However that is not the only thing that makes this city unique and quite fascinating. Being in this location brings a clash of thousands of years of Asian and European culture in one place. Housing roughly 14 million people, Istanbul is the 5th largest city proper in the world and is the largest city in Europe. Formerly known as Constantinople (or the New Rome) all the way from 330 AD to the 20th century and due to its significant location relative to Europe, Asia and between shipping routes, Istanbul is a city with a long, impressive and violent history as different empires throughout different era’s fought to occupy this important location.
In present day, Istanbul is probably most often recognized by the Hagia Sophia, originally built in the 6th century as a church, it stood as the worlds largest cathedral for centuries until it was converted to a Mosque and finally it now remains simply as a museum. The Blue Mosque is another iconic building located next to the Hagia Sophia showing more of Istanbul’s rich and diverse history. The language spoken in Istanbul (as is the rest of Turkey) is Turkish and quite a bit of English although most signs and text are in Turkish. The religion in Turkey and Istanbul is primarily Muslim and Istanbul itself has 64 mosques, 17 palaces and 49 churches of historical significance but many more than that also exist in and around the city too.
On Friday October 17th, 2014 I left Dubai at about 3 AM arriving in Istanbul (on the Asian side) just after 7 AM. it took a couple of hours to get out of the airport and take the bus in to the area of the city where the Hagia Sophia is located. Our hostel was near this area so it was at least an easy area to get to. I stayed at the Avrasya Hostel which is very conveniently located only a couple of blocks away from the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque area. The only downside of this location is that when the Muslim’s pre-dawn prayer comes blaring over the speakers at the Blue Mosque in the early morning hours, it is easily heard here and bound to wake you up. Otherwise the hostel had a great rooftop kitchen and view around the area with breakfast included in the price, great wifi, great reviews and rating and best of all the price was about $18 CAD per night which fits my hostel guidelines here quite well.
After checking in to the hostel, I spent that day around the area visiting the Hagia Sophia museum and grounds as well as the area around the Blue Mosque. I didn’t yet visit inside the Blue Mosque because general visits are only at certain times due to the prayer times throughout the day. I found this area incredibly fascinating and rich in various history and culture. For one you have the Hagia Sophia, representing the Christian history of Istanbul and next to it is the Blue Mosque showing off the Muslim heritage. The Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque) was very controversial at the time it was built. This was because it was the first Mosque to be built with six minarets (the large pillars) when convention dictated four. Even more controversial at that time was that the Masjid Al-Haram (or Sacred Mosque) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia (the holiest place on earth in Islam) also had six minarets at that time. For that reason it caused a lot of criticism of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. The Sultan solved this problem by ordering a seventh minaret to be built at the mosque in Mecca.
Next to the Blue Mosque there is a large Obelisk (a spire-like object) known as the Obelisk of Theodosius, a relic from the Ancient Egyptian era brought from Egypt to Istanbul by the Roman empire. The obelisk was originally constructed by Pharaoh Tutmose the third circa 1450 BC at the temple of Karnak in the modern city of Luxor. I found this particularly fascinating since I had just been in Egypt and at the temple of Karnak a mere 8 days earlier on October 10th! The obelisk was taken by the Roman emperor Constantius the second up the Nile river to Alexandria, Egypt in 357 AD to celebrate his 20 years in power. The Obelisk remained in Alexandria until 390 AD when it was transported to Istanbul ( then known as Constantinople) and erected in its present location and given the name Obelisk of Theodosius since the ruler who transported it here was Theodosius the first.
Also in this area is another rich but different piece of history known as the German fountain. The fountain was built in Germany and shipped to Istanbul in pieces where it was assembled in 1900 to commemorate the visit of German Emperor Wilhelm the Second in 1898. German emperor and king of Prussia at that time, he visited many European nations and countries easy of Europe in Asia. The fountain was built to celebrate his visit and pays homage to even more of the rich history of this ancient city.
Another very unique part of Istanbul, and yet another tribute to its history is that it has hundreds of cisterns (basically wells) built below the city streets to hold and provide water. The largest of them, the Basilica Cistern, is located in this same area near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. That afternoon I went down to the Basilica Cistern to check it out. It is called the Basilica Cistern because before it was built as a cistern, a large basilica stood in its place (according to ancient texts that is). This cistern was built in the 6th century and has the capacity to hold 100,000 tons of water. It now only houses a few feet of water and is used primarily as a tourist attraction but it was used as a source of water by residents even up until modern times. There are many columns lining the underground, cathedral sized cistern that make it such a marvel. There are even two columns here with the head of Medusa carved in them believed to be derived form the Roman era. The cistern is quite the unbelievable underground structure especially considering it was built all the way back in the 6th century.
