Where East meets West; two continents converging at the might Bosphorus river. Istanbul is an absolute must for culture vultures and lovers of the classics, Istanbul is an easy and fascinating city to explore. We recommend you base yourself in Sultanhamet for your stay. It may be a bit touristy, but with all of the major sights in easy walking distance, it is a practical choice. And whilst tourist bars and restaurants aren't on the top of everyone's list, who can resist a roof top terrace with stunning views. Sitting and watching the sun set against a back drop of an ancient and modern skyline, whilst listening to the call to prayer wafting over the rooftops, you can't possibly fail to be seduced. Please read on for more information about the top sights to see:
The Blue Mosque
One of Istanbul's most iconic buildings, the Blue Mosque sits proudly over-looking the Bosphorus. It's beautiful minaret and blue tiled roof gives it a majestic appearance. Inside, the vast spaces and high dome are impressive and, as it is still used as a mosque, it has a very spiritual air, despite the hoards of tourists. The mosque is still used for prayers, and so closes five times a day. Check with your hotel before you set out. Men should wear trousers to visit and ladies should cover their heads and shoulders. There is talk of the authorities providing smocks for tourists to wear over their clothes, to ensure that dress codes are adhered to.
Just down the road from the Blue Mosque is its older sibling, the Aya Sofia. Built by the Romans in 537, this magnificent building was originally a basilica, converted to a mosque in the 1400's. The Blue Mosque was built with the intention of out doing its rival in the 1600's but the Aya Sofia remains a magnificent building in its own right. Decommissioned as a place of worship by Attaturk, it is now a museum displaying an intriguing fusion of Islam and Christianity. The ancient frescoes and vast size of the building make it a must-see. Audio guides are available at the entrance for those wanting to go into more detail during their visit.
The Topkapi Palace
Laid out as an Imperial Palace, the Topkapi Palace has a series of courtyard each leading to another more intimate and exclusive courtyard. Visitors in imperial Turkey were allowed in according to their status and importance. The harem is a must-see, but be warned, you will need to buy an extra ticket once inside. Entering into this warren where the eunuch, concubines and wives lived and jostled for position, you can only imagine what an intense and competitive life the women lived there had. Each vying for more power and influence, desperate to bear the sultan a son. As with all imperial palaces, this was built to impress and there are many ostentatious displays of wealth. Intricate carvings, beautiful tiles and vast tulip gardens and a beautiful pagoda where the Sultan held court. The palace is a popular visitor attraction and will be heaving with tourists. Beware the sulky teenagers and Japanese groups (the latter are much better at waiting their turn in the queues.) You can get a guide or an audio-guide at the gate, but a decent guide book should also provide you with enough to get a good understanding of what it is all about. If you can face the queues, the treasury is worth a look for impressive displays of opulence and some good views of the Istanbul. Also of interest are the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms where you can see relics such as Moses' staff, Abraham's saucepan and Joseph's turban, as well as several other artefacts.
The Topkapi Palace has to be one of the highlight of Istanbul and you will need about 3 hours to visit. Visitors in spring will be particularly lucky as the gardens in the 3rd and 4th courtyards are planted with hyancinths and tulips. There are cafes and toilets inside the complex. The palace is closed on Tuesdays.
The Basilica Cistern
An eerie yet beautiful sight, the cisterns were built in 532 as an underground Byzantine water storage system. Over time, the cistern was forgotten about, but can now be visited. Large pillars prop up the ceilings and you can see carp swimming in the water below. Walking past the massive solid columns, you will see signs to the Medusa. Follow these and you will be rewarded with the sight of two large Medusa head supporting two columns. This incredible beauty was said to be able to turn people into stone if they looked directly into her eyes. Her purpose here is said to warn off evil spirits. The Cisterns offer a cool respite to the heat of the city and are well worth a visit.
The Grand Bazaar
A visit to the vast covered market makes for an interesting excursion. Reached easily on foot from Sultanahmet, or a short trip on the tram, the market is a bustling hub full of locals and tourists alike.
There are stalls selling everything from jewellery to carpets, football shirts, souvenirs, bags and, of course, carpets. Vendors will try their hardest to attract your attention but this is generally done in good humour. The price of goods is not marked, so if you want to do some shopping, work out beforehand how much you are willing to pay, go in low and then work your way to a mutually agreeable price. Remember, you don't have to buy anything, you are free to walk away from a negotiation at any time. The most important thing to do is to enjoy the experience and emerge with your good humour in tact!