Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey’s Cosmopolitan Capital
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - The Grandeur of the Blue Mosque
With its cascading domes and towering minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most iconic sites. As you approach, the sheer scale of the mosque becomes apparent—it dominates the skyline and is impossible to miss. Stepping inside, you’re met with a jaw-dropping interior that is just as impressive as the exterior.
The mosque gets its name from the mesmerizing blue Iznik tiles that adorn the walls. These intricate tiles number in the tens of thousands and depict a range of colorful floral patterns that have been dazzling visitors for centuries. As sunlight pours in through more than 200 stained glass windows, it refracts off the tiles and bathes the interior in an ethereal blue glow.
Looking upwards, your eyes are drawn to the lofty central dome that crowns the mosque. At a towering 140 feet high and supported by four half domes, it seems to float effortlessly above the open interior. The dome creates a stunning sense of space and airiness throughout the mosque. Circling the central dome are smaller cascading domes and grand arches, showcasing the exceptional Ottoman architectural style.
While the scale and beauty of the architecture amazes, the Blue Mosque also impresses visitors with its immense size. It can accommodate up to 10,000 worshippers at once. More than 500 columns support the structure and help create the sense of an endless sea of pillars within.
Despite the crowds of tourists, the Blue Mosque remains an active place of worship. Visitors need to dress conservatively and avoid visiting during the five daily prayer times. Maintaining respectful behavior allows you to appreciate the splendor while also experiencing the mosque’s serene atmosphere.
What else is in this post?
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - The Grandeur of the Blue Mosque
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Exploring the Bustling Bazaars
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Crossing the Bosphorus by Ferry
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Wandering the Backstreets of Beyoglu
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Admiring the Frescoes of the Chora Church
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Sampling Turkish Delights and Coffee
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Uncovering Istanbul's Roman and Byzantine Past
- Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Experiencing the Whirling Dervishes
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Exploring the Bustling Bazaars
Beyond Istanbul's ancient monuments and imperial mosques lies a thrilling world of commerce and trade at the city's bustling bazaars. For an authentic Turkish experience, plunging into the labyrinthine lanes of the bazaars offers sight, sounds, and smells unique to Istanbul. The cries of hawkers mingling with the chatter of locals bartering for the best deals creates an energetic atmosphere unmatched elsewhere in the city.
Foremost among Istanbul's bazaars is the massive Grand Bazaar, with over 60 winding covered streets and alleyways housing around 4,000 shops under one enormous roof. Called Kapalıçarşı in Turkish, the 15th century Grand Bazaar sells everything from handwoven carpets and glazed pottery to Turkish delights and quality souvenirs. Visitors can easily spend hours getting lost in the maze of corridors, discovering hidden workshops and haggling for treasures. Don't miss wandering through the bazaar's oldest section, Çarşıkapı, with its high vaulted ceilings dating back to 1461.
For a less touristy bazaar experience, head to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar near the Golden Horn. Built in the 1660s, the aromatic Spice Bazaar overflows with stalls selling spices, dried fruits, nuts, Turkish sweets, and succulent lokum (Turkish delight). Grab a cup of potent Turkish coffee or fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice to fuel your shopping adventures. The bazaar's soaring vaulted ceilings provide welcome shade from the summer heat.
Venture across the Galata Bridge to Karaköy and visit the small but bustling fish market. It's a photographers' delight with its dizzying array of fresh catches on crushed ice piled high. Friendly vendors will eagerly describe their offerings and haggle over prices. Don't leave without sampling the vendors' homemade balık ekmek (fish sandwiches) - a true Istanbul street food specialty.
For a traditional bazaar sans tourists, head to the Kumkapı quarter and wander through its open-air market sprawled along the Byzantine-era city walls. Expect to rub shoulders with locals buying everything from fresh produce and spices to livestock. Duck into a nearby meyhane tavern for an immersive experience pairing raki with meze dishes.
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Crossing the Bosphorus by Ferry
No visit to Istanbul is complete without crossing the mighty Bosphorus Strait by ferry. This natural waterway is what divides Europe from Asia, with Istanbul straddling both continents. It’s been a bustling trade route and strategic crossing for centuries. Today, commuter and passenger ferries continuously crisscross the 19-mile strait, connecting Istanbul’s European and Asian shores. Hopping aboard a ferry is the best way to admire Istanbul’s skyline and understand what makes this city so special.
The most popular Bosphorus ferry route runs between the Eminönü and Anadolu Kavağı piers. Ferries depart throughout the day, taking about 90 minutes each way. Along the way, ships pass under the suspension bridges spanning the strait while sailing past imperial palaces, hillside mansions, seaside villages, and medieval castles dotting the wooded shores.
