Exploring Istanbul: First impressions
Blue Mosque

Exploring Istanbul: First impressions

View from Suleymaniye Mosque
View from Suleymaniye Mosque

If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital. – Napoléon Bonaparte. 

There are cities in the world that you can love before ever seeing them. For me Istanbul has been such a place. An ancient metropolis lying at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and straddling both continents, it saw the rise and fall of two great empires and survived through the centuries to become an enigmatic fusion of eras and cultures – a history’s playground where orthodox churches are adorned with minarets, Ottoman palaces are enclosed by Byzantine walls and highways run through ancient Roman aqueducts. This city has been capturing the imagination of travelers for thousands of years.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia – a Byzantine church, an Ottoman mosque, a modern-day museum

First look at the city

I arrived at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport on the day of the terrorist attack on Istiklal Caddesi. I knew that the city was on high-security alert due to the Kurdish celebrations of the Persian New Year, but the news still came as a shock. Five people dead, dozens injured. What a way to celebrate.

Despite my best efforts, I felt a fair degree of apprehension. But the locals refused to feel terrorised and while it felt quite hard-hearted I tried to keep my mind fixed on the sights of the city instead, which in Istanbul is not a hard thing to do.

The drive from the airport took me from Asia to Europe across the Bosphorus Bridge and then past the dreamy white Dolmabahce Palace and the immediately recognizable Galata Tower, across the Galata Bridge and onto the Kennedy Avenue, along the broken line of the Byzantine Sea Walls, through an ancient gate and onto the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet – the heart of the old city.

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Istanbul is one of those rare cities, where the drive from the airport to the city center is an epic scenic excursion. So even if you have a few hours layover in Istanbul, you can take this opportunity to see the highlights of the ancient city.

View from Galata Bridge
View from Galata Bridge

The heart of the old city

Twenty minutes later I was standing in Sultanahmet Park gawking in amazement at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – two colossal giants gazing at each other across the park, one thousand years older than the other. The Blue Mosque, in particular, took my breath away.

There is something almost unearthly about the shape of its domes. They seem to unfold into existence right in front of your eyes, like the constantly changing shapes of a geometric gif image.  I was immediately in love with Istanbul, mesmerized by its old soul and spellbound by its splendour.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Ahmet)
The Blue Mosque (Mosque of Sultan Ahmet)

Exploring Istanbul by eras

Walking the streets of Istanbul is like walking through layers of history, wondering between the ancient Rome, the Ottoman Empire, medieval Europe and the modern world. Part of Istanbul’s magic lies in its ability to keep surprising.  It leaves so much room for exploring.

Crumbling remnants of ancient structures matter-of-factly dot the city streets, 400-year old Ottoman hans pop up unexpectedly in the maze of back streets and entire neighbourhoods, long abandoned by the communities that established them, seem to have frozen in time, clinging to the memories of the bygone age.

Valide Han
Valide Han
Former Greek neighborhood of Balat
Former Greek neighbourhood of Balat

Cats of Istanbul

Of course, no first impression of Istanbul would be complete without mentioning its flourishing feline population. Istanbul cats are not house cats, nor are they strays. They are members of the community, a quintessential detail in the fabric of the city.

While they do not belong to anyone, they seem to be cared for by everyone. It is a common sight to see the Turks doling out kibble to the expecting mobs of moggies on the streets.

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Istanbul resident feeding street cats on the ruins of a Byzantine temple
Istanbul resident feeding street cats on the ruins of a Byzantine temple

One city, two continents

Surrounded by water, Istanbul retains some of the air of a port city. The mighty Bosphorus cuts the city in two halves – its European and Asian sides.  

The European side is further divided by the Golden Horn, that separates the Imperial stronghold with all its Byzantine and Ottoman palaces from what a friend of mine calls the Crusader part of the city – the lands that historically were given to foreign communities: the Genoese after the IV Crusade and the foreign embassies during the Ottoman rule.

View from Galata Tower of the Bosphorus meeting the Golden Horn
View from Galata Tower of the Bosphorus meeting the Golden Horn. The modern-day high rises are just discernible on the Asian side.
View from Galata Tower across the Golden Horn
View from Galata Tower across the Golden Horn

Everyone will have their own Istanbul. Mine is a walled city of domed churches and pencil sharp minarets. I tried to use the epic history of this magnificent city as a guide.

Of course, the modern-day Istanbul is such a melting pot of cultures, religions and architecture that it is difficult to separate the intricately intertwined remnants of the former empires. But with a bit of effort, it is possible to concentrate on one era at a time.

I spent hours wandering the city from one end to the other, Exploring Istanbul by eras from the Roman Empire to the Byzantine to the Ottoman and the modern day Turkish Istanbul.

Exploring Istanbul by Eras

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Exploring Istanbul by Eras #HagiaSophia #istanbulcats #balat #bluemosque
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