THE GALATA TOWER
The Galata Tower is located in the European neighbourhood of Begloyu near the Galata Bridge and is a viewpoint with the best views of Istanbul. From above we can see the so-called "golden horn". It’s a 7.5 km long estuary located at the mouth of the Bosphorus Strait that divides the city forming a peninsula on which the oldest part of the city sits. There we can find the tower across the strait and the Asian part of Istanbul.
The tower was built as a lighthouse in the year 528. It was later converted into a watchtower by the Genoese in 1348 and was known to them as the tower of Christ. It was saved from being destroyed in 1453 during the fall of Constantinople. The Genoese governor negotiated with the sultan to facilitate the conquest, in exchange for the Ottoman projectiles not to destroy the Galata neighbourhood where the Genoese community lived.
The tower can be seen from many points in the city. It is 66 meters high, with nine floors, in which one of them has a viewpoint of 51 meters. On the upper floors there is a cafeteria and a restaurant where dinner shows are held.
The best time to visit the tower is first thing in the morning, during weekdays, to avoid long queues forming throughout the day, as it is a highly visited tourist attraction. Although enjoying the sunset at the last hour of the afternoon is also a recommended plan.
An elevator facilitates the ascent to the viewpoint from where we can see the most important places in the old part of the city: St Sofia, Topkapi Palace, New Mosque, etc. From here, if you like photography, you have an excellent opportunity to take beautiful 360o panoramic photos of the city. At specific hours of the day you will experience something different when hearing the prayer calls from the many minarets of the city.
Büyük Hendek Cd, Bereketzade
By tram to Karaköy, line T1. Here take the Tünel funicular
During your stay in Istanbul, one more attraction is gastronomy. Among many things you should not miss out on is trying the typical Turkish sweets. They resemble jelly beans and are called “lökum” or Turkish delight. It is a soft sweet treat, with a denser texture than gelatine.
The main ingredients are sugar, syrup or honey, starch for it’s consistency and gelatine to give it a soft touch. Many other ingredients can be added for flavour. Such as juices or various essences: raspberry, lemon, apricot, mint, coconut, ginger, cinnamon, coffee, chocolate and even rose. It is also common for them to contain nuts, the most popular being pistachio, but hazelnuts or walnuts are used as well.
Normally these sweets are cut in the form of cubes and they are usually covered with powdered sugar or fine flour. But there are many varieties of shapes, colours and flavours depending on the ingredients used.
Its origins date back to when Sultan Abdul Hamid I reigned, around 1776
A confectioner named Haci Bekir Efendi arrived in Istanbul from Anatolia where he established a shop in the centre of the city and began to make them. In short time he achieved popularity and success. In the 19th century, lökum became well-known in various countries throughout the British Empire.
Lökum can be consumed as a dessert or as a treat, often accompanying Turkish coffee, which is a bit strong! It’s ideal to consume them freshly made but they can also be bought in boxes for take away.
It is a very popular type of sweet in the Balkan countries (Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania) and also in some parts of the Middle East (Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt). In the Turkish culture they are usually offered during in the Ramadan festival.
If after trying them and you still want more, you should also try the "baklava". It’s a pastry with crushed pistachios or walnuts, soaked in syrup.
THE GRAND BAZAAR
If you don´t want to miss out on one of the essential spots in Istanbul, you can´t miss out on the Grand Bazaar! It’s one of the largest and oldest markets in the world. Located in the centre of the old city in the European part. Everything about it are superlatives: it has 22 gates, 58 streets and about 4,000 shops covering an area 45,000 square meters. With between 250,000 and 400,000 visits a day it is one of the most visited markets in the world. Inside there are a couple of small patios where you can rest from the hustle and bustle and recover your strength with your beverage of choice.
Its origin date back to the 15th century, after the conquest of Constantinople (this was the name of Istanbul at that time) by Sultan Mehmed II, when bazaars selling fabrics began to appear. In 1461 the sultan ordered the construction of a new marketplace, this is the origin of the Grand Bazaar today. The shops are grouped by types of activity, or guilds.
