Istanbul, the city of many names. Part 2, a unique, fascinating city.

In the first part of this post, I focused only on the Archaeological Park, which is actually a small part of the city. Istanbul is a huge city with thousands of interesting places and things to do. However, the properties inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List are all located in the peninsula separating the Golden Horn from the Sea of Marmara.

In this second part I want to describe my experience in the rest of the city, which includes visits to some of the other World Heritage sites, part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, but not exclusively.

As I said, Istanbul is huge. Forget about walking anywhere. The best way to move around the city is public transport, better if underground or on rails, as traffic can be seriously bad.

The area around Istanbul University, in the middle of the peninsula, is where most of the interesting sights are located: the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque and Şehzade Mosque complex, the Grand Bazaar, the ancient aqueduct of Valens and more.

The Ottoman Süleymaniye Mosque is located on what is called the third hill (Istanbul is known as the city of the Seven Hills, following the model of Rome). It is the largest mosque of the city and dominates the skyline of the historical area of Istanbul both during the day and at night. It is an impressive building and it has retained most of the structural and architectural original integrity. Unfortunately it wasn’t able to take a single decent picture of the magnificent interiors. Shame on me!

Day view of the Süleymaniye Mosque from the Galata Bridge, on a rainy day.
Night view of the Süleymaniye Mosque from the Galata Bridge.

South-West of the Süleymaniye Mosque, is one of the areas that host the old vernacular timber housing. The integrity of these houses is vulnerable and threatened due to the changes in the social structure of the area, that is also affecting the use of the buildings. They should be preserved as much as possible as they represent a beautiful memory of the traditional way of living.

Another important sight in the area is the 16th century Şehzade Mosque complex, another example of Ottoman religious architecture, that is more than worth a visit.

Şehzade mosque, in the Conservation Area of Süleymaniye Mosque.
Detail of one of the beautifully decorated minarets of Şehzade mosque.

Very close to Şehzade Mosque, the ancient Roman aqueduct of Valens still stands across the busy Atatürk Bulvarı boulevard. The acqueduct was completed in the 4th century AD and it was till used under the Ottomans. The remaining section of the acqueduct is just over 900 metres long and can be followed on foot to both ends. I followed it all the way to the west, on the way to the Zeyrek Mosque (also in the World Heritage List), which unfortunately at that time was closed and couldn’t be visited.

The aqueduct of Valens at the point where it crosses the busy Atatürk boulevard.
The western end of the aqueduct of Valens, not far from the Zeyrek area of settlement, around the Zeyrek Mosque.

This blog is about the UNESCO World Heritage properties, but I believe that any visitor to Istanbul should go and experience also some other of the many sights that this incredible city offers.

Something that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be missed is the famous Grand Bazaar. The enormous Grand Bazaar is an overwhelming mix of colours, odors, noises that fill the senses. Vendors won’t leave you alone and they’ll try to sell you anything they have with incredible skills. It’s an amazing experience, not to be missed.

Inside the endless maze of the Grand Bazaar.
The entrance of the Grand Bazaar from Nuruosmaniye mosque.
The roads around the Grand Bazaar are full of shops and street vendors.

Something I really enjoyed after my long days walking around the city was a visit to the Hamam, also known as Turkish Bath. Trying the real Turkish Bath in Istanbul was such a great experience. I went to Çemberlitaş Hamami (the Hamam of the Column) which is located next to the Column of Constantine, not far from the Grand Bazaar. I haven’t tried any other hamam in Istanbul therefore I cannot judge the quality of the place, anyway I really enjoyed it.

One of the many Hamam (Turkish Baths) in Istanbul. Something to try!

Another market not to be missed is the historic spice market. Here the senses, especially the sense of smell, will be completely saturated. I particularly liked the way the spices are displayed, it makes you want to buy them all and try them to improve your culinary skills.

The colourful spice market.
Every little shop in the spice market is an explosion of tasty colours.

Next to the spice market there is another popular mosque: Yeni Cami, or New Mosque. This mosque is popular because, being waterfront, it appears in every picture taken from the Galata Bridge, which is a modern bridge crossing the Golden Horn. I dedicated it a short, but interesting, visit.

Yeni Cami (the New Mosque) from the harbour.
The courtyard of Yeni Cami.
Yeni Cami at night.

Next to Yeni Cami there is a pier with several tourist boats offering cruises along the Bosphorus, or one can take the ferry to cross over to the Asian side of the city and what it used to be the westernmost train station in Asia: Haydarpaşa Gari. It was still open in 2011 when I visited Istanbul but, since 2013, all the train services have been suspended.

Haydarpaşa Gari, on the Asian side of Istanbul. Now closed, it was still functioning in 2011, when I visited the city.

Among the many other interesting things to do in Istanbul, I would suggest a visit to the Beyoğlu district, separated from the historic peninsula by the Golden Horn. Spend some time around Taksim Square, a vibrant area popular for the nightlife, take the historic tram along İstiklal Avenue, visit the prominent Galata Tower with its great view of the city and the Golden Horn.

The historic tram that runs along İstiklal Avenue, through the Galatasary quarter in the Beyoğlu district of the city.
A view of the Historic Peninsula, across the Golden Horn, from the top of the Galata Tower. The big mosque is Süleymaniye, on its left is the Beyazıt tower, in the area of the University of Istanbul. At the extreme right of this picture taken in 2011, it is possible to see the construction site of the Haliç Metro bridge that was completed in 2013 and drastically changed the skyline of the city.

Time needed to visit the historic peninsula and the rest of the city

As I said in the first part of this post, the city of Istanbul is big and very interesting. An in-depth exploration will take days. If one is interested in mostly the properties inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, 3 days could be enough time, but I suggest to spend more in this amazing city. First of all because there are so many more things to see, but also to enjoy the local lifestyle without rushing through the tourist attractions. Try tasty (or less tasty) local food, like a fish sandwich on Galata Bridge, drink delicious turkish coffee or tea like the locals do, smoke shisha in one of the countless smokers den, indulge in a relaxing Turkish Bath, get lost in the numerous markets. I spent 6 days in Istanbul and it felt like it wasn’t enough time. I left with the feeling that I would have needed more time to ge to know the beauty and complexity of this place.

Reasons for being inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List

Besides the obvious reasons, i.e. the unique architectural masterpieces that are all around the city, the Historic Areas of Istanbul deserve the World Heritage status for being influential in the development of architecture and urban planning. Hagia Sophia, for example, became the model for churches and mosques both in the West and in the East. The large number, and the great range, of historical buildings represent a memory from the different eras the city went through, from the ancient time, through the Byzantines and Ottoman civilization, to the modern times. It is an outstanding testimony of different phases of human history. The list of monuments of Istanbul is endless.

All these treasures are vulnerable, though. Like any other city, Istanbul is changing and will keep changing and, due to the lack of a management plan, the development of the city could threaten the integrity of the Historic Areas. It is extremely important to ensure that the development doesn’t compromise the distinctive characters of the place and, thanks to UNESCO, the problems have been addressed and the authorities are working in the right direction.

Unfortunately the weather was really bad during my stay in Istanbul, therefore the quality of my pictures, not the best normally, is ever poorer. I really hope to get the chance to visit Istanbul again some day because it’s a city that struck me for its beauty and I would like to find out more of its (not so) secret gems.



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