Istanbul – secrets of the city. Are there any? What to see, where it is worthy to queue for tickets? What tourists should know before visiting the city and what I recommend from my own experience?
Below you can find short table of contents. If you are interested only in one specific subject, please click the link and go there directly.
City on the Seven Hills
Did you know that Istanbul is known as the “City on the Seven Hills”? The city has inherited this name from Byzantine Constantinople which was built on seven hills. It is the same way as other great European cities did, eg.: Rome, Madrid, Brussels, Budapest or Prague. The seven hills of Istanbul are in the area within defensive stone walls so called – “Walls of Constantinople”. In the Ottoman Age, as in the earlier Byzantine period, each hill was surmounted by monumental religious buildings. Fortunately, many of them have survived up to this day. Do not forget to visit them while you are nearby.
Istanbul Suleymaniye Mosque
The Suleymaniye Mosque is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul. It is worthy to visit this place to admire beautiful views that extend from here to the city skyline, on both sides of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. It is the second largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. That is the reason why I start this post from describing that place.
Suleymaniye Mosque – sightseeing and rules
Visiting the mosque is possible only at at certain hours of the day, between prayers that take place 5 times a day. Before visiting the mosque, it is worth checking this information earlier. When you hear Muezzin’s call from the minaret tower, it means that the prayer will start in 15 minutes. The prayer lasts only for 10 minutes, but entrance for tourist is closed for 30 minutes. That rule is valid thru the whole week, except for Fridays in which solemn mass is held which is combined with a sermon.
Both men and women can enter the mosque, regardless of religion. However, it should be remembered that these are places of religious worship, therefore it is necessary to follow prevailing rules. Clothing: you can’t enter the mosque in shorts, shirts or dresses with bare shoulders. Women will be asked to put on a headscarf, everyone must take off their shoes before entering. That is why it is recommended to have a pair of socks for hygienic concerns.
Interiors of mosques are lined with soft carpets, so you can sit on them, relax or take pictures of the interiors. Note, that it is not allowed to take pictures during prayer. It is also not allowed to take pictures people who are praying. If you are a man you can’t take pictures to woman without her approval. Do not enter the part intended for the faithful, but otherwise – you can stay in the mosque as long as you want. The Muslims often come to the mosque outside of the prayer hours, because the atmosphere there is peace and quiet. During hot summer days – there is also a pleasant chill inside. If you are tired after whole day walking, mosque can be nice place for a break.
Suleymaniye Mosque – architect and architecture
The construction works began in 1550 and the mosque was completed in 1557. Suleymaniye Mosque belongs to the greatest achievements of the Ottoman Empire. Its construction coincided with the top of the empire’s influence. At that time Ottoman Empire the empire included a large part of the Mediterranean region, the Black and Red Seas and the Persian Gulf. When mosque was built, the main dome was the highest one in the Ottoman Empire when measured from sea level. However, it was still lower from its base and smaller in diameter than that of Hagia Sophia.
The architect’s role was entrusted to a genius builder who was the chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer for the three sultans. Mimar Sinan was involved in building bridges, ships, water supply systems and roads. During the times of Suleyman the Magnificent, his rank was raised to the dignity of the first architect of the empire. He was living almost 100 years. His great legacy covers over 400 buildings. He has built over 90 mosques, 20 mausoleums, 55 schools, over 30 palaces, 7 Muslim schools 12 caravanserays, 6 aqueducts, hospitals and almost 50 bathhouses. His works are scattered almost all over the territory of the former Constantinople. Although his masterpiece is the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, his most famous work is the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul.
Suleymaniye Mosque – facts
The mosque has an area of 4,500 sqm and in the same time even up to 5,000 people can pray inside. The main dome has a height of 50 m and a diameter of 26.5 m, supported by four pillars and two semicircles. It is also worth mentioning that four granite, red columns visible in the prayer room were requisitioned and imported, among others from Alexandria (Egypt) and Baalbeck (Lebanon). There are 136 windows made of coloured glass, dated back to sixteenth-century. Inside there is also a marble box for singers and a prayer niche. The mosque also has very good acoustics. In the past – between the hanging oil lamps there were suspending ostrich eggs boiled in a mixture of herbs and roots, designed to ward off spiders.
