In Istanbul, we’ll lose our way in the Grand Bazaar and munch our way through the famously fragrant Spice Market. We’ll follow the fall of the ancient capital of Byzantium and the rise of Islam at the city’s ancient wall, and wander among the treasures of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapı Palace. To escape the city bustle, we’ll cruise the churning waters of the Bosphorus, make friends over backgammon, and try a traditional Turkish bath.
This famous and gorgeous mosque is one of the world’s finest. It was built in just seven years (1609–1616) by the architect Mehmet Aga, who also rebuilt Kaaba (the holiest shrine of Islam — the giant black cube at the center of the mosque in the holy city of Mecca). Locals call it the Sultan Ahmet Mosque for the ruler who financed it, but travelers know it as the Blue Mosque because of the rich color that dominates the interior (free, generally open daily one hour after sunrise until one hour before sunset, closed to visitors five times a day for prayer, in the Sultanahmet district).
For centuries, it was known as Megalo Ekklesia, the “Great Church” of Constantinople. The Greeks called it Hagia Sophia, meaning “Divine Wisdom,” an attribute of God. The Turkish version is Aya Sofya. But no matter what you call it, this place — first a church, then a mosque, and now a museum — is one of the most important and impressive structures on the planet. Emperor Justinian built Hagia Sophia between A.D. 532 and 537. For 900 years, it served as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople — the “eastern Vatican.” Replete with shimmering mosaics and fine marble, Hagia Sophia was the single greatest architectural achievement of the Byzantine Empire. When the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror — impressed with the Great Church’s beauty — converted it into an imperial mosque. Hagia Sophia remained Istanbul’s most important mosque for five centuries. In the early days of the Turkish Republic (1930s), Hagia Sophia was converted again, this time into a museum. It retains unique elements of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires and their respective religions, Orthodox Christianity and Islam. In short, Hagia Sophia epitomizes the greatest achievements of both East and West, rolled into one (open Tue–Sun, closed Mon; in the Sultanahmet district, tel. 0212/528-4500).
Built in the mid-17th century, this market hall was gradually taken over by merchants dealing in spices, herbs, medicinal plants, and pharmaceuticals. While it’s quite a touristy scene today, most stalls still sell much of the same products, and the air is heavy with the aroma of exotic spices. Locals call it the Mısır Carşışı (Egyptian Bazaar) because it was once funded by taxes paid by Egypt (open daily, at the Old Town end of the Galata Bridge, near the Eminönü tram stop).
The word Topkapı means “cannon door” — a reference to one of the gates on the old Byzantine wall along the Sea of Marmara. Originally known as the sultan’s “New Palace,” Topkapı was gradually enlarged over the centuries. Each reigning sultan contributed his own flourishes, according to the style of the era. So, unlike many European palaces, which were built all at once, Topkapı Palace was constructed gradually and organically over time. The result is a funhouse of architectural styles. Since no two buildings of the complex were built at the same time, they’re all on different levels — as you pass through the doorways, you’ll almost always step up or down. And yet, this hodgepodge is totally functional — each addition had its purpose, and was suited for its time. Taken together, the visual mess of Topkapı Palace adds to a unique sum that represents the sultan lifestyle. It’s in the Sultanahmet district; the easiest approach is from the Sultanahmet tram stop (open Wed–Mon, closed Tue).
The world’s oldest shopping mall is a labyrinthine warren of shops and pushy merchants — a unique Istanbul experience that shouldn’t be missed, even if you’re not a shopper. While parts of the bazaar are overrun with international visitors, it also has many virtually tourist-free nooks and crannies that offer an insightful glimpse into the “real” Istanbul.
Taksim Square (Taksim Meydanı) is the New District’s transportation hub, connected to other parts of Istanbul by bus, Metro, funicular, and the Nostalgic Tram. The square was famously the center of Istanbul’s massive anti-government demonstrations in May of 2013. Taksim Square also marks the beginning of modern Istanbul’s trendiest business and residential neighborhoods, which stretch in the direction of the big park behind the line of buses.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re relaxed and getting all cleaned up for a Turkish experience…in Istanbul. Thanks for joining us.
