Istanbul : The Story of Two Lands

Alara Benlier | Live the World

November 23, 2022

Istanbul is the city where I was born and raised and to be honest it makes me feel weird and nostalgic to write about a place that I have some kind of love/hate relationship with. Turkish people often describe Istanbul as a middle-aged beautiful but sad lady since this beautiful city has witnessed a lot of historical milestones, lots of emperors, conquerors and drama. I often think about Istanbul as a very beautiful lady in her late 30's with a crying face and tired eyes while her mascara is running on her cheeks. Which reminds me of a quote from Warsan Shire;

" Come with all your shame, come with your swollen heart, I’ve never seen anything more beautiful than you."

The city is so beautiful, there are lots of poems and songs about this beautiful mess that we call Istanbul or as its old names; Byzantium, Constantinople, Stamboul and many more. Istanbul is mostly famous for its strategic location, the bridges that bring together Asia and Europe, mosques, tulips, seagulls and Turkish bagels/tea duo. It is also a very crowded and b**ig city too. With the population over 20 Million with the foreigners, it is one of the biggest cultural hub in the entire world. The old part of the city is mainly in the European side and the modern part is mostly in the Asian side. But it is kind of like a yin-yang, you can, of course, find modern parts in European side and find history in the Asian side**. And let me give you two information that will blow your mind;

Istanbul is not the capital of the Republic of Turkey. It is Ankara. AND we have the whole four seasons, winter is included! We have snow, like a lot of snow, a snow, and cold that did freeze the Marmara Sea (yes the sea) in 1954 and in other years as well. And no we don't speak Arabic and no we don't travel with camels. And yes I feel so offended right now.

You can reach the city from 2 different airports on both two sides. In the European side, there is Atatürk Airport and in the Asian side, there is Sabiha Gökçen Airport. There is no main train station, so you can't use trains to get in the city but the public transportation is extensive and it will be a quite adventure since it is a bit complicated and very crowded. But if you are a masochist, you can also rent a car and stuck in the famous traffic jam of Istanbul's for hours. The best way to cross one side to another is using boats and ferries since you can get to see the historical landmarks, the beautiful Bosphorus and you can get to feed the seagulls which will be following the boat to catch the Turkish bagels to eat! But of course, you can also use the buses, trams, metros, and taxis.

In this blog, I want to talk about what to do, places to go and the museums to visit. I will be writing another blog about the food in Istanbul since it will be too much to fit in one post. So here is the first part of your guide for this otherworldly and vaguely threatening city!

Places to go in Istanbul

Ok, grab a cup of tea/coffee since it will be a long one. Istanbul is known by its great history dating back to 660 before Christ, Roman empire, Byzantine, and Ottoman empire. If you want to check out the historical monuments from that era, you should start discovering İstanbul from the Sultanahmet Square where you can find Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque and Basilica Cistern.

Topkapı Palace is used as a palace and as a residence in the 15th Century by Ottoman Sultans. Today, this lovely palace is a great museum that you can see hundreds of rooms and chambers, Ottoman harem and treasury, Spoonmaker's Diamond -which is one of the World's biggest diamond-, clothing, weapons, armor, scripts and it is in UNESCO's World Heritage List.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque is a historical mosque that is still in use for Muslim prayers. This Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 and contains Sultan Ahmet's tomb, a madrasah, a hospice and red carpets for prayers. Inside of the mosque, you can get mesmerized by the Turkish handmade and painted blue tiles.

Galata Tower is a medieval tower which was built in 1348 during an expansion of the Genoese colony in Constantinople. This tower stands in Galata/Karaköy in Istanbul and it is 66,90 meter high. You can get to see a beautiful panoramic view at the top it. According to Ottoman historian and traveler Evliya Çelebi, Hezarfen Evliya Çelebi flew from Galata Tower to Üsküdar by using artificial wings!

Dolmabahçe Palace is located on the European coast of İstanbul and was the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. This Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical designed palace is the largest one in Istanbul and inside of it, you can find hand-painted tiles, Marmara marble, the World's largest Bohemian crystal Chandelier, a great collection of oil paintings, Egyptian alabaster and much more fascinating stuff. The interior is heavily designed with gold and crystals and it had a gas lightening and WCs when the palaces in Europe were still lacking those back at that time.

Hagia Sophia which means "Holy Wisdom" was a Greek Orthodox Church which turned into an imperial mosque. This pink mosque and museum were built in 537 and inside the mosque, you can find mihrab, minbar and outside four minarets.

The Süleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in the city and a famous landmark of the city. It was built between 1550-1557 by a genius of Turkish architecture, Mimar Sinan. The New Mosque was built between 1660 and 1665 which is located in Eminönü.

