Some cities are so famous and we expect so much from them that when we finally arrive, after the initial moment of joy, the other, less pleasant phase of disappointment comes over us. Yes, the monuments are stunning, the food is good, the weather is perfect, but there is something missing. And it's hard to explain what. On the other hand, there are places pretty ugly, chaotic or completely unknown - we don't even know what to think - and we fall in love with them. That was the case for me with Tbilisi in Georgia, Prishtina in Kosovo or Kiev in Ukraine - although virtually non existent on the tourist world map, they enchanted me beyond imagination. Istanbul, in turn, was the place I had always dreamed of visiting and in the end, although I enjoyed it, I felt that thing that there's something missing. You will surely find the photos in this post absolutely stunning and you might think that what I say is silly. But I'll try my best to explain my point of view below.
Why Istanbul turned out to be disappointing
I had always wanted to visit Turkey - its famous landscapes, oriental touch and superb cuisine are undoubtedly attractions on a global scale. Having experienced amazingly beautiful, cozy architecture with illuminated balconies, the fortress overlooking the city and superb food in Tbilisi as well as Turkish countryside, I thought Istanbul would turn out to be a better, bigger, richer version of the Georgian capital. Unfortunately, it didn't.
Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople - the capital of the Byzantine Empire) is a place of enormous historical importance. But nowadays, its great past is hardly ever present. While seated on the train from the airport to the center I was observing the city and its surroundings - it seemed very bleak and unoriginal - filled with concrete blocks, it reminded more of a post-Soviet town rather than the super famous tourist attraction. It was a surprise for me because I'd heard so many great things about Istanbul from my friends. I thought that in the historical center, it must be way better. The other Turkish villages I'd seen were absolutely charming after all.
However, when I arrived at the Sultan Ahmet Park right in the heart of the city, the feeling of disappointment didn't disappear. Apart from the beautiful and most famous Istanbul's sites - The Blue Mosque and The Hagia Sophia, the city center was still quite grey, full of heavy blocks and, with the exception of a few streets, lacking the typical for the region, beautiful houses with balconies that can be seen everywhere else in Turkey, the Balkans or Caucasus. I had expected so much more from such a famous and massively advertised city.
I'm not trying to say that Istanbul is ugly or not worth visiting, it definitely is, and, if you haven't traveled much or if it's enough for you to take a selfie of one of the famous places, you'll probably love it. But if you prefer the charming towns which have the real, local soul and if you have traveled all over the region including the unpopular sites, you'll understand why Istanbul left us disappointed. Yes, it has the bazaar, the Blue Mosque and other beautiful landmarks, but it all seems hidden in the jungle of the ordinary concrete buildings - and visiting a city shouldn't only be about its most famous monuments - it's about the ordinary streets too and their atmosphere - at least for me.
Why Istanbul turned out to be beautiful -
Top 10 things to see in Istanbul
Now, after 'complaining' about the first impressions and overall ordinary architecture of Istanbul, it's time to highlight its beautiful side. First, if you like the southern/Middle Eastern cuisine, Istanbul is a paradise. It's absolutely amazing and not that costly at all. The same goes with accommodation. Another good thing is that the most important sites are in the city center, close to one another, so it's easy to walk - one day would be enough to see all of them, however, due to the long lines and the time needed to roam around museums, palaces and mosques - I think two days is minimum. All the landmarks shown here are located on the European side of Istanbul, where most of the historical sites are placed. To see the Asian, more residential side, you'll definitely need more time.
1. The Blue Mosque
The 17th century Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is the most famous landmark of Istanbul, visible from anywhere in the city center. The monumental temple boasts as many as 5 domes and 6 minarets. The interior is lavishly decorated with geometrical patterns and beautiful chandeliers covered in gold and gems. Especially attractive at night, from the nearby park where the fountains "dance" illuminated in the foreground. The entry is free of charge.
2. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia (located very near the Blue Mosque), former Christian Orthodox church from the 6th century is a spectacular example of the architecture of Constantinople. In the middle ages, it was transformed into a mosque, thus you can notice the minarets around it. However, inside, you can still admire the Christian frescoes together with Arabic inscriptions. Just like the Blue Mosque, it's especially beautiful after dark.
Now, Hagia Sophia is a museum - no religious events are held in it. The entry, unfortunately is quite expensive: 40 TL (12 EUR/14 USD). And, to be honest, Hagia Sophia is more attractive from the inside. You can also use the 5 day Istanbul Museum Pass for 85 TL - it includes most of the sites in Istanbul - more details here. Note that Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays.
3. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square (the ancient hippodrome), situated between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque was a sporting center of Constantinople. Nowadays, not much of it is left - however, in the center you can admire the Obelisk of Theodosius, imported from Egypt in the 4th century. The square also offers beautiful views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
4. Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern, located right behind Hagia Sophia, was built in the 6th century and was used to store water during the times of the Byzantine Empire. The cistern is an underground chamber with beautiful columns, all perfectly preserved - contrary to the other Roman monuments in modern Istanbul. Two of the columns feature the face of Medusa - a monster in Greek mythology. It was one of my favorite sites in Istanbul. Note that it was featured in the famous film with Tom Hanks - "Inferno". The entry fee is 20 TL (6 EUR/7 USD), it seems that Basilica Cistern is not included in the 5 day Museum Pass.
5. Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is located around 15 minute walk to the west from the Basilica Cistern. You can find many Turkish souvenirs here and it is probably the only place in Istanbul where you can feel the real oriental atmosphere. Unfortunately, it's only because of the goods in the bazaar, and not because the cozy, overall architecture. Be careful and make sure you bargain a lot as the sellers tend to be quite rude and straightforward - especially if you want to take some photos.
6. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace (15th century) is located right to the East of Hagia Sophia. It used to be the seat of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire for over 4 centuries. The area is quite large but you will have to prepare yourself for a long wait in lines, especially to certain rooms (like harem). Allow at least 2 hours to visit the whole palace. The architecture is stunning, unfortunately the entry fee is not: 40 TL (12 EUR/14 USD) + 15 TL (5 EUR/5.70 USD) additionally for the Harem room. Topkapi Palace is included in the 5 day Museum Pass, however.
7. Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar is another 15 minutes to the north from the Topkapi Palace. It's the second famous shopping mall after the Grand Bazaar in Turkey. Those who love food, oriental spices and condiments will feel like in paradise. I, personally, preferred it to the Grand Bazaar. Unfortunately, more and more spice stands are replaced by ordinary ones selling souvenirs.
8. Suleymaniye Mosque
The 16th century Suleymaniye Mosque is located near the Spice Bazaar and is the largest in Istanbul. It is also as impressive as the Blue Mosque, dominating the skyline of the city, especially beautiful from the other side of the Galata Bridge.
The Bosphorus is a natural strait that connects the two seas: the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It divides Istanbul into two parts - the western being European and the eastern - Asian. Other than that, there is absolutely nothing special about it. There are some boat tours along the Bosphorus but I found them extremely overpriced.
10. Galata Tower
The Galata Tower lies on the other side of the Galata Bridge - opposite to the Suleymaniye Mosque. Note that although you're crossing the bridge - you're still on the European side - the Galata Bridge isn't built over the Bosphorus. The bridge itself is very nice and you'll see hundreds of fishermen on it.
The Galata Tower and the ordinary area around it is somehow nicer than the other side. It lacks important historical monuments, but the buildings are more cozy and a little bit less cold, heavy and concrete. The tower also offers beautiful views - the best time to climb its windy staircase is at the sunset - you can see Topkapi Palace, the mosques, Bosphorus and overall panorama of Istanbul perfectly.
To get to the Galata Tower, you can walk around 20 minutes from the Suleymaniye Mosque - it is worth it for the views! To go back, you can also take the tram to the city center. The fee to enter the Galata Tower is around 20 TL (12 EUR/14 USD) - most of the online reviews say it's a rip off and I agree with that, however, I really enjoyed the views and the area - it's definitely the best viewpoint in Istanbul - if you want to take some nice photos (like me, for the blog), it is worth it. Otherwise, you might as well skip it.
Is Istanbul/Turkey safe in 2017?
With the recent news about the terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, Istanbul's reputation has been seriously damaged. The closer you get to the Middle East, the worse it seems to get. Nevertheless, the best thing in such situations is to put aside emotions and prejudice and apply logic. There are many perfectly safe places in the area (Oman, UAE, Jordan, Israel).
Numerous attacks have occurred in Western Europe, with way more fatalities than in Istanbul, yet you don't hear everywhere how dangerous Paris or Belgium is. I'm not saying the risk is zero, however the chance of you being a victim of a terrorist attack in Istanbul incredibly low. In other parts of Turkey, even lower.
I understand where the hesitation and anxiety may come from, I experienced it myself, due to the media coverage. But to be honest, nowadays, I would be more afraid to travel to Paris than to Istanbul. I was in Istanbul twice, quite recently had a stopover, spent a day there and didn't feel threatened.
Be observant and aware of what's going on, keep up with the news, don't let the terrorists succeed and achieve their goal - to instill the fear of traveling in you.
The only exception of the rule, where people still have fun during public holidays and celebrations without fear, soldiers and heavily armed security forces seems to be mocked and ridiculed so many times, the Eastern Part of the old continent...
To sum up, in my opinion, the risk of getting involved in a terrorist attack in Istanbul is similar to the risk in Western Europe. If you wish to avoid Paris, Brussels, Rome or Berlin, also avoid Istanbul. The attacks may happen in any major European city and it is horrible. I fail to understand why in this day and age humanity is still so brutal and follows the most primitive instincts while on the other hand we have science, law and could live in peace and prosperity all together sharing the experiences and learning from other cultures.
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