The same as other imperial mosques in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque was designed as a big complex. There were adjacent structures built nearby, to service both religious and cultural needs. Full architectural complex area together with the Mosque and surrounding garden was stretching over 7 hectares. The original complex consisted of the mosque itself, a hospital, primary school, public baths (hamam), a Caravanserai, four traditional Muslim schools, a medical college, and a public kitchen which served food to the poor. Many of these structures have survived to the present day. Some of them have different function today, eg. the former hospital is now a printing factory owned by the Turkish Army.
Suleymaniye Mosque – today
In 1985, the Suleiman Mosque with the monuments of the Old Town – was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. On the UNESCO website you can find the following entry: “Istanbul, due to its geographical location and over two thousand years of history, has many unique monuments, including Suleymaniye Mosque, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Chora Church or the remains of the walls of Constantinople. “
In 2007, a big renovation began in the mosque and it took over 3 years. During this time, there were some big tents set up outside of the Mosque for the faithful. Since the reopening date – the mosque is a destination of pilgrimages not only for the followers of Islam, but also for those who occasionally are interested in architecture.
The mosque is open every day. You can visit it outside of the hours of prayer. Throughout the week (except Fridays) – the mosque is open to visitors between 9.00 a.m. – 11.15 a.m., from 12.45 a.m to 2.15 p.m. and from 3.15 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. On Fridays, the mosque is closed to the public during a solemn prayer, from 10.30 a.m. to 1.45 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Suleymaniye Mosque. Istanbul – secrets of the city
In the garden behind the mosque there is a little cemetery, covered with iris flowers. There you can find two beautiful mausoleums.
In the first one – sultan Suleyman the Magnificent was buried in 1566. In that mausoleum there is also a tomb of sultan Ahmed II, Suleiman II (he inherited power after Suleiman the Magnificent) and the daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent – Mihrimah (the most powerful princess of the Ottoman Empire). Mausoleum is covered with two domes. Central dome is decorated with mountain crystals. According to the legend, there are also fragments of the Black Stone from Mecca. Suleiman’s tomb can be visited every day except of Mondays.
In the second mausoleum there is a tomb of the beloved wife of Suleyman the Magnificent, tomb of Roksolana (Hürrem). Both mausoleums are Sinan’s works. Every year, on April 9 (on Sinan’s day) – the Roksolana mausoleum is being opened to the public.
More details you can read on the official website of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism – Suleymaniye Mosque.
The Hagia Sofia Basilica, also called “Holy Wisdom”, was built in 537 AD, so at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Today we can say that it was almost 1500 years ago. The “Ayasofya” (Turkish name) building is considered to be the most magnificent architectural and construction object of the first millennium of our era. It was the world’s largest building and an engineering wonder of its time.
The current building was originally constructed as a church on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. At the same time Justinian has moved the capital of the Roman Empire to a small Byzantine Empire – the future of Constantinople. Since the basilica was built, for the next 900 years it was many times destroyed, plundered and desecrated. Several times the main dome collapsed due to an earthquake, but all the damage was quickly repaired.
Hagia Sofia. Istanbul – secrets of the city
In 1453, when Constantinople has been conquered by Ottoman Turks – the temple was turned into a mosque. The Ottomans kept the building in a perfect condition – did not change the original design or architecture of the building. Thanks to this, the basilica has survived in perfect condition for the next 500 years. At the beginning of the 1930s, religious leaders from Greece and Italy started to argue over the right to church, as both Orthodox and Catholics were dependent on it. In 1934, at the request of president Atatürk, the temple was turned into an open-access museum, which has ended all religious claims. It has been opened to visitors at the beginning of 1935.
Hagia Sofia – do not miss this part!
Today, the basilica delights with remnants of both the Christian temple and the mosque. The museum building still gives the impression of being majestic and – despite many destructions – is still beautiful. Every year, it is visited by about 5 million people. While planning your visit consider doing it early in the morning (max 30 minutes standing in the queue), or just before its closure. During the day you can spend up to two hours in the queue. Note that every day in front of the entrance to the museum there are crowds of tourists.
Inside, it is worthy to take the stairs to get to the horseshoe-shaped upper gallery. From this level you will have a magnificent view of the main nave. First, pay attention to four golden mosaics depicting saints. Second, look to the huge suspended chandelier. Third, have a look to a beautiful dome with a diameter of over 30 meters and the height measured from the floor – approx. 55 m. On the lower level of the main nave there are 40 columns, on the upper level there are already 64 of them.
