This has been one really difficult list to prepare because Istanbul is host to a truck load of amazing places to see. Listing only twelve seemed a little unfair but I tried my best to do absolute justice here. You might notice that googling this very title will take you to many similar lists on the web, listing places ranked by people from all over the world. So what makes this list any different you might ask. The answer is simply this: the sights here are listed primarily for a Pakistani tourist, keeping in mind the history, culture and interests that Pakistanis share with one another and would be most enticed to see. I would definitely advice you to look around as many lists as you can find once you’ve bought your tickets and are down the planning phase because all lists are different in one way or the other just like all humans and their preferences are unique. I do hope however, that this list will serve as the impetus that you need to start packing your bags and get movin’.
1. The (not-for-the-faint-hearted-Liberal) Blue Mosque
Let’s start with the basics. The Blue Mosque tops the list because first, its a mosque (duh!) and second its a beautiful mosque! And contrary to popular belief the mosque is not called ‘Blue Mosque’ because its domes are blue. The name came from the blue tiles and design that you will find once you step INSIDE the mosque. Lolz. You didn’t know that did you?
You don’t have to a very spiritual person to want to appreciate a beautiful mosque (though let me warn you my friend, this mosque has its way of luring you in). No matter how much I tell you what beauty it beholds, you will be astonished to see its grandiose and marvel yourself once you’re inside. This is one of those amazing spectacles in the world that pictures cannot do justice to. Legend has it that the mosque was built to supersede the Hagia Sophia in its glory and magnanimity which is why it stands proudly right in front of the latter. The mosque is also unique because it has six minarets while usually mosques only have four. Apparently the architect misunderstood Sultan Ahmet I’s direction for building gold minarets (‘altin’ in Turkish language) for six minarets (‘alti’). The Sultan had to erect another minaret at the mosque where the Kaaba stands making it the only mosque in the world with seven minarets. And THAT is why attention to details and directions are important kids.
2. The (not-a-Church, not-quite-a-Mosque) Hagia Sophia
Pronounced as Aya Sofia, this monument from the Byzantine Era served as a spectacular Church at its time, with fine paintings of Jesus, Mary and the Angels and elaborate collages. Post Ottoman invasion, the Church was converted into a mosque with curtains drawn over the paintings and collages (thank God they didn’t remove them) and the addition of inscriptions of Allah, Muhammad (s), the four caliphs and Prophet’s Grandsons. Due to public pressure deeming the building unfit to be a mosque being a church earlier and still housing the collages and paintings, Hagia Sophia was eventually converted into a museum for tourists and the general public to admire for its architecture and historical heritage.
If you look closely in the image above, you’ll be able to see some paintings of the angels (with faces washed off of course). Being right in front of each other, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia both are polar opposites in the kind of feel they give. While the former is well lit and blatantly stands as the house of God, the latter is dimly lit and definitely leans more towards looking like a Church than a mosque. But both hold beauty in their own accord. The best thing however is, once you’re visiting one of either the other one falls in your way. They’re like twins that you must meet at the same time. While Blue Mosque is free and open throughout the day, Hagia Sophia has a ticket and is open for a certain hours each day. (More on the timings and ticket prices in a later post).
3. The High and Mighty Topkapi Palace
Being the residence of Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years, the Palace is now a museum which holds some of the most amazing and holiest of all holy treasures of the Muslim heritage. The Museum is divided into two main sections with a separate ticket for each. The first section of the Palace is where you find treasures of different kinds in each room. The second section is the Harem where the Sultans kept their mothers, children, servants, and concubines. This is one of those sights for which I would recommend that you keep an entire day on the side. Although the tour doesn’t take a whole day, chances are after a good number of hours of just surfing through the Palace you’re going to be PRETTY exhausted. I’ve tried and tested this twice.
Treasures include relics of Kaaba, belongings of the Prophet Muhammad (s), of other Prophets such as Jacob and Moses, arms of Prophet’s Companions, weapons of Ottomans, watches and clocks gifted to Ottomans by monarchs of that time (it’s actually more interesting than it sounds), other gifts presented to the Ottomans and found in their treasury which includes the world’s second largest diamond, etc. Walking around the Palace courtyards, you also stumble upon a little coffee shop and cafe which is definitely not famous for its beverages and food, but most certainly for the view it beholds. In Pakistani terms, it is the Daman-e-Koh of Islamabad or the Minar-e-Pakistan of Lahore.
