Istanbul: Eminönü to Beyoğlu

My life isn’t really as magical as it seems to be, that’s mostly why I make it a point to write about the beautiful things I have seen and experienced  which are much better read with rose-colored glasses and a full cup of wine or, in my case tea, extracted out of all the other actual elements that usually comes with traveling like the hassle of having gone through any international airport, the usual trepidation of having to find your hotel and having to communicate with bus drivers, taxi drivers, shop owners, and information desks, the anticipation of finding museums or all other attractions that have been endlessly researched,  and most especially, the decision or indecision of the most important element of traveling, where to eat.

But, with all of that out of my writing, and etched into my memory for myself and I only (for we all know that’s what makes traveling really fun), may I show you how magical Istanbul is!

A shopping district in Sultanahmet.

I never hesitated planning this trip. Istanbul has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I could remember. Despite all the hype in the media, Istanbul is a very safe city. I feel like if you only go to where everybody else is going, you only see what everybody else has seen.

A hotel district in Sultanahmet.

Istanbul is definitely not remote, but it’s also not in people’s minds as a top travel destination. If you have any doubts, I say go for it. This city has become tolerant of its visitors, welcoming even, that you’d be invited for some tea or Turkish coffee every time you set foot inside a shop. For those of us who find beauty in this wonderful city, visiting Istanbul feels like going back to a place way back in a time where civilizations first started.

A restaurant district in Sultanahmet.

If I could be lost anywhere, I would find myself in Istanbul. The romance of the Mediterranean engulfs the peninsula that lies between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. 2000 years of history, since the beginning of civilization, to the Ancient Greek, the Byzantine Romans, the Ottoman empires, and currently the cosmopolitan Istanbul, the city is a home of two continents, many religions, and a mixture of diverse European and Asian cultures.

Sultanahmet at night

As a first timer in Istanbul, I opted to stay in the old city, or as the locals call it, Eminönü by the Sultanahmet district. Eminönü is bounded by the Bosphorus to the east, the Golden Horn to the north, the Sea of Marmara to the south, and by the old city walls to the west. This city is what used to be Constantinople. Byzantine and Ottoman built monuments can be found in Sultanahmet Square.

Sultanahmet at night.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia was originally a Greek Orthodox Christian basilica constructed in the 6th Century for the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I and became the largest enclosed church in the next thousand years.

Sultanahmet Square with the Hagia Sophia in the background.

It’s tumultuous history includes the looting of the fourth Crusaders in 1204 and the conversion of the church into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Byzantium (or Istanbul) in the 15th century.

Inside the mosque, murals and disks adorn the columns and ceilings.

Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. Hagia Sophia in Greek is ‘Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God’. When Sultan Mehmed II ordered the Cathedral to be turned into a mosque, many Christian mosaics were plastered over, which was rediscovered years later. This historical gem was eventually converted into a museum in 1935.

Madonna and Child are flanked by roundels with Arabic script bearing the names of Muhammad and Allah.

There were eight black disks lined in gold placed high on the columns supporting the basilica’s massive dome, all in scripted with Arabic calligraphy and, after being rediscovered, Christian murals adorned each cove of the ceilings giving the Hagia Sophia an unintentional fusion of both Christianity and Islam.

Entrance to the Basilica Cistern, still at the Sultanahmet Square.

Basilica Cistern

Next to The Hagia Sophia lies an underground cistern that was built by Justinian in 542 to provide water to the city. The Basilica Cistern was recently rediscovered by Byzantine antiquities scholar Petrus Gyllius in 1545.

Even after rediscovery, the cistern would not be renovated and opened to the public until 1987.

The cistern can store up to 80,000 cubic meters of water from the Black Sea reservoirs and delivered waters to the Great Palace and its surrounding buildings through 20 km of aqueducts.

There are 336 columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals.

While you walk along the wooden beams and platforms, you’ll feel water dripping down the columns and towards the end of the opened cistern lies two eerie medusa heads used as a column base.

Ancient Medusa heads sits beneath a column upside down.

Speculation and theories explains that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as rubble to be used for building, while other historians point to early Christian practice of putting pagan statues upside-down.

Ancient Medusa heads sits beneath a column upside down. A coin toss wishing tradition has been set in place by both locals and tourist.

The Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque sits directly in front of the Hagia Sophia. This awe inspiring place is a Mecca to tourist and Islam practitioners alike. Constructed in 1609, hand painted blue tiles adorn the Mosque walls and gives its popular name.