You can easily spot few significant examples of the former mosque. There is eg. the pulpit, decorative fountainhead for ritual washing of the body and eight hanging shields (medallions) with the names among others of Allah and Mohammed.
Hagia Sofia of tomorrow
Will the basilica remain a museum and its character will always be secular? This question is difficult to answer. In 2016 (for the first time since the statutory secularization of the temple was made in 1935), the muezzin’s singing called for prayers again. The ceremony was broadcast by the state television.
Hagia Sofia – sightseeing hours and entrance tickets
During the winter months (1st Nov – 15th Apr), the entrance to the museum is possible every day from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m., except Mondays, when the museum is closed. During the summer months (15th Apr – 30th Oct) the museum is open 7 days a week until 7.00 p.m. It should also be remembered that the last entry into the museum during the day is possible an hour before its closing, because at this time the ticket offices are being closed.
Note, that Hagia Sophia is under ongoing reconstruction works. That means that part of its interiors may be temporary closed or covered.
The entrance ticket cost is 60 TL* (about 11$).
*Prices are valid in Oct’18.
For more details, please visit the official website of the museum, where most of the information is also available in English.
The construction of the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque began in 1609 and lasted for 7 years. The mosque was created on command of a young (19-year-old) sultan Ahmed I. He has decided to build a building more magnificent than the one standing nearby – Hagia Sofia. According to one of the legends, the sultan built a mosque to apologize to Allah for Sultan’s bad behaviour from the time when he was younger.
The significance of the new mosque was evidenced by the fact that it was located nearby the Topkapi Palace. At that time Palace was the main seat of the Sultan. Along with the mosque a complex of public buildings was created: Muslim school, merchants halls, soup kitchens for the poor, hospital, mausoleum and caravanserai.
The mosque was erected on the plan of an almost perfect square (51 x 53 m). In the four corners of the mosque and on the two corners of the inner courtyard, a total of six minarets were placed. Inside the mosque there is a large dome with a diameter of 22.4 meters, suspended at a height of 43 m. Visitors are also attracted by the beautiful natural light that flows to the mosque through 260 windows.
Unfortunately, when I was visiting Istanbul, the “Blue Mosque” was under renovation works. I could not go inside. That is the reason why I do not have any pictures from its interiors.
Blue Mosque – hours of sightseeing and admission tickets
The mosque is open every day, but you can visit it only outside the hours of prayer. Throughout the week (except Fridays) – the mosque is open to visitors between 8.30 a.m. and 11.30 p.m., from 1.00 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. and from 3.30 p.m. to 4.45 p.m. On Fridays the mosque is closed to visitors during the solemn prayer together, admission for visitors possible after 1.30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
For more details, please visit the mosque’s website.
Topkapi Palce and and Gülhane park
Topkapi Palace for 400 years was the most important center of Ottoman rule and the family home of several generations of sultans. Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Today it is one of the most visited attractions in the city. You can visit not only the sultan’s chambers or the treasury, but also a harem or buildings where imperial kitchens and stables were situated.
The construction of the palace began in 1460, at the behest of Mehmed II. It has happened a few years after the occupation of Constantinople by the Ottomans. The buildings were completed in 1478. The biggest influence on the final shape and appearance of the palace had Suleyman the Magnificent, who did not spare money for palce extension.
Palace can be entered through Gülhane Park, which is the oldest park in the city. It is quite a large park, with extensive flower beds and rows of trees. Currently, there are several tea rooms and the Museum of History and Technology of Islam.
Topkapi Palace – do not miss it. Istanbul – secrets of the city
- In times of magnificence of the palace – kitchens were given daily meals for 4 thousand people. During lavish parties they could serve even 8 thousand people. Palce kitchens were divided into sections, eg. dairy, preparing drinks or take-away meals.
- Former treasury, where you can see antique weapons, including trophies brought from far away expeditions.
- Harem, where, among other things, you can see the Sultan’s chamber or the sultan’s mother’s apartments. Despite the additional fee that should be paid for entering the area of the Harem, it is worth seeing how this place once dripped with splendour. There are many small rooms, openwork curtains and stained-glass windows. It is also worth walk thru the “Golden Lane” path, which connected the most important harem rooms.
