Some of the primary historical attractions are only open on certain days of the week. Many are open from Tuesday through Sunday and are closed Mondays. Dave has visited the following sites within Istanbul.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) was constructed in the early 1600’s. Admission is free but donations are accepted. Because this is such a heavily visited tourist destination, tourists are only allowed to enter from one of the side doors (instead of through the main door). This is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable buildings from the outside. The Blue Mosque’s impressive dome and tall spires can be seen from all over Istanbul. The name of this mosque is taken from the many blue tiles that line the walls. Huge pillars support the interior. This mosque is located directly across from the Hagia Sofia.
Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas costs slightly more for an escorted tour. If you plan on using your camera inside the palace expect to pay an additional fee and you will be given a special ticket for this privilege. Note, you are required to wear green plastic booties over your shoes – this helps preserve the rugs and other walkways in the palace.
Dolmabahce Palace is located on the European side of Istanbul directly next to the water. It was built in the mid 1850’s as a home to some of the last Sultans. Mustafa Kemal Attaturk (the Father of the Turks) died here in 1938. A guided tour leads visitors into elaborately furnished rooms, hamams and the throne room. The throne room is an immense room which is where tours end. Note the huge chandelier hanging in this room. When this room was used for ceremonies and important gatherings, it took 3 days to fully heat the room before it was ready for use.
Clock Museum is located on the grounds of this palace and visitors usually receive a free admission ticket to this museum with the main entrance fee. Visit: www.dolmabahcepalace.com
Hagia Sofia is located in Sultanahmet, the most historical section of Istanbul. It is simply one of the most amazing buildings in the world. Its breathtaking because it is such an old building but also in the way that it has been constructed.
It is an immense dome supported only by the walls that surround it. There are no visible columnar structures like in the neighboring Blue Mosque (the dome actually rests on huge pillars hidden inside the walls). Construction on the the Hagia Sofia was completed in the year 537 by the emperor Justinian as a Church, but was later converted to a Mosque in the year 1453.
In 1935, Kemal Attaturk converted it into a historical museum. Walking in this building is like walking into a building unlike any building you’ve ever been in before. The doors are 4x the height of a person. Massive marble columns support small side rooms. The primary dome towers many feet above the floor; sun shines brilliantly through stained glass windows located high up near the dome. In early 2004 the primary dome underwent restoration with a being a series of steel girders and trestles in place from the floor to the ceiling. Hopefully this restoration will last for decades to come.
One advantage of visiting the Hagia Sofia in the wintertime is that there are very few visitors. This is in vast contrast to the summer when one may not even get into the building because the crowds are so extensive. When I was there in January, there were very few people inside and because its such a large building, I hardly noticed the presence of the other visitors.
Be sure to walk up to the second floor. A sloped ramp instead of stairs leads to the second floor; this ramp is very medieval looking. Restoration of the ceiling on the second floor has already been done, and you can clearly see a difference in brilliance of the restored art work.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum is often missed by tourists and is under visited for the remarkable treasures it holds. This museum is located just down the hill from the Topkapi palace – well within walking distance and is comprised of several buildings situated on the side of a hill.
The primary buildings hold the best treasures. Visitors enter the doors of the main museum by climbing up about 20 marble steps and then entering through 4 very tall columns. This building contains an impressive collection of Greek and Roman antiquities including many well preserved marble statues (the only defects to these statues is that many of the noses on the faces are chipped or broken off entirely). Be sure to view the sarcophagi from the city of Lebanon. These huge stone tombs are extremely detailed and well preserved. This is one of the primary highlights of the museum.
Topkapi Palace is highly recommended – one needs at least a full day to visit. This palace was home to Ottaman sultans for many centuries and is one of the primary attractions in Istanbul. The palace was built in the mid 1400’s. Admission is organized by three main sections: main palace, Harem and the Treasury. All of these sections are well worth seeing; the downside is that it costs money to get into each section. Discounts apply for students holding active student ID cards.
The main palace is a collection of courts, kitchens, and a variety of special rooms all surrounding garden courtyards and open spaces. Many historical governmental items are on display including clothing, weaponry, paintings, silverware and porcelain. The archaeology exhibits rotate several times a year.
The Harem is quite interesting – only visited on a guided tour. Over three hundred rooms exist in the Harem; tours will only touch on a small number of these. Some of the walls are exquisitely painted and or laid in beautiful tile. Visitors will see the main greeting rooms and the private rooms all on the first level.
The treasury is also well worth visiting. Inside is an amazing collection of gold, silver and gemstones. The highlight of the treasury is an 86 carat diamond which is surrounded by numerous other smaller stones. A 7 pound uncut emerald is also worth seeing as are the incredible displays of golden crowns.
Grand Bazaar is a collection of over 4500 shops – with this many shops located in one area its quite easy to get lost (part of the fun of shopping here :). The main walkways of this bazaar tend to be a little more touristy than the side alleys and as a result the prices are a little higher. Try to walk down some of the less visited back alleys for an authentic Grand Bazaar experience.
Bargaining is accepted unless the shops indicate “fixed price”. Jewelry, carpets, Turkish Nargile (water smoking pipes), Turkish antiquities, clothing, kitchen items, and most anything you can think of are sold within its large confines. Be very very careful with your money, purse, wallet, camera or any other valuable you are carrying here. I have heard several stories from friends who have had their valuables stolen here. Some of the vendors can also become verbally aggressive with trying to sell you their wares. If you are interested in something, shop around for it and remember, always bargain.
Maiden Tower is one of the smaller less visited highlights of Istanbul. It is located in the Sea of Marmara on a very small Island just off the coast of the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Its amazing to think when you are standing on this island that the original tower was built here in 600BC – that is over 2600 years ago! This is a popular romantic getaway for young Turkish lovers. The current tower contains a restaurant and a bar. A free non alcoholic drink at the bar is included with the price of a ticket. Boats depart from the Anatolian side of Istanbul. Visitors can hike up to the walkway on the top of the tower for excellent panoramic views of Istanbul.
Hidiv Kasri is a large building that sits on a hill. Its worth visiting not only for the intriguing interior halls, but also for the great views of Istanbul across the water. Three main halls include Marble Hall, Konkav Hall and the Crystal Hall. Each contains fountains, carved marble and other artwork.
A nargile smoking restaurant is available outside of the main building. Nargile pipe smoking is becoming more and more popular in Turkey and is a form of ‘water smoking’. There are many different types of flavors you can smoke – these flavors are put in the bowl of the pipe, which leads to hot water – so whenever you inhale you hear a bubbling sound. This restaurant is a good place to meet many young Turkish people. Sometimes live music will be played also; you can request your favorite songs.
Galata Tower is located in the district of Beyoglu and was built in 1348 by Italians. An observation deck is located on top which provides scenic vistas of the Istanbul skyline. One can also eat dinner here, but be sure to bring deep pockets (if you know what we mean). Dinner is a set meal and is very expensive! For more information visit: www.galatatower.net