10 Reasons To Visit Istanbul
On foot or by ferry, Istanbul offers delightful sights, landmarks to explore and a storied history. Here's why you should travel to this city in Turkey now.
On the European side, Istanbul is divided into three main areas along a south-north axis: the old city with all the major monuments, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi and the Hagia Sophia; the former European quarter below Taksim Square; and the Bosphorus hamlets going farther north toward the Black Sea. Here are 10 sightseeing suggestions that give you every reason to explore.
Sights Near Beyazit Square
A half hour walk from the Santa Sophia tourist zone is Beyazit Square, once a Roman and Byzantine forum. You can feast your eyes on Istanbul University’s main gate, the former Ottoman Ministry of War. It looks like a perfect east-west architectural fusion of Imperial dreams. The nearby Sahaflar entrance to the Grand Bazaar specialises in old books and prints from private libraries of old Istanbullu families.
Sirkeci Station’s History
At the height of the railway era, no train stop compared in mystery and romance with Sirkeci Station, the end of the line for the Orient Express. Finished in 1890, designed by a German architect, the building still evokes an outsider’s idea of a mythological “Orient.” The Whirling Dervish troupe regularly conduct performances on the grounds. You walk down to the waterside and look across the Bosphorus to the Asian railhead—that’s where travellers of old continued their rail odyssey after crossing the Bosphorus by boat.
Pierre Loti Hill Cemetery
If you look up from the elbow-tip of the Golden Horne, you will see a windblown, isolated cemetery on Pierre Loti hill, named after the fin-de-siecle French novelist and adventurer. Loti had a famous love affair with a harem lady before sailing away for several years. When he came back, she had died of heartbreak and was buried there: the epicentre of the romantic Istanbul of lovers. Atop the hill sits the “official” Pierre Loti teahouse with a splendid view of Istanbul’s undulations.
Prinkipo Island Vistas
The largest of nearby islands, Prinkipo or Buyukada in Turkish, is a visually stunning 90-minute ferry ride away. You can take a 45-minute fast boat but you don’t get the open-air view of Santa Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and the Blue Mosque drifting by. On the island, trekking up to Aya Yorgi church to make a wish as many do on brief pilgrimages, provides a perfect afternoon of nautical vistas past old wooden houses. On a particularly hot day, it might be wise to jump on a horse-and-buggy for the return trip. The island has no cars.
European District Art
Art Nouveau wrought-iron gates and doors abound in the former European or Pera district. They denote a time when Istanbul enjoyed a flowering of mercantile wealth for some decades before World War I. A great many neoclassical buildings went up between Taksim Square and the Galata Tower along what was known as the Grande Rue de Pera, today’s Istiklal Street. Ornately fretted metalwork graced balconies, window grilles and entrances. Left to rust and collapse for years, they are finally being rediscovered and conserved as important artworks.
Harbiye Military Museum
The Military Museum in Harbiye offers 1,000 years of military artefacts generated by a city that was, after all, the centre of massive empires. Amazingly, the hand-made giant metal chain that the Byzantines stretched across the Golden Horne to block invading ships still exists. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet got around it by carrying his ships overland before taking the city. The Museum also houses the Mehter marching band, which originally led Ottoman troops to battle.
Kilic Ali Pasha Hamam
The Kilic Ali Pasha hamam, part of the historic mosque complex of the same name dating to the mid-1500s, might be one of Istanbul’s best-kept secrets. It was built by the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan. The location, down by the Tophane docks, is off the beaten track but there’s no lovelier Mosque or hamam design in the city. Now that the complex has undergone renovation, non-Turks should steam away their cares amid marbled silence in larger numbers.
The Ottomans produced exquisite tiles and ceramic ware roughly between 1450 and 1650 in the town of Iznik (classical Nicea). At first, Iznik copied the blue-on-white hues of Chinese pottery but added lavish greens and reds in later years. They furnished the Blue Mosque and the harem at Topkapi Palace. The techniques fell out of use until the Iznik Foundation rediscovered the process in the 1990s through chemical analysis. The showroom for new Iznik products is in Kurucesme, up the Bosphorus on the European side.
The Orientalist Architecture of Bebek
In the leafy waterside hamlet of Bebek sits perhaps the last expression of Orientalist architecture before modernism swept the world. Built around 1900 for the last Ottoman-appointed ruler of Egypt by an Italian architect with Viennese influences, the elegant wood structure embodies multiculturalism as was—and may be again.
Ferry riding up the Bosphorus on a sunny day, one sits topside at the back for the best visibility. Hot glasses of strong Turkish tea enhance the view of myth-strewn hills, wooden yalis, deciduous forests, history unscrolling from the Argonauts to the present. Ferries are to Istanbul what gondolas are to Venice, the definitive experience. The longest ride on the city’s old-style ferry boats takes you from Eminonu, where the Bosphorus begins up to Anadolu Kavagi close to where it ends at the Black Sea—where the Argo once had to get past the clashing rocks.