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Things to do in Istanbul

Istanbul seems like another world. As Mehmed the Conqueror (Mehmed was a 1400’s sultan who ruled Turkey) said “Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me”. That remains, in my opinion, the philosophy one needs to explore and see Istanbul. While it may seem overwhelming at first, with a little planning you can “conquer” Istanbul and have the time of your life. Kati and her grandmother traveled here when she was young and had the time of their lives. Istanbul, while modern, feels ancient at the same time. It is an amazing city.

Since the ancient Roman Empire, the land surrounding the Black Sea and the Bosphorus Strait has been the place where East meets West. Now known as Istanbul, it was once Constantinople and housed the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. The Roman colony of Byzantium expanded by order of Emperor Constantine the Great and soon Constantinople became the shining example of a Roman city in the East. For nearly a thousand years, the city was the last Roman outpost, becoming known as the Eastern Roman Empire, or simply Byzantine, until it was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. After the conquest, Istanbul became the centre of the military campaigns that would soon grow the Ottoman Empire into one of the largest and lasted until the end of the First World War. Despite the fall of Byzantium, the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul remains the historical, cultural and financial centre of the country.

Istanbul has an estimated 12-19 million inhabitants and is located on the Bosphorus Strait, between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. It is a bridge between Asia and Europe, both physically and geographically. Explore Istanbul’s Old Town and don’t miss these amazing things to do while you’re here.

Explore and marvel at Hagia Sophia

It is probably one of the most recognizable monuments in the country, Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by Greek geometricians, initially as a Christian church of the Byzantine Empire. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the church became a mosque and finally in 1935 was a museum. The church was built by order of Emperor Justinian I and was, at the time, the largest interior space in the world and is said to have changed the history of architecture.

There is a reason why Hagia Sophia is an iconic landmark of Istanbul, and that is the sheer size and design of the building. The vaulted ceiling is breathtaking and the art and mosaics from the Byzantine era can be explored and admired for hours. It features both Islamic and Christian art

To see some interesting “art” that is neither Christian nor Islamic, head to the top floor gallery, where about 1,000 years ago someone carved his name into the marble. The letters the man carved are not Greek, Latin or Arabic. They are runic, probably carved by a Scandinavian mercenary, and they read roughly “Halfdan was here”. A sentiment that has been carried over the millennia by the Vandals.

Istanbul’s iconic monument, Hagia Sophia.

Doing a bit of shopping in the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is sometimes referred to as the “world’s first shopping mall”. It is one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars in the world and, although it spans 61 streets and houses 4,000 shops, it is a neighborhood in its own right. The Grand Bazaar attracts an average of 250,000 people a day and its construction began in 1455, just after the Ottoman conquest of the city, as an initiative to stimulate the economy. By the 19th century, many things in the Grand Bazaar were impossible to get in the West and the stalls lacked any kind of advertising.

In the modern world, the bazaar is still a place of trade and exchange, and if you plan to do some shopping, be sure to brush up on your Turkish and your haggling skills. Negotiating a price is a dance you’ll hopefully learn once you’re here. If you don’t plan to shop, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Grand Bazaar is an experience you won’t forget.

Take in the history and dine simultaneously at the Galata House restaurant.

The Galata House restaurant is located a stone’s throw from the Galata Tower. While people line up at the tower, you probably won’t find a line here, that is, if you can find one at all. The Galata House Restaurant is located in the former British prison. The place was bought by the British consulate in the early 20th century and was kept as a place to keep unruly British sailors who were causing trouble in the Galata neighborhood. The prison then passed to the French and finally to the current owners, who bought it in the 1990s and converted it into a restaurant in ’99.

To enter, you’ll have to ring the doorbell, then you’ll be greeted by one of the owners Nadire or Mete who for the rest of the evening will regale you with stories of the area offering dinner and entertainment. Another element that makes the Galata House restaurant unique is that, although the owners are Turkish, the menu is decidedly Eastern European, with a menu that feels more at home in Moscow than Istanbul. Ukrainian beetroot soup, Russian stroganoff and Georgian wines are regulars, along with some Turkish delicacies such as dolma (stuffed grape leaves). What does a former British prison have to do with Eastern European food? Nothing really, the owners simply love the history and the food.

Grand Bazaar

Head to the Grand Bazaar, but practice haggling before you go.

Take an afternoon stroll across the Galata Bridge.

