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Istanbul has many world-class sights including Haghia Sofia, the Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar. But I would recommend finding experiences beyond these places to discover what this city on the Bosphorus is all about. The following places will give any visitor an idea of the real Istanbul, where layers of history from its previous lives as Byzantium and Constantinople can be found at every turn.
The first place I would recommend is the Chora Church, which has the finest collection of murals and frescoes in Istanbul. Located in the western suburbs near the Theodosian Walls, the current Chora Church, or the Church of the Holy Saviour outside the Walls, dates from the late 11th Century. Chora is short for Chora Zonton and means “in the country” in Greek. This was because a 4th Century church on this site was situated outside the city walls of Byzantium. Decoration of the interior walls of the church began in 1312. Funding was provided by Theodore Metokhites, who was the auditor of the Treasury. The mosaics and frescoes depict scenes from the life of Christ and Mary and the artists are unknown. After the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque and the mosaics covered over with plaster for nearly four centuries. It took 11 years, from 1948 to 1959, to restore all these treasures to something near their original glory. The church is now a secular museum and is very popular with coach parties, but visiting at around 1pm is probably the best time to avoid the crowds.
The Basilica Cistern is the most impressive piece of engineering in the city. Located in Sultanahmet, close to Haghia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace, this place is not quite as popular as the aforementioned attractions, so make the most of it. It’s like visiting a cathedral underground. The atmospheric orange lighting gives the place a reverential feel though the dripping water can lend an eerie overtone on occasions. Carp swim in the waters by the wooden walkways. The Cistern’s most famous features are the two Medusa heads that support columns – a popular and well signposted attraction. The Basilica Cistern was built in 532AD by the Emperor Justinian to provide water for the Great Palace. This palace was built by Constantine the Great in 324AD and covered most of the area of Sultanahmet. The capacity of the cistern is approximately 80,000 cubic metres, all of which was brought in via aqueduct from the Belgrade Forest. The cistern gets its name because it was built directly under the Stoa Basilica, a square that has long since disappeared under buildings. It’s hard to believe that such a large underground cavern could be forgotten about, but that’s what happened after the cistern was closed some time before the Conquest. Then in the mid-1500s reports began to reach the authorities of people pulling buckets of water out of holes in their basements, some even containing fish. The cistern was rediscovered and was eventually opened to the public in 1987.
The view from the Galata tower is probably the best view in the city. The tower is not that tall, but it’s the position that makes the view really great. After paying the entrance fee visitors ascend in the lift, and then climb up a winding staircase to the narrow walkway at the top. Visitors can see the Sultanahmet area, the Galata Bridge, the Sea of Marmora, and the Asian shore. Ferries move in and out of the Eminonu ferry terminals, the Istanbul tram winds its way towards Haghia Sofia, and people mill about near the Spice Bazaar in front of the New Mosque.
After visiting cisterns, churches, and old towers the Istanbul Modern art gallery brings the traveller right up to date very quickly. It was founded in 2004 and occupies an 8,000 square metre site in an old warehouse by the Bosphorus. Istanbul Modern has permanent and temporary exhibition galleries of mainly modern paintings, a photography gallery, a library, a cinema, and a café. Its educational and social programs are aimed at all ages and are changed often enough to encourage visitors to keep coming back to visit the gallery. Recent exhibitions of photographs showed the views from people’s windows in various cities throughout the world. Another video installation showed a person’s face on one screen and the back of their head on a screen behind. Occasionally the person would turn around and so the images on the screens were reversed. This was a surprisingly diverting piece.
Situated in the Galata district of Istanbul, my final recommendation is Karakoy Gulluglu, a pastry shop that is probably the best place in the city to buy baklava. Situated just over the Golden Horn from Eminonu, the nearest tram stop is Karakoy. It can be easily visited after seeing the Istanbul Modern art gallery. Customers can buy at least 20 different types of baklava either in kilograms or in portions. These are all available for perusal in display cabinets on one side of the shop. To order, the customer goes to the teller on the other side of the shop, who will take both the order and the money – in return he gives the customer a small itemised receipt. This receipt is then handed to one of the servers behind the display cabinets. Most people eat their baklava in the shop, so the server will offer the customer a plate, usually by picking up a plate, pointing to it, and saying “OK?” The desserts can be taken away in one of the boxes piled on top of the display cabinets. The server picks up his serving knife and goes to find the baklava ordered. If the customer orders a portion, then the server brings back five pieces of baklava. Please be aware of this before ordering. There are tables outside with individual chairs. The tables inside are ones that people stand at and are usually the only ones available. The baklava is captivating – wonderful crisp pastry, walnut flavours, cinnamon, and gooey sugar-laden honey, attack the taste buds. It’s time to relax and to think about the taste of the real Istanbul that has just been served to the visitor who has dared to leave the familiar behind and seek out some of the lesser known places in this city that’s spread over two continents
Bio: I am a writer. I love writing about the places I have travelled to and providing my thoughts on these places. A list of my books, both about travel and other subjects, can be found here.