Istanbul: where East meets West and quite possibly, one of the most incredible cities on this planet. It is a city steeped in history, bursting with culture and the perfect blend of old and new. Here, I’ve compiled a list of 5 things that you MUST fit into your itinerary, as without them, a real Istanbul tour will be left incomplete.
- DRINK Sahlap. Turkish coffees and mint teas are what tourists view as the epitome of Turkish drinks and for some reason, I don’t seem to hear much about Sahlap. Sahlap is a milk-based, cinnamon-topped, sweet, traditional Turkish drink perfect for winter days and cool, summer nights. We enjoyed our first taste of this hot drink aboard a boat on the Bosphorus river and couldn’t get enough. It is so warming and delicious, you’ll be craving it when winter strikes at home.
- CLIMB Galata. When Galata tower was rebuilt in stone in 1348, it was the tallest tower in Constantinople. During the Ottoman rule, its vantage point was used to sport fires in the city and for some time, the tower was even used as a prison. Now, it is a museum that features a lift taking visitors from the lower to the upper floor, inviting them to marvel and gasp at the incredible views over the city be it at sunrise, midday, sunset or in the darkness of the night. A warning for the faint-hearted: the perimeter of the dome is circled by a narrow ledge and small, metal railing due to which it operates a one-way system. Once you step outside, the only way back in is by taking tentative steps all the way around.
- VISIT Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Camii. Mosques are a plenty in Istanbul and just within the Sultanahmet vicinity itself, mosques are located within stone’s throws away from each other and the Athaan can be heard all over. Sultan Mehmet Pasha Camii however, holds a particular significance. Not only is it a work by architect Sinan who also designed the magnificent Suleymaniye Mosque, but the pulpit of Mehmet Pasha Camii contains fragments of the blessed Hajr-E-Aswad in it. Mehmet Pasha Camii is only a short 10-minute walk from the Blue Mosque but tucked away from tourists that it is so quiet and entry into the mosque is quick and calm. Today, the mosque also houses an Islamic boarding school for young boys.
- MARVEL at Panorama 1453. This is truly a hidden gem and one I recommend to all my friends and family who are visiting Istanbul. Never have they come back disappointed. Panorama 1453 is in the area of Topkapi (not to be confused with the Topkapi museum in Sultanahmet) and as its name suggests, is centred around the Ottoman’s conquering of Constantinople. The main feature of the site is the incredibly detailed panoramic painting located in the circular dome of the building that has ‘immortalised’ the morning of May 29, 1453. Due to it covering the circular walls and the ceiling, the painting has no beginning and no end and with the use of sound effects and life-sized props, the scene comes to life in such a way that the viewer is taken on a breath-taking journey back in time. AHFJ top tip: hire audio guides at the entrance to get a true understanding of all the details and stories hidden in the painting. You will be entranced.
- TOUR Dolmahbache Palace. Dolmahbache is on first sight a regal and imposing structure, with an architectural style that diverges from the surrounding buildings. It sits on the coast of the Bosphorus, inciting awed gasps from passers-by. However, when uncovering its origins this very design begins to represent the decline of Ottoman rule. Sultan Abdel Hamid 1 ordered its construction to resemble the grandeur of European palaces, thus becoming a manifestation of departure from traditional Ottoman design and sadly, after spending 12 years having it built, he only lived in it for 3 years. The huge debt it incurred was a contributing factor to the deterioration of the financial situation of the Ottoman Empire. Such a significant piece of Ottoman history most certainly deserves a visit.
- EXPLORE Museum Of Turkish And Islamic Arts. Topkapi palace is renowned for holding artefacts allegedly belonging to the prophets (peace be upon them) but a hidden gem directly opposite the Blue Mosque also contains incredible historical pieces. The Museum Of Turkish And Islamic Arts is famous for combinign Turkish and Islamic relics under one roof and a part of this includes one of the ‘best rug collections,’ many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Like Topkapi Palace, it also brings important works such as Quran folios dating back to the Early Islamic Period. The museum is also open during off-peak times, which makes it easier for guests to walk around, observe and really take in the displays.
Scenes at Panorama 1453 View of the Bosphorus from Dolmabahce Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts