Saturday, December 29, 2012

Trip Log: Top 5 things to do in Istanbul (according to me)

The view of the Istanbul skyline from Gulhane Park
After ten days and countless excursions in the amazing city of Istanbul, I have compiled an Istanbul top 5 list of attractions no one visiting the city should miss.

1.  The Hagia Sophia.  I posted about this magnificent structure earlier and I cannot emphasize the power of this building to inspire.  Do not let the lines at the entrance or the fee to enter deter you.  The experience of drinking in the majesty of this building is more than worth everything!

2.  The Yerebatan Cistern: Built under the city as a source of drinking water during the Byzantine era, this subterranean palace is not to be missed.  Go early (we went right when they opened at 9am) to avoid lines and crowds.  This experience is every bit as awe inspiring as the grandest cathedral if you can see it when it is quiet. As a side note, there is another cistern open to the public (the Cistern of Philoxenos) but it is not as large or as awe inspiring as the Yerebatan Cistern.

3.  Istiklal street - if you are walking the length of Istiklal anyways, you might as well take a side trip to Galata tower and a ride on the Tunel Funicular (2nd oldest underground in the world) as neither of those take much time.  Istiklal on its own is worth visiting because it has so many hidden wonders - from a chocolate cafe which serves possibly the best hot chocolate in the world (I loved their hot pepper flavored chocolate) to magical book shops with fantastical staircases.  This street is definitely something that must be experienced.

Hot Chocolate from J'adore Chocolatier in a short alley off Istiklal
4.  A wander through the maze of old streets:  Many guide books recommend walking in Istanbul, and I cannot agree more.  The part of the city (on both sides of the Golden Horn) of interest to most visitors is small enough for an avid walker to get everywhere by foot.  If you don't have a lot of time to walk - simply walk down the hill from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice (Egyptian) Bazaar.  You can't go too far wrong and you will see plenty of tiny and fun old alleyways.  With that route you will get to visit both of the famous bazaars and as an added bonus it takes less time than any other form of transportation!

another extraordinary Istanbul street

5.  As my final choice on the top 5 things to see/experience in Istanbul I have to choose enjoying the grounds and exhibits at Topkapi palace.  This was a tough choice as there are so many other amazing things to do: eat fish at the Galata bridge, wonder at the beauty of the Blue Mosque or the extravagance of the Dolmabahce palace, haggle with a carpet salesman in the Grand Bazaar while sipping apple tea, catch a whirling Dervish Sema, take a tour through history at the Archaeological Museum, or enjoy a lazy day on a Bosphorus Ferry.  While Topkapi, like many of the other sights in the old part of Istanbul can get very crowded, the grounds are large enough that you can find a quiet place away from the crowds to sit and enjoy the same beauty that was created for the Sultans.  There is no tour guide and no prescribed path (unlike Dolmabahce) so you can enjoy the experience at your own pace and according to your own tastes.

For anyone visiting the city during the winter months, have no fear this city is worth it even if it is cold and snowing.  Happy travels!

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