it’s uneven underfoot, quite vertiginous and some of the metal stairwells in the towers are a little rickety. So be careful, however, it is also fantastic – we had the place more or less to ourselves and it was great fun exploring the different levels in the hollow towers, scaring ourselves by peeping over edges or just leaning on the walls and staring at the distant ships making their way across the Sea of Mamara.
Open: Mon, Tue and Thurs-Sun 9.30am-4.30pm
Yedikule Meydani Sokak, Yedikule
Take bus 80 from Eminonu or the train from Sirkeci station to the stop at Yedikule
Built between 1316 and 1361, around an earlier church, the small brick building of St. Saviour in Chora (now called the Kariye Mosque Museum) contains some of the most wonderful and best-preserved examples of Byzantine art anywhere.
The church’s patron, Metochites, a Byzantine scholar and politician ended his days as a monk at the church having been allowed to return after falling from power and spending two years in exile.
The mosaics found in the church portray scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, the Day of Judgement and Heaven and Hell. The colours in the mosaics seem as vibrant and fresh as they were when first created. When the church was converted to a mosque in the 15th Century the mosaics were covered over with plaster rather than destroyed remaining so until the mid 19th Century, and this covering may have helped to preserve their appearance.
They are also intricately detailed and one of the pleasures of standing in front of them is being able look deeper into the images picking out different things with each sweep of the eyes, for instance one small beautifully realised scene where water is being poured from a pitcher into large earthenware pots.
Although slightly off the beaten path it is well worth taking a trip to the Kariye Camii to see these magnificent pieces of art.
Open: Mon-Tues, Thurs-Sun Closed: Wed.
Kariye Camii Sokak 26, Edirnekapi
Bus 37E and 38E from Eminonu
First an Orthodox church, then a mosque, now a museum, Hagia Sophia represents all the layers of Istanbul's history. A funny-looking, squat building from outside, it possesses an interior of outstanding beauty. As you enter, the enormous dome opens above you; the beauty of it made me weep. It is a lovely building of curves and light and space - unmissable.
"I have surpassed thee, Solomon!" Reputedly the words of the Byzantine emperor Justinian on completion of his architectural pierce de resistance. Talk about urban renewal. In this Sceptered Isle in the middle of the 6th-century AD we weren't even building in brick, let alone creating a dome unsurpassed for a thousand years.
There's plenty of books to describe the remarkable history that took place within it. If you can be bothered to read up, try John Julius Norwich if you want the building to speak to you. However, if you don't have opposable thumbs, just marvel at its sheer architectural genius. Church of the Divine Wisdom with added minarets - have it.
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