Tag Archive | Istanbul

Istanbul – sights

The Hagia Sophia

Inaugurated in 360CE (though the current version was built nearly 200 years later) the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, and then was converted into a mosque, before becoming the modern-day museum. After it became a mosque in 1453, it was a model for many other mosques in the same style, including the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The last time I saw the Hagia Sophia they were doing some renovations, so it was covered in scaffolding and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. However, as it’s a ‘must see’ in Istanbul, I obligingly went along with Madeline, Tom and Amir, smiling like a parent taking her child to the zoo for the first time.

Then I entered, and I was the one who gasped. It was breathtaking.

Lights hang from the ceiling on wire frames shaped like flowers, bathing the colossal central nave in a golden glow. Large black disks decorate the pillars on the second level, each inscribed in gold with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad. Without meaning to, I broke away from the others as I tried to inhale the essence of the building, my eyes as wide as a child’s and my heart beating furiously. At several moments I was moved to tears – when I saw the gold religious mosaics on the upper gallery, when I wandered through the quieter, cooler stone corridors, and when I looked back towards the entrance from the opposite end of the mosque, I was overwhelmed by the Hagia Sophia’s size.

The Blue Mosque

The only mosque in the world with six minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful things I saw in Istanbul, and I wish I had a photo that did it justice. Its name comes from the blue tiles that decorate the interior, which form intricate patterns around the arched stained-glass windows. Apparently more than 20,000 tiles line the interior, and rings and rings of lights hang from the ceiling in bell-shaped cups of glass.

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still an operational mosque, which means that you need to remove your shoes in the courtyard before entering (though they weren’t that strict about women covering their hair), and you also aren’t allowed in at prayer times. However, there are tourists rushing in and out almost constantly, snapping photos as they balance the plastic bags carrying their shoes on their wrists. I really wish some of them would have been more reverent – I felt a bit like they were letting the mosque down.

Topkapi Palace

After buying my ticket for Topkapi Palace, I stopped to take a photo of the gate.

A man approached me. “Would you like a tour in English?”

“No thank you, it’s too expensive for me,” I said.

“But it’s free for you!” he exclaimed.

A slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “why?”

He shrugged, “because you’re a beautiful girl, and it’s always nice to have a beautiful girl on the tour.”

Half-an-hour later, when he had found a Swiss couple who wanted a tour, I tagged along for free! We entered the first courtyard, and he took us to a model of the palace and began telling us about its history. I didn’t hear much, though, because a school group of about fifty children came up and started calling out “hello!”

“Hello!” I replied with a smile.

One girl introduced herself and asked my name.

“My name’s Jolie.”

“Where are you from?”


They giggled amongst themselves and the girl lifted her camera in question. I nodded and we had our picture taken. Suddenly there were fifty cameras out! I stood next to child after child, unsure about which camera to look at, and hoping that the cosmetic-free shots would look decent.

“Jolie,” the tour guide called as he moved away.


After four more snaps I untangled myself from the group and rejoined the tour. I could finally enjoy the palace – though I kept a safe distance from all children thenceforth.

Although the tour was interesting, I really preferred wandering around alone. One thing I did learn was that in Islam, simplicity is considered to be beautiful, so most Islamic architecture is very simple. However, in the 18th century, European styles came into fashion, so the palace now has many French-style embellishments that were added in that period. He also said that Islamic architecture is always asymmetrical – as only Allah is perfect, they didn’t build symmetrical buildings. This means that many doors are off centre, with a different number of columns on each side and quite often the columns are in different colours. And this is something you can see everywhere – the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, so is quite symmetrical, but when the four minarets were added, three of them matched and one of them didn’t. The Blue Mosque is also an example with the six minarets containing different numbers of galleries (I think four have three galleries and two have two, but couldn’t find anything online to confirm this).

So the palace is very simple (in comparison to European palaces) and beautiful. Divided into a number of courtyards with large gardens, it’s very soothing and open and feels a world away from the city. Because many of the palace buildings are surrounded by colonnades, they don’t intrude on the gardens, but seem very airy. And the walls of the final courtyard extend out to the water, affording wide views across the Bosphorus.

Some of the buildings house museums, or items from the treasury (including the second largest diamond in the world), or porcelains or the Sultans’ kaftans, while others are furnished as they would have been when people lived in the palace.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an underground cavern of 9,800m2 capable of holding 800,000m3 of water. Rows and rows of stone pillars run up and down its length, all 336 of them 9m high and 4.9m apart. People walk over the water on raised wooden walkways. The only lighting is from the bottom of the pillars, which were lit by amber lights shining up from their feet – they illuminate the sides of the pillars and reflect against the water. It’s really magical.

Süleymaniye Mosque

I stumbled onto Süleymaniye Mosque by accident. Having gotten a bit turned around between the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, I found the second largest mosque in Istanbul when I was trying to get back to the hostel. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a complex consisting of the mosque, a hospital, a primary school, four Qur’an schools, a medical college, a school for the learning of hadith (narrations about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), a public kitchen, a road-side inn and a hamam.

I feel so privileged that I was able to see it – with cream walls, red carpet and little arched windows, it’s completely different to the cool, cellar-like stone of the Hagia Sophia, and the mosaic tiles of the Blue Mosque. Excluding the warm floral designs on the central dome, and the small signs in Arabic, the only decorations were red or blue strips around the arches between the pillars. The simplicity only drew attention to its size, so big that the rings of lights hanging in the centre of the mosque seemed like a solar system.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Built from 1843 to 1846, Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of Istanbul, and was the first European Palace built in the city.

Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace was very ornate with fourteen tonnes of gold-leaf gilding the ceilings and countless chandeliers made of English crystal. The largest hall in the palace is stunning – with moulded pillars, beautifully painted walls and the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The central dome has been painted to look as though it is a part of another building, so it resembles stone arches that look out onto a garden or courtyard.

Unfortunately you could only see the palace as part of the tour, and you weren’t allowed to leave the group due to security concerns, so it often felt like we were being herded around like cattle. I much preferred Topkapi Palace, where I could roam as I pleased.


Blue Mosque - view from Hagia Sophia

This is my second trip to Istanbul.

My first was two years ago. Having just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, I spontaneously booked a trip to Istanbul to get away from London and to get him out of my mind.

Big mistake. Everywhere I turned, I saw things that he’d love and I wished that he was there. A couple of Turkish men offered to show me around and, when one of them commented that the Basilica Cistern was “very romantic”, I burst into tears.

I knew it was time to leave and, 25 hours after I landed, my return flight took off.

So I was really curious to see what Istanbul would be like without baggage.

It was amazing – I joined forces with three Americans (Madeline, Tom and Amir) from Cordial House Hostel and I spent the first day and a half with them in a state of euphoria. Because I’d been here before, everything was familiar, but it all seemed to be sparkling new.

The Blue Mosque was stunning, the Basilica Cistern was eerie and mysterious and the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that I grew teary as I walked around the golden corridors.

Then I broke away from the Americans for a bit and started accepting offers of local hospitality – I sat down in carpet stores, souvenir shops, travel agencies and laundry back-rooms for apple tea and conversation. I saw Whirling Dervishes, ate seafood and went dancing with one local, and had a home-cooked dinner with another. I was given food samples, a pair of earrings and an evil eye pin for free.

And all of this was because I was open to these offers. I think so many tourists shut down when a local shows some genuine interest in them. All I had to do was accept, and I got to hear about people’s relatives in Australia, or what I should do before I left Istanbul. True, some of them were interested in more than a smile and a conversation, but they were all completely honourable when I refused.

I was staying in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Sultanahmet is always what comes to mind when I dream of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque mirror each other across a large garden area with curving paths for pedestrians and a fountain that is lit in different colours at night. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a two lira pastry from one of the nearby patisseries, and the mosques are an awe-inspiring sight at any time of day.

The Grand Bazaar is worth visiting once, but it’s not really my cup of tea. A covered maze of shops selling scarves, leather bags and jackets, jewellery, and trinkets for tourists, the vendors can be quite aggressive. Although it’s entertaining, it makes it difficult to window shop. And as it’s a popular tourist destination, you’ll be paying tourist prices.

However, if you venture onto the surrounding streets and head towards the Spice Market, the prices come down and the people are much less intense. I loved the Spice Market – stalls display pyramids of spices, tea leaves, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight and the vendors are happy for you to try before you buy.

Madeline and I got stuck tasting Turkish delight in Develi Baharat Spice Centre, and I left with a kilo of it – cubes of sugar-based Turkish delight dusted in icing sugar and coconut, and rolls of honey-based Turkish delight that they cut into cubes with scissors. There were two vendors working, one who spoke English and one who didn’t. Osman, the one who spoke English, battled with Madeline over prices for half-an-hour (I’m a pushover – give me free samples and you have me) while the other one insisted on calling us both Jennifer, no matter how many times we repeated our names. In the end, Madeline and Osman locked horns over one lira, and Osman said he would drop the price for a kiss on the cheek – I happily obliged.

The European part of Istanbul is across the river – when I crossed the Galata Bridge there were dozens of fishermen lined up on each side, with buckets containing their catches. I inhaled the scent of fresh fish, tickled that I could actually see where the ‘fresh fish’ I’d eaten the night before had come from. I took a short hike to the Galata Tower then walked to Taksim Square along Istklal Caddesi.

Spice Market

Istklal Caddesi

Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Asian side - market

This may seem obvious, being the European side and all, but I was shocked by how European it was! Istklal Caddesi is a long pedestrian shopping street full of brand-name shops in late 19th and early 20th century buildings with an old-fashioned tram running its length. On the way back I popped into Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This is like the Ladurée for Baklava – shiny walnut tables with gold bars and rows and rows of Baklava on display in shiny glass cabinets. I was served by an adorable boy with braces who selected 400g of Baklava for me, and also gave me an extra chocolate piece (mmm!) as a gift after I talked to him about kangaroos.

I also visited the Asian side of Istanbul, taking the 20 minute ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a map for the area, so didn’t really know what there was to see, but still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. It was like a completely different city (though I couldn’t say which one) – large streets filled with modern shops selling clothes and accessories, and smaller streets with punk shops and some selling household goods like Tupperware and balls of wool. Near the water, there is a group of market streets selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and olives. What I liked about this section was my relative anonymity – having been in Istanbul for five days at this point, there were a number of men in Sultanahmet who knew me and would stop me in the street to talk. Although this was fun, it was nice to have a break from it all.

I think my favourite part will always be Sultanahmet, but the entire experience was exhilarating. If you get a chance, go to Istanbul.