Take note that the Palace is almost always jam-packed with tourists which means standing in long lines and the tour usually taking much longer than it probably should. At the same time the rush also means not getting enough time to read all the descriptions and to take moments for admiration of your most favorite pieces from the treasures, because the line must keep moving.
4. The Pakistani Paradise: Istiklaal Avenue
We have all pretty much heard of Taksim Square, but the square isn’t the real deal. It’s Istiklaal Avenue. For a Pakistani, it is where their two favorite passions live: shopping and food. That’s right. It’s a heaven for you. The street is alive throughout the day and my recommendation is that you spend at least one half of your day here starting with some shopping at all the branded stores you could imagine like Zara, HnM, Mac Cosmetics, Mango and the list goes on. Have lunch/dinner from one of their restaurants or smaller dhaba style shops which offer minimal seating and great to-go options. If you’re looking for more dining options, take a stroll into the Nevizade street which opens on the Avenue itself and is lined with cafes and restaurants. Shop some more. Finally rest at the Nargile cafes which serve the Turkish sheesha (which is amazing btw), Turkish tea, Turkish coffee, and many other beverages.
Once the night has set in, stroll down and enjoy the street music which is plenty and quite invigorating. The best bit about this one street is that it is full of excitement and energy. Never have I in my experience come across such a jolly folk who would all start dancing and clapping to the amazing tunes of the street musicians enticing you to join hands with them. Istiklaal Avenue is not a place to see, it is one to experience. After all where else would you find yourself having coffee amidst surprise bubbles? Hunh?
5. The Picture-Perfect Galata Neighborhood
Strolling just further down Istiklaal Avenue takes you to the Galata neighborhood which is most popularly known for the Galata Tower. While the tower is a must see, the neighborhood is the real deal. It feels like a different part of the city altogether with amazing souvenirs and music shops displaying all range of instruments. You don’t have to shop for anything here. All you need to do is enjoy the picturesque stores, the cobbled roads that wind down beautifully down the hill, the tea/coffee taverns that look like they’re straight out of somebody’s imagination and the artsy graffiti on the wall.
And of course while you’re around the place, do give the Galata Tower a visit as well. It makes for a great photo prop!
6. Nature’s gift to Istanbul: Princes’ Islands
If you want to take a break from the city life, a very reasonable ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara takes you to the breathtaking Princes’ Islands. It is barely an hour and a half’s ride, perfect for a day trip. My recommendation is for Buyukuda, which is one of the four large islands. There are no cars here, only horse carriages and bikes for rent. As soon as you get off the ferry, you find yourself at a bike rental shop where you get a decent bike for a couple of hours along with a map with suggested bike routes across the Island.
The ride is energizing as it is, but soon you find yourself up top facing some really gorgeous scenery and your faith in God is restored. Oh and while you’re there do look for the animal farm. They had horses and cows and hens and what not. It was amazing.
7. The Mesmerizing Basilica Cistern
The trip to the Basilica Cistern is most definitely one of the most enchanting experiences in Istanbul, taking you completely off guard as soon as you’ve climbed down the stair into a dimly lit water storage. This reservoir to hold rain water was built during the Byzantine era, and is the largest of all cisterns found in Istanbul today. It provided filtered water to the Great Place of Constantinople and later to the the Ottoman Sultans at the Topkapi Palace. The most enticing aspects of this sight however are the 336 marble columns holding the ceiling up high, some of them showing off beautiful carvings of the Byzantine era and subsequent art influence in the area, the Medusa headed columns the origin of which nobody seems to know, and the lighting that makes it the walk through the cistern all the more magical.
The mythology that you’d read during the tour is one of the most interesting stories I’ve read while being very similar to what we see on Hum TV and the likes, you know a story of love and jealousy and revenge and power and of course chauvinism and male insecurities. Quite interesting oh yeah! Another mystery that lurks here is why the two heads of Medusa’s are both placed either sideways or upside down. Again there are interesting theories that you’ll find there and I will not ruin the suspense by giving spoilers here.