One iconic sight is the Dolmabahçe Palace, built in 1856 as the imperial residence of the last six sultans. Its 600-meter facade and Neo-Baroque details are jaw-dropping from the water. Further up the strait lies the striking Rumeli Hisarı, a 15th century fortress built by Sultan Mehmed II in preparation for conquering Constantinople.
As the ferry continues north, the density of development lessens. Quaint fishing villages and wooded hills take over, with the occasional Ottoman yalı (seaside mansion) hugging the shores. Near the end, your ferry will pass under the remnants of Anadolu Kavağı Kalesi, a medieval castle crowning a hilltop.
Disembarking at Anadolu Kavağı, you’ll find a charming village of seafood restaurants, cafes, and little souvenir shops. Climb the steps up the hill behind town for panoramic views over the Black Sea meeting the Bosphorus below. Watch fishermen cleaning the day’s catch along the docks before hopping on the ferry back towards Istanbul’s minarets shimmering on the opposite shore.
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Wandering the Backstreets of Beyoglu
Beyond the neon-lit bustle of central Taksim Square extends the historic neighborhood of Beyoglu, the cultural heart of modern Istanbul. This diverse district's web of atmospheric backstreets invites aimless wandering for an authentic local experience. Leave the main drags behind and plunge into Beyoglu's side alleys to uncover hidden gems from Istanbul's cosmopolitan past.
One delight is stumbling upon the vintage iron funiculars that rattle up the steep hills, offering cheap joyrides with panoramic views over the jumbled city below. Hop aboard the 130-year-old Tünel for an old-world ride between Karaköy and Beyoglu. Or ride the Nostalgic Tram winding through the district's narrow lanes.
The crumbling elegance of 19th century Levantine mansions awaits discovery down the side streets. Their faded facades evoke the district's centuries as the lively home of European merchant settlers. Peek through open doorways to find trendy boutique hotels and restaurants inhabiting these restored relics.
For an infusion of art and culture, duck into one of Beyoglu's many indie galleries or performance spaces in converted workshops and warehouses. Venues like ARTER, SALT Galata, and Istanbul Modern showcase Turkey's vibrant contemporary art scene. Catch experimental plays and live music in the rambling backstreets around the Pera Palace Hotel.
One scenic detour winds up the aptly named Yeni Çarşı Caddesi or "New Market Street." This bustling pedestrianized lane reveals a microcosm of local life. Watch mustachioed men play backgammon while sipping tea at sidewalk cafes. Browse stalls hawking fresh produce, nuts, and Turkish street snacks. Grab a pide stuffed with meat or cheese from a hole-in-the-wall bakery.
At sundown, neighborhood Tophane comes alive as hip young Istanbulites line up at hole-in-the-wall lokantas doling out hearty stews and clay-pot dishes to hungry patrons. Sip local rakı at raucous meyhanes already packed with groups of friends sharing small plates and lively conversation.
Late night revelry awaits at Beyoglu's bohemian bars, gritty live music venues, and sweaty underground nightclubs—each one down an improbable side alley. Party until dawn at indie electronic clubs like Salon İKSV, then recharge with Turkish coffee from the early morning street carts.
By day, traces of the diverse communities who've called Beyoglu home over the centuries await. Wander past abandoned synagogues in the old Jewish quarter of Galata. Admire the Greek and Armenian churches dotting the backstreets. Reflect at the peaceful Italian cemetery on a hilltop.
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Admiring the Frescoes of the Chora Church
Tucked away in the backstreets of Istanbul's Edirnekapı district stands the unassuming Chora Church, one of the city's hidden gems. Despite its modest exterior, this medieval church safeguards a dazzling treasure - intricately detailed Byzantine mosaics and frescoes that are considered some of the finest surviving examples of late Byzantine art.
Stepping inside the dimly lit interior, one's eyes gradually adjust to reveal the magnificent paintings covering the vaults and domes. These vivid frescoes depict biblical scenes and saints so finely executed, with lifelike expressions and intricate details glimmering with gold leaf. In the narthex, glimmering mosaics illustrate the genealogy of Christ and Mary's early life.
Yet it's the interior's fourteenth-century mosaics that truly astound visitors. Two mosaic cycles fill the parekklesion, an intimate side chapel added in 1316 by Theodore Metochites. This learned Byzantine statesman commissioned the chapel's decoration to showcase his intellect and wealth.
