Istanbul: City of Superlatives

By Jessica P. Hayden

Aya Sophia was a church built by Justinian in 537 AD. A thousand years later it was converted to a mosque and minarets were added.
Aya Sophia was a church built by Justinian in 537 AD. A thousand years later it was converted to a mosque and minarets were added.

Writers, explorers and historians, attempting to describe the beauty and magic of Istanbul, have used just about every superlative in the thesaurus. Oldest. Grandest. Most beautiful.

In this city that dates back to 1000 years before Christ was born, history lurks behind every corner while stunning mosques and palaces create a skyline to rival any city in the world.

Why Go?

Even if you hated your high school history class, it is impossible not to be wowed by Istanbul’s past. The city was the center of civilization for thousands of years.

You can spend days exploring the treasures of Topkapi Palace where generations of Sultans ruled (and kept their harems), trekking around the Rumeli Fortress, an Ottoman Fort on the Bosporus and marveling at the ancient Aya Sofya mosaics.

When to Go

To avoid massive tour buses and lines, visit Istanbul in the off season. If you don’t mind wading through a tour group or two, the weather in the spring is mild and the fall is beautiful as well. Summer can be hot, but makes a side-trip to Turkey’s great beaches a good option.

Where to Stay

The Hotel Ararat features 'funky artwork' in each room.
The Hotel Ararat features ‘funky artwork’ in each room.

Stay in the heart of history by booking a room in one of the many artsy and unique guesthouses that populate the Sultanahmet Region of Istanbul. Many hotels have rooftop terraces with views of the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque and Bosporus.

Remember to ask for a discount as hotels will often reduce rates in the off-season. Some of my favorites:

An Ottoman fort on the Bosporus
An Ottoman fort on the Bosporus

Hotel Ararat is a small guesthouse opposite the Blue Mosque. The rooms are very small, but the lack of space is made up for in spades by the interior décor. Rooms are each individually designed with funky artwork.

Suites are available on the top floor for 90 Euros a night, but you can get a smaller room with a view (I recommend room #7) for 75 Euros. Rooms without a view run for 65 Euros a night and a discount is offered on all rooms if you pay in cash. Telephone: (90 212) 516-0411. Website:

The Uyan Hotel is located catty corner from the Four Seasons (which is outrageously expensive, but the #1 rated hotel in Europe) and has a wonderful rooftop terrace. Rooms are modern and comfortable. The smaller rooms are a great deal at $50/single and $60/double. Telephone: (90 212) 516-4892. Website:

Unique and charming, the Kybele Hotel is decorated with over 3,000 glass lamps giving it a warm and colorful atmosphere. Kybele is located several blocks northwest of Aya Sofya. Telephone: (90 212) 511-7766. Website:

Sunset on the Bosporus
Sunset on the Bosporus

Best Attraction

For a list, and reviews, of most hotels and guesthouses in Istanbul, visit the Turkey Travel Planner’s hotel page.

It is hard to pick a “best” attraction in Istanbul, simply because there are so many interesting sites to explore throughout the city. But, if I had to choose only one place to see while in Istanbul, the winner would be the Aya Sofya. It combines the gift of beauty with a great story.

The Aya Sofya was build by Emperor Justinian as a church in 537. For nearly 1000 years, it was the known as the greatest church ever to be constructed. When the Ottomans conquered the city it was turned into a mosque and four minarets were added. It remained a place of Islamic worship until 1935 when Ataturk opened it to the public as a museum.

Today you can see the symbols left by both the Christian and Islamic faiths. When the church was converted into a mosque, the intricate Christian mosaics made from tile were covered with plaster. The mosaics of the Madonna and Child and the Deesis, which portrays Christ with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, can be seen from the gallery.

Visit early in the morning to avoid crowds and remember that the Aya Sofya is closed on Mondays.
By ferry, tour boat or private yacht, sailing on the Bosporus is one of the best ways to see Istanbul. Most trips take you from the Golden Horn up to the mouth of the Black Sea and back, with the chance to see numerous historical houses, mosques, forts and landmarks such as the Galata Tower.Best Tour

Doner kabobs are sold at 'kebabci' all over the city.
Doner kabobs are sold at ‘kebabci’ all over the city.

You can arrange a tour with either a private company, or simply take a ferry and get off to explore other neighborhoods in Istanbul. The ferries leave from various stations across the city, but the biggest station is Eminonu and during the summer you can catch government-run excursion boats that leave daily at 10:35 am, noon and 1:35 pm. A round trip ticket costs $3.

Turkey Travel Services can arrange a half day tour in either the morning or afternoon for $30, which includes a visit to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and the Rumeli Fortress.
Best EatsAdventure Tours offers an evening dinner cruise for $70, which includes transport from your hotel. There’s no better way to see the sunset in Istanbul than on a Bosporus cruise. Website:

For food on the go, you can’t beat grabbing a doner kabab at one of the numerous stands across the city. Doner kababs are made from either lamb or chicken which are cooked on a vertical revolving skewer. The meat is cut off in thin strips and wrapped in flat bread (somewhat like a pita). Kebab houses are called “kebapci” and most offer modest seating or you can grab your kebab to go.

The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque

For a more upscale evening, take a cab to the Mavi Balik (Blue Fish) which is located on the Bosporus with a sweeping view of the city. An outside terrace provides diners with the perfect atmosphere to sample their delicious mezes and fresh fish. Telephone: (0212) 265-5480. Website:

Best Shopping
If you’d rather bring home some Turkish Delight, apple tea or exotic spices, then wander over to the Spice Bazaar. Here you’ll find multiple vendors who will let you taste their stock before buying. And if you’re feeling incredibly adventurous, you can pick up a variety of Turkish Delight the vendors swear is an aphrodisiac, appropriately named Viagra.No trip to Istanbul is complete without a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. Located near Istanbul University, this covered market sells everything from Turkish rugs and Ottoman style tiles to fake Channel bags. Salesmen can be aggressive, but wandering through this ancient bazaar is well worth the hassle. Several cafes are sprinkled throughout the grounds and provide a good respite from the mayhem.

Best Planning Resource

While there are a plethora of guidebooks on Turkey out there, today you can supplement hard copy books with a visit to the Turkey Travel Planner online at Hosted by Tom Brosnahan, the author of the best-selling Lonely Planet and Frommer’s Turkey guides, the website is a great resource for learning more about hotels, tours, restaurants, etc.

The best feature is the discussion boards. You can post a question and within days either Tom or other Turkey enthusiasts will have an answer for you. And when you finish your trip, post a report online!

Jessica Hayden

Jessica P. Hayden is a freelance writer who covers a range of issues including travel, politics, foreign affairs and law. Her work has appeared in Slate, Transitions Abroad, TravelMag, and numerous other publications. She also contributed to a book on investing for teens published by the Motley Fool. Visit her website at

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