One of the world’s most interesting – and most undiscovered – cities is Istanbul , Turkey . At the meeting place of two continents, Europe and Asia , this city has a unique past that is reflected in it’s population and architecture today. A city that has been in a state of constant religious questioning, Istanbul has many incredible old places of religious worship. An interesting twist on this city’s history involves the monarchy and the Sultan’s many palaces. Visit Istanbul in spring or fall to have comfortable walks. To fully enjoy the beaches of Turkey , be sure to visit in the early fall, summer or late spring.
Personally, I’d recommend staying near the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia area, though there is a lot to do and there are lots of hotels closer to Topkapi Palace .
Day 1: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Grand Bazaar
Begin your tour of Istanbul standing in between two of it’s most famous – and large – attractions. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia define central Istanbul . You can choose to take a guided tour of these places of religious worship, or you may guide yourself. Start in the Blue Mosque (ladies, wear a long shirt and pants or a skirt and be sure to cover your hair) and take some time to walk around and marvel at how large the mosque actually is. Bring your camera because photos are allowed inside.
After visiting the Blue Mosque, walk across the street to the Hagia Sophia. Interesting because this building has changed religious hands frequently, the Hagia Sophia has both Islamic and Christian symbols inside. Do some research before you visit to be sure that you fully appreciate the history and religious conflict that is embodied in this building.
There are plenty of places to eat in the area between and near the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque. Enjoy a traditional Turkish kabob or all different kinds of Arab or European cuisine. The Hippodrome is located near this area also; be sure to visit the social center of Byzantine life and enjoy the two ancient columns.
Hidden and underrated, the Basilica Cistern is one of Istanbul ‘s hidden gems. The entrance is located in a small building near the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, and definitely shouldn’t be missed. Essentially an underground water container, the Cistern is made up of 336 marble columns and holds about 80,000 cubic meters of water. Be sure to walk all the way to the far left hand side of the Cistern to marvel at two strange and mysterious Medusa heads.
Finish your first day in Istanbul by taking a taxi (or walking) to the Grand Bazaar, one of the most famous in the world. Prepare yourself for some great deals, and to haggle! Lots of different items are available at the Grand Bazaar, but souvenirs and precious metals/jewelry are usually the most common. Turks are known for their famous “eye” jewelry, so if you need to bring souvenirs back to friends and family, spring for a sterling silver bracelet or necklace that features the eye.
Day 2: Topkapi Palace , Harem, Haghia Eirene, Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar
Begin your second day in Istanbul at the beautiful Topkapi Palace . One of Istanbul ‘s most beautiful sights, Topkapi Palace lies in the center of the Ottoman Empire and was the home of the sultans for hundreds of years. Originally built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1459 (shortly after his conquest of Constantinople ), the palace exemplifies beauty and grandeur of the time.
Also on the grounds is the Harem, which was home of the Sultan’s many women. In order to visit, you must be a part of a guided tour (which is ok because there is so much to see here). Get your tickets to the tours early as they fill up early in the day. Once inside the Harem, note the size of the complex and how many wives and concubines likely filled the space. Surprisingly, the head of the Harem was the sultan’s mother, who helped train the girls in music, the arts, and how to keep the sultan happy.
Note: It would be easy to spend a full or half day exploring the grounds of the Palace and Harem, but working under the assumption that a quicker tour is desired, spend a few hours here before moving on).
The Haghia Eirene, or Church of Divine Peace , is a former Orthodox church which was the first church built in Constantinople . It is also the only church that was not turned in to a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453. Gaining admission to the museum isn’t easy; you must speak to the Hagia Sophia directorate, whose office is at the exit of the Hagia Sophia complex.
After visiting the Haghia Eirene, venture to the Egyptian Bazaar to take in the sights and sounds of another vibrant bazaar. Similar to but very different from the Grand Bazaar, the Egyptian Bazaar generally has less jewelry and more spices and household items. Be sure to try some Turkish Delight before you leave Turkey .
Day 3 and Beyond: Dolmabahçe Palace : http://www.istanbultrails.com/2008/06/dolmabahce-palace-turkeys-biggest-palace/
Tour of the Bosphorous River
Suleymaniye Mosque: http://www.istanbultrails.com/2008/06/if-you-dont-visit-the-suleyman-mosque-now-youll-hate-yourself-later/
Related Suggested Reading:
Istanbul Photo Slideshow
Berlin in 48 Hours
Cairo in 48 Hours
Geneva in 48 Hours
Munich in 48 Hours
Paris in 48 Hours
Prague in 48 Hours