8. The Legen-dary Grand Bazaar
When you’re ready to put two of your most favorite traits as a Pakistani to use i.e. Shopping and Bargaining, head down to the Grand Bazaar. What sets this market apart from all others is the fact that it is the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with more than 3000 shops and being the most visited tourist attraction of the world in 2014. Ha! More tourists chose to visit this marketplace than the Eiffel Tower, which says a lot.
No matter how ‘minimal’ your shopping plans are, let me assure you that you will end up buying things because the finds here are truly one of a kind. The Bazaar is particularly good for buying souvenirs for yourself, decor items for home or just presents for friends and family. There is something for everyone in every range, and if you bargain well you might end up with some really great deals. The shopkeepers get even more excited if you tell them you’re from Pakistan and wouldn’t miss out on an opportunity to let you know of their knowledge on your culture by quoting lots of bollywood movies and names of the Khans. It’s close enough I’d say.
9. Suleymaniye Mosque
This mosque stands out not just for being the largest in Istanbul but also for its symmetrical aestheticism which is hard to miss even for a lay person of architecture like myself. The white tiles laden with intricate details are certain to leave you awe struck.
Take note that the walk to the mosque is more like a hike, as it’s situated atop a hill. Keep yourself well equipped with water and if you’re low on stamina, take a couple of breaks as you walk towards this destination. But no matter what, do not miss out on this experience, for it is truly one of its kind.
10. Spice Bazaar
Being a five minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, this place is a must visit if you enjoy picturesque places and have a desi love for spices and sweets. Any photographic and/or verbal description of it will do injustice. The bazaar, not being as huge as the Grand Bazaar is a really delightful and nostalgic sight for Pakistanis as you walk past the tantalizing scents of the spices that are displayed beautifully along the aisles. I learnt from my trip here how little I knew about spices and how many different kinds exist in the world. It was educational yet mesmerizing. I didn’t know if I should concentrate on the smells or the sight or the information, or just take all of them in together and have my mind blown. It was the latter I can assure you which is why this attraction makes it to my list with great emphasis.
11. The Bluest of them all, Bosphorus River
Istanbul is surrounded by two different kinds of water: the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus River. The latter is what forms the partition between the Asian and European side of Istanbul as the river proudly cuts through the city. Any trip to Istanbul would be rendered null and void if you didn’t take a walk along the river. There is always a pleasant cool breeze to welcome you by the watersides. Be it a romantic walk at night, looking at the lights on the beautiful bridges across the river, or a calming walk in the day time, this is one experience you will not regret. My recommendations for the walk would be for two particular sights.
First is the Galata bridge which is a stroll down the Galata neighborhood and lined with many enthusiastic fishermen. In fact that will be the first thing you’ll notice. Take a few moments to enjoy the ambience, observe the fishermen and appreciate their fishing skills, take in the captivating panoramic view of Istanbul from the water front and wave at the boats that’ll pass you by. If you’re hungry you’ll come across a pier that has boat cafes, with seating on the pier itself. I found it quite interesting, fresh fish paninis made on kitchens on boats, while served at the pier. On the other side of the bridge is the Eminonu neighborhood, where you’ll find the Eminonu pier, the second route to take a walk. It has its own share of fishermen and cozy diners, but offers a different experience and view of the city and its waters.
12. The Heart of the city: Sultanahmet Neighborhood
Whether you choose to stay at Sultanahmet or not, you cannot miss out on experiencing this neighborhood if you really want to feel and know Istanbul. While Istiklaal Avenue is exciting, energetic and full throttle on energy, Sultanahmet is laid back but serene and breathtakingly beautiful. Lined with cozy taverns that offer all varieties of food, beverages and desserts (charging a bit more than Istiklaal) this neighborhood is the first choice to stay at for most tourists primarily because it hosts most of the attractions listed here. Everything is just a walking distance away from one another. Sultanahmet has the Sultanahmet park that lies at its heart with the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia providing forming each if its limb on the sides. Just exploring the streets you’d end up at some picture-perfect areas that you’d definitely want to stop at.
Still confused? Here are 10 more reasons why you should be visiting Istanbul.
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For information on visa application and basic do’s and don’ts for Istanbul, read here.