ISTANBUL HIGHLIGHTS & INFO
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, constituting the country's economic, cultural, and historical heart. With a population of 14.4 million, the city forms the largest urban agglomeration in Europe Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait in northwestern Turkey, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Approximately 12 million foreign visitors arrived in Istanbul in 2012, two years after it was named a European Capital of Culture, making the city the world's fifth-most-popular tourist destination The city's biggest draw remains its historic center, partially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its cultural and entertainment hub can be found across the city's natural harbor, the Golden Horn, in the Beyoglu district.
In recent decades Istanbul has grown very fast geographically and in terms of population, so that its former small districts are the size of independent cities combined with each other no visible borders anymore. The Fatih district corresponds to what was, until the Ottoman conquest, the whole of the city, across from which stood the Genoese citadel of Galata. Those Genoese fortifications were largely demolished in the 19th century, leaving only the Galata Tower, to make way for northward expansion of the city. Galata is now a part of the Beyoglu district, which forms Istanbul's commercial and entertainment center around Taksim Square.
Dolmabahce Palace, the seat of government during the late Ottoman period, is located in Besiktas just north of Beyoglu, The former village of Ortakoy is situated within Besiktas and provides its name to the Ortakoy Mosque, along the Bosphorus near the First Bosphorus Bridge. Lining the shores of the Bosphorus north of there are yalis, luxurious chalet mansions originally built by 19th-century aristocrats and elites as summer homes. Farther inland, outside the city's inner ring road, are Levent and Maslak, Istanbul's primary economic centers.
During the Ottoman period, Uskudar dar and Kadikoy were outside the scope of urban Istanbul, serving as tranquil outposts with seaside mensions and gardens. However, during the second half of the 20th century, the Asian side experienced massive urban growth; the late development of this part of the city led to better infrastructure and tidier urban planning when compared with most other residential areas in the city. Much of the Asian side of the Bosphorus functions as a suburb of the economic and commercial centers in European Istanbul, accounting for a third of the city's population but only a quarter of its employment
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi)
One of the most astounding and popular places to visit in Istanbul is Topkapi Palace, the symbolic and political centre of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. It stands on the tip of land where the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosporus come together, and is a maze of buildings centered around a series of courtyards, typical of Islamic tradition. Such is the complexity of each building, it will take many hours in order to be explored properly.
It was built between 1466 and 1478, a couple of years before the death of Fatih. Unlike any European Palace, its architecture is predominantly Middle Eastern in character. The initial construction was Cinili Mansion, a Glass Palace finished in 1472, and the imposing main gate facing Sultanahmet, Bab-I Humayun, and the Palace ramparts, were completed in 1478.
There were originally 750 residents of the Palace, during Fatih's period, which became drastically more congested reaching 5000 during normal days and 10,000 during festivals. Extensions had to be built, and the harem was completed in 1595 during the third Sultan Murad's era, after which the harem residents were moved in from the palace at Beyazit, with a total of 474 concubines. Special tours of the Harem are available. The Harem, literally meaning "forbidden" in Arabic, was the suite of apartments in the palace belonging to the wives, concubines and children of the head of the household.
Around the Harem were the Circumcision Room, the apartments of the Chief Black Eunuch, and apartments of the sultan - in total over 400 rooms. Other highlights in the Palace are the Spoonmaker's Diamond (the fourth largest diamond in the world), the Topkapi Dagger, (a gift from Mahmut I), a vast collection of paintings and miniatures, and the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle (including a footprint, a tooth and a hair of the Prophet Mohammed).
Opening hours: Daily 09.00 - 17.00, winter closed Tuesday.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
Aya Sophia was, for nearly a thousand years, the largest enclosed space in the world, and still seen as one of the world's most important architectural monuments. It is one of Turkey's most popular attractions, drawn by the sheer spectacle of its size, architecture, mosaics and art.
For 916 years it was a church, then a mosque for 481 years, and since 1935 has been a museum. Thought to have been constructed by Emperor Konstantinos I (324 - 337) it was burned down during a revolt. Rebuilt by Emperor Theodosium II, it was opened for worship in 415 and once again was burned to the ground, during the Nika revolts of 532.
Emperor Iustanianus (527 - 565) wanted to construct something even bigger than the original two and appointed architects Isidoros from Miletos, and Anthemios from Tralles to build the Aya Sophia which still stands. Columns, heads, marble and coloured stones were imported to Istanbul from ancient cities in Anatolia for the purpose.
The construction began on 23 December 532, and was completed exactly five years later. The main, central section measured 100m x 70m, covered with a 55m high dome which was a mammoth 30m in diameter - appearing to be a great feat of design. The mosaics are of great importance, and the oldest ones are dominated by geometric and plant motifs decorated with gold. ;
The worst desecration of the church was in 1204, ransacked by Catholic soldiers during the Fourth Crusade. In 1453, after a failure of the Byzantine Church to fend off the Turks, Mehmet the Conqueror captured the city, rode into Aya Sofia and immediately turned it into a mosque. It was repaired several times, and Islamic ornamentation added, for example an extract of the Koran by calligrapher Izzet Efendi inscribed on the dome. The other reminders of its previous status as a mosque include huge wooden plaques bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed and the first four caliphs.
