My girlfriend, Natasha, and I have traveled the world together over the past seven years. We’re both Americans, but have spent most of our time together traveling and living overseas. While we’re now traveling Central America, and loving it, one of our favorite spots to visit was Istanbul, Turkey. The culture, history, people and food were all more than anyone could hope for in a travel destination. The only problem I had with Istanbul was that there was just too much to see in the few weeks we were there. I could have lived there for a year and still not seen everything we wanted to. Whether you’re planning a 2 week vacation, or an extended stay, below are some of the destinations we feel like can’t be missed.
While Istanbul offers a wealth of ancient architecture, one of our favorite museums was built quite recently. The Pera Museum houses some of the most beautiful paintings we’ve ever seen, all from artists spanning the past three centuries. Some of the painting were quite breathtaking, and there are many, many of them to check out. In addition to the paintings the museum also houses a ceramics collection, and, interestingly, a weights and measurement collection. While the paintings were certainly beautiful to look at, the weight and measurement collection was extremely interesting. The collection not only goes all the way back to before recorded time, it spans all aspects of commerce; from fruit sellers, to wine merchants. It was very cool to see all of the different, sometimes ingenious, ways these ancient people dealt with weighing out their merchandise.
Located in the Faith district of Istanbul, the spice bazaar for me was the highlight of my trip. So much so I paid a visit there twice, even though we had a full agenda. If you are even a little bit of a foodie, this is a must stop for you. I wandered around this place slack jawed for hours, nearly spending our entire budget in just this one place. There is ever kind of spice you can imagine here, and many I’ve never even heard of. In addition to spices I bought a huge assortment of figs, dates, teas and even a few sweets, even though neither of us normally eat them. The only thing I regret about visiting the spice market is the grief it caused me at customs on the way out of the country. Those agent wanted to open each and every spice to make sure I wasn’t smuggling anything out of the country. It was still worth it, and I still carry my saffron I bought there everywhere I travel. At those prices, I wish I would have bought a lot more.
Don’t have a lot of time to run all over Istanbul to check out the sites? Then I suggest making a stop at Miniaturk. The is a large park that houses a miniature replica of many of the tourist destinations in, and around Istanbul and Turkey. We actually scheduled a trip to this attraction very early on our trip just so we could narrow down some of the spots we wanted to visit on the remainder of our trip. The park is very well maintained, housing not just the replicas, but also many water features. This is a great spot to hang out for a few hours familiarizing yourself with the many tourist attractions that Turkey has to offer.
This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Not only is this building stunningly beautiful, but there is a ton of history involved. The campus has been both a church and mosque, and is now used as a museum. One of the reasons we chose Istanbul as a destination was rich history involved with the city. Hagia Sophia did not disappoint on this aspect. We spent hours marveling at how an ancient people, with nothing more than hand made tools, could have constructed such an immense structure. From the domed ceilings, to the massive columns, to the intricate stone work every square inch of the structure was a work of art. My only complaint though is the crowds. Do not expect to be strolling around in
silence. The day we went there must have been a thousand people touring the facility. Even with the crowds though this is an absolute must see.
Another must see is the Topkapi Palace. Once home to Sultans this massive complex has been turned into a museum dedicated to imperial era. The size of this former palace is absolutely breathtaking. I seriously suggest giving this attraction a whole day to tour. There is really just too much to see here in even three days. There are exhibits of; paintings, porcelain, miniatures, ancient furniture and clothing, weapons of war, and items from the old treasury. We stumbled around for hours in awe of everything we saw. Even the old wall hangings are beautiful. I know we left there missing probably half of the exhibits, but there are only so many hours in a day, and many more sites worth seeing.