Istanbul is one of the great cities on earth, period. For thousands of years, this point, where East meets West, has been a crossroads of civilizations. Few places on Earth have witnessed more history than this sprawling metropolis on the Bosphorus.
We’ll cruise the Golden Horn, shop the Grand Bazaar, and check out a poor man’s Wall Street, sample some Turkish Delights…smoke a nargile, eat fish fresh off the boat, explore the Harem in the Topkapı Palace, marvel at Byzantine domes, and lose ourselves in a sea of people in this vast and complex city.
Turkey bridges Europe and Asia. Istanbul, its largest city and commercial center, straddles the strategic Bosphorus Strait. Part of the city is in Europe, and part in Asia. The Golden Horn inlet divides the new town — with its high energy business zones — from the old town — where you’ll find the major sights.
As a city which is over 90 percent Muslim, Istanbul offers a good opportunity to better understand Islam. Visitors are welcome to visit historic mosques and at the same time, experience a religion that still packs the house.
The Blue Mosque was the 17th-century triumph of Sultan Ahmet I. Architecturally, with its six minarets, it rivaled the great mosque in Mecca — the holiest in all Islam.
Its grand courtyard welcomes the crowd that gathers for worship.
As with all mosques, you park your shoes at the door and women cover their heads. If they don’t have a scarf, there are loaners at the door.
Countless beautiful tiles fill the interior with exquisite floral and geometric motifs. It’s nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of its blue tiles. Blue is a popular color in Turkey. It impressed early French visitors enough for them to call it “the color of the Turks”…or turquoise.
While churches portray people like this, Muslims believe the portrayal of people in places of worship draws attention away from worshipping Allah as the one God. In mosques, rather than saints and prophets, you’ll see geometrical designs and calligraphy. This explains why, historically, the Muslim world excelled at non-figurative art, while artists from Christian Europe focused on painting and sculpture of the human form.
Artful Arabic calligraphy generally shows excerpts from the Quran and quotes from Muhammad. As a church would have Jesus and God front and center, in a mosque, elaborate signature medallions high above the prayer niche say “Muhammad” and “Allah.”
Large ceremonial candles flank the mihrab — that’s the niche that points southeast to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia — where all Muslims face when they worship.
Services are segregated by gender: The main hall is reserved for men, while the women’s section is in the back. While to some it’s demeaning to make women stay in back, Muslims see it as a practical matter. Women would rather have the option of performing the physical act of praying in private.
Like churches have bell-towers, mosques have minarets. According to Muslim tradition, the imam, or prayer leader, would climb to the top of a minaret to call the faithful to prayer. These days, the prayer leader still performs the call to prayer live, but it’s amplified by loudspeakers at the top of the minarets.
The call is always the same: Allahu Akbar…God is great, witness there is only one God. Muhammad is his prophet. Come join the prayer. Come join the salvation. When this happens, practicing Muslims drop into a mosque, face Mecca, and pray to God….then after a short service praising God, workaday life resumes.
Modern Turkish culture is complex. To sort it out properly, I’m joined by my Turkish friend Lale Surmen Aran, who co-authors my Istanbul guidebook.
Rick: So what does the call to prayer mean to you?
Lale: That’s personal thing. Most of these people you see here are probably Muslims but Turkey is a secular country; it’s in our constitution. But on the other hand we say that you never know who has got the money or the faith. The real virtue is not to show if off.
Turks love to meet and mingle at Ortaköy — just under the massive bridge that connected Europe with Asia in 1973. The tempo of life in Turkey, like other Mediterranean lands, is slow enough to enjoy the moment and good friends. People love their tea…the sound of dice on the backgammon board…and sucking on the hookah, or nargile; generally a tobacco-free dried fruit smoke.
This city, so layered with rich history, was officially named “Istanbul” only in 1923 with the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic. Before that it was called “Constantinople.”
