Last Updated on 03/20/21 by quiltripping
Since the age of 9, I have always wanted to see Istanbul. When I emigrated to the USA from Romania with my parents in the summer of 1970, our flight was rerouted through Istanbul to pick up more passengers. I don’t exactly remember what that 9 year old saw out of the plane window, but it left a lasting impression.
This was the first time I was traveling outside of my birth country, a country that at that time was very restrictive with information about the rest of the world. I imagine that as the plane flew over the city, I must have seen mosques and other architecture that was very different from anything I had ever seen before. It would have looked very exotic and intriguing to my young eyes.
The desire to visit Istanbul never left me, and many years later I finally had the chance to fulfill my dream – not once, but twice. In those two visits, I fell in love with Istanbul and it has become one of my favorite travel destinations.
Discover beautiful Istanbul
I think the best time to visit Istanbul is in spring when the temperatures are pleasant, the crowds are few and the spring bulbs are blooming. I discovered that the best place to see exquisite displays of fragrant color is in Gülhane Park which was once part of the Topkapi Palace outer garden.
Hundreds of thousands of bulbs are planted in delicate patterns and coordinating color symphonies and a stroll through the park was an easy way take a pleasant break from intense sightseeing.
I like to start my day early with a traditional cup of Turkish tea at the Seven Hills Hotel rooftop restaurant in the Sultanahmet district with its perfect sunrise views of the historic Hagia Sofia as a backdrop. A day cannot start out any better than this.
The historic UNESCO listed Sultanahmet district is compact and easily walkable. Early morning before the crowds and tours arrive is the best time to be awed by the surrounding architecture. It was just me, the ancient buildings and the simit vendors.
Simit is a common street food in Istanbul. Dough is formed into a ring, dipped in grape molasses and sesame seeds and then baked. Vendors sell it from street carts, or sometimes, by carrying a tower of freshly baked simit around the neighborhood. This gives a whole new meaning to a balanced breakfast.
One of the most imposing sights that dominates the Sultanahmet skyline is the Hagia Sofia. With its massive dome and ancient walls it is a child of the distant past that has aged gracefully into the grand dame of the city. Inside, the emblems and decorations reflect its diverse history as a church, a mosque, a museum and now a mosque once again.
Across the plaza from the Hagia Sofia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque as it is more commonly known, which was completed in 1617. Legend tells that its architect misread the Sultan’s instructions and mistakenly interpreted “six minarets” instead of “gold minarets”. This was a problem because at that time, only the Great Mosque of Mecca had six minarets. To allay criticism, the Sultan then ordered that a seventh minaret be added to the Great Mosque in Mecca.
The first time I ever heard the Islamic call to prayer was on my initial trip to Istanbul. The sun was starting to set as I was taking a break on a bench in the hippodrome area in front of the Blue Mosque. The tulips were in full bloom and the scent of hyacinths was wafting on the early evening breeze.
Without any preamble, the first line of the call to prayer came out over the Blue Mosque’s loudspeakers. With only a few seconds delay the call was repeated by the Hagia Sophia across the way. And then the smaller Firuz Aga Cami mosque behind me picked up the call. As each line was sung by the Blue Mosque’s muezzin, the other two repeated, sometimes calling along in harmony and other times following in succession. All the while, their voices echoed off the surrounding buildings, adding to the acapella harmony. I listened, mesmerized by the melodic sounds.
In that setting, surrounded by thousands of years of history that still felt alive, it seemed fitting that I should hear this ancient call to prayer for the first time. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard, and it sent shivers down my spine. After five minutes it was all over, but to this day, I vividly remember that experience and the emotions it evoked.
The characteristic color that gives the Blue Mosque its name is due to the trademark Iznik tiles with their blue and red flowery designs. Another unique place to see a diverse display of these beautiful tiles was in the Harem of the Topkapi Place. Walking through the labyrinth of rooms and halls gave me a glimpse of the privileged opulence inside the private enclave of the sultan and his extended family.
The sultan rulers may be gone, but today, others receive obeisance in their place in Istanbul. There is a centuries old bond between the human residents and the resident cats. Since Ottoman times the city’s felines have been lovingly cared for by their two-legged neighbors. You can’t walk a block or two without encountering a cat on a stoop, a bench or on a windowsill.
You also can’t visit Istanbul’s historic district without encountering a stray dog, or two or ten. They roam freely and apparently quite happily, and often become the star of the show, despite the iconic scenery around them. They lay down anywhere and everywhere and people will carefully walk around them, making sure not to disturb them if they are resting. They appear well cared for and well fed.
If a dog has an ear tag, then it is part of the Trap, Tag and Release program where the dogs are captured, vaccinated, fixed and then released back into their neighborhood. As with the cats of Istanbul, it takes a village to care for the dogs of Istanbul as well.
There is no doubt that the city of Istanbul is steeped in thousands of years of history – history that can still be touched today. Just feet away from the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, and sitting beneath modern city streets that are teeming with pedestrian, automobile and tram traffic, a walk through the underground space of the Basilica Cistern is an opportunity to physically experience a world that existed 1500 years ago.
Twice the size of an American football field, the Basilica Cistern was built in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. An orderly forest of 336 marble columns that are 30 feet high, support an extensive barrel vaulted ceiling. The cistern was built to provide water to the palace and the surrounding buildings, with the source of the water coming from the nearby Belgrade Forest through a system of aqueducts.