- The fourth courtyard is a place serving as a refuge and peace for the sultan and his relatives. There are beautiful pavilions, a garden and a terrace with a fantastic view of the bay. In this courtyard there is, among others “Golden Pavilion Iftar”. Pavilion served the Sultans to rest, watch the sunsets over the bay or sports competitions that took place in the courtyard below the terrace. Supposedly, in the Iftar pavilion, the sultans could break the post rules that are required during Ramadan feast.
- There is also the “Baghdad Pavilion“, commemorating the campaign of Murad IV and the conquest of Baghdad in 1638. This pavilion was used by the Sultan to relax and chat with his family and friends. Inside there are colorful rugs and soft poufs for sitting. On the middle there is a golden oven given to the Sultan by the king of France – Louis XIV.
Topkapi Palace – hours of sightseeing and admission tickets
The museum is open every day except of Tuesdays. It is also closed on the first day of religious holidays – until the noon. Ticket booths can be found in front of the main entrance to the Topkapi Palace.
In the winter period (30th Oct – 15th Apr), the palace area can be entered between 9.00 a.m. and 4.45 p.m. During this time, ticket offices is open until 4.00 p.m. During summer months (15th of Apr – 30th Oct) the palace is open from 9.00 a.m. till 6.45 p.m., but last entrance is possible at 6.00 p.m.
Ticket Price for one person for the main entrance is 60 TL* (about 11$) except Harem Section. If you want to visit Harem you have to buy a separate ticket. You can do it from the ticket booths or in front of the Harem entrance. Ticket Price for one person for the Harem is 35 TL* (about 6$).
*Prices are valid in Oct’18.
More information can be found on the website of the Topkapi Palace, where all you can read in English language.
From the garden terraces of the Topkapi Palace, there is a view of the waters of the Bosphorus and the Asian part of the city. On a clear day, you can see a small lighthouse, called the ” Maiden’s Tower ” (also known as: “Leander’s Tower”). The lighthouse is located on a small rocky island, in the open waters of the Bosphorus. Distance from the shore is about 200 meters. First mention of this tower comes from 340 BC when it was a Greek watchtower and a tollgate. From the XII century it served as a lighthouse. Then it served as a prison, a place of quarantine and asylum for retired seafarers. The tower was also a plan for the James Bond movie “World is not enough” in 1999.
Today’s appearance is due to the reconstruction of 1763. Currently, there is a Bosphorus traffic control station, museum, cafe and restaurant. The tower can be visited daily from 9.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m. Access ticket to the museum is 25 TL* (about 4,5$).
*Prices valid in Oct’18.
You can get to the island from one of the many ships connecting the two shores of the city. From the port on the Asian side, the ships depart every 15 minutes. More information and detailed tower history are available on the website, link here.
Meiden’s Tower – the legend
One of the Turkish legends says a “story about the snake”. Once upon the time there was a sultan who had a much beloved daughter. One day, an oracle prophesied that she would be bitten to death by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. Sultan has decided to build a tower on the middle of the Bosphorus and place his daughter there, to keep her away from any snake. The daughter was placed in the tower, and she was visited only by her father. On her 18th birthday, sultan brought her a basket of exotic fruits as a birthday gift. He did not realize that in the basket there was poisonous viper hidden. When daughter of sultan has been bitten by the viper, she died in her father’s arms. And so, the prophecy was fulfilled. Hence the name Maiden’s Tower.
Basilica Cistern is a huge underground water tank, which, although it is not on the map of the main tourist attractions of Istanbul, it is worth visiting. I recommend going down to the underground and give yourself a chance to admire this place. I am sure that view you will see there will certainly surprise you. There is no other such place in the world. It is worth spending there 30-40 minutes.
The Basilica Cistern, also commonly known as the “Cistern Sinking Into Ground” or “Jerebatan Palace“. It is the largest of several hundred ancient water tanks built under the city of Istanbul. It was established in the 6th century, A.D. on the order of the Byzantine emperor – Justinian I the Great. Cistern was built on the place of the Basilica of St. Elijah, which was destroyed in 532. For seven years, there were seven thousand slaves who laboriously were erecting the building. Its final shape and size have exceeded all expectations.
