Istanbul seems like another world. Just like Mehmed the Conqueror said (Mehmed was a sultan from the 1400’s that ruled Turkey) “Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me”. That is still, I think the philosophy one needs to explore and see Istanbul. Though it might seem overwhelming at first, with a little planning, you can “conquer” Istanbul and have the time of your life. Kati and her grandmother traveled here when she was young and had an amazing time. Istanbul, though modern, seems ancient at the same time. It is an incredible city.
Since the ancient Roman Empire, the land around the Black Sea and Bosphorus strait has been the place where East meets the West. Now known as Istanbul, it was once Constantinople and it was the home of the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. The Roman colony of Byzantium was expanded by order of Emperor Constantine the Great and soon Constantinople became the shining example of a Roman city in the east. For nearly a thousand years the city was the last Roman outpost, being renamed to the Eastern Roman, or simply Byzantine empire until it was conquered by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. After the conquest, Istanbul became the center for military campaigns that would soon grow the Ottoman Empire to be one of the biggest and lasting until the end of the first world war. Despite the fall of Byzantium, the Roman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul remains the country’s historic, cultural, and financial hub.
Istanbul is home to an estimated 12 to 19 million people and sits on the Bosphorus Strait between both the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. It bridges Asia and Europe both physically and geographically. Explore the old city of Istanbul and don’t miss these amazing things to do while you’re here.
Explore and Marvel at the Hagia Sophia
It’s likely one of the most recognizable landmarks in the country, the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Greek geometers initially as a Christian Church of the Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church was then converted into a mosque and finally, by 1935 it was a museum. The church was built under the order of Emperor Justinian I and was at the time, the world’s largest indoor space and was said to have changed the history of architecture.
There’s a reason why the Hagia Sophia is an iconic Istanbul landmark, and that is the sheer size and design of the building. The domed roof is stunningly and the Byzantine-era art and mosaics can be explored and admired for hours on end. It features both Islamic and Christian art
For an interesting bit of “art” that is neither Christian nor Islamic, head to the top-floor gallery where about 1,000 years ago someone carved their name into the marble. The letters the man carved aren’t Greek, Latin, or Arabic. They are runic, likely carved by a Scandinavian mercenary that roughly reads “Halfdan was here”. A sentiment that carried with petty vandals through the millennia.
Do a little shopping at the Grand Bazaar
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is sometimes referred to as the “world’s first shopping mall”. It is one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars in the world and while it covers 61 streets and hosts 4,000 shops, it is effectively a neighborhood in itself. The Grand Bazaar brings in an average of 250,000 people a day and construction first began in 1455 right after the Ottoman conquest of the city and was built as an initiative to stimulate the economy. As early as the 19th century many things in the Grand Bazaar were unobtainable in the west and stalls lacked any sort of advertising.
In the modern world, the bazaar is still a place of commerce and trade and if you plan on doing a little shopping, make sure to brush up on your Turkish and your haggling skills. Negotiating a price is a dance you’ll be expected to learn once you’re here. If you don’t plan on buying, taking in the sights and sounds of the Grand Bazaar is an experience you won’t forget.
Learn about history and dine simultaneously at the Galata House Restaurant
Located just a stone’s throw away from the Galata Tower is the Galata House Restaurant. While people queue up for the tower, you likely won’t find a lineup out here, that is, if you can even find it. The Galata House Restaurant is located in the old British jail. The place was bought out by the British consulate in the early 1900s and kept as a place to keep unruly British sailors causing trouble in the Galata neighborhood. The jail then went to the French, and finally, the current owners who bought it in the 90s and turned it into a restaurant in 99.
To get in, you’ll have to ring the doorbell, then you’ll be greeted by one of the owners Nadire or Mete who for the rest of your evening will regale you with stories from the area providing dinner and entertainment. Another element that makes Galata House Restaurant unique is that while the owners are Turkish, the menu is decidedly Eastern European with a menu that feels more at home in Moscow than it does in Istanbul. Ukrainian borscht, Russian stroganoff, and Georgian wines are commonplace items along with some Turkish delicacies like dolma (stuffed vine leaves). So what does a former British jail have to do with Eastern European food? Nothing really, the owners simply love history and the food.
Take an afternoon stroll down the Galata Bridge
While the Bosphorus is the border of East and West, the Galata Bridge is the crossing point between old Istanbul and new. To experience the city of Istanbul is to take a walk across the bridge on a sunny day. The bridge crosses the “golden horn” and has quite a large presence in Turkish culture as it has been featured in numerous poems, books, films, and theater. Currently, the bridge is on its fifth iteration with the first one being built in the 6th century and early versions of the replacement bridge were even brought to the attention of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo.
