Istanbul is a city one has to visit at least once in her life. A city that has seen various civilizations, empires and has hosted more than 50 nationalities in time. Now, can you imagine the cultural and historical heritage that this city bears?
Unfortunately, if you are reading this blog post, you probably do not have much time to discover this magnificent city. Normally, most of the people would recommend you to spend at least a week, but I do not want to be the joy-breaker. There are still a lot of things that you can fit in 2 days and I will try to help you how to make the most of this time. I even prepared a little travel programme for you here:
Well, you better wake up early because we do not have much time! Let’s say you have woken up around 8 am. If you are not staying at a place where the breakfast is included in the price you pay, I will start with my first suggestion of a cheap breakfast that will not steal your time at all!
You better get dressed and throw yourself on the road. Your breakfast will be a kind of street food and a traditional drink with it! In this case, you will start your day by practicing some local stuff already. So, what am I talking about? Here it is:
This is what we call a ‘simit’ which is literally a bagel with a lot of sesame. For how much the pretzel is important for the Germans, for us it is ‘simit’ that is equally essential. Most of us would like to cut it horizontally in a half and put some cream cheese on it to make some kind of a sandwich. But well, it’s all up to you how to eat it.
Yet, eating simit solely will make your mouth dry for sure. The solution to this problem lies in what we call ‘ayran.’ It is basically yogurt, water, and salt all mixed up into one. It may sound weird at first; however, once you like it, you will just want to drink more. If you are not convinced yet, here are some benefits of ayran:
- It accelerates weight loss.
- It eliminates ‘heat’: In summer drinking a glass of ayran will reduce the pressure of the heat. Especially if you are feeling dizzy and nauseous due to overexposure to the sun, drinking ayran will help you immediately.
- Ayran is also a vitamin store: It contains vitamins such as A, C, D, E, K, B6, B12.
- Ayran contains riboflavin: It helps to secrete hormones and convert food that helps digestion into energy.
- Ayran also reduces blood pressure and is good for your cholesterol.
Sounds good? If you are still resisting it, I can also recommend some Turkish tea but it may get in the way of my plan.
What is the plan? Well, you can easily find some street buffets selling simit and ayran. The advantage of eating these as breakfast is that they are cheap and you can eat them while walking and wandering around the city. Therefore, I saved you both time and energy with this first step.
Here comes the second one… As you are now free to go anywhere, our first stop will be the Blue Mosque.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
‘How can I go to Sultanahmet?’ is probably the most heard sentence that Turkish locals hear from tourists every day. The Blue Mosque, which is located in Sultanahmet and is also called Sultanahmet Mosque; is one of the oldest mosques of Istanbul. It is built in the 17th century and covers a huge area still. One thing you may wonder is that the mosque does not seem blue at all from the outside. So, why would it be called the Blue Mosque? The answer is, the tiles that are used in the interior design of this mosque are indeed blue.
Another distinguishing fact about this mosque is that it has 6 minarets instead of the traditional number of 4. The reason why is hidden in a particular rumor itself. According to the rumor, when Sultan Ahmet I requested the minarets to be made in gold, the state was not able to afford such a demand. Therefore the head architect of the mosque, Sedefkar Mehmet Aga pretended not to understand the Sultan right and built the mosque with 6 minarets instead. (The word for gold in Turkish is altın, and six is altı.)
Here the interpretation depends on the reader. Whether the architect tried not to offend the Sultan by not telling him the use of the insufficient budget this way was wrong; or, the Sultan himself was trying to show off to the world, and as he realized that there was no budget, they collectively decided the architect to pretend he misheard him.
What if I told you that Hagia Sophia is not a mosque and it consists of Pagan architecture dating back to Great Roman Empire times? ‘’But it looks like a mosque!’’ Well, let’s go back in time for a while, shall we?
Between the years of AD 532-537, ordered by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was built by two famous architects of the period: Anthemios and Isidoros. Apart from these two masterminds, it is said that 100 architects worked for the construction of this piece, and each one of them had 100 workers in their teams. If you allow me to do the math, in total, more than 10.000 people worked for the existence of this great masterpiece.
Therefore, with 10.000+ people, the Byzantine Emperor ended up building the oldest cathedral in the World, and the largest one until the Sevilla Cathedral was built in 1520. What is also distinguishing about this place is, it is the fastest-built cathedral (5 years!) and it is one of the unique places that hosted millions of worshippers for 15 centuries.
According to a famous Turkish historian, all of the works that the architects of Hagia Sophia studied were from the Library of Alexandria and the dome could not be built again until the 15th century due to the burning of this library by Alexander the Great. He was not so great when it comes to this, right?
