Istanbul is a truly massive metropolis. With a population of almost 14 Million inhabitants, spread across 2 continents, soaring minarets and massive mosques, it is a city that sits at the cross-roads of the world. Please check our list of detailed posts here. We really loved our time in this wondrous city!
So just know that the traffic is crazy and by far the best – and most fun – way to get around is by ferry. You can traverse up and down the Bosphorus for cheap while seeing all the wondrous sites from the water. Not quite as economic, but much more fun, is the water taxi aka speedboats for hire. There are a few different companies and your hotel concierge can advise.
We recommend the ferries and then walking. There is a mini metro system that works mainly in Sultanahmet; with one line going over to the Asian side and a couple others towards the Tunel and Nisantasi districts.
Locals are overwhelmingly sweet and attentive. Every time we got lost someone would walk us all the way to our destination and answer all our questions. Being naturally untrusting New Yorkers, we were always looking for the catch; the “what’s in it for them”. However, in the end we had to admit that there was no catch. People were truly helpful, polite and caring!
We never had an incident, but that doesn’t mean one should bring the guard down. Istanbul is what it is because of it’s strategic location between two continents, and is the main hub for human trafficking worldwide.
Like most hyper-touristic destinations, beware of taxi drivers overcharging, In Istanbul, some taxi drivers might triple and even quadruple the fare. It’s always good to check with the hotel for estimated taxi fares. If you feel you are being abused, just step out of the car and tell the driver you are calling the police – there are standing police everywhere – that will usually take care of the situation and the driver quickly change the rate !
For a magical afternoon, take a casual Sunday stroll in Kadikoy while watching the people fish along the Bosphorus and marvel at the blue blue water and jellyfish everywhere!
Kadıköy is a lovely district on the Asian side near the mouth of the Bosphorus on the north coast of the Sea of Marmara. It sits near the anciant site of Chalcedon and is a must visit! Regretfully, we left Kadıköy to the end of our journey and had limited time. We had just enough to realize that on our next visit to Istanbul, Kadıköy is where we will spend most of our time; in the small streets and some of the best food shopping in the city!
Kadıköy is a labyrinth of lively cobbled streets and small buildings with cafes, restaurants, book stores, antique shops or simply stalls selling the freshest produce we saw.
In the street markets, there are a couple of places not to miss:
The Şekerci Cafer Erol – a wonderful candy store and the famous Ciya
It very easy to get to Kadıköy by ferry; so do it soon after you arrive to Istanbul !!
The Deësis mosaic, (Circa 1261) is a traditional iconic representation of Christ Pantocrator carrying a book, and flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist, with their hands raised in supplication on behalf of humanity.
09:00 – 19:00 Daily, April – October
09:00 – 17:00 Daily, October – April
Referred to as the Church of the Holy Wisdom for many centuries, the Hagia Sophia is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s great monuments. This incredible structure has been a church for 916 years, a mosque for 482 years and now a museum for for over 82 years!
The original cathedral is said to have been built by Constantine the great in 325, on the foundations of a pagan temple. After a fire in 404, it was restored under the rule of Theodosius II. Once again it was destroyed, this time in in the fires of the Nika Rebellion of 532.
The current structure was built between 532 and 537 . It was ordered and personally supervised by Emperor Justinian. The architects, tasked with bringing to life the grandiose vision of the Emperor Justinian, were Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus – who were professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople.
The great dome was rebuilt after an earthquake caused its collapse in 557; then rebuilt by Isidoros the Younger; there were other partial collapses in 989 and 1346.
The main architectural feature is the awe inspiring 32-metre center dome pierced at the bottom by closely spaced windows and supported on pendentives (a triangular segment of a spherical surface) and two semi-domes. The jambs were lined in gold mosaic, thus reflecting golden light and creating magical illusion of a suspended dome floating above the visual splendor of the cathedral.
above photo – note on the top of the Imperial Gate doors are embossed columns within an arch, this indicates the entrance to the temple.
above photo -Imperial gate mosaic (886 and 912 AD) depicting Christ Pantocrator holding a book with the inscription “Peace be with you. I am the Light of the World.” Christ is surrounded by roundels portraying the Virgin Mary and the angel Gabriel. At Christ’s feet is a bearded emperor, who is believed to represent Leo VI asking for forgiveness.
Such a vast building at the center of court life required a significant body of people for both ceremonial functions and upkeep. At the time of Justinian, the Hagia Sophia was staffed by 60 priests, 100 deacons, 40 deaconesses, 90 subdeacons, 110 lectors, 25 psalmists and 100 doorkeepers. (from Justinian’s Flee by Julian Rosen)
The Basilica was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade. These invaders also replaced the patriarch of Constantinople with a Latin bishop. The outcome was the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The crusaders took much with them and most of Hagia Sophia’s riches can be seen today not in Istanbul, but in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II had the Hagia Sophia morphed into the principal mosque of Istanbul. With the addition of minarets, a mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca), a minbar (pulpit), and disks bearing Islamic calligraphy – the immense building also became a model for many of the Ottoman mosques.
The Ottoman conquerors continued a symbolic interpretation, fabricating an Ottoman past and a Muslim legend for the building. Eventually all the human faces depicted in the church’s mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery.
