Entering the heart of the Old City,you’ve probably visited the area’s best palaces, museums and mosques. This walk enables you to experience some of its off-the-beaten-track beauty rather than grandeur, reflecting everyday life, past and present, like markets, post offices and stations. Kick off at Eminönü, one of my favorite Old City districts. START: Metro or bus to Eminönü.
1- Yeni Camii(New Mosque).
I always notice that although Yeni Camii is a massive landmark, its cupola and minarets dominating the Old City skyline, few visitors actually enter. Walk up the steps past warbling pigeons being chased by squealing kids to enter the vast courtyard, with a marble ablutions fountain in the centre.
Commissioned by Valide Safiye Sultan, mother of Mehmet III, work began in 1597, forcing out many residents from the dense Jewish neighborhood. Thought your construction work went on longer than expected? This one certainly did, with leaks, funding problems, embezzlement and death of the sultan, which meant the mosque wasn’t finished until 1663, by then under Turhan Hatice Sultan, mother of Mehmet IV.
This was part of a huge tradition of architectural patronage by valides (Ottoman queen mothers). Its interior is dominated by its blue and turquoise tiles and the multi-domed ceiling. As with all working mosques, it’s best to avoid the five daily prayertimes. @20 min. Eminönü Meydani. Open daily dawn–dusk.
2- Café Istanbul Kahvehanesi.
The recently converted 500-year-old Tahtakale hamam has actually been altered very little. After
entering its huge wooden doors, settle back for Turkish coffee and cakes while admiring its the marble surrounds and vaulted ceiling. Tahtakale Hamam Çarşisi, 329 Uzuncarsi Cad,Eminönü. 0212 514 4042. $.
3- Hatice Turhan Valide Sultan turbe (Tomb of Hatice Turhan).
It might be morbid, but I love sultans’ tombs, with snippets of nformation about the palace families rarely seen in public places. (Where possible, go around the back of the tombs, and you may find summaries written in English.) Here, opposite the mosque, the tomb of Turhan Hatice and many of the Sultans’ children make eye-popping reading today:
Turhan Hatice was probably of Russian descent, captured in raids by Tatars, and entered the harem age
12. Taken under the wing of Kösem Valide Sultan, mother of Sultan Ibrahim, she was educated and then ‘presented’ as a concubine to her son, where she duly gave birth to Mehmet IV. A prominent and ambitious concubine, she was hugely influential in the palace, and saw Yeni Camii and Misir Ç[email protected] to completion. Kösem Sultan was later murdered due to a palace power struggle. @20 min. Eminönü. Open daily 9.30am–4.30pm.
4- Misir Çarşisi (Egyptian Bazaar).
You’ve probably already loaded up with lokum (Turkish delight), olives, and textiles (see Best in One Day,p 9). Don’t forget Hasircilar Caddesifor the best (and cheapest) dried fruit and pul biber(red pepper flakes). Now’s a chance to explore the bazaar’s lessvisited, most eclectic streets: When looking towards the main entrance, head to the left and wind around the flower stalls, listen out for the cheep
of budgies and even be tempted (or not) by jars of leeches, said to have myriad health benefits including curing rheumatic and arthritic problems. This is where locals buy plant seeds, mainly vegetables and herbs, either by the packet (check the sell-by date if you’re buying) or loose. @30–60
min. Eminönü. Open Mon–Sat 9am–7pm.
5- Sirkeci PTT (Central Post Office) & Müzesi (museum).
From Çiçek Pazari Sokak walk straight to Sirkeci PTT, the late-19th-century central post office. If you need to buy a stamp, do it here just so you can admire the colored glass ceiling in the main hall. Exit the main door and look left to the huge Ottoman-era thermometer with Arabic and French scripts.
Next-door, the PTT Museumwas part of the original post office, with Morse code machines, Ottoman
stamps and huge leather mailbags used when postmen traveled on horseback to make deliveries. Unfortunately there are few captions in English. As you exit, look opposite for Vlora Hanat #20, a sturdy merhants’ building with sculpted stone roses on the outside. @30 min. PTT Müzesi, Büyük Posthanesi Cad. Mon–Fri 9am–12pm and 1.30–4pm. Free. Tram: Sirkeci.
6- Sirkeci Gari (station) & Müzesi (museum).
Although I usually enter through the main passenger entrance before boarding a train, it’s far better to
approach this historic station from Sirkeci Istasyon Caddesi. With great ceremony, the first trains rumbled through in 1890. Sick of the clichés ‘East meets West?’ Me too, but this really is accurate, as it was the last stop of the fabled Orient Express from the Ottoman Empire into Europe, sofor visitors arriving from Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, this was their first glimpse of Constantinople.
