See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves. We've covered a lot of Europe off the beaten path. Now we're at Europe's gateway to Asia, Istanbul.
This time we're exploring Turkey's historic, cultural and religious center of Istanbul. We'll see the massive shrine of Aya Sofia where Christianity and Islam mix. We'll barter in the bustling grand bazaar then see Ottoman elegance in the Tapkapi Palace. After experiencing modern Istanbul and tasting some great Turkish food, we'll visit two outstanding mosques – the mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent and the Blue Mosque. Our finale? a cruise on the Bosphorus.
Lying east of Greece, Turkey links Europe with the Middle East and Asia. Istanbul is its largest city and its commercial center. The city straddles the strategic Bosporus Strait – part of it lies in Europe and part in Asia.
Istanbul, is where east meets west — literally. One part of the city is in Europe and one part in Asia, with the Bosphorus channel dividing the two. This bridge spanning the Bosphorus symbolizes how modern Turkey connects Europe and Asia. In this program we're focusing on the European side — the site of ancient Constantinople.
We're traveling with the help of Turkish tourguide and friend Mehlika Seval.
Istanbul, ancient Constantinople, has been a great city for over 1500 years. As the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, Constantinople was considered the leading city in the Christian world — this as the West struggled through centuries of barbarian invasions and feudal frustration.
The Roman Emperor Constantine, pictured in this beautifully preserved mosaic, moved the capital of the Roman Empire here in 324.
Constantine called his capitol New Rome or Nea Roma, but it was eventually renamed Constantinople, in his honor. Basically, the west was crumbling and Constantine figured life as an emperor would be better in the less chaotic east.
This obelisk, a remnant from the time of a later Emperor, Theodosius, still stands as a reminder of Roman rule. Seventy years after Constantine, Theodosius split the Roman Empire in half for his two sons, with the capital of the western half in Rome and the eastern half here.
In 476 Rome and the Western Empire, fell to the invading Barbarians, leaving Constantinople the leading city of the Western World.
The Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire and lasted for almost a thousand years. Traces of the Roman capital can still be found. This square was a race track like the circus maximus in Rome. It seated 60,000 fans.
The great church Aya Sophia is a symbol of the glory days of Byzantium in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Depicted in this mosaic, Justinian re-conquered much lost territory.
He codified the laws, and designed a capital for himself meant to dazzle the world. Aya Sophia, or St. Sophia, built by Justinian gives us a feel for the power of his rule.
Head of the church as well as the state — divinely anointed and ordained, Justinian was considered Christ's vicar on earth, His co-ruler. St. Sophia, the seat of this spiritual power, was completed in 537 AD when Constantinople was known as the "queen of cities."
This clever dome upon dome construction was the biggest dome anywhere until the cathedral of Florence was finished during the Renaissance 900 years later. The vast interior gives the impression of a golden weightless shell, with no suggestion of the massive overhead load supported through masterful Roman engineering.
Forty arched windows shed a soft light on the interior, showing off the original marble and glittering mosaics.
But the Byzantium Empire ultimately collapsed and St. Sophia was turned into a mosque. Christian mosaics were plastered over and new religious symbols replaced the old.
Churches faced Jerusalem; mosques faced Mecca. When St. Sophia, originally a Christian church, became a mosque, the building couldn't be moved, but the focal point of the praying could. Notice how the prayer niche is just a bit off center. It faces Mecca.
Even today the complex story and multicultural make-up of Istanbul is made clear by the trappings of this ancient house of worship.
For centuries, in preparation for prayer, Moslems would wash in the shadow of this column from a pre-Roman temple of Artemis, sitting on this Ionic capital, all in what was the greatest Christian church on earth.
St. Sophia remained a mosque until 1932 when it was closed for renovations and reopened as a museum.
Ready for a little change of pace? How about a sip of Turkish history that may be a little less earth-shaking, but is much tastier?
They say coffee came here from Ethiopia by way of Arabia in the 15th century. Turkish coffee, finely powdered and sweetened, is drunk unfiltered. If you don't like your coffee mud on the bottom of your cup, ask for "Nescafe." However you like your coffee you can thank the Turks.
Strong coffee is one of the few things Turkish to successfully invade Europe.