What can we buy in this huge bazaar? Well, a bit of everything! Ceramics, Turkish lamps, amulets against the evil eye, carpets, silver and gold jewellery, soaps, water pipes, hats, shoes, bags, clothing, costumes, books, teas, spices, Turkish perfumes, Turkish delights, handkerchiefs, and more...
As a curiosity, it should be noted that most of the stalls here are run by men and only a few by women. In the Grand Bazaar, haggling is widely practiced, that means trying to get a good price for the product we want to buy. Sellers are very skilled at negotiating and haggling often takes time and patience. A good trick is to offer half of what you are willing to pay and from there gradually go up until reaching the maximum of what you are willing to pay. For many vendors haggling is a sport and to some extent, a lifestyle.
The Grand Bazaar is located in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood and the best way to get there is by tram, getting off at the “Beyazit” stop. It is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m, except on Sundays when it is closed. If you want to visit it with more tranquility and avoiding crowds, it is best to do so first thing in the morning.
LOOKING FOR MURALS AND GRAFFITI
On the banks of the Bosphorus in the Asian part of Istanbul, we find the Kadikoy neighbourhood, with its narrow streets and steep slopes which was the result of urban expansion from the second half of the 19th century.
This residential neighbourhood used to be unknown by tourists. The constant transformation of the city and its dynamic in recent years have made it a fashionable place with urban art, since various buildings in the area are covered by murals and graffiti, thanks to a festival that is organised every year: the Mural Istanbul Festival. It has been held since 2012 and international artists take part in it every year.
Wandering through this entire area, we can find the best murals and graffiti in Istanbul and we can enjoy ourselves with its different styles and themes, which have rehabilitated and given new personality, light and colour to the previous dead spaces. All these examples of urban art gives us the opportunity to take pictures with a very artistic background.
Some great streets with murals are Misaki Milli street, Kirmizi Kusak street in the upper part of the neighbourhood close to the train track that leads to Haydarpasa station, Macit Erbudak street, etc. In any case, we can guide ourselves to the murals through applications on our smart phones or look it up on the festival website. This type of art can be very short lived and often disappear to make room for new artwork.
In the neighbourhood there are many bars, cafes, shops and cultural centres and there is also an open market with fruit, vegetable and fish stalls.
How to get there: if you´re staying in the European area, you can take one of the many ferries that leave for the Asian side from Eminönü, in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood or from Karaköy, near the Galata Bridge. It will deliver you directly onto the other shore, with the advantage of being able to enjoy the different views that the Bosphorus offers us.
THE OLDEST MONUMENT IN ISTANBUL
Do you know which is the oldest monument in Istanbul? The answer is the 3,500 year old Obelisk of Theodosius. It is an Egyptian obelisk ordered to be built by Pharaoh Tutmosis III (1479 to 1425 BC) that was part of the architectural complex of the Karnak temple, located on the eastern bank of the Nile River, opposite Luxor in Egypt. On its four sides it has a central column with inscriptions commemorating the victory of Thutmose III on the banks of the Euphrates in 1450 BC.
In the year 357 A.D. the Roman emperor Constantine II had it transported on the Nile to Alexandria to commemorate his 20th anniversary on the throne. It was shipped together with another obelisk destined to Rome that was installed in the Circus Maximus (today known as the Lateran obelisk).
A couple of years later, in the year 390 A.D. Emperor Theodosius had it transported to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and had it re-erected in the city´s hippodrome, built in 330 AD. by Emperor Constantine the Great. It’s the second largest hippodrome in the world, after the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The obelisk was possibly broken during the transfer, bring shorter than it was originally built. The base is now made out of marble, decorated with reliefs of motifs alluding the emperor, dating back to the time it was relocated to Constantinople.
The looting of the city after the Fourth Crusade and the Turkish occupation caused the disuse of the racecourse until it was completely abandoned.
Currently the former racecourse square in the Sultan Ahmet Square preserves two monuments in its centre: The Egyptian obelisk, just mentioned and a Serpant column, brought from Greece by Constantine I, now decorate the hippodrome. The later used to consist of a column, intertwined with three serpents and a gold bowl (the last two items have long since disappeared) that was dedicated as an offering to Apollo at Delphi. It’s a modern square steeped in history. To get there we can take the T1 tram stopping at “Sultanahmet”.
THE TURKISH BATHS
We propose a healthy challenge and one of Istanbul´s hallmarks: have a Turkish bath in one of the existing hammams.
The word hamman (Arabic name for the baths) means "it expels heat". Turkish baths are the Ottoman version of the Roman baths and they are places that combine body cleansing with relaxation. They also fulfil a social and cultural function as they are meeting spots for the Arab society. In the 18th century, Istanbul had more than 150 baths.
Currently there are many traditional and genuine neighbourhood hammams. Then there are lots of touristic ones that have lost their originality and become more westernised. These have gained beauty, they offer more services and better customer service.
What is a Turkish bath? It’s basically a more humid variation of the sauna, with steam flooding the room, maintaining a lukewarm temperature that generates various beneficial effects on the body. The Turkish bath experience consists of several phases:
- To begin with, it is convenient to rehydrate to compensate for the loss of liquids. It is also advisable to take a shower in order to allow the skin to be cleaned and to facilitate sweat and toxins to come out easily through the pores.
- The first phase is warming up, in a sitting or semi-stretched position. On many occasions the bathrooms are covered with marble as it is a material that retains heat very well.
- The second phase is cooling with a quick bath or a cold shower, which helps tone the body and skin by closing the pores and promote blood circulation. This cold shower can be combined with a relaxing massage to optimise the blood circulation process. In many Turkish baths, the entrance includes an exfoliating wash and different massages. Turkish massage is quite strong and may remind you of Thai massage.
-After the cold shower, it is necessary to relax for at least 15 minutes to replenish the lost liquids and after that you repeat the procedure...
There are several varied benefits of a Turkish bath: elimination of toxins and bacteria through sweating, cleansing of the skin and pores, improvement of respiratory conditions, it relaxes the muscular system, accelerates metabolism, lowers blood pressure, it is beneficial for the nervous system etc...
Don´t consider it - dare to try!
CURIOSITIES OF SANTA SOFIA
Santa Sofia is a building with almost 1,500 years of history. It was built in 532 AD when Emperor Justinian ordered its construction as an Orthodox basilica, now being the greatest exponent of Byzantine architecture. In 1453 it was reformed into a mosque after the conquest of the city by the Ottoman Empire and in 1935, with the arrival of the Republic of Turkey, it became a museum. Finally in 2020, it was once again converted into a mosque, but its dedication to worship does not deprive locals or foreign tourists to visit it.
Santa Sofia has been registered with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1985 and contains mosaics from its first stage as an Orthodox cathedral.
Santa Sofia (its name is not due to any saint named Sofia, but to the wisdom of God "the Holy Wisdom") has witnessed the history of the city and has miraculously survived fires, earthquakes, looting, revolts and conquests.
Since its construction and for another nine centuries, the Basilica of Santa Sofía was the largest church in the world until 1520, when the Seville Cathedral was built. Its dome measures 33 meters in diameter and is 56 meters high.
In one of the pillars of the north aisle there is a column that is said to perspire the sweat of Saint Gregory the Thaumaturge and to possess healing powers. It is popular among tourists to make a wish when inserting a finger inside the column. If the finger comes out wet, the wish will come true.
In the south gallery there is a rectangular column with the imprint of a hand. There are various legends and theories such as the one claiming it belongs to the Virgin Mary.