The marble and mosaics remain the most interesting aspects today. The columns supporting the gallery are made from antique marble, and in the western gallery is the green marble which marks the position of the throne of the Empress. The impressive figurative mosaics include Virgin and Child flanked by two emperors, dating back to the late 10th century, and one depicting Christ, the Virgin, and St John the Baptists. Even though there is partial damage, the haunting images on their faces remain as strong as ever.
Opening hours: 09.30 - 16.30, daily except Monday.
Underground Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici)
Nearby Aya Sofia is the 6th century Byzantine underground Basilica cistern, with 335 massive Corinthian columns supporting the immense chamber's fine brick vaulting. This is one of several buried into the city's foundations, and the first to have been excavated and renovated. Thought to have been built in the 4th century by the emperor Constantine, then enlarged two centuries later, it was supplied with water from Belgrade Forest, amd supplied it to the Great Palace and Topkapi Palace.
It fell into disuse and was then restored in 1987 with the mud and water removed, and narrow raised pathways providing easy access for visitors. It is the largest covered cistern in the city, measuring 140 by 70 metres.
Opening hours: 09.00 - 17.00 closed Tuesdays.
Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi)
The oldest and biggest closed bazaar in the world, also known as the Grand Bazaar, has around 4000 shops and over 60 alleyway, covering a huge labyrinth in the city centre. The original two structures, covered with a series of domes and remains of the 15th century walls, became a shopping area by covering the surrounding streets and adding to it over the following centuries. In Ottoman times this was the centre of trading, and a vital area of town. The Sandal Bedesten was added during Suleyman's reign, to cope with the rising trade in fabrics, during the 16th century.
Traditionally the more valuable goods were in the old central area, called Ic Bedesten, because it was more secure. As quite typical of the area, most streets are laid out and devoted to a particular trade, for example gold on Kuyumcular Caddesi, leather on Bodrum Han, and shoes on Kavaflar Sokak. But the trade has also spilled out onto the surrounding streets, and it is very common to see Russian traders buying up huge sacks of leather jackets or shoes outside the main entrance. Even the streets leading to the Golden Horn are lined with outdoor stalls, which have traditionally been controlled by strict trading laws to reduce competition between traders.
Apart from the usual shops selling clothes, textiles, jewellry and carpets, there are small workshops where craftsmen cast and beat silver or brass, in a skilled trade handed down through the generations. If all that shopping, bargaining and fending off persuasive salesmen is a little too tiring, there are also traditional cafes dotted inside the bazaar in which to relax, eat and sip tea. There are also money-changing booths inside and out. It is slightly less crowded during weekdays, as most locals shop at weekends.
Church Museum (Kariye Muzesi)
Now serving as a museum, this is actually Kariye Mosque, once the 11th century church of St Saviour in Chora. It is considered to be the most important Byzantine monument in Istanbul, after Hagia Sofia. Whilst unremarkable in its architecture, the interior walls are decorated with superb 14th century mosaics. Illustrating scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, these brilliantly colored paintings embody the vigor of Byzantine art. With the restored wooden houses, the surrounding area is a good place for relaxation and refreshment.
Opening hours: 09.30 - 16.30, closed Wednesdays.
Location: Edirnekapi, Fatih / Istanbul
Nearest Public Transportation Point: Edirnekapi public bus station
Web (unofficial website): http://www.choramuseum.com/
Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Meydani)
The ancient Hippodrome, scene of chariot races and the centre of Byzantine civic life, stands in the area that is now in front of the Blue Mosque, and now part of Sultanahmet. Of the ornaments which once decorated it, only three remain: The Obelisk of Theodosius, the bronze Serpentine Column, and the Column of Constantine. Remains of the curved end of the Hippodrome wall can be seen on the southwest side of the three.
Today, the square forms the centre of Istanbul's historical, cultural and tourist life, and the surrounding wooden houses - especially the 18th century ones on Sogukcesme Sokak - were recently restored giving them a new lease of life as small hotels.
German Fountain (Alman Cesmesi)
Also known as Ahmet III Fountain, it lies in front of Bab-I Humayun, the gate of Topkapi Palace. Considered an artistic masterpiece, it is intricately decorated with wooden eaves, masonry and bronze calligraphy. It is altogether different to the period's more classical, modest style, and became a unique example of an elegant, rich beauty.
Yedikule Dungeons (Yedikukle Zindanlari)
The Yedikule (Seven Towers) city gate is located along the 5,632 meter-long land walls, which start at the end of the sea walls. It is one of the main entrances to the city. Over the gate, there is the double-headed eagle of Byzantium. Inside Yedikule is another imposing gate, built in 390 by Theodosius I as the arch of victory for the commanders returning home from victorious battle. It was later turned into one of the fortress gates after Theodosius II added the new city walls to the old ones. The Byzantines called this gate Porta Aurea (golden gate). After the conquest, the Turks added new fortress which formed an independent castle and gave it the name Yedikule. The Ottoman Treasury was kept in this tower for a while, and it was turned into a prison for political prisoners in later times. Only the ruins of the minaret of the mosque which was built for the guardians can be seen today. The ruins of the amphitheater also remain
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