The original finished water tank was 143 x 65 meters and could hold up to 100,000 m3 of water. The cistern’s vault is supported by 336 marble columns, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. Their height is 9 meters. The columns are not the same, as they differ in the colour and type of marble, they represent a different style and type of processing. They were gathered here using other disassembled or ruined buildings, which significantly reduced the costs of the entire project.
The whole cistern is surrounded by a thick, almost 5-meter brick wall. Bricks were covered with a kind of mortar, which had special insulating properties. Water was supplied here by aqueducts from the Belgrade Forest which is 19 kilometers away.
Basilica Cistern – what is the function?
The function of the cistern was to provide drinking water to the imperial palace in case of war. During warfare – drinking water could be poisoned or aqueducts that led to the city could be torn down. Cistern’s role last until about the fifteenth century. When the city was taken over by the Ottomans and the period of wars has ended, the cisterns were no longer needed, as fresh water from aqueducts was preferred. The cisterns have been forgotten for several decades. It is hard to believe, because the Basilica Cistern is situated almost under the basilica Hagia Sofia, and yet people forgot about its existence. Re-discovered in the middle of the 16th century. Since then, the cistern has been renovated twice. The most damaged columns have been replaced, it has been drained and thoroughly cleaned, a wooden platform has been added. Opened to visitors in 1987.
Basilica Cistern. Istanbul – secrets of the city
- At the end of the cistern, there are two columns, crowned with Medusa’s head. Interestingly, these colums were placed upside down. Now Medusa’s heads are standing on the ground and form the basis of the columns. To this day, it is not known where these blocks come from. Anyway, they are considered masterpieces of stonework art of the Roman period.
- Inside there is also a “Weeping column”. Unlike the other columns in the cistern – only this one remains wet all the time. It is said that the pillar of this column was erected for the memory of slaves who died in the underground of the cistern during its construction.
- The Basilica Cistern was the set design of the movie with James Bond “Greetings from Russia”, with Sean Conner in the lead role. It can be seen in the scene in which Agent 007 sailed through the dark underworld as he sneaked into the Soviet embassy.
Basilica Cistern – visiting hours and admission ticket
The museum is open seven days a week from 9.00 a.m. to 5.30 p.m. During summer months it is open until 6.30 p.m. Exceptionally it opens at 1:00 p.m. on first days of religious holidays and on January 1st. Entrance ticket fee is 20TL* (about 3,5$).
*Price is valid in Oct’18.
More information can be found directly on the museum website.
Dolmabahce Palace is one of the biggest attractions in Istanbul. It was first palace in Istanbul built in the European style by Sultan Abdulmecid I, in the years 1842 -1853. In 1856, the headquarters of the Sultan and the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire were moved here (from the Topkapi Palace).
Facts and numbers:
- The site of palace was originally a bay on the Bosphorus which was used for the anchorage of the Ottoman fleet.
- The construction of the Palace was completed within 13 years. Total cost amounted to five million Ottoman gold pounds (the equivalent of 35 tons of gold).
- Dolmabahce is the largest palace in Turkey with an area of 45.000 m2.
- There are 12 gates leading from the land and sea to the palace, which look fabulous and romantic on both sides.
- There are almost 290 rooms, 6 Turkish baths, almost 70 toilets, 44 halls and more than 1,400 windows.
- The interior of the Dolmabahce Palace was decorated with the paintings; and ceiling illustrations were made by French and Italian artists.
- In the interior decoration, 156 clocks, 58 candlesticks and 280 vases, most of which were placed symmetrically, were used.
- During the years 1910 – 1912 Dolmabahce Palace received its central heating and electrical systems.
- Women of the harem had to observe the grand ceremonies in the hall. They could do it through the grilles, behind which they were kept hidden.
- Inside the palace it is not allowed to take pictures.
- You can only enter to the palace by joining a guided tour. It is also not allowed to tour the inside areas on your own.
For the visitors of the palace, two parts are available: Selamlık, the official part and Harem.
Dolmabahce Palace – Selamlık
While visiting Selamlık which is men’s administrative section, special attention should be paid to:
- Beautiful crystal chandelier with 750 bulbs, weighing 4.5 tons, being a gift from Queen Victoria. It is the largest crystal chandelier in the world! The chandelier hangs in the Ceremony Hall. There is also a carpet from Hereke, the second largest carpet in Turkey, with an area of 124 m².
- The largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the world. Famous Crystal Staircase has the shape of a double horseshoe and is built of Baccarat crystal, brass and mahogany.
- Ambassadors’ reception room, also called the “Red Room”, because it is the color that dominates there. The ceiling is lined with gold and the walls are decorated with a multi-coloured engraving. There is a crystal fireplace with red decoration.
- A library with a collection which includes books collected by the sultan Abdülmecid. It was significantly enriched in Atatürk’s time and his successor – President Inönü.
Dolmabahce Palace – Harem
Harem was built as a private section of Sultan and his family. It was connected to the Selamlik section by a long corridor which was guarded all the time to make sure that nobody passes. There were rooms for official wives, suites of the sultan, quarter of the Queen mother, favorites and concubines. There were also some education rooms for the young children of the sultan. Among the most interesting and impressive features of Harem there are Blue and Pink Halls. There is also Sultan’s Mother apartment, rooms of Sultans, matrons’ rooms and concubines’ section. There are many valuable artifacts such as rugs and kilims, furniture, chandeliers, inscriptions, vases, oil paintings etc.
To visit Harem, you must buy a separate entrance ticket.
Do not miss!
- Pink Hall and nearby apartments, belonging to the Sultan’s mother. Atatürk also lived in this apartment and died here in 1938. Currently, Atatürk’s deathbed is covered by a Turkish flag, and the hands of the clock indicate the hour of his death.
- The Blue Hall and the nearby apartment that were occupied by the Sultan.
- Bedroom No 110. It is now a bedroom, but during the Ottoman Empire it was a room connecting the sultan’s apartments with the apartments of his first wife. Sometimes, sultan’s concubines and harem’s guests were living there. During Ataturk presidency, it was a guest room for presidents of foreign countries.
In front of the palace there is the Hasbahce garden, also called the garden of Selamlik. In the center of the garden there is a round fountain with swan figurines. There are exotic trees growing in the garden. The garden stretches all the way to the Bosphorus, is surrounded by a decorative fence and beautiful openwork gates.
In the palace complex there is also the “Aviary” garden and the Glass Kiosk. In the past in this garden, animals imported for the sultan from various corners of the world were placed. Now there are peacocks, pheasants and parrots living here. The Glass Kiosk was connected by a corridor with the Sultan’s apartment. Sultan was visiting this place when he wanted to see the official parades, marching down the street along the park’s gates.
Dolmabahce Palace- visiting hours and admission ticket
The palace can be visited daily, except on Mondays and Thursdays – between 9.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. (ticket office is open until 3.00 p.m.).
Visiting the palace itself costs 60 TL* (about 11$). A ticket to the harem costs 40 TL* (about 7$). You can also buy a combined ticket for both attractions, at 90 TL* (about 16$). For the entrance after 3.00 p.m. you can buy a ticket to one of these places only.
*Prices are valid in Oct’18.
Please note that Istanbul Museum Pass in not valid in Dolmabahce Palace.
You need time to visit both places and to have some time for a stroll through the palace gardens. Therefore it is worth to reserve about 3 hours. More info can be found on the official website of the Palace, with information also available in English.
Dolmabahce Clock Tower
In front of the main palace entrance (Sultan’s Gate), there is the Dolmabahce Clock Tower standing nearby. The tower was built on the order of Sultan II, in the years 1890 – 1895. Designed in Ottoman neo-baroque style. The clock tower has four floors and a height of 27 meters. It was manufactured by the renowned French clockmaker house of Jean-Paul Garnier. Clocks that are placed on four of its sides are decorated with Ottoman coats of arms. In 1979, the original mechanical clock was converted partly to an electrical one.
Historic streets of the old city
Orient Express train station
Orient Express is the name of a luxury train. His first journey set off was in 1883 on the route from Paris to Giurgiu (Romania). Travel by train was considered as a luxury one. Mainly wealthy people, diplomats and business people could afford it. Due to the growing interest and increased commercial contacts with the Ottoman Empire, in 1889 the express train route was extended to then Constantinople. The ride on the whole route took 68 hours, and the train developed a speed up to 80 km per hour. Trains were running on this route for almost 100 years, with a break during the First and Second World Wars.