Runes (Nordic originated inscriptions) have been found carved in the 9th century by Vikings who, in Byzantine times, inscribed their names in their script, in the runic alphabet. One of them can be seen on the balustrade of the upper floor of the south gallery.
Many of the mosques in Istanbul follow the architectural patterns of the Hagia Sophia, which is why they are so similar to each other.
Location: Plaza de Santa Sofia.
By bus: the IST-20 line leaves us at the Sultanhamet stop, next to the basilica. By tram: in the same Sultanhamet there is also a station on line T1.
THE BUSIEST AVENUE IN ISTANBUL
Istikal Avenue or Avda of Independence (Istikal Cadessi in Turkish) is located in the Begloyu district has been a pedestrian street since 1990. It’s over two kilometres in length begins in Taksim Square and ends in the old Genoese medieval quarter where the Galata tower is located.
Formerly this street was called Grande Rue de Péra. Belonging to the Pera neighbourhood, where Genoese and Venetian merchants resided in the Byzantine era and constituted the epicentre of the cultural and social life of the city. Today it preserves examples of architecture from the 19th and early 20th century; neogothic, neoclassical, modernist and art deco.
Historically, this area was a refuge for a multicultural population (Genoese, Venetians, Greeks, Armenians, etc.) so the Muslim presence was scarce. Today it is the most Western influenced part in Istanbul.
In addition to being the focus of tourist attraction, going through it is a magnificent walk and it is one of the busiest streets in the world. Visited by nearly three million people on an average weekend. The only means of transport allowed on the avenue is a historic tram, put back into use again after the street becoming pedestrianised. It’s original wagons has been restored and are almost a century old.
This avenue is the place chosen for leisure by many Turks. In it we find consulates, restaurants, cafes, pubs, art galleries, libraries, bookstores, cinemas, theatres, hotels, boutiques, and more.
Along our route we can find many interesting places: the church of San Antonio de Padua (which is the largest Catholic temple in the city), the church of Santa Maria Draperis. There’s the Pasaje de las flores, a glass covered commercial passage from the 19th century where we today can find various restaurants and shops. The Pera hotel, where great personalities such as Agatha Christie, Hemingway or Alfred Hitchcock stayed when passing through the city. Here is also the location of the Galatasaray high school, the educational institution where the most well known soccer club in Turkey was founded: the Galatasaray.
SUNSET AT THE CAFE DE LAS CARPETS
Istanbul´s skyline is one of the most spectacular in the world and the best time to see it is at sunset. One of the best locations to do it is in Uskudar, a neighbourhood located on the Asian side. We can get there by ferry from the port of Eminonu, with a journey that takes about twenty minutes.
Once on Asian soil, it’s about a fifteen minutes walk along the coast, passing the Attaturk memorial to the right in the direction of Leandro´s tower.
The tower is located on an islet 200 meters from the coast and there are several legends about it. Like the young greek Leandro who was in love with Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, who lived in the tower and lit a fire every night for her lover to guide him through the waters. One stormy night the fire went out and Leandro got disoriented and drowned. Hero committed suicide to reunite with him in the afterlife.
Another legend from the Byzantine era tells that the tower was built by a very powerful man in order to keep his daughter safe. A prophecy had foretold that she would die from a snake bite. Unexpectedly, a reptile slipped into a basket of fruits sent to the island and then it bit her, making her father´s efforts useless. Therefore the place also goes by the name Kiz Kulesi, which means Maiden´s Tower.
It is one of the most used symbols of Istanbul and has even been the setting for films such as the James Bond movie; "The world is not enough".
In front of the tower we find the so-called “carpet café”. There are cement steps, with carpets and cushions on the ground and some tables by the seafront. At each end of the stands there is a kiosk where we can buy tea or soft drinks.
Here we can wait sitting down drinking something until sunset. If we are lucky and it’s not too cloudy, we can watch the golden reflection of the European part of the city on the waters. It’s an unique show, which is repeated every day.
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