In this travel guide, archaeologist Peter Sommer recommends what to see and where to go when you travel to Istanbul.
The top 5 places to see in Istanbul
In terms of places to see in my opinion, top of the list should be the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque. Literally a stone’s throw from each other across a pretty park. I’d probably start off at the Blue Mosque and have a wander around the hippodrome (the old roman Ben Hur style race track) immediately next to it. The Blue Mosque courtyard itself is truly spectacular – well worth time sitting down under the colonnades or having a quiet mooch around gazing up at the soaring minarets, lifting your eyes towards heaven as they were intended.
To break up the big buildings I’d then go to the Basilica cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi), just a 5 minute walk away. You could try a ‘simit’, a deliciously nutty bread ring covered in sesame seeds, sold by simit sellers across the square (in streets right across Turkey you can hear their distinctive call ‘Seeemeeeet’ from early in the morning). The Basilica cistern is wonderfully atmospheric – a colossal underground holding tank. It was one of the main water sources for the Byzantines, and is a stunning piece of practical architecture, a cathedral of columns rising up out of a reservoir. It’s beautifully lit and usually has classical music playing. It only takes a short while to walk through, but it’s a real treat.
All these places are just a few minutes stroll away from each other. The area of Sultanahmet, is frequently described as the greatest open air museum in the world. I think it’s fantastic to sit down on a bench beside the fountains, have an ice cream and listen to the muezzins from all the surrounding mosques chorus out – all just slightly out of syncopation.
The Aya Sofya itself is breath-taking. Built by Justinian, it was the greatest and biggest church in Christendom for 1,000 years. A definite must.
Topkapi Palace will make a great focus for a second day. One small point, you need to get separate tickets to see the Harem, and have a limited amount of time in there with a guide that you have to take, but its wonderfully claustrophobic and beautifully decorated – the whole palace is like a city within a city within a city… The café/restaurant in the palace, Konyali, does good food and has fantastic views.
#3. The Bosphorus
When you travel to Istanbul I’d definitely go on a Bosphorus cruise for about half a day. The tourist office might well be able to let you know the times of departure – or your hotel will probably be able to find out. The boat takes you on a lovely little jaunt up the narrow, pretty and vitally strategic waterway to the entrance of the Black Sea. I like to go all the way up to Anadolu Kavagi. You can get off there – wander up to the castle for a marvellous vista, have a bite to eat at one of the fish restaurants at the bottom, and then pick up one of the ferries going back. If you have worked out the ferry times – you’re able to spend a few hour or more at Anadolu Kavagi dreaming of Jason and the Golden Fleece, the Clashing Rocks etc. before drifting back to the city.
The Bosphorus boats go from near the Yeni Cami (New Mosque), which is near the Spice bazaar and one of the best remnants of the old city – a network of narrow streets full of artisans banging out their wares. One of the most famous coffee sellers in Istanbul is situated on a corner, and the aroma wafts gloriously around – a marvellous place to dawdle through the busy lanes. And there’s the Rustem Pasha mosque – if you can find it – up some stairs hidden off the lane, which is an exquisite little spot with some of the very finest tiles. Up the hill is of course the Covered Bazaar, another splendid place to explore and get lost in.
The bazaar isn’t far from the Sulemaniye mosque, but don’t try and do everything in the city in a few days, and not have time to enjoy any of it. There really is so much you can see – but do make sure you don’t overload. Balance it with soaking up the hustle and bustle of the city, and taking time to step out and grab a few moments of peace.
#4. Istanbul Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum is one of the finest in the world. And I’m not just saying that as an archaeologist. The Alexander Sarcophagus is truly one of the most exquisite pieces to have survived from the ancient world, and in my opinion is worth a trip to the museum all on its own. There’s lots more to see – and a very pleasant little cafe outside the museum in the large courtyard where I used to take my students for some respite. However much time you have to travel in Istanbul do try and fit in a visit to this glorious museum.
#5. Across the Golden Horn
I love walking across the Galata Bridge – even though it’s busy – for me it’s the very epicentre of the great metropolis – and represents all the facets of Istanbul. You can walk along the top and feel the noise and energy and if you want drop down to the lower level walkway next to the water for a drink and a bit more calm. There’s wonderful views to be had of the city’s 7 hills each one crowned by a splendid mosque. You get onto the bridge via an underpass on the left side. It’s frenetic, loud and steaming with energy – full of hawkers and traders shouting their wares. Marvellous.
Once you’ve walked across the bridge (away from Sultanahmet/Topkapi side) head left on the first major road, cross over (dodging the traffic) and head to a dark entrance way signposted ‘tunel’. You need to buy a small jeton to get on the funicular railway that takes you up the hill to Istiklal Caddesi – which is my favourite street in Istanbul. It shows a very different side to the city, and is full from dawn to dusk with locals promenading up and down. You can take a little old tram up or down or walk – or do a bit of both! It’s an especially great place to go in the evening – with some fantastic restaurants etc.
This for me is where you feel the heart of young, dynamic Istanbul growing and beating. About a 1/3-1/2 the way up Istiklal on the left is an old little lane/courtyard area called Cicek Pasaji (Flower passage) with a number of restaurants in – it’s a pretty good spot to go and eat. Although I’ve found slightly better places off the lane immediately before it – wander up through the little market stalls for about 100m and then head downhill on a lane on your right. It’s lined with restaurants crammed full of Istanbulites dining out. We had a gorgeous dinner upstairs in one about half way down on the right. Try one, order a bunch of mezes, some raki or your tipple of choice, and go with the flow.
There are lots more gems – Kariye camii (Church of St Saviour) a little bit out from the old centre, but with some of the best Byzantine mosaics anywhere in the world. You could use this as a springboard to wander around the old city walls. I’ve walked the whole circuit – a bit of an adventure but quite amazing. Something to think about when you have a bit more time.
The best places to eat & drink in Istanbul
If you want to stop for a bit of refreshment and to put your feet up, there’s Caferağa Medresesi – a wonderfully shady and cool little courtyard for snacks and drinks (housed in a medieval teaching school or medrese built by one of the greatest of Ottoman architects, Sinan). Slightly off the beaten track but actually very close to the Aya Sofya and a great place to just escape, cool down, freshen up and just soak in the old city. If you come out of the Basilica cistern head towards the Aya Sofya entrance, but follow the street (with the tramway) down the hill (stay on the right hand side). Take the very first right and stroll along a lane past a youth hostel on your left, then take the next small lane down left which will take you into the courtyard. There’s a small sign advertising it up on the lane.
When you travel to Istanbul make sure you pick up a free Istanbul city map from a tourist info office (there’s one at the airport) – they’re really useful.