In Istanbul, the final train stop was at the Sirkeci station. Station was located in the heart of the Old Town, next to the Topkapi Palace and Gulhane Park. The station was built in 1890 as an excellent symbol of a modern city. Sirkeci station was equipped with gas lighting and had tiled stoves. During winter that allowed to warm passengers who were waiting for the train.
The station building is one of the best-known examples of the style of European Orientalism. The Orient Express trains stopped commuting to Istanbul in 1970 and international trains stopped running here in 2013.
In 2013, an underground station of the Marmaray railway line was built at the Sirkeci station. It is a railway connection running under the Bosphorus at a depth of 56 meters. The line is leading through the deepest railway tunnel in the world. It connects the European part of Istanbul with the city of Gebze, located on the Asian side.
The Galata Bridge connects the historical Sultanahmet district with the modern Beyoğlu district. The crossing in this place – for almost 500 years has a double meaning. It is said that it not only serves as a traditional connection of two districts, leading through the waters of the Golden Horn bay. It also serves as a spiritual connection – combining the traditions of the East with the West.
First crossing in this place was possible in 1453 and resembled a kind of “pontoon bridge”. There were boats anchored and connected between the two banks of the Golden Horn. If someone wanted to cross the water, he had to leap from one boat to another until reaching the second shore.
At the beginning of the 16th century, Sultan Bejazyt II undertook several attempts to erect a permanent crossing there. Unfortunately none of his ideas succeeded. The first bridge design prepared by Leonardo da Vinici was rejected by the Sultan. Another project was to be made by Michelangelo, but this one did not accept this task. The construction of the bridge was postponed for another 300 years.
In 1845, the first bridge was built, but since then it was three times and thoroughly rebuilt or modernized. The current bridge is the fifth version of the original one. It was built between 1992 – 1994 and has two-levels now. On the lower level there are restaurants, cafes and two pedestrian walkways. One path is on the eastern side (from the Bosphorus side) and second one, on the west side of the bridge. The upper floor is a street for trams, buses and cars. On this level you can meet many anglers who are visiting this place daily.
The middle part is a drawbridge, so large ships can flow under it.
The area around the Galata bridge, on the side of the Sultanahmet district is also a port with numerous catamarans, boats and fishing boats. This is a must-visit place! It is famous for a fish sandwich (ekmek balik), which can be eaten directly from the deck of a fishing boat. Sandwiches are always fresh and very nutritious. In the evenings, it is a place full of walkers – both local residents and tourists. Overhead, hungry gulls are flying, which have learned to steal fish straight from the plate . You better keep a special attention here.
Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi), also known as the Tower of Christ, was built in 1348 by the Genoese, who had their colony on this side of the city (Karaköy at the time). The tower was part of the defensive fortification and was the tallest building in the city (63 meters high).
The tower had several functions over the following centuries. In the time of the Ottoman Empire, a branch of Janissaries was stationed there. It was a prison for a short time, then it was used to look out for fires in the city. Several times it was partially digested by fire or destroyed by strong winds. The present design of the tower dates back to 1794. Currently, the tower is open to visitors. The terrace, which is located at the top, offers a breath-taking view. Inside there is also a cafe and a small souvenir shop. The top of the tower is reached by a lift. After leaving the elevator, you have to enter only a few consecutive steps to get to the observation deck.
Galata Tower – do not miss it!
Note – there are always many who want to see the views from the tower. Throughout the day there is a long queue in front of it, so you should consider it can take min. 45-60 minutes to get inside. The observation deck, which provides 360-degree views, is always full of people. In addition, people are moving in two different directions there. Sometimes the crowd is so thick, that there is no way to move. For people who feel bad in the crowd, I would advise to take it into consideration before entering it. Beside of this one reason – it’s really worthy to enter there!
Galata Tower can be visited daily, between 9.00 a.m. and 8.30 p.m. Some more info you can find on the Beyoglu Municipality website.
Entrance ticket 25 TL* (about 4,5$).
*Ticket price valid in May’18
Galata Tower view:
Istiklal Caddesi, or ” Independence Avenue“, is a great commercial artery. It is located between the Tünel railway station and the Taksim square, in the Beyoglu district. In the XIX century, it was the heart and the main shopping street of the city. From the beginning of the 90’s, XX century, vehicular traffic was removed out of it. The only means of transport is currently the historic tram (I wrote about it in my post about Istanbul – how to get to main attractions).