While the Bosphorus is the border between East and West, the Galata Bridge is the crossing point between old Istanbul and new Istanbul. To know the city of Istanbul is to take a walk across the bridge on a sunny day. The bridge crosses the “Golden Horn” and has a strong presence in Turkish culture, as it has been featured in numerous poems, books, films and theatre. Currently, the bridge is in its fifth iteration, as the first was built in the 6th century, and early versions of the replacement bridge even caught the attention of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Stroll along the bridge, listening to the screeching of seagulls, passers-by, old men fishing on the sides smoking, and enjoy the views. Under the bridge, small cafes and restaurants serve food and drinks day and night. Enjoy a cold beer and watch the ferries go by and escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul for a moment.

Eat like a sultan at Asitane restaurant.

You would think that a place with a rich culinary history like Istanbul would have tons of restaurants dedicated to ancient cuisine. But unfortunately, recipes from the Ottoman era are quite hard to find, and especially if those recipes were served to the sultan.

On a quiet side street is the Asitane restaurant, which is part research institution and part restaurant. The restaurant has been aiming to recreate classic Ottoman dishes since 1991, but it is more difficult than it sounds. Ottoman cooks were part of a guild and were forbidden to write down recipes, so the search for these dishes was an exercise in which researchers and academics joined the cooks to recreate these dishes. Today, the restaurant serves dishes that date back hundreds of years, such as a 1539 soup recipe made with pomegranate and nutmeg, a 17th-century recipe for fried liver dipped in sweet and sour molasses, or roasted fruit (usually quince or melon) stuffed with lamb and veal.

Stroll through Sultanahmet Park.

Located between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet Park is a lovely place to picnic, stroll in the sunshine, take in the city’s iconic monuments and marvel at some curious sights. The park is home to the Obelisk of Theodosius, originally built in the Temple of Karnak, the obelisk travelled all over the ancient world before this park became its home. The hieroglyphic-covered spire was carved between 1400 and 1500 BC and it wasn’t until 300 AD that it made its way down the Nile to Alexandria before arriving in (then) Constantinople, where it remains. For being a couple of thousand years old, the obelisk is incredibly well preserved and simply stands in the park, with buskers and passers-by walking past unaware of the incredible journey.

If you like something more contemporary, yet just as historically fascinating, the park is also home to the Kaiser Wilhelm Fountain. The fountain was built in 1900 to celebrate the anniversary of the Kaiser’s visit to Turkey. The grand neo-Byzantine design has marble columns and a golden mosaic dome dedicated to two empires that no longer exist. Germany and the Ottoman Empire were allied in World War I forging a treaty that brought them to war in 1914. The loss of the Ottomans in 1918 meant the weakening of their army, and soon after the Turkish War of Independence took place, which saw the end of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the Republic of Turkey, which survives today. Some might argue that if it were not for the friendly visit of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1898, none of this would have happened.

Get some spice at the Egyptian bazaar.

While the Grand Bazaar is the city’s flagship shopping centre and is packed with everything from clothes to luxury goods, the Spice Bazaar has been around since the 16th century and, as the name suggests, the place is a haven for those who want to add to their spice collection at home. Rows and rows of colourful piles of spices fill the stalls along with other delicacies and herbal blends. Pick up something tasty for your next home-cooked meal, or nibble on something sweet to get your sugar fix. The Spice Bazaar also has plenty of people offering herbal remedies and cures for any ailment.

Satisfy your sweet tooth at Altan Şekerleme.

Although candy and sweets can be found anywhere in the world, it’s rare for a candy store like Altan Şekerleme to continue the sweet tradition for over 100 years. Altan Şekerleme is basically the Willy Wonka of Turkey, and since its founder, Emin Bin Karagözoğlu, opened his candy shop in 1865, the store brought joy to thousands of people almost immediately. Four of Karagözoğlu’s five sons died during the First World War and the remaining son took over the confectionery shop, where today, after four generations, the shop is still in family hands, still bringing joy to children and adults alike.

The shop itself is a true blast from the past and a relic that remains in a city that changes every day. It still serves old-school sweets and candies, such as akide şekeri (a type of homemade rock candy) and the ubiquitous Turkish delight, said to be the best in town.

Istanbul

Explore the city on foot, as there seems to be something wonderful around every corner.

Going out at night in Bomontiada

Located on the European side of the Bosphorus, the Bomontiada area is the ideal place for a night out. In a city abounding with history, hanging out in Bomontiada is one of the city’s biggest breaths of modernity. The Bomontiada complex replaces the abandoned brewery and has become a multidisciplinary space with art galleries, museums, shops, restaurants and more. Don’t miss the cinema screenings, creative spaces and fun nightlife in the Bomontiada area.

Our last word

Istanbul is an incredible city that bridges the western and eastern worlds. It is ancient and historic, with incredibly fascinating things to see and experience that span generations and empires. Istanbul may no longer be Constantinople, but that hasn’t stopped Istanbulites from keeping the best of the old world and bringing the best of the new.

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