Day 1: Istanbul City Tour
Day 2: Princes Islands
Day 3: Istanbul
Day 4: Istanbul
Day 5: Istanbul
Istanbul is a city where the east and west combine and history is at center stage. No matter your position in the city the Suleymaniye Cami, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia will tower and take your breath away.
Suleymaniye Cami: Second in size to only Hagia Sophia this is the Largest Mosque in Istanbul. Commissioned by Sultan Suleiman I (Suleiman the Magnificent) and built by Mimar Sinan construction of the mosque began in 1550 and was finished in 1557. The interior is very large and very spacious. Iron chandeliers hang low from the ceiling and the walls are heavily decorated. Know that because this is an active mosque women are confined to a small area.
Ottoman mosques played many roles on than just for worship so surrounding the building you can find a library, hospital, school, gardens and even a teahouse. All of which are still active today.
The Blue Mosque: Known for it’s distinctly blue color and it’s 6 minarets this mosque has an interesting rumor behind it. It is said that Sultan Ahmed I wanted to build the greatest mosque in Istanbul so he commissioned the Blue Mosque to be built. Soon the emperor needed to travel off to the battlefield but before he left he ordered that the minarets be built out of gold. The word gold in their language sounds very much like the word six. So instead of gold minarets being built, 6 minarets were built and by the time the emperor returned it was to late to change. This like I said though is a rumor. Another story is that the Sultan knew there would be six minarets. Later he was criticized for this because 6 is the same number of minarets as the mosque in Mecca so the Sultan paid for a 7th minaret to be built in Mecca.
Built on the site of the palace of the Byzantine Emperors, adjacent to Hagia Sophia. The Mosque is a sparkling jewel in the city. Although the mosque has a blue hue on it’s exterior the nickname ( it’s real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque ) actually comes from the thousands of Iznic tiles that decorate the interior walls. The beautiful tiles are covered in florals and other designs in hues of red and blue.
Hagia Sophia: The Jewel of Istanbul and the inspiration for the other enormous mosques of the seven hills. Believe it or not Hagia Sophia did not start out a mosque, but a church. Built by the Emperor Justinian in 537 AD it was a true wonder of the world for it’s time with it’s cavernous interior and enormous dome. When Constantinople was conquered in 1453 by the Ottomans they realized the true importance of the building and instead of tearing it down minarets were built, mosaics were plastered over and it was converted into a mosque.
Today Hagia Sophia is no longer a working Mosque. It has been turned into a museum so that all aspects of it’s history can be displayed to the world. Ancient Mosaics of Jesus and Mary and the Apostles have been uncovered. On the Second level you can see the place where Justinian’s wife once stood during services with all other women standing behind here (this is said to be the place where gossip started). In the front of the large central space you can see both the ornate preaching gazebo from it’s years as a church and the minbar and mihrab from it’s time as a mosque. Giant medallions with Arabic writing hang suspended from each corner. Because the building is 1,500 years old there are currently some structural issues, especially with the roof so the center is a huge tangle of scaffolding leading hundreds of feet up. This takes away slightly from the effect but it’s still hard not to feel awe in a place like this.
Basilica Cisterns: Located just across the street from Hagia Sophia this place will give you the brief feeling that you’re in ancient Rome. Built in 532 AD to hold water for the city the cisterns were quite flooded with water until 1985. So much so that you needed to get around by boar (as seen in the James Bond Movie “From Russia with Love”). Today a shallow layer of water still sits on the floor, home to several fish, with paths running from one end to the next. Colored lights illuminate rows and rows of ancient columns and at the far end some columns have been found with the giant head of Medusa sculpted onto the bottoms.
The Egyptian Spice Bazaar: A small market compared to many others it is located at the end of the Galata Bridge in the old section of the city. Here you can see piles of saffrons and curries. Mounds of candies and the occasional all Seeing Eye trinket all for sale for a “very good price.” You can get small sets of several spices, which make very good gifts.
The Grand Bazaar: Travel up any of the small alleyways from the Spice Bazaar and you’ll inevitably run into the enormous Grand Bazaar.
Mostly built within one very big, very old building there are so many different hallways that I recommend if you see something you want and it’s not located on one of only a couple main thoroughfares, buy it because you might never see it again.
The Bazaar itself is like candy for the eyes. Bold jewel tones and golds are on many surfaces. Tiles and intricately painted ceramics are the specialty here. At least every few stalls will have some. Beyond that though you can buy jewelry, pipes, t-shirts, toys and so much more. Like most markets you’ll probably be able to find anything you want. It’s also not uncommon for a shop owner to invite you in for a cup of apple tea (like apple cider) and I recommend buying a couple boxes to take home. It’s that good.
The Princes Islands
Located in the Sea of Marmora are 9 islands (4 large and 5 small) collectively called “The Princes Islands.” They are a popular getaway for the people of Istanbul during the summer months but in the off-season are quite peaceful. An added draw to the island is the feeling that you’ve stepped back in time. The only cars allowed on the island belong to construction and military. All others get around by horse drawn carriage and bike.
Getting There: To get there you must take a ferry. If you are on the European Side you can find the ferry near the Spice Bazaar in the old city. At first we had difficulty determining which of the many ferries was ours. We’d ask at one ticket counter and they would point us father on. This continued to happen until we reached an area which we were certain was beyond the ferries. It looked so much different. At the farthest end was a construction zone and then a ticket counter, the right ticket counter for the boat to the Princes Islands. We walked across a plank along with several crates full of goods and within 5 minutes we were gone.
On the ferry there are two areas where you can sit, inside or outside. We chose to sit outside because it was a nice day but we soon learned that the outside is the “smoking section” so if you’re sensitive to smoking you may want to wit inside.
We made a short stop on the Asian side to pick up more passengers and then we were off an about a 45 minute ride to the islands.
Once the ferry arrives at the islands it will make a stop at each island. You can get off at any island you wish and then later pay to get on a ferry to one of the other islands or just take it back to Istanbul. We visited 2 of the Islands and it was perfect.
Heybeliada Island: The fourth of the 5 islands I had wanted to stop here because I had read in my lonely planet that is was less crowded and that it also had an old seminary at the top of the hill.
The village sits right off of the ferry dock. Small cafes sit overlooking the water and bakery windows display their goodies for all to see. We happened to show up on the island on Wednesday, Market Day. The outdoor market lined the street winding up the hill. There was mostly fruits and vegetables but also some clothing toward the top. We stopped to buy a pomegranate and the man was so excited to see us that both him and his friend requested to take a picture with us.
Once we got past the market we followed the road farther up the hill until we reached a trail which led us to the monastery at the top. When we arrived the gate was locked and there was no one at the gate to let us in. A sign hung on the gate to give information but we couldn’t read it because it was in Greek. We stood there for awhile and were just about ready to give up when a group of 3 men came up to the gate. They called out and an old man came to let them in. In the best way we could we tried to ask the man if we could come in too. The man just pointed at the sign and said something in Greek. My friend and I just looked at each other. So we tried again and again he responded in Greek. Finally he just got frustrated and let us in. The Monastery was built in 1896 and forced closed in 1971. Many world leaders including Bill Clinton have petitioned to have it reopened but Turkey has refused. Inside we were shown the chapel and some classrooms. He showed us the library, the animals and the garden. Then in the little English he knew he said we should visit Greece because it is very beautiful. It really was a beautiful seminary and I recommend visiting it. You also get a great view of the Sea of Marmora and the Islands from the top of the hill.
Buyukada Island: The largest and primary Princes Island. Here you will find most hotels, numerous bakeries and shops and you might even witness a movie being filmed (we did).