More than Ottoman minarets and beguiling bazaars, Turkey’s cultural capital is also fashionable and progressive. Spanning both Asia and Europe and divided by the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a beguiling mix of ancient and modern, of conservative and secular. The hulking Byzantine Hagia Sophia and opulent Topkapi Palace dominate the old city Sultanahmet, but over in Karakoy, in a converted warehouse, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art embraces the future.
Please Note: Hagia Sophia closed on Mondays, Topkapi Palace closed on Tuesdays, Grand Bazaar closed on Sundays.
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İstanbul, uniquely amongst the world’s cities, stands astride two continents, Europe and Asia. As if its spectacular geographical location were not enough, it can also boast of being the only city to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role which has shaped the region’s history for over 2500 years and bequeathed to İstanbul a staggering wealth of attractions; these range from the masterpiece Byzantine church of Aya Sofya to the formidable city walls and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces which dominate the city skyline.
Although no longer the capital, the city still remains the vibrant economic, cultural and intellectual heart of modern Turkey. a bustling, go-ahead city where east really does meet west. In conservative districts such as Fatih bearded men sporting skullcaps and baggy shalwar-style trousers devoutly heed the call to prayer while women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with their heads uncovered. Yet across the water, in the tidal wave of humanity sweeping down İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Street) are young Turkish men and women in designer jeans and trainers who have never been to the mosque in their lives. In business districts such as Şişli commuters arrive via the metro to work in high-rise office blocks, shop in state-of-the-art malls – and at weekends can be out clubbing until 6am. Here is the list of destinations as just the start of a great holiday in Istanbul:
Basilica Cistern, the city's most unexpectedly romantic attraction, offers an insight into the complicated system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul from Thrace (an area of the south-east Balkans now constituting Turkish land n the European mainland, and a chunk of Bulgaria). The cistern that was constructed in the sixth century and then forgotten for centuries, once stored the water has now been fitted with lights and music. Fish flitter around the bases of the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Don't miss the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column, proof that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as little more than reusable rubble.
The thrill of being able to experience the extraordinary spaciousness of this famous church-turned-mosque-turned museum is hard to overstate after decades in which scaffolding cluttered the interior of Emperor Justinian's sixth-century Byzantine masterpiece. The best of the glittering mosaics lurk in the galleries upstairs while the building is largely empty downstairs. Newly opened are the tombs of several early Ottoman sultans and their slaughtered sons – before primogeniture new sultans immediately had all potential rivals killed. Before the end of the year, the city's finest carpets will go on display in the soup kitchen added after the church was turned into a mosque.
Home to generations of sultans and their wives, who were closeted in the famous harem Topkapi Palace, is one absolute must-see in Istanbul. A collection of lush green courtyards and delicate kiosks, the Topkapi boasts a treasury to put the crown jewels in the shade, as well as views to die for over the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The secretive harem – really just the family quarters – is a warren of lushly-tiled rooms wrapped round a gem of a Turkish bath. Try to visit on a day when no cruise ship is in town to avoid the worst of the crowds.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam
There are several magnificent steamy Ottoman bathhouses to choose from in the city, including the Çemberlitaş, Cağaloğlu, Galatasaray and Sülemaniye baths, but in 2011 for the first time it's also possible for visitors to try out the spectacular 16th-century Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam right in Sultanahmet Square. Designed for Suleiman the Magnificent's scheming wife Roxelana it has thick acres of marble, the sound of running water echoing around stupendous domes, and a massage fit for a sultan. You'll come out almost purring.
the early 17th-century Blue Mosque, Facing Aya Sofya across a small park and mirroring its domed silhouette, is one of only a handful of mosques in the world to boast six minarets. To view it as the architect, enter via what looks like the side entrance from the Hippodrome. Afterwards, pop your head into a building the size of a small mosque on the corner of the complex. This houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man who gave his name to both the mosque and the neighborhood.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
Walk to Istanbul's three-in-one equivalent of the British Museum via the grounds of Topkapi Palace or through Gulhane Park. It has large porticoed building housing the glorious sarcophagus of Alexander which depicts scenes from the life of Alexander the Great in vivid 3D. the model Trojan Horse in the children's section will be loved by the kids. Then pop into the lovely Tiled Pavilion, one of the city's oldest Ottoman structures, beautifully restored to show off its finest ceramics. Finally, catch a glimpse of a peace treaty from 1269 BC preserved in the part of the museum nearest to the gate.
Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum
Overlooking the Hippodrome where Byzantine lovers of chariot racing once brought the same passion to their sport as modern Turks do to football, and housed in what was originally the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, a favorite grand vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent, this museum houses a magnificent collection of gigantic carpets from all over the country. Its basement features reconstructions of everything from a fully-fitted nomad tent to a grand interior from a 19th-century Bursa mansion. Don't leave without trying a thick black Turkish coffee in the pretty cafe in the grounds.
Mosque designed for Suleiman the Magnificent, It can’t be missed as you stand on the busy Galata Bridge and look up at the city's historic skyline. Newly restored to its original splendor, it is generally regarded as the finest of the 42 surviving mosques designed for Istanbul. Unusually, it retains much of the original complex of social service buildings that came attached to it, including several madrasahs, a hospital, a library and a hamam. Locals come here to eat kuru fasuliye, the Turkish take on baked beans, in a street once haunted by opium addicts.
The restored Chora Church in the old city walls offers a stunning glimpse of late Byzantine splendor with its walls and ceilings adorned with glittering mosaics and breath-taking frescoes. Although it’s a bit of a trek to get there but the view is totally worth the strain. Like Aya Sofya, it has made the journey from Byzantine church to Ottoman mosque and then to modern museum, and now stands in a neighborhood of restored Ottoman wooden houses, prettily painted in pastel colors. Before you go back to your hotel, take a look at the nearby walls that ringed old Constantinople and date back to the fifth century.
You can get a bird's-eye view of everything of the Watery Istanbul from the balcony at the top of the Galata Tower in Beyoğlu. It is now the modern part of old Istanbul that, in pre-Republican days, was home to the city's foreign residents. The tower Built in 1348 once formed part of a sub-city belonging to the Genoese that stretched right down to the Bosphorus. It was from this tower that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia in 1638, thus inaugurating the first ever intercontinental flight.