Few ports around the world offer visitors the same allure of the many enthralling experiences in Istanbul, from the bustling markets of the Grand Bazar, the cobblestone streets of the old town, the delicious traditional dishes and the friendly local atmosphere, the relaxing river cruises and vibrant nightlife, to the historic Blue Mosque and the underground cistern.
The cosmopolitan nature of the city is a testament to the ancient Persian, Greek, Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman empires, who all had an influence on the evolution of Istanbul and there are an endless number of attractions to encounter.
However, for anyone arriving for a short period of time, or considering the shore excursions in Istanbul, the following are the 5 best places you should make sure are on the itinerary:
The Blue Mosque
Beautiful arches and thousands of finely placed tiles cover the interior of this Ottoman masterpiece and while there are many iconic sites around the city, the Blue Mosque is arguably the most famous of them all.
Built in 1916, this enormous structure is a true work of art with tall stained glass windows that welcome the sunlight into a most spectacular interior. More than 20,000 blue tiles adorn the inside walls of the mosque which is how it was given the name, and the mesmerizing lights which dangle above the prayer mat, is simply one of the most fascinating sight in Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque was build in 1617 as an alternative to the Hagia Sophia which is on the opposite side of the courtyard but while they are both beautiful in their own right, the Blue Mosque certainly differentiates itself with a slightly more extravagant appearance. Giant domes cascade their way down the exterior of the Mosque which can best be seen from the courtyard to the west, although regardless of the angle, this is simply one of the best things to see in Istanbul.
One of the great things about the Blue Mosque is that it is still an active place of worship meaning it now offers the unique opportunity for visitors, to listen to the call to prayer and then watch as the ensuing pilgrims streamline their way inside.
A very short distance from the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is just as awe inspiring as the nearby neighbor and dates all the way back to 360AD when it was originally built as a Christian church. Despite a brief occupancy from the Romans, Hagia Sophia was eventually overrun in 1453 by invaders led by Sultan Mehmed who instantly declared the church a mosque and it would stay this way for centuries.
Unlike the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia is not an active place of prayer anymore, but rather a very impressive museum. Elegant patterns of art trace their way high up to the ceilings while chandelier-like lights hang down low and cast an almost magical glow around the old mosque. It does not take much to imagine the history which took place on the insides of this stunning piece of architecture, including the crowning of emperors and then the many treasures which would have been concealed.
Although technically a museum, the Hagia Sophia is an unforgettable and majestic sight which evokes mystery and emotion amongst the visitors you step inside, and if you are destined to take a trip to the blue mosque on your trip to Istanbul, then it would only be right to explore the opposite side of the courtyard.
The Grand Bazaar
Ancient traditions and an endless stretch of stalls, craft and excited merchants, the Grand Bazaar is another must see on a trip to Istanbul.
Thousands of shops are spread out across more than 50 streets which make up this, the oldest market in Turkey, and a staggering quarter of a million people visit the Grand Bazar on a daily basis. Whatever you seek, you are sure to find it here and a short visit to the marketplace is sure to leave you with many opportunities to check out the local crafts, while also interacting with the local people.
Variety is essence of the Grand Bazar with a staggering range of products on offer, from the silk scarves, the leather buckles, the authentically decorated rugs, to all kinds of jewelry and home ware. As the country’s largest and oldest market, it has long being a marketplace catering toward the local needs of the city, but recent years has seen a shift in this focus toward catering for the tourism industry.
The Grand Bazar is a great place to get up close and personal with Istanbul, to get lost in the markets, and find yourself within a true local experience.
Dating back to 532AD and built by during the Byzantine occupation of Istanbul, the Basilica is effectively a sunken cistern and an incredibly impressive thing to see in Istanbul.
Wooden platforms from ancient times had been erected over the water and between the hundreds of stunning columns to allow for visitors to walk inside the cistern although there was a time when small boats would be the method of transportation to get inside. Dimly lit, the Cistern evokes a magical feel and it is easy to imagine a time when ancient events would take place on the grounds.
Below the platforms, large carp swim in, around and between the columns which only adds to the mystique of the Cistern while at the back of the structure, the famous upside heads of Medusa are always one of the highlights of a Basilica Cistern tour. There is no explanation for the origin of these statues, or the reason for them being there, but their presence is certainly one of intrigue and a memorable experience.
The Basilica Cistern is not only a famous and artistic masterpiece but also one of the most unique attractions you can see when you visit Turkey: it’s not often you get the opportunity to explore a mysterious, underground cistern.
Many sultans over the centuries have inhabited the infamous Topkapi Palace, an enormous structure built by the Ottoman Empire where an incredible 4000 people could live at one time.
The Arabic scriptures which adorn the walls and interior of the palace give it very much a unique appeal by the standards of any palace and similar to the other attractions on this list, the Topkapi Palace is another magical experience which peaceful gardens and courtyards, the most elegant rooms and the spectacular “Harem”, where the Sultan and his Harem resided all those years ago.
A trip to the palace without seeing the Harem would almost deem it incomplete and although a separate ticket is required to enter this part of the building, it offers the most incredible insight into what life must have been like for the people who lived there over the centuries.
The tiles, décor and artwork inside the Harem are an unforgettable sight and to walk in the footsteps of so many powerful and wealthy royalty, is a unique feeling which will leave you in awe long after you leave through the stone walled entrance.
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazar and Topkapi Palace can all be visited on shore excursions from Istanbul Port.