I spent that evening on a boat tour down the Bosphorus River. This was a great way to see and learn about more of Istanbul’s rich history and culture and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Istanbul. The boat tour starts with everyone meeting in the square near the Hagia Sophia. From there we walk about 10 minutes to the docks where the boat is located and get on board. The boat departs and then we spend the next couple hours on board heading down and back the river. You are on board for sunset and get back shortly after it gets dark out at around 7pm (in October).
On the 18th I started the morning on the hop-on hop-off bus tour around the city. The Big Bus tour company offers two routes you can take; the blue route and the red route. The red route is the most popular route taking you around the city and visiting two continents en route. The tour starts at the Hagia Sophia area and runs in a loop around the city crossing over the Bosphorus river at one point to the Asian side of the city for a couple of stops before returning back to the European side. If you want to visit both continents in one day, this is the way to do it! Tickets cost 30 euros and are valid for 24 hours allowing you unlimited rides on the red and blue lines. The blue route takes you around the inlet to various other significant areas of the city and to some of the smaller suburbs that aren’t your typical tourist destinations but are a great experience nonetheless.
While on the red route I got off at Taksim Square. This is a popular tourist area known for it’s restaurants, hotels and European charm. It is also known as the heart of modern Istanbul. Walking around this area you definitely see the modern European influence in the buildings here. It is a nice area to spend a couple of hours. There isn’t the historical significance here compared to other parts of the city but it is a nice area. I walked around this area for a while visiting the many shops. Being in Turkey, I just had to try the Turkish Delight. If you are like me, hearing the phrase “Turkish Delight” will certainly bring back memories of the Chronicles of Narnia and how much Edmund loved his Turkish Delight.
I visited a shop that sold only Turkish Delight! They had so many options to choose from! I honestly had no idea what it even tasted like or what would be good so like I normally do when trying new foods in different places for the first time I just blindly chose a random selection of flavors and gave it a go! I think Turkish Delight is definitely an acquired taste and not for everyone. It is very sweet and very chewy with a sort of powder/flour dusting on the outside of the candy. I loved it and if you are in Turkey, definitely try some for yourself!
That afternoon I headed over the the Grand Bazaar! This bazaar is definitely world renowned for its spice market and the unique hand made and local sourced items up for sale by the hundreds of vendors. This bazaar and spice market actually get their origins from Egypt, once again showing the various cultures and historical influences on this awesome city. You can get all kinds of things at the Grand Bazaar from a HUGE assortment of spices to hand made jewlery, purses, clothing, carpets, custom tailored suits and everything else. These bazaars/markets are nothing new for me since most countries and destinations have them on some level but the sheer size of the Grand Bazaar is what makes it so unbelievable. It was like a maze here and you could wander around for hours and days here nearly getting lost among the vendors in the process. The most memorable part of this Bazaar was not the items up for sale but the number of people. The crowds were insane.
I spent another couple hours here wandering around taking in all that the Grand Bazaar has to offer but like usual, I wasn’t one to buy much because I don’t usually have the room in my backpack for souvenirs. If you are visiting Istanbul and want to buy some souvenirs or do some shopping (women especially!) then definitely head to the Grand Bazaar and make sure you bargain hard. There are a ton of vendors all selling the same thing so if you don’t like the price at one move on to another. You can be assured, these vendors will definitely rip you off knowing that you are tourist so try to bargain as much as you can and watch your belongings as I am sure pickpockets are plentiful in the crowds.
Later that afternoon I headed back to the Blue Mosque and waited in line for the next general visit time. The mosque gets its name from the blue tiles that line the inside of the building and rightly so. Going inside you can see the beautiful architecture and the detail in the designs. I don’t agree with or believe in ANY religion but I do like visiting churches and mosques for the architecture of the buildings, nothing more, nothing less.
I spent that night at the airport (on the European side) because I had an early morning flight back to Finland with a stopover in the Ukraine on the way! My plane was late getting to the Ukraine so I only had time to leave the airport, get the stamp in my passport and head back in. I would have loved to go in to Kiev and spend a bit of time there too but I guess that’ll be an adventure for another time! Istanbul was definitely one of my favorite European cities because of how unique it is in history and culture. It also has a nice blend of old meets new which only enhances the experience. I know it isn’t a top destination on many peoples Euro trip adventures but next time you are heading to Europe definitely consider visiting Istanbul!