In any way, this landmark served an important role in Byzantine culture and politics for much of existence -until the Ottomans came-; because it was considered the central church of faith and the crowning site of new emperors.
Moving on to the 15th century, in 1453, the Ottoman Empire captured what was called Constantinople and renamed it to the city you are visiting today: Istanbul. Capturing the city which was gravely important for the Christian world was highly symbolic and this symbol was emphasized furthermore by turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
You may at first see this as an act of power, but I would like to give you further information about why Constantinople was also so important for the Muslims. According to the book of Buhari, the prophet Muhammad’s said:
‘Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!’
According to Islamic belief, to be praised by the Prophet is seen as a qualification above every beautiful thing in this world. To be one of those who bears one of his compliments, in a sense, is one of the great salvation occasions in eternal life.
Maybe for this reason, throughout history, many leaders tried to conquer what is now called Istanbul. Yet, this is the story part which totally ignores geopolitics and such. Yet, I do not think anyone would read those in a travel blog so I’ll pass.
Even today, after almost a century of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Hagia Sophia’s role in politics and religion remains contentious. The fact that it was turned into a museum in the new Republic of Turkey, due to a great symbol of good faith to all religions and the good relations with that time’s archenemy Greece; today, it is discussed whether it should be turned back into a mosque in the populist discourse.
Now, when it comes to the legends of Hagia Sophia, there are plenty of them:
- Dreams are great symbols in history and are often used in telling the background stories of historical events or legends. And of course, the oldest cathedral wouldn’t go without a legend. According to one of these legends, one night, Justinian I had a dream where a saint visited him and showed the picture of Hagia Sophia on a silver plate. But that’s not all! When the ruler shared his dream with others, the architect also said that he had seen the same dream. After a shock, they directly started constructing this masterpiece.
- Another legend suggests that in Hagia Sophia, there are 361 doors in total. Out of these 361 doors, 101 of them are really large and talismanic. However, whenever they counted these 101 doors, an extra door would appear each time. Therefore, it is believed that these talismanic doors are enchanted.
- Do you remember the cross that Jesus was crucified on? According to the Christian sayings, the Emperor brought this cross as well as the nails of Jesus and hid them in a secret chamber in Hagia Sophia. The reason is said to be the belief that when Jesus turns back to the ground after forty thousand years, he will land in Hagia Sophia.
On a column in the southern part of the building, there is a writing that says ‘’18, on Sunday, the year 1038.’’ Weird, right? What does it suppose to mean anyway? What does it signify? Well, some people believe that it was written by H.H Khidr and it is the date of the Doomsday, aka the Apocalypse. If we consider the year 1038 was written in Hijri Calendar and calculate it what year it refers to in Gregorian calendar, we find the year 1629. Apparently, we are not yet dead, so it must be something else.
- Rumor has it that Satan himself is imprisoned in Hagia Sophia. It is believed that when the reconstruction of Hagia Sophia as a mosque was ordered by the Sultan, Mehmet II, the devil tried to stall and distract the workers because he didn’t want Hagia Sophia to be turned into a mosque. The building responsible thought that it was the work of the devil, therefore he prayed right away. Ultimately, God prisoned the devil into one of the marbles of Hagia Sophia.
- Hagia Sophia’s Crying Column was a column in the Virgin Mary’s house. The Virgin Mary was told one day that Jesus was captured and tortured. Mary couldn’t stand the torture of Jesus and started crying. One of her teardrops melted a part of this column. While the Hagia Sophia was being built, the emperor brought this column to Hagia Sophia’s holy place from the house of the Virgin Mary. The stone is therefore considered sacred. Those with any wishes will insert their fingers in this column, into the void left by Virgin Mary’s teardrops and make a wish.
- Increasing the bet, it is believed that the Holy Grail is still somewhere inside the Hagia Sophia. According to the belief, when the Turks conquered the Istanbul and moved to Hagia Sophia, a priest prayed to God and rushed through a door with the Holy Grail as he didn’t want the Muslims to capture it. The Muslims saw the priest and ran after him, however, all of a sudden the door that the priest passed through vanished. They could only stare at the wall. Yet, the legend does not end there. Some say that the priest is still inside that door with the Holy Grail, protecting it.
- The last one is about the mosaic of Deisis that was built in the 13th century. This mosaic is supposed to show the figure of Jesus, however, according to some, it was actually the Pythagorean priest: Apollon. Why they suggest this is based on the scar on the right eyebrow of the figure as well as the mark of number 11 that Apollon is known for. You may ask why they would picture Apollo. It is said that the Pagans that created this mosaic were forced into Christianity. Therefore, maybe with a feeling of vengeance, they actually portrayed Apollon.
