Getting all ‘touristy’ in Istanbul

There’s a bit of a stigma among experienced travellers when it comes to visiting ‘touristy spots’. All this talk of ‘finding off-the-beaten-track places’ and ‘seeking out local hideaways’ sometimes makes me feel like I’m somehow being a bad traveller if I only visit the main attractions…but when did the top attractions somehow become second class attractions?

Would you go to Berlin and not visit the East Side Gallery? To Prague and not walk across Charles Bridge? To Paris and not visit the Eiffel Tower?

These places may be considered touristy, but for good reason! They’ve earned themselves the title and I don’t think a few camera-wielding tourists should keep me away from these sites..after all, aren’t I one of them?

During my trip to Istanbul last autumn, I visited every touristy site in the city, and you know what? I loved it! These places were drenched with history and the architecture had me craning my neck in every direction.

Hagia Sophia

One of my favourite classes during my undergraduate degree was Islamic art and architecture. As you can probably imagine, many of Istanbul’s mosques made an appearance in my textbook. I was particularly fascinated by Hagia Sophia because this is a structure that changed roles multiple times over the centuries. It went from Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, to Roman Catholic cathedral, back to Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, to mosque, to museum. It saw empires rise and fall, and it’s still standing!

The mosaics inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

It’s an especially cool place if you’re an art history buff because you can see both Islamic and Christian elements in the structure and the decor. While the colourful Christian mosaics were plastered over once the cathedral was repurposed as a mosque, today many of those pieces have been uncovered and you can see striking images made up of tiny glass mosaics in shades of cobalt and gold. Meanwhile, inside Hagia Sophia you’ll also find Arabic scriptures from the Koran and structures like the minbar which allude to the building’s Islamic past. And let’s not forget about the 4 minarets which were added after its construction.

There are verses from the Koran inside Hagia Sophia.

Another interesting little fact about Hagia Sophia is that it was built in 5 years and 10 months. To put it into perspective, it took medieval builders nearly a century to construct the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris! Of course, the short construction period of Hagia Sophia eventually lead to problems like the roof collapsing two decades later…

Topkapi Palace

While in town, I couldn’t resist a visit to Topkapi Palace. This was the primary residence of the Ottomans for over 400 years and it’s one of the largest and oldest palaces to survive to our day.

To say this place oozes luxury is an understatement! The Ottomans spared no luxury and you can see this in the hand painted tiles, white marble floors, and intricate details around each doorway.

Topkapi Palace and the Harem, Istanbul, Turkey.

I found the Harem to be the most impressive part of Topkapi Palace. The Harem is where the living quarters were located, and this is where the Sultan and his many wives, concubines, and children would have lived. Topkapi Palace was much larger in its heyday than it is today, and back then the harem would have held around 400 rooms!

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the most iconic structures in Istanbul. While this isn’t the largest mosque in the city – that title goes off to the Süleymaniye Mosque – it is considered to be one of the greatest structures of the Ottoman Classical Period.

One of the features that immediately sets this mosque apart from the rest is that the Blue Mosque incorporated 6 minarets into its design rather than the standard 4.

While its interior is quite beautiful, it was the scale of the mosque as seen from the exterior that really wowed me.

The exterior of Istanbul's Blue Mosque.

If you get the chance, I would recommend sitting at the park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque during the call to prayer. Because the two buildings are so close to each other, the muezzins (the men who recite the prayers) have orchestrated it so that the cry goes back and forth between the two mosques. Rather than reciting the prayer over each other’s voices, they take turns reciting each of the verses and the result is a hauntingly beautiful song.

Visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey.

Because this mosque is still in use to this day, you need to time your visit just right. The call to prayer happens 5 times a day and the mosque closes for 90 minutes each time. You may want to avoid going on a Friday seeing as the mosque closes for 2 hours during the Friday midday prayers. You’ll also want to dress modestly. No shorts or sleeveless shirts on either men or women, and women will also be required to cover their heads with a scarf.

Basilica Cistern

After visiting the Blue Mosque, it was a hop and a skip over to the Basilica Cistern. The cistern gets its name because it sits on the very same site where a great basilica from the Early Roman Age once stood.

Going underground at the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

As you step into this underworld you are met with rows upon rows of marble columns which were recycled from other buildings, so the place looks a lot more like a basilica than the water tank it really is.

Also, I liked the veil of mystery that surrounds the Basilica Cistern; at one corner of the cistern there are two giant Medusa heads but no one really knows how or why they ended up there. One head is upside down while the other is sitting on its side, and one of the rumours surrounding this is that this positioning was meant to negate the power of Medusa’s magic so that her gaze wouldn’t turn people into stone.