There are buildings of old embassies, Christian churches of various faiths and numerous cafes and shops. Currently, this street is mainly crowded with tourists, because there are shops of the world’s most popular clothing brands. There are nearly 3 million people visiting it in a single day over the course of weekends.
The Istiklal Caddesi is very crowded. Crowd of people is so dense that you can’t see the oncoming tram, which tracks runs along the middle of the road. To be able to pass, the tram driver is ringing all the time, otherwise no one would get out of his way. You must visit it!
Marketplaces and bazaars
The Grand Bazaar meaning „Covered Market” is considered, is considered the oldest shopping center in the world. Built in 1461, at the time of Sultan Mehmed II. Bazaar has always held a commercial function – at the beginning mainly for jewelers and goldsmiths. With time, more and more assortments began to emerge around these stands. The main extension took place in the times of Suleiman the Magnificent. In the area of approximately 4.5 ha, over 60 alleys, over 3,500 shops and stands have been created. To understand the phenomenon of this place, it should be explained that the entire bazaar is a kind of closed, roofed town.
There are numerous restaurants, banks, two mosques, four fountains, own police and post office. Around 26 thousand people work here daily. It is possible to enter the bazaar through one of the 22 gates. Every day, this place is visited by about 250,000 people. During summer months, daily number of visitors can even reach 500,000.
Bazaar is divided into sections by product category. For example there is a secion with jewelry, antiques, leather, clothing, spices, lamps, gifts or belly dance costumes. There are signposts inside, but only main alleys have their names. It is easy to get lost in the bazaar. There is no (or rather: it is difficult to get it) bazaar plan. The best could be to ask for directions. You can also just go out thru any gate and try to find out where you are outside of the bazaar.
The bazaar was destroyed several times: due to fires or earthquakes, but it was always rebuilt afterwards and enlarged by the way.
Bazaar is open every day except of Sundays, between 9.00 a.m. and 7.00 p.m.
The Spice Bazaar, meaning “Egyptian Bazaar”, was built in the 1960s. Name “Egyptian” came from the fact that the bazaar was built from taxes imposed on goods imported from Egypt. The main purpose of the market was to provide income to the nearby mosque. Mosque was under constructions that time, and it was called the “New Mosque”.
The main part of the market has about 90 stands and is covered with a dome. Merchants offer there mainly spices, herbs, dried fruit and a wide selection of teas. The Spice Bazaar is also located outside the covered dome. Streets that runs from it are stretching out with long serpentines. Some of them are connected with the alleys running from the Grand Bazaar. At the stands located outside the market, you can buy absolutely everything else than food. There are: tools, small household appliances, wickerwork, clothing, footwear, soap, lamps, glass, ceramics, jewelry and many, many other items.
On the west side of the market there are stands offering fresh cheeses, olives, fish, honeycombs and dried meat. There are merchants specializing in the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables. In spring time you can buy here seedlings of flowers and vegetable plants. In the eastern direction there is a flower market.
The Spice Bazaar is mainly visited by the city’s residents. Open daily from 8.00 a.m. to 9.00 p.m., on Sundays from 9.30 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.
Istanbul – my subjective summary
It is not possible that you can see all the attractions of the city during a 3-day trip. Its 1500-year-old history, however, will make that everyone will find something interesting here. Before coming to Istanbul, it is worth considering what we would like to see the most and focus on it. From my experience I know that you will have to give up on something else due to not enough time. To visit the most popular places, you will have to stand in a long queue for tickets. Time passes quickly, and some tickets are sold only until 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. Some attractions are not open every day, some of them may be temporary closed due to renovation works. It is worth to check it all in advance. I recommend you also to plan the order of your city tour considering time when ticket offices are open.
In the city it is also worth to get lost! Give yourself time to walk, listen to the rhythm of the city. It is worth to leave the trail and try to avoid popular tourist routes. Allow yourself to eat lunch or dinner with locals and not in those places where all tourists go. The food will certainly satisfy our expectations, and the dishes will surprise us with new flavors.
Istanbul is great! For me – despite many visits – this city is still undiscovered. I hope that soon I will come back again to Istanbul as a tourist and will discover more its secrets.