Enter through the Orient Express restaurant, where travelers dined before heading west, and look for
the Museum, a real secret find, with exhibits from the world-famous train, including the front cab and silver cutlery. There aren’t many English captions, but look out for the tile stove used to heat the waiting hall in 1890, and the original weighing machine from 1930, still working. @30 min. Museum: Sirkeci Istasyon Cad. 0212 520 6575. www.tcdd.gov.tr. Open Tues–Sat 9am–5pm. Free.
Istanbul’s famous pastry house is two minutes from the stations with syrupy cakes and su boregi, a pasta-type layered cheese snack. Freshly made pizzas are their latest addition. Look on the walls for signed endorsements from Mohammed Ali, Benazir Bhutto, and even Queen Elizabeth.
5 Mimar Kemalettin Cad. 0212 527 1935. $.
8- Sogukçeşme Sokak.
Twee and fake, or a decent recreation of history? This row of pastel-colored wooden-fronted houses behind Haghia Sophia (see p 7) was built after disputes between the Turkish Touring and Automobile Association (TTAA) and the local council (belediye). Starting in 1984 the TTAA tore down the existing 300-year-old rundown houses, occupied by local employees, and recreated them as accurately as possible (though perhaps with more pastel blues and pinks than the original). Most were turned into Ayasofya Pensionlar,a group of mid-range hotels run by the TTAA (see Best Lodging, p 137). Visitors often bypass the Istanbul Kitapligi (library), the long two-story house with a collection of historic
books on the city (some in English), further along the street. Visitors are welcome. At the top end of the
street, don’t miss the ornate Ahmet Çeşme, the Sultan Ahmet III fountain. @20–30 min. Istanbul Kitapligi, Sogukç[email protected] Sokagi. 0212 512 5730. Open Mon–Fri 10am–4.30pm.
9- Caferaga Medresesi.
Craft shops now fill the original medresebuilt by Sinan, (see Best Shopping, p 95) with a tiny café
cooking homely traditional dishes in a gorgeous courtyard. Caferiye Sok. 0212 513 3601. $.
10- Haseki Hürrem Hamami (Baths of Roxelana).
Built for Roxelana (Haseki Hürrem), Süleyman I’s cunning wife, architect Sinan designed this double-domed hamam in the mid-16th century for the worshippers at Aya Sofya (as it was renamed) mosque. The men’s and women’s entrances at separate sides makes it symmetrical and elegant. In use until 1910, the building is now a governmentrun carpet and kilim shop. Well preserved, the good news is that entrance is free and everyone is welcome to see the original marble floors, hexagonal marble massage slabs, and domed hall. The bad news is that you’ll possibly be tempted to buy a carpet. @30 min. 2/4 Bab-I Humayun Caddesi. Tram: Sultanahmet. Map p 70.
11- At Meydani (Hippodrome).
This Byzantine-era chariot- racing track (see p50) is inter-spersed with three ancient monu-ments in a row: the granite Egyptian Obelisk dates back to 1500BC and was taken from Luxor; intertwined ser-
pents form the 5th century BC Serpentine Column, the heads since knocked off (one is inthe Archaeology Museum (see p 14); the Column of Porphyrogenitus’s (named after a 10th-centur
emperor) bronze covering was melted down by the Crusaders to make coins, and is now dilapidated.
Whiz forward a few centuries to the fountain, presented by Kaiser Wilhelm II to Sultan Abdulhamid after his visit to the city in 1898. The goldceilinged, eight-columned covered fountain, built in traditional German architectural style, still has water flowing from its taps. @30 min. AtMeydani. Tram: Sultanahmet.
12- Küçük Ayasofya Camii (mosque).
Küçük Ayasofya Cad-
desi brings you to the rundown yet charming residential area, a world away from Sultanahmet’s monuments. Follow this to the mosque, known as Küçük (little) Ayasofya but originally Church of SS Sergius and Bacchus, built by Emperor Justinian. Converted to a mosque in the late 15th century, its mosaics and frescoes are long gone, but the Greek inscription on the marble frieze inside names Justinian and his wife as founders. Renovations were completed here in 2007 although in my opinion the interior has been overdone, with marbleeffect paint on the pillars attempting to look like the real thing. Walk up to the balcony to find the tiny section of original stone walls preserved behind glass, plus an area of flooring on the first floor. My personal highlight is the çaybahçe, the quaint tea-garden in the leafy courtyard. In the old medreseare minuscule artists’ studios that make and sell traditional
crafts like calligraphy and ceramics. @20–40 min. Mosque open dawn–dusk; çaybahçe open daily
13- Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point).
Galata Bridge are a common sight, but here’s a little gem: Head back under the railway bridge to the brac- ing sea breeze. At sunset (my favorite time of day here) the fishermen gather and gaze onto the
Bosphorus, although I feel this is more of a recreational fishing trip, judging by the number of beer bot-
tles and deckchairs. Children will love the nearby playground, and there’s always the occasional cart
selling barbecued misir(sweetcorn). From here, you can walk back up to Sultanahmet or around the main road for a longer walk to Eminönü. @15–30 min. Kennedy Cad.