Take a walk across the bridge, listening to shrieking seagulls, the passersby, the old men fishing off the sides smoking, and take in the view. Underneath the bridge, small cafes and restaurants serve food and drinks day and night. Enjoy a cold beer and watch the ferries go by and escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul for a moment.
Eat like a Sultan at Asitane Restaurant
You might think a place with a rich culinary history like Istanbul would have tons of restaurants dedicated to old-fashioned cuisines. But alas, Ottoman-era recipes are actually pretty hard to come by and especially hard to come by if those recipes were served to the Sultan.
Located on a quiet side-street is the Asitane Restaurant which is part research institution and part restaurant. The restaurant aims to recreate classical Ottoman dishes since 1991 but it is harder than it sounds. Ottoman chefs were part of a guild and they were prohibited from writing down recipes so tracking down these dishes was an exercise in researchers and academics coming together with chefs to recreate these plates. Today the restaurant serves food dating back hundreds of years such as a soup recipe from 1539 made with pomegranate and nutmeg, a 17th-century recipe for fried liver bunked in sweet and sour molasses, or baked fruit (usually quince or melon) stuffed with lamb and beef.
Take a stroll through the Sultanahmet Park
Sitting between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the Sultanahmet Park is a lovely place for a picnic, a stroll in the sun, a place to observe the city’s iconic landmarks, and marvel in some odd places of interest. The park is home to the Obelisk of Theodosius, originally built in the Temple of Karnak, the obelisk traveled all throughout the ancient world before this park became its home. The hieroglyphics-covered spire was carved between 1400-1500 BC and it wasn’t until the 300s CE that it made its way down the Nile to Alexandria before making it to (then) Constantinople where it remains. For being a couple of thousands of years old, the obelisk is incredibly well-maintained and just sits there in the park with buskers and passersby walking past not knowing it’s an incredible journey.
If you’re into something more contemporary, yet this historically fascinating, the park is also home to the Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain. The fountain was built in 1900 to celebrate the Kaiser’s anniversary of his visit to Turkey. The grand neo-Byzantine design has marble columns and a dome with gold mosaic tiles dedicated to two empires that no longer exist. Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allied in WWI forging a treaty that brought them into the war in 1914. The Ottoman loss in 1918 meant the weakening of its army, and the Turkish War of Independence soon followed which meant the end of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the Republic of Turkey that lives on today. Some might argue that if it wasn’t for that friendly visit from Kaiser Wilhelm in 1898, none of that would’ve happened.
Get some Spice at the Egyptian Bazaar
While the Grand Bazaar is the iconic shopping center of the city and is filled with things from clothes, to luxury goods, the Spice Bazaar has been around since the 16th-century and as the name would have you guess, the place is a heaven for those who want to increase their home spice collection. Rows and rows of colorful spice mounds fill the stalls along with other delectable treats and herbal mixes. Shop for something savory for your next home-cooked meal, or nibble on something sweet to get your sugary fix. The Spice Bazaar also has tons of people offering herbal remedies and the cure for whatever ails you.
Satisfy your sweet tooth at Altan Şekerleme
While sweets and candies can be found anywhere around the world it’s rare that a candy store such as Altan Şekerleme continues the sweet tradition for over 100 years. Altan Şekerleme is basically the Willy Wonka of Turkey and after founder Emin Bin Karagözoğlu established his candy store in 1865 the shop brought joy to thousands almost immediately. Four out of five of Karagözoğlu’s sons died during the first world war and the remaining child then took over the confectionery shop where today after four generations, the store remains within the family, still bringing joy to kids and adults alike.
The store is in itself truly a blast from the past and a remaining relic in a city that is changing every day. Old-school sweets and candies are still being served such as akide şekeri (a type of homemade rock candy) and the ubiquitous Turkish delight which is said to be the best in the city.
Have a night out at Bomontiada
Located on the European side of the Bosphorus, the area around Bomontiada is the go-to spot for a night out. In a city where history is abundant, spending some time in Bomontiada is one of the city’s biggest breaths of modernity. The Bomontiada complex replaces the abandoned beer factory and has been turned into a multi-disciplinary space featuring art galleries, museums, shopping, dining, and more. Check out the movie screenings, creative spaces, and the fun nightlife around the Bomontiada area.
Our Final Word
Istanbul is an amazing city that bridges the Western world and the East. It’s old and historic with amazingly fascinating things to see and experience that span generations and empires. Istanbul might no longer be Constantinople but that hasn’t stopped Istanbulites from keeping the best of the old world and bringing in the best of the new.