I’d always dreamt of visiting Istanbul. It’s the only city in the world that spans two continents – Europe on one side of the mighty Bosphorus strait, Asia on the other – and maybe it’s the subsequent melting pot of cultures that makes it so exciting.
As a travel writer, I usually book every trip and plan every itinerary, whether travelling alone or with the other Gallivants, but this time Mr Gallivant was in charge (no pressure!) – he was organizing it as a birthday treat for me. He had booked us into Yasmak Sultan, a traditional hotel in the heart of the Sultanahmet District but then stressed about whether it was the right decision. It was. The hotel is charming, if a little old-fashioned, the staff are excellent and the restaurant (with great views) is good, too.
Sultanahmet is most definitely the place to be – a mere totter from all the major sights we wanted to cram into our precious few days. And, in case you’re wondering – all these sights are on the European side of Istanbul.
Our favourites, in order of preference were….drumroll please…
Just one of those ‘wow’ places. It’s graced a million postcards, so many people know it from the outside but the inside is very special. It’s a cavernous space, dating way back to the 6th century and even the scaffolding up during our visit couldn’t detract from its grandeur. Now a museum (although not in the traditional sense – you won’t see cases full of exhibits), it was originally a Christian church, commissioned by show off emperor Justinian I, then became a mosque in the 15th century . The Christian art was preserved so it’s wonderful to see a fresco of the Virgin Mary carrying baby Jesus alongside muslim calligraphy. The mosaics, particularly in the upper gallery, are vividly colourful and the lighting is atmospheric. Tip – go early in the day or use a guide (don’t worry – they’ll find you!) to jump the queues.
(NB: I believe the Blue Mosque – just a short walk from Hagia Sofia – also has an amazing interior but unfortunately it was closed at the time of our visit.)
The Grand Bazaar
A step up from your usual souvenir shopping, this place is one of the largest, oldest covered markets in the world – a jumble of colour, sights and smells and a definite must see. Splash out on jewellery, clothes, ceramics, leather goods, furniture, antiques, you name it…see my more detailed write-up here.
Basilica Cistern This was on my wish list before our trip, after I saw the excellent three part TV series, Byzantium, presented by historian Simon Sebag Montefiore (try saying that when you’ve had a couple of glasses of wine). The series opened with him exploring this serene, slightly spooky Roman water cistern (see main pic), one of several hundred that lie beneath the city. Old Simon had the place to himself. We were not so fortunate. Hordes of school children had descended, and their main interest seemed to be in hearing who could shout loudest! No matter. We still loved it. It was built to supply water for the palace of Justinian I (yes, him again). The fact that it wasn’t on show to the public didn’t stop him making it a thing of real beauty, with 336 nine metre high marble columns – each different, many salvaged from ruined temples – and all set off with soft pools of light. Two huge and unusual Medusa heads are at the base of two columns – one sideways, one upside down. Nobody is quite sure why! They would originally have been underwater when the cistern was at full capacity. Eagle eyed film fans might recognise the Basilica Cistern from the film of Dan Brown’s Inferno and Bond movie From Russia with Love.
This was once seat of the Ottoman sultans, constructed by Mehmed the Conqueror between 1460 and 1478 and expanded and improved by a whole host of others, including the magnificently named Suleyman the Magnificent. Our favourite part was The Harem. As many as 300 concubines could be there at any one time to (ahem) service the sultan. It’s fascinating to see how they all lived in this gilded cage, with up to 200 eunuchs guarding the harem and waiting on the women. The décor is exquisite and delicate – with much use of stained glass, mother of pearl inlay, mosaics and tiles.
The cheapest way to cruise the Bosphorus is on Istanbul’s official ferry (the boats leave from Eminonu Pier). Choose from a long and a short cruise – we did the short one and found it gave us plenty of time – around two hours – and it costs less than £2 per person. It’s a great way to see the city from a different perspective – like the Ottoman palaces that were designed to be admired from the water and the cool café neighbourhood of Ortakoy. The Mecidiye Mosque here juts out into the water and looks like a fancy iced wedding cake! We did the cruise on our last day in Istanbul and it was the perfect way to end our trip.
Until next time… And if you’re interested in Istanbul, look out for my next post where I’ll be giving some delicious restaurant recommendations. Kebab, anyone?