The Grand Bazaar

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without browsing through one of the largest markets in the world. The Grand Bazaar is believed to hold somewhere over 3,000 shops and it covers more than 60 streets. Add to that the fact that over a quarter of a million people visit this place daily, and you have a very dizzying maze.

Tea, spices, pomegranates and souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

To make things a little easier for shoppers, the market is actually divided into different sections specializing in different goods. Some alleys only sell teas and spices, others handwoven carpets, there are rows of shops that sell nothing but leather goods, and then there are sections that  specialize in those beautiful glass lanterns that pop up whenever you google images of Istanbul.

Turkish flags inside the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul.

Before you make it all the way out to the Grand Bazaar, however, just keep in mind that it is closed on Sundays and certain national and religious holiday. I managed to end up there on Republic Day and the gates were bolted shut. I took a little peek through the cracks and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to come back the following day.

* * *

And that was my personal introduction to Istanbul. On top of that I ate plenty of Turkish delight, rode the red streetcar down Istiklal Avenue, attended a whirling dervish performance, took a boat ride down the Bosphorous, played with the city’s stray cats, ate lots of kofte and pide, and did just about every other touristy thing you can think of.

Yes, these are all things that have been done by travellers a million times before, but I couldn’t imagine visiting Istanbul without personally experiencing these things. So don’t shy away from the famed attractions – they’ve earned their status.

Have you been to Istanbul? What was your favourite attraction?

38 Comments

  • Love this attitude! I always say that greatest hits are greatest hits for a reason 🙂 I haven’t been to Istanbul but it looks like you definitely would have been missing out if you’d skipped any of these amazing spots!
    Julie @ A Life Exotic recently posted..Climbing St. Paul’sMy Profile

  • Robin says:

    As I am here right now I appreciated your article! I live in New Orleans and there is certainly a reason why the famous tourist spots are what the are. I always send my couchsurfers/guests there….and then of course to a secret voodoo ceremony. I feel like visiting both ends of the spectrum should be explored if possible. I look forward to exploring Istanbul and happy your blog popped up in my search. xxo

  • Pam says:

    Great post and pictures!!!
    I understand what you mean, and I totally agree with you.
    I think the difference between a tourist and a “traveller” lies between his or her point of view.
    I did (of course!) the exactly same things when in Istanbul, but also ate at the worse boards downtown, harassed all locals asking for directions in my outrageous turkish, smoked a looooot of sheesha and even have been ousted off a movie shooting in Sultanahmet in which me and my friend managed to sneak in.
    Living the place as it would be your home, I think that’s the difference!
    Following the same logic, I also think all of us should visit more touristic attractions in our own place! 🙂
    Pam recently posted..TRAVEL DISASTERS: IN LAS VEGAS WITH NO CASHMy Profile

  • Karyn @ Not Done Travelling says:

    Those places all look beautiful! What kind of silly person wouldn’t go to see them just because they’re “touristy”. 😀
    Karyn @ Not Done Travelling recently posted..Up Rapids To Fiji’s Wild InteriorMy Profile

  • Renuka says:

    Istanbul is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing such wonderful pictures and insights on the attractions. I agree with you that a traveler should not be judged if he or she chooses to visit touristy places.
    Renuka recently posted..Being A Local In MumbaiMy Profile

  • a Blonde aroud the World says:

    Well said!
    I think the difference between a tourist and a “traveller” lies in his or her point of view.
    Funnily, I did the exact same things as you when I was in Istanbul, but I guess our stories would be totally dfferent, and that’s the best part 🙂
    a Blonde aroud the World recently posted..TRAVEL DISASTERS: IN LAS VEGAS WITH NO CASHMy Profile

  • “These places may be considered touristy, but for good reason!” I heard Samantha Brown talk about this at the Travel and Adventure Show this year. I think the most important thing is to just get out there and travel. After that, do it however way you like whether that’s visiting every touristy site or going off the beaten path. I really don’t like the whole “be a traveler not a tourist” concept. This post was great and I absolutely love that first photo of the Blue Mosque. Thank you for sharing!

    Happy travels 🙂
    Lauren Meshkin @BonVoyageLauren recently posted..London Food Series – Part 1: Traditional EatsMy Profile

  • EuroTripTips says:

    What a beautiful photo post. I haven’t been to Istanbul but it looks like a very photogenic city. Thanks for the call to prayer tip!

  • arpitha says:

    you have put it so well! i totally agree that touristy spots are touristy for a reason!