Hair must be covered while visiting any mosque.

It’s six minarets and sweeping architectures make the Blue Mosque quite a site in contrast with the subdued tones of the Hagia Sophia which impresses visitors from the inside.

Sultanahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque

The Grand Bazaar

The historical grand old bazaar is said to be the world’s oldest covered shopping mall, with several blocks of intertwining paths and is a labyrinth that spills out into corners and side streets.

At the gates of the Grand Bazaar

The bazaar holds over 4,000 shops and attract between 250,000 to 400,000 visitors daily.

Shops that line the outside of the bazaar.

You can easily get lost if you don’t keep track as the marbled floors, tiled walls and arched walkway seem identical with shops of silver and gold jewelers, carpet makers, lamps, Turkish teas and coffees and other delights, as well as other new touristy crafts that have found its way into this old world market.

A pathway that leads to another part to the east of the entrance.

In 2014, the grand bazaar became the most visited tourist attraction in the world.

We chose a straight path that took us from the south of the entrance, to the north and out into the other side of the bazaar.

Lamp was a recurring theme during my visit in Istanbul, and I can see the charm of it. Hotels, restaurants, museums, and shops display vibrant lamps in varying shapes but all mostly spherical. Light not only holds a special place in the Ottoman culture, but also the Byzantine culture. Lamps were an important symbol of civilization for both times and easily became a symbol of wealth.

Turkish lamps were oil lamps, made in the form of glass bottles or cup-shaped bell jars which were hung from a chain.

Dried fruits, dried tea leaves, nuts, and olives are just some of the delights sold everywhere in Istanbul and Turkey is a proud exporter of these products.

Dried fruits are one of Turkey’s major exports with high production figures and dominate the world markets in this sector.

Artisans are still hammering copper plates and are still performing thousands of years of old copper art passed from generation to generation in Istanbul’s narrow alleys and old styled shops in the Quarter of the Copppersmiths.

Antique copper plates line up the vaulted walls and ceilings and are a great addition to your antiques collection.

Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge not only connects the Old City with Beyoğlu and the Galata District, it also houses several open air markets, restaurants, and bars besides bridge railings that offer beautiful and expansive views of the Old City’s skyline.

A person who went from the Old City to Galata via the bridge set foot in a different civilization and different culture.

The Galata Bridge became a symbolic link that literally bridged the old traditional Istanbul, to the new districts of Galata, Beyoglu, and other parts of Istanbul where non-Muslim people lived.

Spanning the Golden Horn, Istanbul’s iconic Galata Bridge is a top spot for fishing.

The romantic setting of the bridge made it a famous painting and engraving subject.

People have had a long fascination for bridges, often making it into their artwork, folklore, and urban legends.

Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is a Romanesque style medieval stone tower built in 1348. It was the tallest building in Istanbul at the time and was later used during the Ottoman era as an observation tower for spotting fire.

Cobbled stone path leads the way to the tower, making it for a pleasant stroll or, hike up.

The watch tower of Turkey can be seen from the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus which sits on the Asian continent, and from the Eminonu (old City area) which sits on the European continent.

Coffee shops and restaurants with outside seating make for a great stop so you can enjoy the view.

The Galata Tower is also a famous subject for paintings and carvings as it dominates the skyline while offering a panoramic vista of Istanbul’s historic peninsula.

Although it’s not known when the Galata Tower was exactly built, it is commonly agreed that the tower took life during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian around 507 CE.

When the ottomans captured Istanbul, the Galata Tower was converted into a prison and was also used as a dormitory for a military band. At one point in history, a man named Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi jumped the tower with wings attached and successfully made it over the Bosphorus to Uskudar.

The tower was previously known as the ‘Christea Turris,’ or the Tower of Christ, by the Genoese, while the Byzantines referred to it as the ‘Megalos Pyrgos,’ or the Great Tower.

Eminönü’s Sultanahmet District, the Grand Bazaar, the Galata Bridge, and Beyoğlu’s Galata District and Galata Tower were just some of the highlights of my week long stay in Istanbul. During this short time, I have seen a lot of history, crossed from the older district of Istanbul to the newer side and experienced different cultures, different faiths, and dined multiethnic cuisines.

Istanbul cannot be completely described in a few paragraphs, and the things to do surpassed the amount of time I had to spend in the city. The history alone in this place will give you a look into our past, and probably, the fusion of religions in our future. I truly am planning on returning as there are a thousand other things and a thousand other places I wished to do and see. My experience in Istanbul was truly visceral, palpable, and deeply unforgettable.

