The splendours of the Orient and a bygone age
Istanbul has won the hearts of many a traveller over the centuries. It has welcomed visitors from the east and west, speaking a multitude of different languages and bearing rare and precious goods to trade. Straddling Europe and Asia, the city known as Byzantium, then Constantinople, and finally Istanbul has been shaped by a variety of influences. By spending a day in the city, you can learn to admire and appreciate its many treasures.
9:00Welcome to wonderland
If you want to see as much of Istanbul as possible, you need to get an early start. We recommend kicking off your day with a visit to the city within the city: Topkapi Palace. Built over four centuries starting in 1459, it was home to the Ottoman sultans and their courts and families, a total of more than 4,000 people, until 1853. Towering over the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, this vast structure covers 700,000 m2 (of which 400,000 are open to the public). The must-see areas of the palace include the richly decorated Harem, the huge kitchens where up to 1,000 chefs and assistants once worked, the Divan where viziers and military leaders met, and the stunning Audience Chamber, adorned with emeralds, diamonds and rubies. With opulent rooms and a unique blend of styles, this masterpiece is the jewel in Istanbul’s crown.
12:00The beauty of Byzantium
Once you have taken in the wonders of Topkapi Palace, it is time to head to the Hagia Sophia. This remarkable building showcases Istanbul’s eclectic history and its commitment to preserving the artistic and cultural legacy of previous generations. The largest Christian basilica in the world when it was completed in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque in the 15th century. Recognised as one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, it lost its status as a religious building in 1934 to become a museum. Its spectacular interior combines familiar elements from Catholic churches and mosques with Orthodox architecture. Featuring marble columns, dazzling mosaics and a vast dome, it is a stunning example of Byzantine art.
13:00Lunch on the go
If all that exploring has got you feeling a bit peckish, try Istanbul’s take on a light lunch. There are a myriad of covered and open-air stalls offering mouth-watering street food. Carnivores can treat themselves to a real Turkish kebab, which typically consists of slices of seasoned meat (veal or chicken) served on a plate with rice pilaf and raw vegetables. Fish lovers should try balik ekmek, a popular sandwich filled with a fillet of grilled or fried mackerel or bonito and slices of tomato, lettuce and onion. Finally, vegetarians can sample a cheese and herb börek or a simit, a crown of bread baked with sesame seeds, served plain or with cheese spread. Wash down your lunch with a glass of ayran, a popular Turkish drink made with lightly salted yogurt. If you want to satisfy your sweet tooth, order some Turkish Delight with your Turkish coffee: a truly iconic pairing!
14:00A vision in blue
Opposite the Hagia Sophia stands the Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque. This building was constructed in the 17th century as a symbol of Ottoman power and to send a message to the Habsburgs. However, its construction generated a great deal of controversy. Its six minarets were met with outcry from the Muslim world, as this number was previously only found on the sacred mosque in Mecca. Instead of altering his own mosque, the sultan decided to pay for the addition of a seventh minaret in Mecca. The building now houses the tomb of its founder, but it is best known for its architectural beauty. The interior is adorned with Iznik ceramic tiles—which give the mosque its signature blue colour—while the immense dome, imposing columns and courtyard surrounded by arcades create a magnificent spectacle.
15h30Journey to the centre of the Earth
Venture underground into the Basilica Cistern, located deep below the city of Istanbul. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, this was one of several cisterns that provided Istanbul with drinking water during sieges and periods of drought, holding up to 78,000 m3 of water. Under the brick vaults, the twelve rows of 28 marble columns seem to stretch on forever, bringing a certain imperial majesty to this hidden space. Topped with Corinthian capitals, two of the columns feature Medusa heads at the base. This mysterious place has been captivating visitors for many years.
16h30Go bargain hunting in the Grand Bazaar
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and most famous markets in the world, with 4,000 shops spread over 60 aisles. Made up of 30 hectares of covered stalls, it is divided into many different sectors: leather, textiles, souvenirs, jewellery, antiques, carpets… Everywhere you look there is something to catch your eye. Opened in 1461, the Grand Bazaar suffered a terrible fire in the 15th century. The sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, restored the market to its former glory, allowing it to grow even bigger than before. An earthquake destroyed a large part of the bazaar in 1894, leading to more modern renovations in 1956.
19:00Go with the flow
At the end of the day, do as the locals do and take a stroll along the car-free Istiklal Avenue and through Taksim Square. The cool kids come here to do some shopping, have a drink and enjoy a night on the town. At dinnertime, we recommend sharing a pide—a flatbread topped with minced meat or cheese—as your starter. For the main event, indulge in a variety of succulent stuffed vegetables, known as dolma, or try testi kebab. This unique dish is made by simmering meat, sauce and vegetables in a terracotta amphora. When it is ready, the pot is broken open front of the customer to reveal the delicious casserole inside! For dessert, we have one word for you: baklava. Prepared using filo pastry, walnuts, almonds or pistachios and sugar syrup, these classic pastries are displayed front and centre in every Turkish bakery. A perfectly balanced sweet treat, baklava is taking the world by storm!
Photos credits : © iStock / Unsplash
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