  • Lauren says:

    I agree – the most famous, touristy spots can often be fantastic and visited a lot because they are awesome! I think that when people travel, they should cater the trip to whatever they’d like to see and what interests them. If they want to see historical places, go hiking, see local landmarks….whatever! No one should get on each other’s cases about where they visit.

    Fantastic photos and such a rich history…I would love to visit someday! Thoroughly enjoyed reading about Istanbul!
    Lauren recently posted..The Forbidden City Exhibition at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), TorontoMy Profile

  • You are so right about going to the touristy places, they’re popular for a reason! The perfect way to travel would be to see all the tourist attractions and go off exploring random places, but if you are only in a place for a couple of days, then you should go to the attractions that the place is famous for.

    Gorgeous pictures, you have me longing to go to Istanbul now! 🙂
    Christine | The Traveloguer recently posted..Celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Siem RiepMy Profile

  • sharmila says:

    I agree totally here.Istanbul is wonderful in its culture and history and natural beauty.Last year ,like you I did all the touristy things in Istanbul ,Cappadocia and Pammukkale and believe me , can go back and do the same again and yet again.Wonderfully presented post..:-)
    sharmila recently posted..Just a matter of timeMy Profile

  • Jen says:

    I looks amazing! I’m always all for the touristy sights. As you said, they are popular for good reason. And I totally agree with what Rachel of Hippie in Heels said. My key to visiting the touristy sights is do it early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Then in the middle of the day I visit the less popular sights. Less people, less stress, happy traveller!
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  • Corinne says:

    Audrey, Well, if you are going the tourist route, Istanbul is the place to do it. It’s an amazing mix of east and west, cool architecture, and as you say….history! Love your pics!
    Corinne recently posted..Gardens by the Bay, Singapore’s Highlight Attraction!My Profile

  • Ryan says:

    Though touristy, it is absolutely stunning! Great photos Audrey. I remember writing about the Hagia Sophia when I was in the beginning of Highschool and have been fascinated ever since!
    Ryan recently posted..My Chaos Theory: How to Rebuild Your Life when Everything Seems Lost.My Profile

  • Rachel of Hippie in Heels says:

    I’m a tourist and a traveler. To me they are the same thing. I think people try to make this big deal about how tourists are this stigma word that only bad travelers are… but really everyone walking around a new place, taking it all in, is a tourist. We might not want to admit it- but the locals see us as tourists, because we are!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..International Boho-Chic Designers: Saffron Wiehl Illustrations // IndiaMy Profile

  • Istanbul is such an extraordinary place-full of vibes, noise, beauty and beast all in one. Everything intertwine so beautifully that it makes such a massive impression on you! And urge the feeling of going back again and again to share this energy and charm. You become under the spell of Istanbul!

  • acrosstheneversky says:

    I loved all of these “touristy” destinations in Istanbul, and I would add Galata Tower, Istaklal Caddesi, the Spice Market, and the boat tour of the Bosphorus as very touristy, but very worth-your-while must-sees in Istanbul!
    acrosstheneversky recently posted..parenting: my next great adventureMy Profile

  • I don’t blame you Audrey! These places are usually touristy for a good reason and fact is that there are not so many off the beaten path attractions anymore these days.
    tammyonthemove recently posted..Smoking gods, love potions, and llama foetuses – Welcome to La PazMy Profile

  • Amanda says:

    Thanks for this post! I’m off to Turkey next month and this has got even more excited. Also I’m intrigued you start Islamic Art and Architecture. That must have been fascinating! I love the Middle East, with its layered history and culture. I can see why the class was your favourite! 🙂
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  • Agness says:

    I’m so impressed by Islamic art and architecture. The Blue Mosque is just stunning!
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  • Jo says:

    Just because somewhere is popular there is no need to discredit it. I adore all the places you’ve talked about in Istanbul. Yes, they are very popular, but the essence of what makes them so popular is still there. There are some places in the world that are just a little too loved – the sort of places that bear no resemblance to what made them so special in the first place – places like Montmartre in Paris and Kuta in Bali are just awful
    Jo recently posted..The frugalfirstclasstravel Thursday files – 20 March 2014My Profile

  • Heather says:

    Amen Audrey, I completely agree! My friend and I were talking about this same tourist vs traveler distinction the other night and decided it’s hogwash. I love being a tourist, even in my hometown where I’m currently showing guests around. And when I finally make it to Istanbul, I won’t leave before I’ve seen every one of these fantastic places 🙂
    Heather recently posted..Walking With Dinosaurs at the National Museum of Natural HistoryMy Profile

  • Tilly says:

    wow!
    You shared block buster photography of stunning city. Thx man
    Tilly recently posted..Key West, Florida: destination with amazing sunset sightsMy Profile

  • Hammad Tariq says:

    Great post Audrey. One of the best blogs on traveling and you know why, you are an amazing photographer as well! I totally agree with you there, who would visit London without going to Trafalgar Square? or Dubai without going to Burj Khalif, now if you are an off-beat traveler and still want to go to Dubai, that’s a totally separate debate.