After the conquest of Istanbul, Topkapı Palace was built in 1460 and completed in 1478. The palace was built on the East Roman settlement located in Sarayburnu, at the tip of the Istanbul peninsula, between the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. From Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror to Sultan Abdulmecid, for hundreds of years, Topkapı Palace had served as the center of education, administration, and art has been able to maintain its importance from the day of its construction until today.
After the proclamation of the Republic, in 1924, the Topkapı Palace was turned into a museum and became the first museum of the Republic of Turkey. Topkapı Palace, with its collections, architectural structures, and nearly 300,000 archival documents, constitutes one of the largest palace museums in the world today. The palace, which has many different works under its roof, is flocked by both domestic and foreign visitors every year.
Some other interesting facts about the Palace could be listed as:
- Topkapı Palace, where sultans lived for approximately 400 years, managed to host around 4,000 people.
- When you enter the harem, the posts on the wall will attract your attention. As is normally known, women in the harem are known to be secretive and never share the incidents in the harem with the outside. Yet, sometimes they wrote the conflicts, intrigues, and injustices among themselves on the walls and made them pass to different generations.
- Topkapı Palace, which has extraordinary architecture and witnessed history, has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985.
- Imagine a palace that the harem itself had around 400 rooms. Expectedly, this palace also hosted a madrasa(school), a mosque, an assembly, and a royal mint.
- The most spectacular piece in the Topkapı Palace is the Kaşıkçı Diamond, which weighs 86 carats and is now among one of the 22 most famous diamonds known in the world.
- The architecture of the Topkapı Palace was inspired by the nomadic Turks’ camps.
The Grand Bazaar was built after the conquest of Constantinople to serve the aim of stimulating economic prosperity of Istanbul, as a part of a bigger project sharing the same goal. Even though it is not so interesting for Istanbulites, domestic and foreign tourists are immensely interested in visiting this historical bazaar. The visitor would not only find a huge bazaar with a lot of goods such as souvenirs, carpets, silver jewelry, but they would also enjoy how colorful it is inside.
Maybe the only downside of this place is the high prices, and unfortunately even higher prices for foreigners; therefore, if you really want to buy something, do not give up easily and bargain until the price seems right!
Basilica Cistern enchants the visitors with its grandeur and a little bit of the creepy feeling it gives. Some of you can remember this place from the book Inferno, written by Dan Brown, where one of the most exciting parts happens. In order to avoid giving spoilers, I refuse to give further information about the book.
When it comes to encyclopedia-type knowledge, Basilica Cistern was built for the same Byzantine Emperor who ordered the construction of Hagia Sophia, namely Justinian I. This place, which was built as an underground water reservoir, is located in the Southwest of Hagia Sophia.
The whole place is built upon marble stones, and these were constructed by 7,000 slaves in 38 years. The rumor has it that the tears on the columns tell hundreds of slave who died in the construction of the cistern.
Apart from the marble columns, there are also 2 enormous Medusa heads. Even though, we still do not know where these figures were taken from to be placed here; however, the motive could be a kind of mystic safety measure, as Medusa is known to turn people into stones whoever look her in the eye.
Moreover, many visitors throw coins into the water of the Basilica Cistern and make a wish.
Today, this place is a home for visual shows with special effects, concerts and various other events, alongside being a museum.
The Tower of Galata is one of the highest and oldest towers in Istanbul. The 63-meter high tower overlooks the Old Town with a panoramic view. It was built in the 14th century by the Genoese colony as a defense wall. The tower was called Christ’s Tower. The Genoese were involved with the Byzantine trade and the tower was used in port surveillance of the Golden Horn. After Mehmet II’s conquest of Constantinople, it was used to track fires in the city.
The rumor has it that you will marry the person who you go on the top of the Galata Tower for the first time. (This legend goes back to Roman times.)
Taksim Square (Last Stop of The Day)
Taksim square is the common meeting point of Istanbulites. Here, you can witness protests, get cringed by traditional ice-cream sellers, enjoy some street music, take a ride in the tram just for the sake of it…
If you have managed to come until Taksim Square after this long day, now you can spend your evening at the restaurants and bars here. If you are into nightlife, most of the clubs of Istanbul are here, too.
