Istanbul is a charming existence in Eurasia straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia. The transcontinental metropolis (basically the only one in the world) has a population of 14.7 million and a profound history. The city area is divided by the Bosphorus Strait so taking a boat trip towards the Black Sea is an experience of “Europe on the left and Asia on the right”:).
The Asian Side (a.k.a. The Eastern half of the city), connects to Turkey’s mainland in Asia with a lot of expensive mansions on the waterfront overlooking the harbor. Yet, the majority of the historical sightseeing spots are located on the European side of the city. Unless you are staying in Istanbul for more than 5 days, or you are visiting Istanbul for the second time, most of the amazements happen in the western half of the city.
The story of Istanbul begins during the time of Byzantium through the Ottoman Empire, where it is strategically located as one of the main hubs on the historic Silk Road, connecting the European and Asian world. It is also an important passage being the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The rather frequent Turkey terror attacks (like bombing) linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Kurdish militant groups in the last two years may have raised tourists’ concerns about visiting the city; I visited Istanbul a few years back and enjoyed a lot the magnificent cathedrals, mosque, palace and breathtaking views of the harbor.
The major landmarks of Istanbul are located closely in the heritage site of Istanbul, including Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahçe Palace, and Galata Tower. A Sightseeing cruise is a good way to view the scenery from afar. After we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge and returned to Istanbul from the mainland after our tour, we boarded the cruise immediately we were on our way towards the Black Sea. The Dolmabahçe Palace was the most eye-catching structure on the European Side; the building was served as an administrative center of the Ottoman Empire – waiting until you see the inside of the building, it’s extravagant. We saw many extravagant mansions (mainly on the Asian Side) of the harbor as well.
Hagia Sophia Museum
It should be the most famous and well-known architecture in the city. The Byzantine-style building has gone quite a transformation over the last 1400 years. Originally an Orthodox church, then a Roman Catholic church, and later a mosque, and now, it was secularized and converted into a museum. (Yet most of the people I know still recognize this place as a “church” and call it a cathedral). It was built by the Byzantine emperor and it stood as the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years until the completion of Seville Cathedral in Spain.
The building has undergone years of restorations – precious, but fragile frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics have remained for modern-day visitor’s eyes. the Emperor Door, the Omphalion (circular marble slabs), the Dome, the Sultan’s Lodge, the Weeping Column are the not to miss!
Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at My Top 12 Cathedral in Europe (2)!
The Blue Mosque
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) is kind of like a twin building of Hagia Sophia with giant domes and minarets that dominate Istanbul’s skyline. Since our flight arrived so early in the morning, we were outside at Sultanahmet Square and waited before the museum opened.
Despite the “similarity”, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was, in fact, a thousand years younger than the Hagia Sophia, completing in the year of 1616. The architecture still functions as a place of worship today, with prayers kneeling on the red carpet during the call to prayer every day. Not only the exterior of the building was painted with shades of blues on its domes, but also the interior was adorned with delicate hand-painted blue tiles. The mosque was also the resting place of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed the First, with ablution facilities lining up at the entrance of the prayer hall. It was the first mosque (a rather important one) that I visited and it was special.
Topkapi Palace Museum
Another important historic spot in the area was the Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman Sultan’s royal residence located on a hill overlooking the entire Istanbul city. It was a Turkish version of Versailles.
Walking through the Gate of Salutation, we entered the world of Sultan in the past times.
‘Sultan’ is a Muslim Sovereign and the architecture style remained me a lot of the palace that I have seen in Malaysia and Indonesia, where these countries also have a huge Muslim community and had a strong Muslim influence. The museum showcases also exquisite jewelry, gems, and costumes in the past time. Walked through the ornate rooms and manicured gardens and temples, we sat down at the terrace café and had some coffee and snack; I was blown away by the view of the Bosphorus Strait with the Maiden’s Tower in the middle of the ocean and the Istanbul city center with the Galata Tower poking out from the old buildings.
Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi)
It is one the biggest Grand Bazaars, and often referred to as one of the first “shopping malls” in the world. We took some time in the maze and bought gifts and souvenirs for my friends back home, and then we decided to get closer to the real Istanbul – so we grabbed the little time that we have left in the city and took the modern tram and reached the busiest shopping street in Istanbul – the İstiklal Avenue.
Istanbul nostalgic tramways
The city has a modern tramway that connects everywhere but it’s great that the heritage tram line is still functioning today. There are two separate nostalgic tramways in Istanbul, one on each side of the city. The 1.6km European side tram line runs along the famous İstiklal Avenue from Taksim to Tünel in a 20-minutes interval. Therefore it’s a convenient way to travel up and down the avenue or go back to the starting point after walking through the entire avenue.