Equally historic, Istanbul’s bazaars are a riot of colors, flavors and fragrances. They will completely engulf all your senses. Narrow covered passageways are lined with small store fronts that sell a rainbow of spices, a kaleidoscope of colorful Arabic lamps, scarves in every conceivable color, tiles and pottery with the traditional blue and red tulip designs, a multitude of patterned pillows, fabrics and carpets, and much, much more.
The walls reverberate with the noise of local and tourist shoppers haggling to get the best prices. Shopkeepers are relentless in their calls to get a passerby’s attentions. It’s busy. It’s noisy. It’s chaotic. And it’s one of the quintessential Istanbul experiences, even if my senses could only take it for a short time.
By the afternoon, my feet and I were ready for a break, and there is nothing better than a café overlooking the Bosporus with a cup of traditional Turkish tea. Drinking tea in Turkey is more than just imbibing a hot beverage – it is an integral part of the culture. The process of making the tea involves a time honored ritual that requires two teapots and clear, tulip shaped glasses. The resulting beverage is as unique as each individual tastes and is both soothing and refreshing.
For added sustenance with the tea, I indulged in some of the traditional Turkish Delights or sampled a few of the many varieties of baklava. So many flavors to try and so little time.
Along with tea and delightful sweets, the locals also like to imbibe a shisha or hookah. I gave it a quick try with apple flavored tobacco but I much preferred photographing the colorful smoking paraphanalia instead.
To induce further relaxation, I chose to try another authentic Turkish experience-the hammam, or Turkish Bath. If I was going to have to be mostly naked and get washed and scrubbed by a stranger, then I wanted to be treated like a queen, or rather, a Sultana. The Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam was built in 1556 for the most celebrated Sultan’s consort and was only steps away from the Hagia Sofia.
Once I got over my inhibitions and gave in to being scrubbed raw, rinsed and then pampered like a baby, the hammam was one of my favorite Istanbul experiences. In fact, I made sure to do it again the next time I was in Istanbul. Plus, this was the only way to see the inside of this historic complex.
Beyond the Sultanahmet historic district there are many more things to discover in other parts of Istanbul. More history can be seen in the Byzantine decorated Chora Church, or Kariye Museum as it is now known. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is not a big space and the intimacy of the delicate frescoes and mosaics delighted my artistic senses.
Not far from the Chora Church are the colorful Balat and Fener neighborhoods. With funds from UNESCO, the colorful houses in these historic neighborhoods of Istanbul, where Greeks and Jews once called home, are being restored and the area revitalized. Walking up and down the streets is literal eye candy.
Further afield, the bridges and ferries connect the European side of Istanbul to the Asian side. Ferries run in all weather and give a duck’s eye view of both continents.
I took the ferry to the Kaldikoy neighborhood across the Bosporus where I indulged my more modern artistic sensibilities. The street art here was profusive, sometimes edgy and, like the Hagia Sofia, done on a massively large scale.
Across the Golden Horn, the Galata district is the place to be, especially on a Sunday. I read that as many as 3 million people will walk the one mile pedestrian street of Istiklal Avenue on a weekend day, and that certainly seemed to be the case on the Sunday afternoon that I was there.
The street is lined with shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants and movie theaters. A historic red tram can take you up and down the street, but don’t take it if you are in a hurry. The tram has to go very slowly to let the sea of bodies part so that it can pass. This certainly seems to be the place to go to see and be seen.
Here you will also find the Galata Dervish Monastery. You’ll see Whirling Dervish performances advertised throughout Istanbul, offering an evening of entertainment. But for an authentic experience, I chose to attend a true Mevlevi religious ritual at the Galata Dervish Monastery for their weekly Sunday afternoon performance.
The Mevlevi order was founded in the 13th century by the followers of Mevlana Rumi, an Islamic Sufi mystic and poet, who started the practice of whirling as a way to get closer to God. The Whirling Dervish dance is part of a ceremony called a Sema. The dance is performed with one had uplifted toward the sky, “receiving from God” and the other hand pointing down toward the ground, “giving life to the earth”.
The clothing that the dervishes wear is also symbolic: the white gown is a symbol of death, the black cloak that envelops them at the beginning and end of the ceremony symbolizes the grave, and the tall brown hat stands for the tombstone.
In 2008, UNESO declared the Sema a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. As I watch the men slowly twirl round and round and round, my breathing also took on a rhythmic beat and for just a moment, I felt a little of the peace that they projected.
Back in the Sultanahmet district at the end of a wonderful day of sightseeing, I was once again on the rooftop of the Seven Hills Hotel to watch the sun set over the Blue Mosque-this time with a glass of wine. One more time, the Muezzin calls to prayer echoed off the surrounding facades, much as they had done for centuries.
It was the magic hour in Istanbul – that time of day after the sun has set and the sky turns a deep royal blue. It was the perfect time of day for another unforgettable view of Istanbul, this time from the Galata Bridge. Looking uphill, the great Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent sparkled like a jewel in a Sultan’s turban.
In the waters of the Golden Horn at the base of the bridge, the colorful Balik Ekmek (fish sandwich) boats serve up freshly cooked fish to hungry locals and tourists alike. It was my last grand view of this wonderful city on my last night in Istanbul. What a great way to end my visit. But not my last one – I’ll be back.
I hope this has inspired you to visit beautiful Istanbul as well.
Thanks for visiting,