A freelance writer and bargain hunter with wanderlust, recently moved to Perth from Brisbane.
Published February 22nd 2013
The divide between the east and west
If you want to visit a country that is both in Europe and Asia, Turkey is it. The country is fascinating with fairy chimneys in Cappadocia and ancient ruins in Ephesus but Istanbul itself can keep you enthralled and occupied for a whole week.
If you have seen the movie Taken 2, you may have noticed the sweeping view of new and old, the merging of East and West and the dynamic culture of Istanbul. And don't worry too much about being taken, I was travelling alone and found the city safe.
When I visited, I did not know much about Istanbul and had minimal expectations but I was in for a surprise. It is so different to the rest of Europe; its people colourful and friendly (maybe a bit too friendly by the number of marriage proposals I got) which I later found out is common with most female tourists. There is a huge variety of food, drinks and souvenirs available everywhere, all at a reasonable price. If you are overwhelmed at the sheer amount of things to see and are strapped for time, there are a few things to do that you don't want to miss:
There are many tour companies offering cruises down the Bosphorus river and it is easy enough just to stroll down to the pier in the morning and buy a ticket. The Bosphorus river boat ride is fascinating due to the view of grand villas, marble palaces, small fishing villages and a stone fortress dotting the riverside.
You are able to stop at any of the villages along the way to have a look but you will need to wait for the next boat to come along to continue on your journey, which takes a bit of time. If you want to stop and have limited time, I recommend getting off at Anadolu Kavagi, a quaint and quiet village with a steep hill you can climb where you can visit the Yoros castle (or what's left of it). The view from the top is simply amazing as you stare out at the spot where the Bosporus River meets the Black Sea. Don't miss the delicious fish burgers in the village just as you get off the boat.
2) Visit Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years of their 624-year reign; now containing important holy relics of the Muslim world, notably Muhammed's cloak and sword and large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons and other Ottoman precious treasures.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, explore four main courtyards and many smaller buildings with a breathtaking view of the Bosphorus from some buildings. Experience what it was like to be a Sultan and his entourage during the olden days; between 9 am – 5pm every day except Tuesday.
Be prepared for crowds, all jostling to have a look at what used to be the brain and centre of the Ottoman Empire.
3) Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sofia is open to visit from Tuesday to Sunday between 09am and 7:30pm. Upper gallery closes at 7pm. A popular feature in Istanbul and widely photographed around the world, the Hagia Sofia is definitely an imposing feature. This former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque is now a museum. .
Hagia Sophia became a UNESCO world heritage site 1985 and houses some of the most significant monuments in Turkey. A sight to see for its architecture and historical richness. If you visit now, you may be able to catch the angel Seraphim which has just been uncovered after 160 years of darkness and 10 days hard work.
4) Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern does not look like much from the surface, a square concrete building that hides its secret labyrinth beneath. This actually proves to be a positive while visiting because the queue is a lot shorter than the other sights, due to tourists dismissing its hidden beauty. The Basilica Cistern (Sunken Cistern) is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city and primarily supplied water to the Byzantine Palace.
The cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. When you step into the cistern, the dim lighting and faint sound of water dripping adds to the romantic and mystical atmosphere. In the northwest corner of the cistern, the bases of two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa.
The blocks are oriented sideways and inverted. Tradition states that this is done to negate the power of the Gorgons' gaze. People believe that Medusa's head is placed upside down to ward off evil spirits. The cistern echoes classical music, making your visit surreal.
If you are into James Bond movies, the cistern was actually featured in the 1963 film From Russia with Love. It is also the location of the finale of the International (2009)
The Grand Bazaar, Dolmabache Palace, Yildiz Palace, Sultan Ahmed (The blue Mosque), Galata Tower, Armenian Patriarchy would be among some of the areas I would add to this list of this great and sultry city.