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
My favorite museum in all of Istanbul has got to be the Archaeological Museums. Located almost adjacent to Topkapi Palace this facility actually houses three different museums; The Archaeological Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient, and the Museum of Islamic Art. As with most other tourist attractions in Istanbul, this complex is huge, and will take up a full day to see everything. Don’t make the mistake we did and think that you can squeeze this destination in the same day as the Topkapi Palace. It just can’t be done. For almost eight hours we strolled through these museums, and still probably only saw half of what there was to offer. The amount of history amassed in these three museums is simply mind blowing. You will see artifacts dating back from pre-recorded history, all the way up until recent times. I really wish we would have gone back a second day though. Set aside a full day for this trip.
Built in the mid-1400’s this castle looks kind of odd surrounded by modern bridges and buildings, yet I imagine it must have been quite a formidable sight for anyone unlucky enough to go up against it during its heyday. Today the castle has been transformed into yet another museum. The complex is sprawling, and I suggest wearing good shoes to this one. While we thoroughly enjoyed this tour, everything we had read previously talked about getting up into the towers and what a spectacular view they afforded. Unfortunately while we were there the towers were strictly off limits. Even without the towers though it’s definitely worth seeing.
We visted two mosque while in Istanbul; The Süleymaniye Mosque, and the Blue Mosque. While both were very nice, I recommend the Süleymaniye Mosque over the Blue Mosque. Not only are the crowds way worse at the Blue Mosque, the hours the Blue Mosque is open to the public are quite limited. Best to just stick to the Süleymaniye Mosque. The exterior of the mosque is a very classic example of Ottoman architecture sporting domes and minarets. The size of the complex is quite huge, but that can be a little deceiving as most of the mosque is inaccessible to the public. Once inside we were relived to find out that admission was free, especially since we visited here the day after I spent a small fortune at the spice bazaar. While the outside of the mosque certainly has its own charm, you will be blown away by the opulence on the inside. The domed ceilings, archways, and intricately painted murals are a joy to see. Just make sure you plan your trip a little better than we do. The mosque is closed during, and 30 minutes after, the call to prayer.
Touring the Basilica Cistern isn’t for the faint of heart. While the cisterns themselves are huge, they are completely underground, which gives some people a sense of claustrophobia. If you can get past that
though, these cisterns are a great site to visit while in Istanbul. Built in 532 b.c. the cisterns were abandoned when the emperors relocated from the Great Palace. Abandoned and forgotten for hundreds of years the cisterns were eventually rediscovered in 1545, and still only used basically as a trash depot. Finally in 1985 the cisterns were cleaned up and opened to the public. A tour of the caverns will give you great insight into turn of the millennium architecture. The sphinx head columns are worth trip alone.
The Grand Bazaar
When they say grand in Istanbul, they’re not kidding. This covered market place boasts 3500+ shops, only a mere fraction of which we made it into. If you have some souvenir shopping to do, this is the place to do it. Anything and everything is for sale here; trinkets, ceramics, clothing, tea, spices, food, and about a half of a million other things. We wandered the bazaar for more than a couple of hours and still found new things in almost every store we walked into. While the bazaar is a great place to spend some time shopping, having to haggle for each and every item does get a bit exhausting. Luckily there are also a few very nice restaurants in the bazaar, as well as a few shops to get tea or coffee for when the shopping gets to be too much.
As I’m sitting here in the little B&B we manage, on a remote beach in the jungles of Nicaragua, looking back on our three weeks in Istanbul I marvel at how much running around we did. I’ve gone through all of our pictures, and all of my old journals, and I can’t believe how much we were able to pack in to our little three week vacation. And still we only saw a mere fraction of what this great city has to offer. We have many other destinations on our bucket list, but talking about it today we’d both be more than happy to get to Istanbul again. The people were extremely friendly, the food was amazing, and the history and culture are almost second to none. While Istanbul is a great place to visit, don’t expect to do too much relaxing. There’s just too much to see and do in this city to be sitting poolside and ordering up room service. I suggest before you go to make a list of what you want to see as opposed to “playing it by ear”. The amount of time you’ll lose while figuring out what to do could be much better spent in one of the many great tourist attractions Istanbul has to offer.