Crossing continents – the Muzungu’s Istanbul city tour
The Muzungu loves to explore new places on her own but this time top of things to do in Istanbul was: a personal Istanbul tour guide!
Istanbul’s most popular city tour takes in Sultanahmet, a confusion of cobbled streets, imposing architecture, vibrant shops and lively cafes. Whether you are on foot, or public transport, it couldn’t be easier to find your way around. Sultanahmet is beautifully maintained and well signposted. Along the way, you can pause for snacks, delicious Turkish meals at pavement cafes – even a Turkish bath!
Our Istanbul tour first led us to Istanbul’s spiritual centre, Sultanahmets Park, particularly popular after mosque on Ramadan evenings when folk come together to celebrate what they do best: eat and drink, both central to Turkish culture.
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With the grand edifice of Aya Sofia at one end and the Blue Mosque at the other, Sultanahmets Park’s pretty but formal garden is built over the remains of the great Palace of Byzantium. Symbolism and history are woven into the very fabric of everything you see and touch on an Istanbul tour.
Istanbul’s 3000 mosques and dozens of museums showcase Byzantine and Ottoman history and culture, writ large. Looking for Things to do in Istanbul? Then visit just one building in Istanbul: Aya Sofya.
Aya Sofya captures the essence of Istanbul and Turkey
Commonly acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest buildings, Aya Sofya captures the essence of Istanbul and Turkey. The beauty of its interior embraces a rich transcontinental history and the significant religious shifts of two millennia. Built in the sixth century, this remarkable building features a dazzling collection of mosaic portraits. You could visit Aya Sofya many times before you could get to grips with just a fraction of its history.
Aya Sofya was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and consecrated as a CHURCH in 537. It was converted to a MOSQUE by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and declared a MUSEUM by Atatürk in 1934.
The most notable architectural aspect of Aya Sofya is the size of the central dome, which measures over 55 metres from ground level, and over 30 metres in diameter. (Quite big then!) It has been rebuilt and strengthened more than once in its history, following damage by earthquakes and fire.
I particularly loved the eight huge 19th-century ‘medallions,’ inscribed with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the four caliphs and the grandsons of Muhammad. Apparently these calligraphic panes are the largest ones in the Islamic world. They are simply beautiful.
Understand the history of Aya Sofya and you will understand Istanbul.
Known as Hagia Sophia in Greek, in English Aya Sofya is called Church of the Divine Wisdom.
Aya Sofya’s reinvention continues to this day. This church cum mosque cum museum even features in the latest Dan Brown novel “Inferno.”
Documentary filmmaker Göksel Gülensoy and his exploratory scuba team have located flooded basins lying hundreds of feet beneath Istanbul’s heavily touristed religious structure. In the process, they discovered numerous architectural wonders, including the 800 year old submerged graves of martyred children, as well as submerged tunnels connecting Hagia Sophia to Topkapı Palace.
Like an iceberg, “I believe what is beneath Hagia Sophia [Aya Sofya] is much more exciting than what is above the surface,” said the filmmaker.
Titillating Topkapi Palace
A presidential palace, the centre of government and key ministries, and army headquarters, according to Lonely Planet, “this Palace is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world’s museums put together.”
Unfortunately Topkapi Palace was shut the Sunday I was in Istanbul, but if you want to visit a harem and get the lowdown on the antics of eunuchs, sultans and their concubines, make sure your Istanbul tour guide includes this on your Istanbul city tour. The Gate of Salutation, the Circumcision Room, the Courtyard of Favourites, the Handkerchief Room and the Courtyard of Black Eunuchs are just some of the titillating places to explore!
The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Market, is now open on Sundays
Smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the vividly coloured pyramids of spices and multicoloured displays of gem-like Turkish delight captivate your senses. (My mouth is watering just remembering it all!)
At Gőzde, shop No. 23 in the Spice Bazaar, I loaded myself up with spices and Turkish Delight. Forget the factory-produced glucose substitutes, real Turkish delight is an art form. Apparently, vacuum-packed fresh Turkish delight can last for three months; vacuum-packed baklava can last a week. (To be honest, it was all gobbled up well before then!)
Don’t mind the crowds; it’s all part of the Spice Bazaar experience, an essential on any Istanbul tour.
We passed female couples, shopping: “The girls shop, and the mother in law pays for it,” said my Istanbul tour guide. Hasan informed me there are incredible 15,000 shops along Mahmutpaşa Yokuşa, the area of streets between the two markets.
A boat trip on the Bosphorus Strait is the best way to appreciate the scale of the Turkish megapolis
Istanbul stretches east and west – as far as the eye can see? No, further. I can’t get my head round the scale of this city.
Our Bosphorus boat cruise took us across continents, transcending cultures and passing through centuries of history. Each riverside building tells a story: of conquering armies, intrepid merchants and traveling traders. Either side of the river are ornate Ottoman palaces, Egyptian stone fortresses and timber mansions.
We passed art nouveau style villas and hunting lodges, buildings constructed by the foreign ambassadors of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. My guide points to the Palace where, in 1938, Atatürk died. He tells me about the Military ‘academy’ used as a hospital by the English during World War I and by Florence Nightingale during the Crimea War of 1856. Just as you imagine the density of buildings may lessen, another well populated hill comes into view.
Palaces have been converted into luxury hotels, universities and private apartments. These are now the most sought after addresses in the city, owned by media tycoons, bankers and industrialists.
The article The Bosphorus through the Eyes of European Travelers elaborates further.
Two million commuters now cross back and forth across the waters of the Bosphorus every day. (97% of Istanbul’s residents commute from the Asian side).
The Marmaray undersea tunnel linking ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ – as Istanbul’s two opposite riverbanks are known – is complete. “In theory it brings closer the day when it will be possible to travel from London to Beijing via Istanbul by train.” Wow wee, imagine that! Marmaray is not yet fully operational however.
As the sun set over the Bosphorus, our cruise boat made its way back to the quayside below the Süleymaniye Mosque, now bathed in warm evening light. This old city major landmark, in the spiritual heart of the Bazaar district, stands majestically on one of Istanbul’s seven hills.
“What are you doing in Istanbul?” asked Hercule Poirot
And the final stop of my walking tour? A nice cold Efes beer at the Orient Express café, situated on the platform where the famous train makes its final stop, and a chance to chat about everyday Turkish life with my erudite Istanbul tour guide Hasan.
I fully expected to bump into Hercule Poirot.
“At the small table, sitting very upright, was one of the ugliest old ladies he had ever seen. It was an ugliness of distinction – it fascinated rather than repelled.” ― Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express.
Istanbul Tour Tips
- Having a professional Istanbul tour guide made for a fascinating excursion. Rather than have my head buried in a book – and miss half of what I was there to see – Hasan gave me a comprehensive insight into the history that has built and shaped Istanbul. He anticipated my gazillion questions while I gawped in admiration at the sights.
- My Istanbul city tour was organised in advance through Hello Tourism who put together a bespoke itinerary based on the things I wanted to see and do in Istanbul. The agency pre-booked Aya Sofya and ferry tickets so we didn’t have to wait in line with all the other tourists.
- I’m not normally one to shirk the chance of trying out a new language, but on this occasion I limited myself to Türkçe bilmiyorum (I can’t speak Turkish).
- The Ministry of Culture and Tourism runs a number of tourist information booths across Istanbul.
- The Istanbulkart is a travel card for discounted public transport. It can be purchased for a refundable deposit of 10 Turkish lira. The Istanbulkart can be recharged using the machines at Metro and bus stations and by the ferry.
- The boat trip along the Bosphorus cost 12 Turkish lira. Definitely one of the Things to Do in Istanbul.
- Three days is an ideal amount of time to set aside to explore Istanbul (although I could very easily spend a lot longer there!)
- For more Istanbul tour ideas, read Diary of a Muzungu’s … A Day in Istanbul.
Have you been on a tour of Istanbul? What are your favourite things to do in Istanbul?
DISCLOSURE: This blog is based on my personal experience. I traveled to Istanbul courtesy of Turkish Airlines. The Istanbul tour was provided courtesy of Hello Tourism tour agency. For more information about sponsorship and advertising on Diary of a Muzungu, read the Terms and Conditions.