“I only have two afternoons to explore the whole of Istanbul!”
I was a complete fool who booked an Emirates flight to Turkey to accommodate for nothing more than a busy one-week conference.
“One week is more than enough,” I told myself. I don’t think there’s anything much to see there—the sooner I return home, the better. Right?
How bloody wrong was I!
Struggling to decide what to do, I started conversing with knowledgeable people.
“Istanbul is a beautiful cultural melting pot between Europe and Asia.”
“You should go to Ephesus. It’s like… the world’s most famous ancient ruin.”
Then I did my own research—when I discovered the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia and the cotton castle of Pammukale, I realized I’m screwed.
How am I going to split 1 week between Istanbul, Ephesus, Pammukale, Cappadocia and back at Istanbul to catch my flight back home??!
I couldn’t. So I had to give up Pammukale (it still pains my heart to this day) and cut down my Istanbul exploration to two minuscule afternoons. But I was determined to make the best use of whatever few times I had! So here I’m highlighting the five historical sites that I visited:
1. Beylerbeyi Palace
Located at the Asian side of Istanbul, Beylerbeyi Palace was built in the 1860s as Ottoman sultans’ summer residence and a state house to entertain foreign guests. They take great lengths to preserve its majestic interior, with no photography allowed and proper barriers installed. Nonetheless, its rich decoration of frescoes, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, elegant carpets and stairs make the tour around the palace’s rooms worth every penny spent.
2. Hippodrome of Constantinople
Oh… the great city of Constantinople—the capital of Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires. The Hippodrome was the sporting and social center of Constantinople. Unfortunately not much of its ancient architecture remains, leaving the site with only semi-interesting curios: Obelisk of Theodosius (pictured), Serpent Column, Walled Obelisk and Statues of Porphyrios.
3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Famous for the blue tiles on its interior walls, this historic mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque. It’s full of İznik-styled ceramic designs of various flower motifs—and it probably has hundreds of hanging chandeliers and stained glasses. Also, its six-minaret design has my personal vote as Istanbul’s most photogenic-looking building.
4. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is terrific. Over the centuries, it has evolved from a cathedral to a mosque, and finally, a museum. It was the world’s largest cathedral for a millennium, which is easy to tell, because you can literally spend the entire day there. It’s a true masterpiece of the Byzantine era with deep influence on Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim architectures. No wonder they called it one of the Seven Wonders of the Medieval World. If you can only visit 1 place in your short visit to Istanbul, make sure it’s this one.
5. Topkapi Palace
I really want to like Topkapi Palace. It’s shiny, golden and luxurious. However, with tourism progressing at a faster pace than conservation efforts could handle, Topkapi Palace felt like a giant tourist trap to me. The chambers and rooms are showing signs of deterioration. And it’s very hard to appreciate the Ottoman treasures and jewelries with massive long queues in dark, humid passages and plenty of heads blocking your view.
My advice for those short in time: Make sure you visit Hagia Sophia and get a good view of the Blue Mosque (the exterior at least, if you can’t afford the time to go inside). The Bosphorus Cruise is also a must—there’s no better way to appreciate that many beautiful buildings in Istanbul in such a short amount of time. Visit at least one of the palaces, possibly Beylerbeyi or the famous Dolmabahçe.
What are your favorite historical sites in Istanbul?