In 1934 Atatürk secularized the building, and in 1935 it was made into a museum
Above photo – Apse mosaic, depicting of the enthroned Virgin and Child, is the oldest of the surviving mosaics in Hagia Sophia.
Above photo – top left, partly damaged Archangel Gabriel mosaic.
The re-discovery of the figural mosaics after the secularization of Hagia Sophia was guided by the descriptions of the Fossati brothers, who had uncovered them a century earlier for cleaning and recording. The Fossatis also added the calligraphic roundels that remain today. They were commissioned to calligrapher Kazasker Izzet Efendi and replaced older panels hanging on the piers. (Holly Hayes)
The Hagia Sophia is so vast and full of information, it is one of the places that a guide can be invaluable. However, We were not very lucky, not only our guide but the other ones we eavesdropped on, seamed to be on a script of bad jokes and Turkish religious propaganda; continuously omitting legend and facts. Hiring a local guide in sites like this one can expand one’s experience greatly. We recommend contacting the history and architectural faculties at local universities in order to get advice on how and where to hire a truly knowledagable guide.
above photo “The name given, Seraphim, is Hebrew and means “burning ones” (plural; the singular form is seraph). They are the closest to the throne of God, and as such are flame-like, “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:29);
The six wings are arranged in a particular way: two pointing down (covering the feet), two up (covering the face), and two outstretched (in order to fly). The face was covered by a star when it was converted into a Mosque; during our visit the restoration department was starting to uncover the faces.
above photo – bottom left note the sculpted Egyptian key of life and the Freemasonry symbol, this mark is on each column’s capital
The circle, where the Emperors would be enthroned
Detail of the mosaic in the Vestibule of the Warriors (Circa X century) Virgin and Child between Justinian I presenting the church of the Hagia Sophia (above), which he rebuilt. and Constantine tine the Great holding a model of the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) as an offering (below)
The Deësis mosaic detail, St. John the Baptist
Mahmud I ordered a restoration of the mosque in 1739 and added an ablution fountain
9:00 am – 4:00pm Tuesday, Wed, Fri, Sat & Sundays
Gate of the Sultan
Fourteen tonnes of gold leaf building in the ceilings and the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers – including world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salonu); a gift from Queen Victoria, this chandelier holds 750 lamps originally powered with city gas converted to electricity in 1912 and weighs 4.5 tonnes – Dolmabahçe Sarayi (meaning filled garden) was ordered by Sultan Abdülmecid (1839-61) to compete with the grandness of European capitals.
The palace was built between the 1843-1856 by Garabet Amira Balyan and his son Nigoğayos Balyan; the Balyan family was a dynasty of Ottoman imperial architect; of Armenian ethnicity, the Balyans are responsible for the architectural westernization of Constantinople.
Dolmabahçe is the largest palace (45,000 m²) in Turkey, and the first one built in a western style. Its designed in the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles, integrating Ottoman elements.
Charles Séchan (1803-1874) who, under Charles Garner also decorated the Paris Opera, was responsible for the interiors of the palace. He proceeded to integrate European furniture, Petre Dure and Sèvres porcelain, similar to that which was in French palaces and villas. All of this was quite unusual for Ottoman architecture and showed the European lean of the Sultan.
Gate of the Treasury
Among its many treasures are the Hereke carpets collection. These heirlooms are very large and are made in Anatolia with wool, camel hair and silk on cotton, as well as silk on silk. The knots are very small in size, permitting highly detailed patterns.
The famous crystal baluster staircase has the shape of a double horseshoe and is built of Baccarat crystal, brass and mahogany.
Staircase of Sultanate or Christal Staircase
After the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924 and the creation of the new republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the palace as a residence until his death on November 10th 1938 at 9:05am. all the clocks in the palace are currently stopped at this time.
Guided tours run every 15 minutes. Be prepared, they will rush you and no chastise you if you start to wander around !
side of Sufera (Ambassadors) Hall
Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salonu) World’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier
Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salonu)
It was in the Ceremonial Hall (Muayede Salonu) that, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made his first speech to the people of Istanbul as the president of the Republic. When Ataturk died, his body was placed in this hall in a casket for the public to visit to express their condolences.
During the Ottoman period this room was the Sultan’s winter bedroom; now it contains Atatürk’s deathbed. Located in the former Harem section of the palace, a silk covering with the Turkish flag embroidered in gold and silver and bequeathed to the palace by Olgunlastirma Institute commemorates the venerable leader.
Sultan’s Hamam; the walls are made of Egyptian Alabaster marble and the floor is covered with Marmara marble
Central part of the front facade which faces the Bosphorus
Arnavutköy Albanian Village, by its full name, was actually Armenian and Greek under the Ottoman rule. Currently, it is a posh neighborhood on Bosphorus, with beautiful wooden Ottoman mansions and boats lining the crystal blue waterfront.
Full of cafes, nightclubs and a parade of sport cars, Arnavutköy is a nice place for a walk along the water. On weekends, people watching is in order as it is full of people wandering up and down, while many others are stationary fishing from the embankment.
Look for the striking Monument of Atatürk, across the street is a small rooftop cafe, perfect for an afternoon tea and Bosphorus view.