Istanbul in an Instant

Story and photos by Catherine Bilkey
ATW Istanbul Catherine Bilkey 02

Istanbul, Turkey is a destination for history lovers. This city of just under 12 million people testifies to the age of empires—Roman and Ottoman. Istanbul embraces Western and Eastern cultures, reflecting not only its history, but its geography too. Its tourist sites are unparalleled in size and upkeep, and Turkish hospitality will leave many visitors longing to return to the great city. If you only have one day in Istanbul, do not miss Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar.

Topkapi Palace was built by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet after he seized Constantinople from the Roman Empire in 1453. Visitors are allowed to walk through the sultan’s offices and living quarters, including the infamous women’s area—the harem. The rooms are labeled, in both Turkish and English, with descriptions of the sultans’ lifestyles. While the kitchen and formal meeting rooms are impressive, the treasury is the highlight of the tour. Tourists can view priceless items from the Ottoman Empire: thrones, jewelry and the spectacular Topkapi dagger.

The Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya share the religious history of Istanbul with visitors. The construction of the Blue Mosque began in 1609. Its bright blue walls and splendid minarets have become symbolic of Istanbul’s bright future, and its elegant construction will stun fans of architecture. The mosque is a working mosque, so tourists are asked to remove their shoes. Women wishing to be respectful might also want to cover their hair.

Aya Sofya, which means the “Church of Holy Wisdom,” was built in 527 by Emperor Justinian. Aya Sofya was originally an awe-inspiring church until the 1453 Conquest, after which it was converted into a mosque. The mosaics on the upper level were once covered due to Islam’s prohibition of images. These have since been uncovered thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, who turned Aya Sofya into a museum in 1930. The mosaics depict Mary holding Jesus and images of the Roman Empire’s grandeur. Islamic calligraphy decorates Aya Sofya, making the religious building even more beautiful.

ATW Istanbul Liz Webber

photo by Liz Webber

Close to the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya is the Basilica Cistern, which also warrants a visit. This former Roman water reservoir is one of the most gorgeous architectural sights in all of Istanbul. Close by is the Grand Bazaar, which should end any day trip to Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar is overwhelming, but worth the fatigue. Visitors can haggle for almost anything; silver is relatively cheap, Turkish carpets are found in great quantity and quality, and most of the bazaar is indoors, making rainy day shopping a possibility. Most sellers speak some English and are happy to help with any souvenir request.

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