Destination Information Series
15 Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey
By Sara Tiffany
No trip to Turkey is complete without a stop in Istanbul. That’s why with each climb of Mount Ararat, we take a day to explore the city of Istanbul before heading to the mountains. While we make time to visit the most spectacular sites by staying right in the heart of the “Historic Area” of Istanbul, one day is hardly enough to see all that this incredible city has to offer. We highly recommend that all of our Ararat climbers arrive a few days early or stay a few days after the program so that you really have a chance to explore!
Sights on the Berg Adventures Itinerary
We stay in the center of the action in Istanbul. Our hotel is within walking distance of many of the key historic sites. On our day tour of Istanbul we will plan to visit the following attractions:
- Hagia Sophia: Known for its massive and distinct dome, the Hagia Sophia is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. The buildings original construction was completed in 537 under the rule of Byzantine ruler Justinian I. Since construction it has been a Byzantine cathedral, an Orthodox basilica, a Roman Catholic cathedral and a mosque. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, they converted the cathedral into a mosque and covered hundreds of intricate Christian mosaics with plaster. In 1935 when the building was converted into a museum, the mosaics were uncovered and restored to the beautiful state they are in today. You can literally see the layers of history on the walls of the interior.
- Blue Mosque: Built between 1609 and 1616, the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is best known for the 20,000 handmade blue ceramic tiles that adorn the building’s interior. This mosque is still an active place of worship and is known for its six minarets as opposed to the typical four.
- Topkapi Palace: This enormous palace was home to the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace stands as one of the largest and best preserved Ottoman sites.
- Grand Bazaar: One of the world’s largest markets, the Grand Bazaar, is sure to impress. Here you will find everything Turkish from colorful lanterns and porcelain to hand crafted carpets and clothing. One visit is never enough!
- Spice Market or Egyptian Bazaar: You can smell it a block away, in a good way. Here you will find all the freshest and most potent spices, teas, dried goods and nuts you could ever dream of. Never again will you want to buy spices from the grocery store after sampling these.
With More Time in Istanbul
Berg Adventures is happy to organize a personal guide for you during your extended stay in the city.
- The Bosphorus Strait: One of the best ways to navigate the city is by boat. You can avoid traffic and see the sites from a totally different perspective! There are two ways to explore the Bosphorus Strait. First, you can take a boat cruise. While these tours are often very informative and stop at desired locations, the boats are quite small and can make you feel dwarfed next to the many ferries and other large boats that cruise the straight. The second way to explore the strait is by ferry. From the ferry, you will be able to see the strait better, but you will need to do a bit more navigation to get where you want to go. Luckily, English is commonly spoken throughout the city so your hotel staff and even staff at the ferry terminal will likely be happy to help you.
- Kariye Museum (The Chora Church): This beautiful Byzantine church has ornate frescoes and detailed mosaics. Originally built during the 5th century, the church was converted into a mosque in the 16th century. Amazingly, the mosaics and frescos have been preserved and are in beautiful condition. The church is located in a quiet neighborhood on the west end of Istanbul and provides a relaxing break from the otherwise bustling city.
- Basilica Cistern: Also known as the “Sunken Palace”, the cistern located opposite of the Blue Mosque is a mysterious place where you can really feel the history of the city. The underground space is full of majestic columns that are suggested to be as old as the 4th century and is said to have held up to 100,000 tons of water. Don’t worry, it is virtually empty of water today and has been cleaned and restored to operate as an informative and beautiful museum. If there is time on the Berg Adventures tour day, we will stop here to explore.
- Rumeli Fortress: Built in 1452 to protect the city from advancing ships, this impressive fort makes for a great day trip away from the city. Accessible by ferry or boat cruise, the stone walled marvel also provides great views of the Bosphorus Strait.
- Whirling Dervishes: Throughout the city, there are a few places to see whirling dervishes in action. The act itself is not so much a dance as it is a religious ceremony – a form of meditation or worship during which the Sufi practitioners spin in circles to music and chanting. Watching a ceremony is both peaceful and mesmerizing.
- Istanbul Archaeology Museum: First opened in 1891, this is a museum within a museum containing artifacts from the Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras. It remains one of the world’s largest museums and is home to over 1 million artifacts. Some of these artifacts are as old as 3000 BC and is home to Alexander sarcophagus!
- The Maiden’s Tower: A lonely ancient tower on a tiny island in the Bosphorous Strait, the building is said to have been constructed for a beautiful young princess to keep her safe from snakes. The tower is home to a restaurant and café known for their amazing views of the sunset. The ferry ride is free with a dinner booking, but you may find the price of the ride is worth the view on its own!
- Dolmabahce Palace: This is perhaps the most modern and most ornate of the palaces of Istanbul. Commissioned in 1843 by the Ottoman emperor Abdulmecid I, the palace served as the administrative center of the empire from the time of completion until 1922. Views of the Bosphorus Strait from the front gardens of the palace are stunning and the interior of the palace has few rivals. A highlight of the building is a Bohemian crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria, weighing approximately 4.5 tons!
- Galata Bridge and Galata Tower: The bridge spans the Golden Horn of Istanbul and affords great views of the city. Views from the 1500 year old Galata Tower are even better! If you go early in your trip, the view will help orient you to the layout of the city. Avoid going mid-day when the lines are long. First thing in the morning and early evening are best.
- Seleymaniye Hamam/Turkish Bath House: The unimpressive sign above the entrance to the Seleymaniye Hamam says “Since 1550”, and they aren’t joking. Seleymaniye Hamam is Turkey’s oldest traditional bath house. During a Turkish bath you move through a series of hot steam rooms, receive a massage and then finish up by rinsing in cold water. It is a treat for your sore body after a long flight, or better yet, after climbing Mount Ararat.