If you have chosen to go drunk and crazy, my ultimate suggestion is to eat something called ‘ıslak hamburger’ which can be literally translated into ‘wet hamburger.’ It is basically a hamburger with some kind of a tomato sauce all over it, yet the taste takes you up above the clouds. The best of this kind is sold in Taksim Square and it is, in my opinion, is one of the best street foods that you can eat after a long night out.
Good morning again! After your long first day, I think you deserved to spend this day more chill. Therefore, unlike yesterday, today’s gem is having an indefinite breakfast by the Bosphorus. You may think it might be expensive, as watching the Bosphorus could be a luxury; however, you can have this amazing experience without paying tons of money!
Most of the Istanbulites love having breakfast by the sea especially on the weekends. Thanks to the Municipality of Istanbul, there are a lot of luxurious community facilities (yes, those exist.) If you would like to have this experience, here are some of my suggestions:
- Beykoz Sahil
- Pembe Köşk Restaurant
- Fethi Paşa Korusu
If you are looking for other alternatives, Emirgan is the district which is famous for Sunday breakfasts of Istanbulites. Therefore, on the weekends, it can be extremely crowded. However, if you are here on one of the weekdays, you can easily find a spot by the sea and enjoy a never-ending breakfast. As you might have heard, Turkish breakfasts are famous because you can find almost everything on the table. Also as a tradition, and it is a common practice, the restaurants will most probably provide you limitless tea without paying extra. As a local, I remember having a chill breakfast by the Bosphorus with my friends, for 3-4 hours. The endless tea, the view of the sea, the taste of everything will just make you want to stay at a place for hours. In my opinion, it could be categorized as a therapy method.
Dolmabahçe Palace is the beauty that stole Ottoman sultans from the Topkapı Palace in the 19th century. It was built by the most famous Armenian architect of the time, Garabet Balyan, on the request of Sultan Abdulmecid. In the last century before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultans started residing here. Even after the fall of the Empire, this place did not lose its importance in the Republic of Turkey.
Whenever Mustafa Kemal Atatürk visited and had to stay in Istanbul, he stayed in this palace. And in 1938, he lost his life here in this palace. This is why on the 10th of November, on his death anniversary, people come from different cities of Turkey to visit the palace which he spent his last minutes in.
The palace has strict rules on taking photos, therefore it is not so possible to see what’s inside through a Google images search! Especially one room has the most amazing ceiling… But well, you have to visit and see it yourself.😊
This is one of the most photogenic mosques Istanbul hosts, especially if you have a drone device. Let me show you how it looks like from above:
This mosque was built as a Neo-Baroque work of art. It was ordered by the same Sultan who also ordered Dolmabahce Palace and wanted this mosque to be the Grand Imperial Mosque where the Sultan also went to pray. It was designed by the same Armenian architect who designed Dolmabahce Palace, and his son Nigoğayos Balyan.
This piece still serves as a mosque, but it cannot be considered as big as the Blue Mosque. Yet, you will fall in love with the unique pink interior.
After visiting this mosque, if you get hungry, you should definitely taste ‘kumpir.’ Before entering the mosque, you will probably see some sellers shouting to you to choose them for their food. This street food is extremely filling and tasty, so it is definitely recommended! 😊
Now you can continue your chill day with a tour around the Bosphorus! This boat tour is totally different than many of those you experience before. This boat tour, whether you want to take a short or long one, will provide you a panoramic view of the whole city, and you will be even more amazed by how beautiful it is here.
In this way, you will also see some places that unfortunately you won’t have time to visit, and at least see them from outside. If you can also have a local guide with you, they will be telling all you should know and gossipy sides of each place!
After the cruise, we are almost done! The rest really relies on you. If you still have the night for yourself, you may spend the evening in Kadıköy district. It is probably one of the best places for students and young people with its colorful day and nightlife.
What to do in Istanbul in the evening? If it is not winter and the seasonal conditions are great; going out in Istanbul is one of the most entertaining things that you can experience in the city. Some districts in Istanbul are rather known for their night lives, which are Taksim and Kadıköy, where you can have so much fun and enjoy the signature street food such as the wet hamburger, or the cooked rice with chicken and other toppings.
If you are not really into nightlife and just want to enjoy a chill evening with your family, you can stroll around the walking path by the coast of Moda, Caddebostan, Üsküdar… You can also spend a lot of time at a café as they are usually open till midnight and the staff will not bother you much for staying too long.
What to do in Istanbul in winter? You can do almost everything that I mentioned above in the blog post. If I have to add some other indoor places, I would definitely recommend Istanbul Archeological Museum, the Aquarium and the museum called Panorama 1453 (which illustrates conquest of Constantinople.)