One cycle details the infancy and early life of Christ in moving detail. Vignettes portray the young Jesus astounding scholars at the temple and performing his first miracles. Themes of youth and renewal pervade, with renderings of lilies and birds symbolizing Paradise. Figures' gestures and expressions convey a sense of tenderness that connects emotionally across the centuries.
The other cycle illustrates Christ's ministry and miracles in bold, dynamic scenes. Dramatic images show Christ Pantocrator both judging yet showing mercy to humanity. A vibrant mosaic of the Last Judgement fills one dome, with figures writhing in the fires of Hell contrasted by glowing saints entering the gates of Heaven. The mastery of light in these mosaics creates an otherworldly, transcendent effect.
Yet the church's tranquility can be deceptive. Over its long history, the Chora stood at the epicenter of military sieges and earthquakes which periodically damaged its treasures. Despite centuries of neglect, wartime pillaging, and misguided restoration, the mosaics largely endured. Their survival and rediscovery in the 20th century has allowed the Chora Museum, as it is now known, to reclaim its fame as one of Istanbul's highlights.
Visitors inevitably come away awestruck by the scale, artistry and emotional resonance of the Chora's mosaics. Travel blogger Annette White of Bucket List Journey describes the experience as "absolutely breathtaking", adding that "no matter your religious beliefs, the mosaics...should be appreciated for their beauty and the unbelievable amount of time and skill it took to create them."
History and art enthusiasts find even short visits rewarding, though many advise going early or late to avoid crowds. Insight Guides recommends visitors give themselves ample time to "pause and admire individual sections," while Lonely Planet encourages taking a good look at the famous Anastasis fresco with "its superb use of perspective and inherent spirituality."
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Sampling Turkish Delights and Coffee
No visit to Istanbul is complete without indulging in two quintessential Turkish treats - melt-in-your-mouth Turkish delights and rich, bracing Turkish coffee. Sampling these iconic flavors offers a sweet introduction to Turkey's rich culinary traditions.
Turkish delights, known as lokum locally, have been produced in Turkey since the 18th century and were likely invented in Istanbul. These family-owned lokum shops still use traditional recipes passed down through generations to make the gourmet candies. The basic ingredients seem simple - sugar, starch, and water. Yet reaching the ideal gelatinous yet subtly chewy texture takes great skill. A touch of corn starch or mastica resin adds that signature stretch.
While classic lokum comes dusted in powdered sugar, artisan shops craft a rainbow of flavors. Pistachio and rosewater is a signature favorite, but don't miss trying bites flavored with apricot, lemon, mint, coconut, and exotic pomegranate. Connoisseurs will spot top-quality lokum by the smoothness and sheen, praising the "melt on your tongue sensation" on forums like Tripadvisor.
For many visitors, their first addictive taste comes courtesy of persistent vendors proffering free samples to passersby in the Grand Bazaar. Give in and purchase a succulent, pillow-shaped piece dusted in powdered sugar or pistachio bits. Before long you'll be hooked, stocking up on ornate gift boxes packed with assorted lokum to savor for weeks and gift friends back home.
Turkish coffee provides a bracing caffeinated complement to the sweet delights. This thick, strong coffee is made by boiling finely powdered coffee beans in a cezve pot with water and sugar. The brewing process results in a powerful coffee with a muddy consistency halfway between espresso and American coffee.
One simply cannot visit Istanbul's bustling bazaars and side cafes without stumbling upon crowds of locals sipping tiny cups of muddy Turkish coffee and playing backgammon. Join them and order up a cup for the quintessential Turkish experience. Choose sade for plain or orta şekerli for medium sweet.
The thick brew will leave muddy grounds at the bottom so sip slowly to avoid the sludge. Türk kahvesi is always served plain without milk. According to 110Reviews blogger Sofia, first-timers may find it "very strong and bitter" but will soon grow to love the "rich taste and ceremonial process." She encourages visitors to embrace getting their fortune read in the muddy remains - a beloved Turkish tradition.
Istanbul's centuries-old kahvehane coffee houses are famous for serving expertly brewed Turkish coffee alongside nargile waterpipes. Locals gather here for lively conversation or quiet contemplation. Kadıköy's historic Fazıl Bey is renowned for its shisha, games, and coffee since 1939. Or soak in views of the Galata Tower sipping Türk kahvesi at antique Cafe Privato.
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Uncovering Istanbul's Roman and Byzantine Past
Istanbul’s winding alleys and bustling bazaars exude an energy that feels quintessentially Turkish, yet the city’s heritage stretches back through many previous eras. Remnants of Istanbul’s dramatic history as the capital of both the Byzantine and Roman empires await discovery by intrepid travelers.
