Things to do in Istanbul

Visiting the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque – Two of Istanbul’s Greatest Treasures

Two not-to-be missed spots in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia (also spelled Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. They are conveniently located near each other in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, which was the heart of ancient Constantinople.

The Hagia Sophia. Without a doubt, this nearly 1,500 year old building is one of the greatest structures ever built. The great Byzantine Emperor Justinian consecrated the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in 537 AD. It was originally a Christian church (the center of the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox church), and became a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

An exterior view of the Hagia Sophia. In the center right of the picture is the mausoleum of Murat III (died 1599) who had 103 children!

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

The huge bronze doors through which the emperor would enter the church.

Byzantine Emperors were crowned here for centuries.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The spot where Byzantine Emperors were crowned for almost 1,000 years.

The Hagia Sophia became a museum in the 1930’s. Having read some of the history of the Byzantine Empire it was a thrill for me to stand in a place that has witnessed so much history and to take in the massive open space under the dome. It has undergone some modifications over the centuries to help fortify and stabilize the walls due to the weight of the dome over the nave. The main dome is 185 ft high and 104 ft in diameter. Imagine building something like this in the 6th century…

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

The incredible nave of the Hagia Sophia.

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A building that is 1,500 years old has some pillars that are no longer vertical!

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

A detailed view of several of the 67 columns in the 2nd floor gallery.

The Venetians pillaged the Hagia Sophia in 1204 as part of the very strange 4th crusade, which ended up attacking Constantinople (center of the Eastern Roman Empire) rather than defending the Holy Land. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, you will recognize that the Hagia Sophia plays a role in the story.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

The Hagia Sophia contains the tomb of the Venetian Doge, Dandolo. He was 90 years old, blind and was the first to breach the defenses of Constantinople in 1204.

There are a number of beautiful mosaics, a few from the 6th century and many from the 10th century onwards, many of which are on the 2nd floor. I was surprised at how the crowds visiting the Hagia Sophia thinned out when we ventured upstairs into the surrounding gallery.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

An 11th century mosaic of Christ with Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, Empress Zoe.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

A 10th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child with the Emperor Constantine on the right presenting the model of the new city of Constantinople and on the left the Emperor Justinian presenting a model of the new church, Hagia Sophia.

Since this is THE sight in Istanbul, the lines can be long. To avoid the lines, get the Museum Pass, which is sold in the plaza near the Hagia Sophia. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the Hagia Sophia and many other attractions.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor's entrance is on this (western) side.

The buttresses helping to reinforce the walls of the Hagia Sophia. The visitor’s entrance is on this (western) side.

The Blue Mosque. This mosque is another common image of Istanbul and is located just to the south of the Hagia Sophia.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

A view of the Blue Mosque from Sultanahmet Square, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

It is called the Blue Mosque due to the stunning blue tile work in the interior.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

The beautiful tiled dome of the Blue Mosque, looking up from the floor.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

Men washing before worshiping in the Blue Mosque.

This is a “working” mosque, and therefore visitors are only allowed at certain times of the day around the Muslim worship services.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

An interior view of the Blue Mosque.

The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 – 1616. If you visit, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the Islamic faith by following the guidance/rules (taking off of shoes, women wearing a head covering, etc.). There is no cost for visiting the mosque. Take time to appreciate the artwork and architecture of this huge building.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

The courtyard of the Blue Mosque. The courtyard is about the same size as the Mosque itself. Note the cascade of domes above the courtyard.

Topkapi Palace – One of Istanbul’s Must-Do’s

One of the major highlights of Istanbul, the Topkapi Palace was built between 1459 and 1465 by the Ottomans just after their final conquest of Constantinople. This palace was the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire for 400 years. The palace is laid out around four courtyards, the first courtyard being outside the main gate.

The Gate of Salutations, the main entrance into the Topkapi Palace and Second Courtyard.

The Gate of Salutations, the main entrance into the Topkapi Palace and Second Courtyard.

The palace is located just to the northeast of the Haghia Sophia, and commands wonderful views of the Bosphorus Strait from the innermost (Fourth) courtyard.

The Baghdad Pavilion (center-right) was built in 1639 to commemorate the capture of Baghdad by the Sultan Murat IV. The small golden dome to the left is where the sultan would break his fast after the month of Ramadan.

A view of the Fourth Courtyard. The Baghdad Pavilion (center-right) was built in 1639 to commemorate the capture of Baghdad by the Sultan Murat IV. The small golden dome to the left is where the sultan would break his fast after the month of Ramadan.

The Fourth Courtyard and pool at the palace.

Another view of the Fourth Courtyard and pool at the palace.

