While most cities are best viewed from above, Istanbul is most striking from the shoreline of the Bospherous River or the bridges that span across it. The Bospherous truly is the heart of the city, and not only is it the lifeline for Istanbul, but for several other countries that rely on the Black Sea as the primary link to the rest of the world. It's an intimidating waterway - dark and expansive - but also full of life, with boats of many shapes and sizes dashing through the waves and dolphins playing by the shoreline.
We stayed in Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city, and so many of Istanbul's most famous landmarks were literally just outside our door. The Aya Sophya, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Pakace were the sights that greeted us each time we came and went.
The Aya Sophya is indeed one of the world's greatest buildings. It has a long history as a church, a mosque, and thanks to one of Ataturk's famous decrees, now a museum. The dome is exquisite, and even though it was partially covered in scaffolding, we were still taken back by its shear size. We were also impressed by the beautiful mosaics and the amazing variety of marble used as decoration- certainly the envy of anyone thinking about remodeling their kitchen.
The Blue Mosque also ranks up there on the the list of beautiful architecture as well. It was built nearby the Aya Sophya and together they serve as magnificent bookends around a lovely park and fountain. The Mosque has 6 minarets and is especially enchanting at night when its curves and the birds circling above are brightly lit. The inside is equally impressive, decorated with thousands of blue tiles and colorful stained glass windows . If you've never been inside a mosque before, they essentially just provide an open space for praying, so its easy to appreciate the simple beauty of the structure without the distractions of furniture or paintings or sculpture. We visited several other mosques in Istanbul as well, many of which were equally, if not more beautiful, including the graceful Suleymanye Cami and the lovely Yeni Cami.
The other major site in Sultanahmet is the Topkapi Palace, the home to centuries of sultans, their families and servants, as well as the center for administering the Ottoman empire.The site took the better part of the day to take in and was a bit overwhelming at times. We visited the courtyards and many different buildings on sight, including the harem (the sultan's private living quarters), libraries, the huge kitchen and the chambers where the imperial counsel met. We also browsed the many exhibits on show, including the collections of Japanese and Chinese porcelain, weapons, and tapestries. The most interesting exhibit had to be the treasury, which housed precious items gifted to the sultans or acquired during the empires many conquests, including an 87 carat diamond and, disturbingly, the hand and skull of St. John the Baptist!
One of the most relaxing parts of our trip was a boat ride along the Bospherous, which gave us a chance to see many palaces and mosques, as well as several yalis. A yali is a wooden home on the river edge that usually served as a summer home for a member of the Ottoman aristocracy. While the fall of the empire left many of these homes in ruin, there are several that have been restored, giving you a sense of Istanbul's glorious past. The boat trip ended with a hike up to a castle that afforded us views of the vast Black Sea.
Of course, no trip to Istanbul would be complete with out a visit to its famous markets. The spice market was a delight for the senses - many colors, smells, and, of course, the sounds of the shops keepers calling out to you to try their Turkish Delight or smell their fruit teas. We visited the Grand Bazaar as well, and although it would have been much more appealing to someone in the market for some jewelry, a leather jacket or a silk rug, it was still interesting to be in a place with so much history behind it.
We spent our evenings in Beyoglu, which required a sunset stroll across the Galata Bridge to reach. Beyoglu is a very vibrant and modern part of the city, which sees a nightly parade of thousands of people heading up the main boulevard, Istikal Cadessi, to Taksim Square. The area is chock full of bars and restaurants of all varieties several blocks deep, so we were really only able to scratch the surface in our short 4 nights in the city. It's a fun place and we'd definitely like to return someday. Actually, we can say that for all of Turkey - its a great place and should definitely be on your list of future destinations!