Sights of Old Town, Istanbul, Turkey

This is our second visit to Istanbul, having been here on a trip to Turkey in 2012. This time we were looking for a fun but relaxing couple of days to get used to the time zone before heading on to Georgia and Armenia. Istanbul’s old city filled the bill with world class sights, fun people watching and good restaurants.

Topkapi Palace

One of Istanbul’s top attractions, the Topkapi Palace is on most first time visitors’ must see list. The Palace was first built in 1460-78 and was added on to by subsequent sultans over the next 400 years. The last pavilion, Mecidiye Pavillion, was built in the mid-1800s, but the palace was abandoned soon after it was built. While the place does get crowded the sprawling complex of gardens and lavish rooms are worth a spin. Furnishings are minimal but it’s the opulent mosaics and tile work combined with the sheer scale of the complex that makes it such an impressive sight.

In addition to the sumptuous rooms and viewing terraces are a number of small artifact museums such as the Armory, Holy Relics and Kitchen. At the time of our visit in June of 2022 the Treasury was not open but some of the jeweled objects were in the Armory.

Tickets and Crowds

In June of 2022 it was no longer possible to buy an advance ticket on-line. You could buy the 5-day museum pass for 550TL on-line or a museum ticket that includes the Harem and Hagia Irene for 420TL at the Palace ticket office. We arrived at 9:30 a.m. on a Friday and there was no line at the ticket window. There were few other visitors at this hour but over the course of our two and half hour visit the number of visitors swelled. Smaller rooms were crowded and it was difficult to get a good look at some of the objects, especially in the Holly Relics room.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, one of the world’s most impressive buildings, is once again, since 2020, a mosque, having flip-flopped from Christian church when it was built in 532-537AD, to a mosque in 1520 and to a secular museum in 1934. As such some its Christian elements have been covered up or are no longer accessible. The upstairs gallery of mosaics, for example, was not accessible at the time of our visit in late June of 2022 and the Virgin Mary with child in the dome of the aps was covered with drapery. There is also carpeting covering the marble floor. I don’t know if these changes are permanent or they are doing restoration work.

Despite these annoyances it is still a stunning space to visit. The sheer size, more than 60,000 sq. ft. is enough to wow. The interior covered in marble and mosaics is a stunner no matter what religion or not is currently in vogue.

Ticket and Crowds

As a mosque no ticket is required. The line in front is to get through security only and moves quite quickly. Finding conflicting information on-line, I asked a guard outside the mosque what the opening hours were. He told me the mosque is open from 10am to 11pm. I, however, believe it is closed at prayer times. We arrived just after lunch time prayers and the long line wasn’t moving when we arrived but soon started moving.  It took us about 10 minutes to get through security.

Blue Mosque

At the time of our visit in late June of 2022 much of the mosque’s interior was covered with scaffolding making it hardly worth the effort. If you have seen it before I wouldn’t bother going at this time. On Fridays there is a sign posted outside the door that says the mosque opens a 2:30 to visitors, before that the space is for worshipers only. Noted in the bottom left corner are the hours for other days.

Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent

While the Blue Mosque is under renovation I would skip it and go to the Mosque of Süleyman instead. It’s about a 25 minute walk, the last part uphill, from Sultanahmet Square, but is worth the effort. Some say the mosque, dating from the mid-1500s, is one of the most beautiful mosques in all of Islam. It certainly blew me away with its graceful proportions and restrained decoration.

Be sure to visit the cemetery and the mausoleums of Süleyman and Roxelana. The cemetery is particularly appealing when the hydrangeas are in bloom in late June. A number of the graves are also graced with irises. If anybody knows when they would bloom here, please leave me a message. Compared to Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque the grounds and interior of the Süleyman Mosque see far fewer visitors.

Grand Bazaar

While a must see for first time visitors to Istanbul for the sheer spectacle of its size, today the Grand Bazaar feels much more like a mall filled with glitzy jewelry shops than it did ten years ago. I don’t know if I’ve changed or it has. We followed the Rick Steves’s tour from his book through the maze of shops. The arched painted ceilings added interest but I was underwhelmed by the selection of goods. If you are interested in jewelry the intricacy and variety of pieces may be worth checking out.

Spice Bazaar

On a Saturday afternoon the Spice Bazaar was packed. It too seemed more tourist glitz than a true local market. Still, there are plenty of stalls of exotic tea combinations, spices and Turkish sweets, each one not much different from its neighbor. Unfortunately, if you don’t want to be bothered by over friendly shopkeepers you can’t show much interest in the merchandise.

Lunch on Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge crosses from the old city to the new. Restaurants with views of both sides line the lower level while fishermen line the upper. We stopped at Marinero, a serviceable fish restaurant with white table cloths and cooked to order fish and other dishes. With friendly service, nice views and good food it was a pleasant lunch, but I’m sure most of the restaurants along the bridge would offer the same.

Guide Book

Rick Steves’s guide books are a great resource for self-guided tours of the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Süleyman Mosque and  the Grand Bazaar.  I find he combines just enough historical background with intriguing stories to make a sight interesting without overwhelming those who aren’t ardent history buffs.

June 23-25, 2022