There are too many automotive vehicles for the streets in any of my candidates for favorite city. Crossing major streets in Istanbul is particularly difficult. However, I don't have the impression of permanent gridlock in Istanbul that I have for London, Paris, Mexico City and others. Ss with London musems, there is a concentration of the most historically important sites in Istanbul—at the tip of the peninsula south of the Golden Horn and north of the Sea of Marmara.
Punctuated by minarets, the city rises upon the hills on two continents, split by the Bosphorus, connection of the waters of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and the Golden Horn, which used to split where Genoaese and Venetian traders were located (Galata) from the Topkapi Palace, where the Ottoman government concentrated. The site of Istanbul is breathtakingly beautiful and the city has many architectural and historical treasures. I will get to them in a moment. London and Paris have iconic buildings and great museums, too, though they were villages of minor kingdoms when Constantinople/ Byzantium (two earlier names for Istanbul) was the center of a cosmopolitan empire.
The reason that I have chosen Istanbul over other European capitals as my favorite city, however, is not its greater antiquity or the greater magnificence of its historical buildings, but because the people are generally much more friendly than Londoners or Parisians or Romans (or New Yorkers). This is the same reason that Jiahong (the one person in this write-off with whom I discussed criteria) chose Bangkok. With the exception of aggressive rug merchants in the Grand Bazaar (who are as insistent as the touts in Patpong in Bangkok), I have found Turks very eager to help perplexed foreign visitors. On the Bosphorus cruise on my most recent (2011) visit, a long-lashed and very handsome young Turkish man who had been all over his girlfriend most of the cruise took time out to point out Ataturk's yacht to us while our guide was on his cellphones (as Turkish guides tend to be much of the time...)
And nowhere else in the world have I found cashiers as determined not to rip off visitors seeming to invite being shortchanged. The first time I was there (1996) the exchange rate seemed about a million Turkish lira to the dollar, so foreign travelers would give a bill ten times too big. Had this happened in, say, Mexico, they would have received less than a tenth of the change due them. With revaluation (one new Turkish lira for 1,7000,000 old ones!) this is no longer a problem, but twice I gave too many bills (once, because they were stuck together, once because my addition of the marked prices was higher than the charge because one item was marked down) and received the extraneous one back. Obviously, this impresses this veteran of Mexican travels!
Also, I have never had a bad meal in Istanbul, or indeed in Turkey. In contrast, I have had great meals in London, Paris, and Rome, but have also had quite unsatisfactory ones. I wrote the previous sentence after my first visit and would not change it after my second, though I was underwhelmed by the restaurant that is in what used to be the eastern terminus of the Orient Express.
I think that it would be difficult to live in any of these cities clotted with visitors (as it is sometimes difficult to live in San Francisco, where I do live). It is as a place to visit rather than as a place to live that Istanbul is my choice as "favorite city." The ambiance of walking around Istanbul or taking a boat in the Bosphorus are wonderful, but I shall focus on laying out the places that are indispensable for visitors with any interest in history and art.
Most of these are clumped together near the edge of the southern (southwestern)peninsula of the European side. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Church, and the Topkapi Palace are in a line with the wonderfully eerie Underground Cistern across from Hagia Sophia and the Archaeology Museum just southwest of the Topkapi Palace.
My recommendation is to start at the Hippodrome (At Meydani), just west from the Blue Mosque. It's hard to visualize the chariot races and large audiences of spectators, but what is clearly visible are the columns and obelisks. Although decapitated in the 17th century A.D., the Serpent Column, which was dedicated in 479 B.C. in front of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, stands here. (One of the heads was found and is in the Archaeology Museum.)
After a stroll around the Hippodrome's columns, one should proceed to the Blue Mosque, properly known as the Sultan Ahmet Camii, built 1609-16, The pyramid of domes are accompanied by six minarets. The interior is impressive, but basically empty as all mosques are. The "blue" is not for the exterior but for blue tile in the interior. Although it seems incongruous to me, within the complex of buildings the Pavilion of Ahmet contains a Carpet Museum. This is a particularly revealing stop for anyone who is planning later to buy a Turkish carpet.
The next stop on this itinerary, moving northeastwardly (past excavations of the Byzantine city), is Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), the Church of the Divine Wisdom. Constantine the Great built the first church on this hillock in 326. The present edifice was reconsecrated in 563. Minarets were added and the mosaics whitewashed after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople. The mosaics began to be uncovered in 1847 and since the basilica became a museum in 1935, more have been uncovered. The central dome has 40 windows (in contrast to 260 in the Blue Mosque) and the nave would be considerably darker if there were not electrical lights. In addition to examining the mosaics, be sure to visit the Sweating Column (in the northwest corner of the north aisle). It has been credited with healing qualities for at least a millennium and a half. I tested it on a major bruise and it failed.
Since 1996 a mosaic in the main dome of the Seraphim has been restored. It brought to my mind the Vienna Secessionist painter Gustave Klimt, which made me realize that his gold-heavy palette must have been influenced by Buzantine art. I don't think that other mosaics have been uncovered since 1996.
The upper gallery also shows that the building leans (toward Europe, I think). Without the addition by Sinan, the chief architest of Suleiman the Magnificent, of subsidiary, smaller domes, the dome would have collapsed centuries ago.
The combination of dampness and marble columns is even more overwhelming is the Yerebatan Cistern (a bit west of the southwestern corner of Hagia Sophia). It is a wonderfully spooky place with 336 columns from widely diverse sources (some with figures)in twelve rows. The cistern is 230 ft. by 460 ft. The piped-in music when I was there was Vivaldi. After wandering around for a while (the first time), we enjoyed Turkish coffee in the snack bar, looking out at the pillars. The second time there were more visitors, seemingly more large carp, and no Vivaldi.