41 thoughts on “Istanbul: Eminönü to Beyoğlu”

  1. I have still not made it to Turkey yet. Hope to do it soon, and as a cities person Istanbul will be top of the list to visit! Your experience there looks amazing. Great photos – especially the columns disappearing into the distance. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Yes Alex! There are about 300 something column that make up the Basilica Cistern, all lime covered! I’m still amazed at the preservation of the place but I suspect that being underground helped. As a city person, Istanbul has a lot to offer! You can choose to stay in the old city, or opt for the more modern part of Turkey!

    1. We went to the Basilica Cistern on our last day and I do t regret saving the best for last. I think it was the most interesting part of our trip! I can’t believe how well preserved it is! I too, loved it!

  2. Haven’t been in Istanbul, but it is quite high on my bucket list! This is one of the places, where many things are connected with key events from the past. What do you think is the best time, considering I hate hot weather?

    1. The best time to go is during the fall and winter if you hate hot weather! I absolutely loved our stay last February! The weather was cool and it was perfect for walking everywhere without breaking a sweat!

  3. Oh my goodness, Istanbul has been on my ravel bucketlist for so long too!!! I’m really hoping to get to cross it off this year. You’ve provided a great list of things to do for a first timer. I will have to check out a lot of these.

    1. I hope you get to see it soon! Yes these are the top most places to see in the Old City and if you ever decide to cross to the Galata Bridge, just take a train from Sultanahmet to Galata Bridge pier and walk to the tower! It’s a great experience seeing all these people fish, and make a stop at the restaurants and bazaar too which is located at the lower level of the bridge!

  4. I think Istanbul has got to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I loved the Basilica Cistern (mostly because it was so cool down there, and we were there in the heat of summer), and my first sight of the Blue Mosque literally took my breath away!

  5. I’d love to visit Istanbul, and it’s good to know that it’s safe too. The Blue Mosque is stunning, and I like your photos capturing the streets and everyday life. Keep it up!

  6. It looks like your stay in Old Town Istanbul was fantastic. I appreciate the history of the Hagia Sophia. How interesting to see the Christian symbols now being exposed again. The Basilica Cistern looks intriguing. I could get lost in the bazaar, and come out with a much lighter wallet. I like how east meets west in Istanbul.

  7. Unlike the others I honestly had never consider Istanbul as a travel destination but it does look enchanting and it’s hard to imagine the great treasures of history and marvels of ancient ingenuity that are available to explore. Is the sequel going to share more of the culinary discoveries??

  8. Amazing, thanks for brushing the fact that Istanbul is not a travel destination. It seems to be a beautiful place with many important religious heritages which needs to be explored. The bazaar’s looked tempting for some oil lamps.

  9. Whenever I bring up this topic to my mom she freaks out and keeps saying Turkey isn’t safe. But all these blogs, including yours, saying it’s completely safe contradicts what’s on the news. I hope I get the courage someday because that place is so beautiful.

  10. My grandfather was born in Constandinouple and I really want to visit. However the climate between our countries is not great right now and I don’t feel safe. I am jealous of you!

  11. Istanbul has been on my bucket list also! I would love to see the Hagia Sophia in person, especially after learning about it in senior year of high school. Your photos are amazing! 🙂

  12. The pictures are beautiful. Looks like you had a great time. The experiences aren’t the same for all of us though. I had a terrible holiday back when i visited.

  13. I happened to watch a certain soap sometimes back that was shot at Istanbul and I really loved the place. Now seeing Istanbul from your review, I’ve fallen for the place much more.Right from the shopping district, to the restaurant and to
    Sultanahmet at night. Well, there is too much to explore there including their monuments and well-designed buildings. Yet again, Istanbul is too historical,you chose just the right place to stay while there.

  14. Turkey has too much to offer, especially in Istanbul. From the perfect architecture of the place, to the districts themselves where all is perfectly organized; the shopping district, restaurant district and the hotel district. I think it would be hard to get lost here, right? It is such a nice place to explore no doubt! I’m certain your stay was just awesome!

  15. Such a beautiful places and yes, it is really looks like a magical place I am going to add this place to my bucket list.

  16. Istanbul has never crossed my mind as someplace that I’d like to visit one day… But after reading this and looking through those beautiful pictures from your trip, I’d have to say it’s crossing my mind now! I love where you said “if you only go to where everybody else is going, you only see what everybody else has seen.” I love that perspective and that really struck a chord with me!?

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