Over the centuries, this city has been the capital of two grand empires. The Byzantine Empire started in the fourth century and lasted until the 15th century — that’s when the Ottomans took over, and ruled until the end of World War I. Today, even though Turkey is governed from Ankara, Istanbul remains the financial, cultural, and historic center of the country.
As ancient Rome was falling, Emperor Constantine moved the capital from the West here to the less chaotic East in around AD 324. It was named Constantinople in his honor.
Then, in 476, Rome and the Western Empire fell to invading Barbarians. That left Constantinople the leading city of Western Civilization.
Traces of the Roman capital can still be found. This square was a racetrack, like the Circus Maximus in Rome. Built in the fourth century to seat over 60,000 fans, the Hippodrome was Constantinople’s primary venue for chariot races.
Its centerpiece, this 3,500-year-old ancient Egyptian obelisk, was originally carved to honor a pharaoh. It was moved here to ornament the racetrack in the fourth century. What you see today is only the upper third of the original massive stone tower.
While you won’t find any chariot races these days, Istanbul remains a city of experiences. One of the most memorable is enjoying a Turkish bath.
Today, baths welcome tourists and give a peek into a rich tradition. You leave absolutely everything in the changing room. Slip ungracefully into wooden slippers, and shuffle into the steamy caldarium.
Turks brought the steam bath with them from Central Asia, blended it with the Roman bath culture they found here, and created the Turkish bath. First you relax at the basin, heat up, soften up under a cascade of hot water. Savor the experience…achieving maximum sweating and relaxation.
Then your attendant works you over — scrubbing vigorously with rough brillo-pad type mitts. Then sudsing and washing.
Refreshed and cleaner than you can remember ever being, you venture back into the city ready for more history and art.
The best look at ancient Constantinople is a church-turned-mosque that’s been considered among the greatest houses of worship in both the Christian and Muslim worlds: Hagia Sophia, the Great Church of Constantinople. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the early 6th century on the grandest scale possible, it was later converted into a mosque by the conquering Ottomans. Today it’s a museum. Hagia Sophia, which marks the high point of Byzantine architecture, is the pinnacle of that society’s sixth-century glory days.
This church was completed in 537, just about when Europe was entering its Dark Ages. For four centuries after that, Christians in Europe looked to Constantinople as the leading city in Christendom and this was its leading church.
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, gracefully disguising the massive overhead load supported by masterful Byzantine engineering. Forty arched windows shed a soft light on the interior, showing off the churches original marble and glittering mosaics.
But the Byzantine Empire collapsed in the 15th century, and Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. Christian mosaics were plastered over, and new religious symbols replaced the old.
This church was built to face Jerusalem; mosques faced Mecca. When Hagia Sophia became a mosque, they couldn’t move the church, but they could move the focal point of the praying. Notice how the prayer niche is just a bit off-center. That’s because it faces Mecca.
The Galata Bridge spans the easy-to-defend inlet called the Golden Horn in the very heart of Istanbul. A stroll across the bridge offers panoramic views of Istanbul’s Old Town, a chance to see how the fishermen are doing…and plenty of options for a drink or a meal with a view.
For fast food Istanbul style, we’re grabbing a fishwich, fresh from the guys who caught it at one of the venerable — and very tipsy — “fish and bread” boats.
Rick: Oh, man. So this is Istanbul fast food. Now, this is what kind of fish?
Lale: Fresh mackerel.
From near the Galata Bridge, it’s easy to hop a tour boat for a relaxing sail up the Bosphorus and a chance to see the city from the water, with Europe on one side and Asia on the other. You’ll pass massive cruise ships which pour thousands of tourists into the city for a frantic day of sightseeing and shopping. The boat passes homes of wealthy locals who can afford some of the priciest real estate in Turkey: Bosphorus waterfront. The dramatic Bosphorus Bridge was the first bridge ever to span two continents. And the Rumeli Fortress was built by the Ottomans’ the year before they conquered the city of Constantinople.
Tour boats share the Bosphorus with plenty of commercial traffic. The narrow and strategic strait is a bottleneck busy with freighters — including lots of Ukrainian and Russian ships, since this is the only route from Mediterranean to ports on the Black Sea off to the Mediterranean.
For more crowds and urban energy you can join the million commuters who ferry over and back every day from the Asian side of Istanbul. Ferries shuttle in and out from all directions, as seas of locals make their daily half hour intercontinental commute.
But for me the ultimate joy of teeming and vibrant Istanbul is back in the Old Town — simply exploring its busy streets.
The venerable Spice Market — while a touristy scene today — still sells its exotic range of products and the air is heavy with aromatic spices. You’ll find everything a sultan could want: saffron and cinnamon, dried vegetables and fruits, pistachios and hazelnuts, and a cornucopia of sweets — including, of course, Turkish delight.
Rick: Okay, so this is…the Turkish delight.
Lale: The Turkish delight. It comes in a variety of flavors but the most favorite of the Turks is the pistachio flavored.
Rick: Oh, that’s good, yeah.
Istanbul’s been a busy trading center from the start so it needed to be well-protected. This imposing wall helped fortify the ancient Byzantine capital. The wall sealed off the city, protecting it on the one side where the water didn’t. Dating from the fifth century, these ramparts stood strong against both Catholic Europe from the West and the Muslim forces from the East…until 1453.
Finally, the Ottoman Turks, who for centuries had been on the rise and chipping away at the Byzantine Empire, broke through the walls. They established the city as the capital of their growing empire and transformed Christian Constantinople into a Muslim city.
Our storybook image of the Ottomans — sultans, harems, eunuchs — is best imagined here, in the Topkapı Palace. Built in the late 15th century, this was the power center of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. Its buildings form a series of courtyards — the outer being used for public functions. The farther in you go, the more private the rooms.
Among the most private 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.
Lale: This is the largest room in the harem. It was the entertainment room, and used for activities like the wedding of the sultan’s daughters. This was the divan that the sultan used as a throne. The divans by the window were used by the queen mother and the wives of the sultan, and the musicians used the balcony up above. But when I say “a party,” do not imagine a public event. It was rather for the family of the sultan.
Rick: So, just a small family affair. The sultan, his mom, his wives, and his girlfriends.
Lale: His favorites. The whole purpose of the harem was to provide future heirs to the throne, to the Ottoman throne. But most of the tourists think that it was a party place, a fantasy place — it was not. It was an institution that had its own rules, it was very well-regulated, and these rules were very strict. The sultan was not above these rules.
Rick: So, the sultan didn’t just come in and pick a girl.
Lale: Definitely not. It was the queen mother, mother of the sultan, mostly, that decided what should happen in the harem, and it was, again, the queen mother that decided whom the sultan socialized with.
And of course the Sultan enjoyed a state of the art bathroom complete with hot and cold running water.
Bathed in light from these exquisite stained-glass windows, this is where the sultan relaxed, entertained and savored the sumptuous luxury his power provided.
Some of the sultan’s opulence is still on display in the palace museum. The exquisite Topkapı dagger wows tourists with its dazzling diamonds and golf-ball-sized emeralds. Clearly the Ottomans in their heyday were a wealthy power.
The palace is also a holy spot for Muslims containing relics of Muhammad and other prophets — some of whom are revered in both the Bible and the Koran. This contains what’s considered to be the arm of St. John the Baptist. And here’s John’s skull inside this jeweled case. For Muslims the most precious relics are those of Muhammad: his bow and sword, exquisite cases containing his tooth, some hair, and his holy seal. And in the adjacent room a hafiz — that’s someone who’s memorized all 6,000 verses of the Koran — is part of a team that sings verses from the Muslim holy book 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
For generations, Europe dreaded the Ottoman threat. They were on the march, even knocking on Vienna’s fortified door. But through the 19th century a combination of corruption, incompetent sultans, and an antiquated medieval organization all contributed to the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The Topkapı Palace represents the pinnacle of Ottoman power. For the pinnacle of Ottoman shopping, visitors seek out the Grand Bazaar.
In many ways Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar remains much as it was centuries ago: Enchanting and perplexing visitors with its mazelike network of more than 4,000 colorful shops, fragrant eateries, and insistent shopkeepers.
Rick: No, it’s your turn [laugh]. What do you have?
Shopkeeper: Is it possible to show you something you don’t need?
Rick: Show me something I don’t need. That would be very nice.
Have some fun with these guys.
Rick: You have more than you need; I’m a lucky man today. [Laugh] A special price?
Despite the tourists and the knickknacks, the heart of the Grand Bazaar still beats — giving the observant visitor an unforgettable memory.
In its day, this labyrinthine warren of shops under fine arches was the “world trade center” for the entire Ottoman Empire — locked down and guarded by more than a hundred soldiers every night. Today the main drag is touristy. But the complex is so big, it’s still easy to escape the tourist zones and discover some authentic nooks and crannies.
Surprises await in the low-rent fringes of the market. A commotion of shouting marks the bazaar’s “poor man’s Wall Street.” These currency brokers are frantically swapping fortunes of euros, dollars and Turkish lira for their clients.
Others put their fortune in gold. The many jewelry shops are a reminder that Turks love gold, not because they’re vain or greedy, but because it’s considered a practical and tangible place to store their wealth.
Around the corner, surrounding a humble courtyard, sooty smiths labor before furnaces. They’re melting gold off cuts and sweepings from nearby jewelers’ workshops back into a pure and more useable form.
To get a full and balanced appreciation for today’s Istanbul, you must leave the old town and explore the lively, more cosmopolitan neighborhoods.
For the visitor, Istanbul’s single tram line is a godsend lacing together the most interesting sightseeing areas. While often packed, it zips directly through the middle of town fast…unaffected by the frequent traffic jams.
We’re riding it from the old town, over the Galata Bridge, into the new town where we’ll pick up a subterranean funicular then climb up to the place where everyone seems to be heading: Taksim Square, Istanbul’s contemporary heart.
Taksim Square, a major transportation hub, gives us a good taste of modern Istanbul. The traffic circles a statue that celebrates the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. If Turkey is western-looking today, you can thank this man.
In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in a state of decline. Backing Germany in World War I and therefore losing, the decrepit old empire was swept away and from its remnants arose the modern republic of Turkish…founded in 1923 by Atatürk.
The monument shows the two sides of Atatürk: the military hero of the War of Independence, and civilian Atatürk, the first president of modern Turkey, surrounded by figures representing the proclamation of the Republic.
Nearby, a colorful trolley travels the length of the city’s main shopping boulevard, İstiklal Caddesi. It’s teeming with people, lined with shopping temptations, and showy street food…and sports some fine old architecture — a reminder that this street was home to the city’s western-looking elite in the 19th century. Even today, Istanbul’s churches and international consulates are in this district.
And the street offers an enticing parade of taste treats: These desserts come with plenty of honey.
“Döner” means revolving — and you know why when tempted by a döner kebab.
And for a fast meal with no language barrier, ubiquitous cafeteria-style restaurants present a can-can of fresh and traditional Turkish food prepared in home cooked style.
And my favorite way to experience urban Istanbul is simply to hike the entire length of this main pedestrian boulevard, immersed in a fascinating sea of people.
Stand still for a moment and watch the people. This is today’s Turkey. Modern Turkey is a melting pot of twenty or so different ethnic groups. …Turk, Kurd, Armenian, Jew, Greek, Georgian, and Gypsy…and styles from the very traditional to the very latest. The city is a huge draw for visitors — still a crossroads of humanity. And according to the Turkish proverb, every guest is a gift from God.
Like its bridge, Istanbul brings East and West together. With a complex weave of modern affluence, Western secularism, and traditional Muslim faith, it’s a dynamic and stimulating city, well worth experiencing. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time…keep on travelin’.
Rick: Hi, I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe.
That was so good.
There we go. OK.