The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns beneath of İstanbul. It was built between the 3rd and 4th centuries during the Early Roman Age. Ancient texts state that this basilica had gardens. Inside this sunken basilica, you can find two columns reuse blocks carved with the visage of Medusa and the Hen's Eye.

Hagia Irene is another Greek Eastern Orthodox church located in the outer courtyard of Topkapı Palace. It is today used as a museum and concert hall. The Rüstem Pasha Mosque is a 16th-century Ottoman Mosque where you can find lots of amazing İznik tiles inside!

Maiden's Tower is a tower lying on a small islet in Marmara sea. It is 220 meters tall and was built in 1110 by Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus. The legend says the emperor built this tower for his beloved daughter because one day, an oracle prophesied that she would be killed by a venomous snake on her 18th birthday. So he locked his daughter in this tower and visited by her frequently. On her 18th birthday, the emperor brought her a basket of exotic fruits but he didn't realize that there was a snake hidden inside this exotic fruits, so the snake bit the princess died in her father's arms, like the oracle had predicted.

Rumeli Hisarı is a medieval fortress and was built between 1451 and 1452 in order to prepare for the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

The Ortaköy Mosque was built in 1721 and is another most popular tourist attractions of the city since its located in the seaside and has an amazing view of Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus Bridge is one of the three bridges between Asia and Europe. It is 1560 meter long and 165 meters high.

Museums in Istanbul

The Istanbul Archaeology Museums consist of three main museums; Archaeological Museum, Museum of the Ancient Orient and Museum of Islamic Art. The Ottoman Sultan Abdülaziz was so impressed by the archaeological museums in Paris and in Vienna, he wanted a similar archaeological museum to be established in Istanbul. You can visit this museum from 9 till 19, except Mondays.

İstanbul Modern is a contemporary art museum in Beşiktaş. In this museum, you can find a permanent collection of Turkish painters from the late 19th through 21st centuries and temporary exhibitions. Inside the museum, there are also shops, restaurants, a cinema and arts library.

Rahmi M. Koç Museum is a private industrial museum of the history of transport, industry, and communications. Inside the museum, you can find old racing cars, sports cars, salon/coupe and convertible cars, old Istanbul tram, Sultan's carriage, narrow-gauge steam locomotive, cargo vessel, motorboat, aviation parts collection, aircraft engines, plane, Thomas Edison telegraph patent model, Strassbourg turret clock and many more!

The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum were built in 1524 and inside the museum, you can find collections of Islamic calligraphy, tiles, and rugs and many more ethnographic displays.

Miniatürk is the best place to go with your children since it is so fun because it is one of the world's largest miniature parks! It contains historical structures from Turkey!

Pera Museum is a museum mainly focused on orientalism in 19th Century and was built in 1893. It also hosts exhibitions and contains World famous Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics.

More to do in Istanbul

The Spice Bazaar aka Mısır Çarşısı is one of the largest bazaars in İstanbul. It is located in Eminönü and inside of it, you can buy spices, Turkish delights, jewelry, souvenirs, dried fruits, and nuts. You can also shop for semi-precious stones (I love collecting them) right next to the shops outside of the bazaar. The Grand Bazaar, on the other hand, is the oldest and largest bazaar in the world with 4,000 shops and 350,000 visitors a day!

To see the famous Turkish tulips (yes, the tulips in the Netherlands are originally from Turkey) you can check Emirgan Park or Gülhane Park!

Taksim Square is in Beyoğlu which is one of famous heart and tourist attractions of Istanbul. In the Taksim Square, you can find the Monument of the Republic. You can also find the famous Istiklal Avenue which is a 1,4 km long avenue where you can find lots of shops, restaurants, art galleries, nightclubs, bars, theaters, cinemas, and bazaars. The street is covered with Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance Revival, Beaux-Arts and Art Nouveau styled buildings.

And the last but not least, The Prince Islands. It is consist of 9 Islands; Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, Kınalıada, Sedef Adası, Yassıada, Sivriada, Kaşık Adası and Tavşan Adası. The biggest ones and mostly visited ones are Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada. You can take a boat trip to reach the islands and in the islands, you can travel all around it with bikes, by walking or with phaetons. You can also be mesmerized by nature, eat ice creams, shop souvenirs, wander around historical buildings and cute houses, sunbathe, enjoy the liquid sunsets and even swim!

I would like to end my blog with a quote from Vladimir Nabokov's book, Lolita;

"Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other again. "

If you want to visit Istanbul, find your inspiration on itinari now!

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