Allow at least 3 hours to visit the palace, which offers (in addition to a number of palace rooms) several museums displaying the amassed wealth of the sultans over the centuries, including a treasury with stunning precious jewels, another containing weapons, and separate museums with manuscripts and a very interesting collection of clocks. No pictures are allowed in the museums.

Our friends in the Third Courtyard at the palace, the Library of Ahmet III (built in 1719) is behind them.

Our friends in the Third Courtyard at the palace, the Library of Ahmet III (built in 1719) is behind them.

Numerous items which belonged to the Prophet Mohammed are found in the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, which makes the Topkapi Palace one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites of the Islamic faith.

The Pavililon of the Holy Mantle, which contains sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Pavililon of the Holy Mantle, which contains sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Harem rooms provide some insight into life in the palace. The Harem contained about 1,000 women (essentially slaves) brought from all over the Ottoman Empire. Their dream was to become a favorite of the sultan and to bare him a son which might lead to marriage and higher status. The Harem was ruled by the sultan’s mother, who was the most powerful woman at the palace.

Dormitory of the Harem Eunichs. Dates from the 16th century.  The eunichs worked in service of the Harem. The more senior eunichs lived in the lower floor. They were recruited from all over the Ottoman Empire to serve in the palace. They supervised the quarters of the female population, and became more influential in state affairs in the 17th and 18th century.

Dormitory of the Harem Eunichs. Dates from the 16th century. The eunichs worked in service of the Harem. The more senior eunichs lived in the lower floor. They were recruited from all over the Ottoman Empire to serve in the palace. They supervised the quarters of the female population, and became more influential in state affairs in the 17th and 18th century.

This is where the Harem favorites lived, hoping to bear the sultan a son.

This is where the Harem favorites lived, hoping to bear the sultan a son.

Another view of the Courtyard of the Faviorites in the Harem.

Another view of the Courtyard of the Faviorites in the Harem.

The Apartment of the Queen Mother, the most powerful woman in the Harem.

The Apartment of the Queen Mother, the most powerful woman in the Harem, and an extremely powerful member of the Ottoman Empire. She influenced political life in the empire, and regulated the relations between the sultan, his wives and children.

Summer Pavilion (Circumcision Room) Room built in 1640, circumcision ceremonies of the crown princes were held here. Some of the most beautiful tile work in the palace is in this room.

Summer Pavilion (Circumcision Room)
Room built in 1640, circumcision ceremonies of the crown princes were held here. Some of the most beautiful tile work in the palace is in this room.

The Hall with a Fountain. This beautiful vestibule is where the princes and consorts of the Sultan would wait before entering the Imperial Hall.

The Hall with a Fountain.
This beautiful vestibule is where the princes and consorts of the Sultan would wait before entering the Imperial Hall.

Another view of the Hall with a Fountain room.

Another view of the Hall with a Fountain room.

A visit to the palace requires two separate fees and tickets, unless you get the Museum Pass in Istanbul which is good for 72 hours and allows entry to multiple sites and immediate access to the sites without waiting in line. The cost of the pass is about $36 USD. There is a kiosk right outside the Haghia Sophia. The Topkapi Palace gets very crowded with tour groups, so I highly suggest arriving before the palace opens.  We were the first ones into the Harem and had the rooms to ourselves.

The beautiful tile work in the palace.

A close-up of the beautiful tile work in the palace.

References: Plaques throughout the Topkapi Palace and DK Eyewitness Travel Turkey.

Istanbul – One of the World’s Great Cities and the Center of the Byzantine Empire

Istanbul sits astride two continents, Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus strait, which links the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.

A view of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace. Europe is on the left, and Asia is on the right.

A view of the Bosphorus from the Topkapi Palace. Europe is on the left, and Asia is on the right.

It would be easy to spend a week in this city, we spent the last 3 days of our visit to Turkey here, and were able to get a good feel for the wonders it has to offer. Known as Constantinople in Byzantine times, the city became known as Istanbul after the Ottomans finally conquered the city in 1453. I have read a fair amount about the 1,000 year history of the Byzantine Empire and really looked forward to seeing the location where so many historical events had taken place. For a map of places we visited in Turkey, click here.

A view of Seraglio Point (part of the old city) in Istanbul from our Bosphorus cruise.

A view of Seraglio Point (part of the old city) in Istanbul from our Bosphorus cruise.

The Golden Horn. The Galata Tower is on the hill. Underneath the bridge in the distance are many seafood restaurants.

The Golden Horn. The Galata Tower is on the hill. Underneath the bridge in the distance are many seafood restaurants.

There are remnants of the Byzantine Empire along with many structures from the early days of the Ottoman era.