Even if you're not a shop-till-you-drop traveler, the Grand Bazaar is a must on any tourist agenda. Turkish Bazaars like this are actually a kind of medieval shopping mall.
The slick main drags are pretty touristy but get lost in the fringes to find the more fascinating souvenirs of Turkey — from replicas of historic shadow puppets to finely crafted ceramics and even unusual bone boxes.
The bazaar is a tote bag of Turkish delights. Replicas of antique Christian Icons vie with elaborate Turkish Jewelry in a colorful competition for your money.
You'll never feel unwelcome, and the sales pitches can be very entertaining.
Traditions of trade and barter go back centuries here — and one gets the feeling it's been that way since the days of Marco Polo.
Bargaining is part of the fun. If the merchant doesn't want to bargain, he'll let you know. But once you've agreed on the price, you're morally obligated to buy.
Any rich trading center needed to be well protected. This imposing wall was part of the fortifications of the ancient city. The Byzantine capital was on an easy-to-defend peninsula created by the Bosphorus and the inlet called the Golden Horn.
These walls sealed off the city protecting it where the water didn't. Dating to the fifth century, they stood against both Catholic Europe and the Muslim East.
But finally, the Ottoman Turks, who for centuries had been on the rise and chipping away at the Byzantine Empire, broke through the wall in 1453.
They established the city as the capital of their growing empire and transformed Christian Constantinople into a Moslem city that became Istanbul.
Our storybook image of the Ottomans — sultans, harems, eunuchs — is best resurrected here in the Topkapi palace.
Finished in 1465, this was the center of the Ottoman Empire for almost four hundred years. Its buildings form a series of courtyards — the outer being used for public functions. The farther inward one goes, the more private the rooms.
This was the harem. The word "harem" means "forbidden" in Arabic. It's the huge suite where the sultan lived with his wives, female slaves and children. At one time 700 female slaves served the sultan and his wives and children, so you can see how extensive these apartments had to be.
Bathed in light from these exquisite stained glass windows, this is where the sultan relaxed, entertained and enjoyed the sumptuous luxury his power provided. Some of the opulence is still on display in the museum at the palace.
The dazzling Topkapi dagger wows tourists with its diamonds and golfball sized emeralds. Clearly the Ottomans in their heyday were a superpower.
For generations all of central Europe dreaded the Turkish threat. Islam was on the march, knocking on Vienna's fortified door. A strong empire for centuries, finally it outlived its medieval organization, and corruption, intrigue, and incompetent sultans all contributed to the fall of the Ottomans.
In the years leading up to World War I, the Ottoman empire was called "the sick man of Europe." Backing Germany, it was swept away by the events of World War I and from its remnants arose the modern Turkish republic.
Meli: founded in 1923 by Ataturk.
Today, Istanbul is an urban hive housing 10 million people. The sultans' palace is just around the corner, but this is the essence of Istanbul. Its people. And this is where I like to settle. We're set up in a neighborhood in the old section — close to most of the sights we're seeing. We're just kicking around with the locals, and our hotel is a comfortable Pasa's house.
A Pasa was an Ottoman general — and usually a very wealthy man. Many of these stately old homes have been renovated as the old town has been gentrified.
And a comfortable homebase makes exploring this exotic and exhausting city enjoyable. It's tempting to just stay put in the old section, where all the great historic buildings sit, but to get a true feeling for modern Turkey, cross over the Golden Horn and visit new Istanbul.
Despite the many formidable obstacles, Turkey is a modern success story, with a vibrant economy.
The center of modern Istanbul is Taksim Square. Istanbul can be as expensive and upscale as New York and London. Its traffic and commerce remind one of many European cities. This is true in spite of the fact that 100 miles east people may be living much as they did in the 19th century.
Istanbul is full of contrasts, demonstrating the rapid changes the nation has undergone in the last century. That's the father of modern Turkey — Ataturk, the man who pulled Turkey into the 20th century after WWI.
This Times Square of Turkey and the nearby pedestrian boulevard called Isticlal Cadasi are a fine place to experience modern work-a-day Istanbul.
This Turkish food circus is called the flower market. In Turkey, eating out is a working-class activity — a good excuse to get out of the house. Skewered fried mussels are a must. If you like those, try kokerech, that's intestines. Actually, the fresh fruit looks awfully good.
Now, let's hop a trolley back to the old section. We have a couple more must see sights in Istanbul. First is the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.
The Ottoman rule stretched from about 1300 to 1923. Its high point was the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent. The mosque that bears his name sits on one of the seven hills of Istanbul. Its beautiful simplicity and harmony remind us that it was built during an Ottoman renaissance happening at the same time as the renaissance in Florence.
The Suleyman Mosque is considered by many to be the finest of all the Ottoman mosques. Built over a period of seven years, it was completed in 1557 at the peak of Suleyman's reign.
After victories at Belgrade, Budapest, and in Persia and Arabia, the Sultan was on a roll. With a fierce fleet under his admiral Barborossa, he conquered Rhodes and controlled the Mediterranean.
Part of his growing wealth was invested in this stunning building.
The last of our must-see sights is the Sultan Ahmet mosque, known among tourists as the Blue mosque.
As with all mosques, park your shoes and women cover their heads.This leather curtain symbolizes the mosque is always open.
It's called the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiles. 20,000 of them decorate the walls and ceiling.
This is a popular color in Turkey. It impressed early French visitors enough for them to call it "the color of the Turks...or "Turquoise."
Because the six minaret construction mirrored the mosque at Mecca it was controversial when it was built. But Sultan Ahmet averted a crisis by providing the money and the men to build a seventh minaret at Mecca.
During the height of the Ottoman Empire's power the Turks were fierce warriors, but tolerant conquerors. Both Jews and Christians lived safely within the city.
Judging by the remnants of its empire, it's clear that Istanbul is a synthesis of many cultures.
The local cuisine is certainly multi-cultural. Ortakoy, along the Bosphorus, is a good place to taste what happens when east meets west. And though we connect coffee with Turkey, the Turks probably drink more tea than coffee.
Chai, or tea costs only pennies and any tea house has a well-worn backgammon board for you to use. If you don't know the rules, no problem, someone will move for you.
If you think you do know the rules and make a bad move, your opponent will politely fix it for you. Wrong moves are simply not allowed. And while speaking Turkish isn't required, those who try have the most fun.
Learn a few Turkish words. Start with the polite words and numbers. "Tes a kur" means Thank you. "Gule gule," means good-by but is said only by the person who is not leaving. Many Turks are learning English. But some of our sounds, like "th" are very difficult. I have a friend named Ruth — "Ruth."
Meli: I know how difficult that is. In school we practiced our "th" sounds this way: "This and these are hard to say, I think about them every day. My mouth and teeth, I think you see, they can say it easily."
For me, a leisurely sit in a teahouse is ideally followed by a leisurely cruise on the Bosporus. The best day trip out of Istanbul is a boat ride up this churning channel.
While there are cheaper alternatives, such as the public ferry, smaller tour boats give a little more personalized tour. This is Serif, our captain.
That's the new Galata Bridge. Until recently the Galata Bridge was the only bridge crossing the Golden Horn. It's still a vital link between the old and new parts of Istanbul.
Passing under the bridge, we hit the Bosporus, and an exciting world of day trips presents itself. Before leaving the big city Serif is giving us a good look at the bustling harbor.
The tour boats share the Bosporus with plenty of commercial traffic. The narrow and strategic strait that separates Asia from Europe is full of shipping — including lots of Russian ships — since it's the only route from Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean.
One of the most impressive sights from the water is the Dolmabahce Palace, home of the last Ottoman sultans.
Further up the Bosphorus there's no hint of the big city. This village on the Asian side is a popular stop. It seems anyone docking here has one thing in mind — a bowl of some of the best yogurt in Asia — or Europe.
And now it's back to the European side of Istanbul for dinner. We're headed for the fisherman's wharf at Kum Kapi. Locals fill this festival of Restaurants in search of a good time.
They always seem to find one. Money placed on a dancer's forehead is actually a tip for the musicians.
The liveliness and fun found here epitomize the charms that keep me visiting Turkey year after year. Nowhere else have I found culture shock in such an enjoyable package.
This is good living. I'm Rick Steves, wishing you happy travels. Hopefully we'll travel together again soon. As they say in Turkey, Guli Guli — Go with a smile.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.