Wandering Istanbul’s backstreets, one stumbles upon fallen columns and crumbling walls hinting at the collapsed palaces and toppled monuments of earlier eras. The city is built in layers, with each conquering civilization adding its mark while repurposing the ruins of past greatness. For those who look closely, Istanbul reveals her hidden history through intriguing archeological sites and world-class museums.
No site captures Istanbul’s ancient glory like the legendary Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. Entering its soaring interior, visitors gaze upwards and are momentarily transported back centuries, as the gleaming mosaics bear witness to the splendor of Byzantium. Historian John Julius Norwich aptly describes Hagia Sophia as “one of the world’s greatest buildings and certainly the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture.”
Yet the Hagia Sophia’s history stretches back even earlier. Exploring its exterior gardens and crypt, one finds remnants of the Great Church of Holy Wisdom, built atop the ruins of a pagan temple dating back to the era when Istanbul was known as Constantinople, capital of the eastern Roman Empire. This continuity of sacred purpose persisting through changing faiths and empires is poignantly symbolic of Istanbul’s layered past.
No history buff can bypass the magnificent Byzantine-era Basilica Cistern, accessed through a nondescript entryway near Hagia Sofia. Descending into the dim interior reveals a forest of Corinthian marble columns rising from shallow, still waters. This 6th-century underground cistern once held water vital for surviving sieges. Today, its evocative atmosphere leaves a lasting impression on visitors like travel blogger Kris Morton, who described it as “easily one of the most breathtaking historical sites I have ever seen.”
Yet Istanbul’s Roman roots run even deeper. Cross the Galata Bridge to see the most prominent vestige of Byzantium’s classical heritage—the Serpent Column transported from Delphi by Constantine the Great to celebrate his new capital. Nearby, descend underground to explore elaborately frescoed ancient cisterns and chambers that once comprised the 1st-century Basilica of the Stoa.
No historical exploration of Istanbul would be complete without visiting the acclaimed Istanbul Archaeology Museum, considered one of the world's great collections of Greco-Roman antiquities. Marvel at sublime statuary and sarcophagi from ancient Istanbul's necropolises that almost seem to breathe new life into the city’s forgotten past.
Istanbul Unveiled: Discovering the Historic Secrets of Turkey's Cosmopolitan Capital - Experiencing the Whirling Dervishes
Beyond Istanbul's dizzying bazaars and venerable mosques lies a mystical tradition that reveals a more spiritual side of Turkey's culture. For over 700 years, the Mevlevi Sufi order has carried on the practice of the sema ceremony, better known to outsiders as the transcendent dance of the Whirling Dervishes. Witnessing the hypnotic ritual provides a moving glimpse into Turkey's long Sufi history.
The swirling dances represent a mystical journey to absolve the ego and be purified in oneness with God. The accompanying live music and chanting induce a trance-like state in both performers and spectators. While the ceremonies are in Turkish, visitors often describe connecting on a deeper, universal level to this spiritual expression of human yearning.
Travel blogger Kris Morton recounts being initially skeptical about watching a two-hour religious ceremony in a language she didn't understand. Yet she describes soon being lulled into an almost hypnotized state by the repetitive non-lyrical chanting and circling dancers. Though not comprehending the Turkish words, she found herself incredibly moved to the point of tears. She says, "it was unlike anything I had experienced before."
Visiting one of Istanbul's historic dervish lodges provides the most atmospheric setting. Built in the 15th century, the Galata Mevlevihanesi is one of Istanbul's oldest remaining dervish lodges. Its sparse columned hall surrounded by wooden balconies exudes a hushed elegance perfect for ceremony. Tours fill up fast, so book tickets well in advance. Confirm times, as schedules vary around religious holidays.
Arrive early to soak in the pre-ceremony ambience. Visitors' excited whispering gradually dims to silence as the sheikh, musicians, and dervishes solemnly enter clad in long robes and distinctive high conical hats. After saluting each other with a deep bow, the musicians begin playing the haunting reed flute and drum that accompanies the ritual. Then with incredible grace, the dervishes begin slowly revolving, incrementally picking up speed as they enter a trance-like state of mystical union with the divine.
At times the synchronized swirling quickens with cartwheel-like moves that symbolize shedding the ego. These ecstatic moments culminate in the dervishes whipping back their long white robes to represent being shrouded for burial. After gradually slowing down again, the dance ends with one final bow. Witnessing the incredible discipline required to maintain balance while whirling rapidly for over an hour leaves spectators in awe.