    About the Blue mosque timings, you are right about Friday, on other days, you may visit the mosque between 7am to 12pm, that’s the longest time between two prayers, after that prayers are in succession until the night prayer.
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  • Maria Falvey says:

    Love this. Definitely a place to be a tourist.
    The shots of Hagia Sophia are stunning.
    Maria Falvey recently posted..Situational KryptoniteMy Profile

  • Rob says:

    I do lots of non-touristy things, but I did all the same places in Istanbul, and have been to the top of the Eiffel tower (with my Parisian friend!) to enjoy the view. Of course, I also wandered the residential areas of Istanbul and was “the” foreigner – but I also got to see how regular people live, buy food where they buy food, etc. Even in the more touristed areas of Istanbul you can find enclaves of normalcy. Go get your coffee in a hole-in-the-wall place filled with old men and short little stools. The place 20 meters from the “western” coffee shop. The local place charges 20% (or less) for better coffee. And you get to amuse the locals who are wondering just *why* you are there and not in the place down the street. 🙂

  • Emily says:

    I totally agree. I think you can get just as much inspiration from a beaten path “touristy” site as you can from an off-the-beaten-path. It’s all about attitude. I’m hopefully going to be in Istanbul this summer and will definitely be using your list as a guide! I especially loved your photos of the Grand Bazaar – what a photo opp! On a side note, I love the look of your blog. So travel-chic!

  • Taylor says:

    I’ll be visiting Istanbul in August and have all these locations set in my itinerary when I arrive! I can’t wait to visit them even though they are touristy. Thanks for sharing 🙂
    Taylor recently posted..Best of Road to Hana in MauiMy Profile

  • Beautiful photos, Audrey – everything looks so stunning and exotic
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  • Hannah says:

    Hope we can travel in that part of the world too! is that tea we see on the pictures? And it comes with different flavors? Awesome!

  • shikha (whywasteannualleave) says:

    Gorgeous photos! I’d love to visit Istanbul one day – I agree entirely about not being shy or embarrassed to see touristy places – like you say, they have become touristy for a reason so I’m always happy to see famous well known sights!
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  • “but when did the top attractions somehow become second class attractions?”

    it happened when doucheism happened. A rose by any other name is a still a rose. Just like everyone’s a tourist, no matter how you phrase it. And there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the classics. =)
    Nicole | The Wondernuts recently posted..That Time We Smelled Like Vegas Going to MostarMy Profile

  • Amanda says:

    I’m definitely of the opinion that the “touristy” spots are popular for a reason – I never skip them! And this is true in Istanbul, too; the popular spots are incredible and well worth visiting.

    The only thing on your list that I missed during my own time in Istanbul was Topkapi Palace. I went on a walking tour instead. I don’t regret that tour, but I DO regret not visiting that gorgeous palace!
    Amanda recently posted..Celebrating Tet in VietnamMy Profile

  • Glamourous Traveller says:

    Stunning views! I know of a few travellers who twitch their nose up in disdain at the thought of going to somewhere ‘touristy’. They’ve been to Myanmar a few times now, but never even dropped by Bagan!

    I deff think its time we stood up against the stigma of refusing to visit touristy places just because their sights are famous. Otherwise I never would have seen the Coliseum! Thanks for the beautiful pics
    Glamourous Traveller recently posted..Worried about being touched? Some different massages from around the worldMy Profile

  • Alex says:

    Absolutely amazing photos! I loved the culture in Istanbul and visited many of the sites you have photos of. You really did a great job capturing the bright colors and incredible architecture of these beautiful places!

  • Jaryd says:

    Great photos, and you are too right. It would be silly to go somewhere and miss out on something so amazing even if it is a tourist hot spot. I think I now need to go get my tourist on in Istanbul now too, cheers
    Jaryd recently posted..Through the lens edition – Tokyo photographyMy Profile

  • Jad Baroudi says:

    Really great article! Finally someone framing the issue properly! I’m going to Istanbul towards the end of May and I’ll definitely be visiting some of the places you recommended!

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