Some refreshment is necessary before proceeding to the Topkapi Palace with its myriad buildings, four courtyards, and superb collections of art and artifacts (including relics of the Prophet Mohammed). There are all kinds of collections (armor, clocks, ceramics, paintings). The Otoman council chambers are particularly interesting, not least for the windown with a grill to which the sultan could go, keeping the counselors unsure whether what they said was being monitored by the supreme ruler. (All the subjects of the sultan, who was also caliph, were considered slaves, though even persons bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire were treated better than slaves in the US South.)
Entrance to the harem is an additional 15TL (admission to the Palace is 10TL). There is nothing remotely prurient visible in the harem, though some visitors manage fantasies of the Sultan looking down at the swimming pool. The harem has great tile, up there with those in the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Archeology Museum's Tile Pavilion.
The Treasury includes a gigantic diamond, the emerald and ruby-studded dagger sheath that was the object of theft in the 1964 Jules Dassin movie "Topkapi." Though it is impressive, it is not on a mannequin in a glass box, as in the movie when the thief descends from the ceiling. Come to think of it, the room does not have a skylight!
This line of sites can easily take a day to see. If one is rushed for time, one can also try to absorb the archaeology museum (just west of the southwest corner of the palace the same day). Only the National Museum in Athens has a greater collection of ancient Greek art. There is also the 15th century Tiled Pavilion with Seljuk art, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient with Egyptian, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian, Hittite (and more) art. In all three buildings, art from these civilizations rather than daily life is the focus.
We also managed to wander into the free museum of Ottoman masoleums, some of them designed by Sinan. I did not think that any, including the two into which I went, were worth the effort of taking off and putting on my shoes.
I guess that if one only has a day in Istanbul, one could rush through all these. I would be completely dazed, and would certainly recommend a second day for the Archaeology Museum, followed by shopping (and possibly dining in) the Grand Bazaar.
On the third day, you deserve to relax on the Bosphorus. The cheapest way is to take the Bosphorus Ferry which departs from in front of the Egyptian Spice Market. That market may suffice for those wanting to visit a bazaar. It is between the "new mosque" (Hidayat, new in the 17th century) and the Rustem Pasha Mosque, both of which have more interesting interiors IMO than the Blue Mosque.
As with the Blue (Sultanahmet) Mosque, the Mosque of Sulayman the Magnificent (Suleymaniye Camii), built between 1550 and 1557 by Sinan, up the hill to the north. The tomb (türbe) of Sulayman is behind the mosque and should be sought out (the gardens are currently being restored, so it cannot be visited). Sinan's tomb is also on a corner.
The most interesting building on the north side of the Golden Horn is the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) built by the Genoese in 1338. Aside from a commanding view, it has shops, cafes, a Genoese tavern, a luxury restaurant, and a nightclub with belly-dancing shows. It is up the hill from the Galata Bridge, which is just northeast of the huge dome of the popular Yeni Mosque.
Further up is the Pera Palas Hotel, by which I was underwhelmed. It is where rich Europeans stayed after taking the Orient Express and has a high tea that I didn't sample. (Here is another analog to Bangkok: the high tea in the indoor courtyard of the Oriental Hotel's Author's Wing.
On the Byzantines, I recommend the one-volume version of John Julius Norwich's history (titled A Short History of Byzantium. On Byzantine art -- in historical and urban context -- the best introductions are Thomas F. Mathews's Byzantium: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. and David Talbot Rice's Art of the Byzantine Era. Both are well-illustrated but affordable (less than $20). Mathews's is more focused on Constantinople/Istanbul than Rice's.
On the Ottoman Empire, I strongly advise avoiding Lords of the Horizons by Jason Goodwin. It is unreliable, chronologically chaotic, maddeningly smarmy, and profoundly Eurocentric, especially for an empire which was also extensive on two other continents. Ottoman Centuries by Lord Kinross is long. but absorbing. and far more reliable.
On Istanbul itself during its time as the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the best book unequestionably is Bernard Lewis's lively and beautifully written Istanbul and the Civilization of the Ottoman Empire, which remains in print from the University of Oklahoma Press. Nobel Prize-winning author Oham Panuck's quasi-memoir Istanbul recaptures (in vintage photos as well as elegaic prose) the istanbul of wooden houses that is largely gone.
A good way to try to understand Ottoman aesthetics is to partake of its most highly valued art form (in translation) in Ottoman Lyrical Poetry, published by the University of Texas Press with very useful introductions and commentaries.
A Few General Tips
Don't think of trying to drive (unless you learned to drive in Cairo or some place like that). Walk, take a trolley, a taxi, or (if you can figure them out) a bus.
Don't even think of wearing shorts, especially not if you are going to a mosque, but also not if you want to be taken seriously by any Turks you encounter. By all means, do wear comfortable shoes.
It's not that food is unimportant to me (au contraire!), but I neither remember having bad food in Turkey nor remember the names of any of the restaurants we tried in Istanbul. For epinions focusing on restaurants, see
and (for more upscale restaurants)
There are also useful tips on coping with the Grand Bazaar (which can be overwhelming, particularly for those who have never been any place where haggling is a major form of entertainment) at
This is part of a write-off on favorite international city organized by
elorraine. Other participants are elorraine, jo.com, ptiemann, coldsteel7, ifif1938, VeeZee, bluehawq, nollequeen, pianomam, doglover, ed_grover, jpmcgurk, augustwind, ritalee76,bigtrouble54, Teardrop..., shan1, murasaki, sheann26, diverpam, Joubert, Cassandra, Chinook, Howard_Creech, samadust, nightridrr2000, and (the aforementioned) Jiahong. Check them out!
©2000, 2011, Stephen O. Murray
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