The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Roman Empire, with Constantinople becoming a second Roman capital in AD 324 when it was founded by the Emperor Constantine. As the Western Roman Empire (Rome) declined, the Byzantine Empire (and specifically Constantinople) flourished due to its strategic location and excellent defensive geographical position, until the Ottomans finally breached the great walls in 1453.

There are lots of things to see, here are the main places we visited:

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya). One of the largest and greatest structures ever built–over 1,400 years old–its size still boggles the mind. This was the place of coronations of Byzantine Emperors and it was converted into a mosque in Ottoman times. It’s now a museum, with the building itself being the main attraction. I will cover more about the amazing Haghia Sophia in a separate post.

The 1,400 year-old Haghia Sophia Church.
The 1,400 year-old Haghia Sophia Church.

The Blue Mosque. One of Istanbul’s most famous mosques (built 1609 – 1616), located near the Haghia Sophia. Its name comes from the beautiful blue tile work inside. More about the Blue Mosque in a separate post.

The famous Blue Mosque.
The famous Blue Mosque.

The Basilica Cisterns. This underground structure dates back to the time of Justinian (6th century) and was an underground water storage facility for Constantinople, supplying the needs for the huge city and insuring water supplies in times of siege. There are 336 marble columns and the water source was 19 km away. Going down into this dark cavernous structure with water still flowing was fun–look for the two Medusa head bases–the Byzantines must have decided they would make great building blocks!

A view in the cisterns. The lighting is quite dark, giving the place an eerie feel.
A view in the cisterns. The lighting is quite dark, giving the place an eerie feel.
A view in the cisterns.
A view in the cisterns.
One of the two Medusa heads in the Cisterns - the other is upside down.

One of the two Medusa heads in the Cisterns – the other is upside down.

Bosphorus Cruise. Taking a cruise up the Bosphorus to get a better view of the European and Asian side of Istanbul is a traditional must-do, our cruise went up as far as the Fortress of Europe (about 1/3 the way to the Black Sea). There are cruises which last all day and go up to the Black Sea and back. I don’t think this long of a cruise would be worth the time investment.

The Fortress of Europe--staging area for the final assult on Constantinople.
The Fortress of Europe–staging area for the final assult on Constantinople.

Walls of Constantinople (Theodosian Walls).  Built from 412-422 AD by Theodosius II, these walls protected the landward side of Constantinople for a 1,000 years.  The Hop On/Hop Off bus goes past much of the old walls if you want a view.

The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.
The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Church of St. Saviour in Chora.  This beautiful church is a little further out from the main old city attractions. Located near the Theodosian Walls, the interior of this church has many beautiful mosaics from the Byzantine era. We took the “Hop On/Hop Off” bus to reach the walls and church.

14th century mosaics in the Chora Church.
14th century mosaics in the Chora Church.
The Chora Church. 11th century, remodeled in the 14th century.
The Chora Church. 11th century, remodeled in the 14th century.

The Grand Bazaar. With over 3,000 shops, you can get lost in this maze.  The Bazaar is organized into sections (jewelry, gold and silver, leather goods, etc .). With so many shops, I’m not sure how they all stay in business. The stalls begin to look the same after a while, and we only spent about 45 minutes jostling among the crowds.

One of the many passageways in the Grand Bazaar.
One of the many passageways in the Grand Bazaar.

The Topkapi Palace. In my opinion, along with the Haghia Sophia, this is a “must do” in Istanbul. Built between 1456-1465, shortly after the conquering of Constantinople by Mehmet II. This huge palace complex with its incredible treasures and stunning architecture gives you an idea of the splendor of the Ottoman sultans. I will cover the Topkapi Palace in a separate post.

The Fourth Courtyard Pool at the Topkapi Palace.
The Fourth Courtyard Pool at the Topkapi Palace.

Practicalities

First, stay in the old city (specifically Sultanahmet) if possible. We stayed in a little hotel (Hotel Tulip House) that was no more than 10 minutes’ walk to the Hippodrome area (near the Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque, etc.) making it very convenient to many of the major sights and to the Golden Horn for boat rides and restaurants. I do not recommend renting a car in the city—parking and navigating the extremely narrow streets would be a nightmare.

The Tulip House Hotel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul.
The Tulip House Hotel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul.

Second, get the Museum Pass. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours after your first entry. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the sights such as the Haghia Sophia, Topkapi Palace (including Harem Apartments and museums), Chora Church, and several other museums. There was a kiosk right outside the Haghia Sophia to buy the Pass.

Third, there are trams and buses for getting to other locations around town and they are pretty cheap and easy to navigate. The old city is hilly.

Fourth, find some time to just wander around. After leaving the Grand Bazaar, we wandered the nearby streets and enjoyed viewing daily Turkish life.

Street scene near the Grand Bazaar.
Street scene near the Grand Bazaar.