Exploring Istanbul solo: 6 top sites
ZOZI writer Andi explores the beautiful landscapes, vibrant flavors and historic treasures of Istanbul.
A few years ago, I renewed my passport and embarked on a trip that would become one of my favorite destinations to date. As I boarded the flight to Istanbul, Turkey, I tried to shake off the nerves that repeatedly reminded me I would be alone on my eight-day exploration of the only city in the world that is located on two continents. I stayed at the 4-star Erguvan Hotel located in the heart of the Sultanahmet District, where most of my “want to visits” were located. With its tremendous concentration of historical sites, Istanbul had long been on my short list, and it didn’t disappoint. If it’s on your list too (and if you’re considering a solo expedition), read on for the top six sites you can’t miss in this former capital of the Roman Empire.
This church-turned-mosque-turned-museum was a priority for me and within walking distance of my hotel. I’d studied it and knew the history behind it, but was still mesmerized by the massive Byzantine structure when standing in its presence. When you visit the Hagia Sophia, examine the kaleidoscope of mosaics that adorn its interior. One of my favorites is of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, dating back to 944 AD and located on an archway of the southern entrance. The most intriguing aspect of these mosaics is the deep layers of history they’re drenched in: Some were stolen or painted over, while others were covered up with plaster—a testament to the number of civilizations that came and left the area since the church's construction in 537 AD.
After centuries of withstanding wear, earthquakes and vandalism, restoration of the esoteric edifice began in the 1930s and continued until 2012. While you’re there, take in the imposing grandeur of the 188-foot golden dome arching overhead, and the two massive lustration urns—each hand-carved from a single block of marble. One of the greatest buildings in human history, there’s a story behind every floor, door, wall and decorative feature.
When you enter this ancient Ottoman monument, just stop. Stop where you are and look up. Gazing at the galaxy of hand-painted blue tiles adorning the interior walls and dome, it’s instantly clear how this marvel earned its namesake—something you’d never guess by looking at the off-white building from the outside during the day. Inside, intricate stained glass windows wash the floors with light hazy colors, enormous chandeliers drip down from the ceiling, and great calligraphy tablets on the walls list the names of caliphs and Koran verses. The sheer scale of this magnificent building made me wonder how it has stood for centuries. The exterior impresses with incredible symmetry and what feels like layers and layers of arched architecture.
Though it is a popular tourist attraction, keep in mind the Blue Mosque remains an active place of worship, and visitors are asked to remove shoes before entering. Simply get in line to enter and follow the instructions: There are scarves available for women to cover their hair, and both men and women are asked to wear long pants or long skirts. Although visitors are allowed to explore, flash photography is not allowed so as not disturb anyone there for prayer.
What’s a trip to Turkey—or anywhere—without a little shopping? My solo journey included a trip to Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar. Before my trip, I knew I wanted to venture into this covered market—one of the largest and oldest in the world—but I was a bit nervous to do it alone. To ease my fear of getting lost, I signed up with a tour group to explore the Grand Bazaar. When I stepped into its winding halls swarming with bodies bolting in every direction, I was glad I did.
The market, which attracts up to 400,000 people every day, covers more than 60 streets—daunting for someone like me, who has a horrible sense of direction. There are four gates to enter the 550-plus-year-old exotic mall, one from each direction: north, south, east and west. When you go, be sure to stop by some of the Turkish spice shops and awaken your senses (or just get really hungry) with the sweet aromas of cumin, red pepper, mint and sumac. And note that the Turks are super-friendly to visitors, often welcoming you into their shops for tea (and probably hoping to make a sale). Keep in mind, prices here can be higher here since it’s a tourist destination,
Istanbul is known for the ancient cisterns underneath the city, but this actually was not high on my to-see list. Fortunately, local Turks repeatedly suggested it, so I listened. Built in the 6th century, the Basilica Cistern provided a water filtration system to the buildings above it. From the street entrance, descend 52 steps into the 105,000-square-foot “Sunken Palace,” supported by more than 330 marble columns. Walk on a wooden pathway through the dark and damp corridor, where fish can be seen swimming in the few feet of shallow water flowing beneath your feet.
When visiting, head to the northwest corner and examine the two Medusa heads—one upside down, one sideways—used as column bases. Watching over the underground reservoir with their big stone eyes, the origin of these sculptures is the subject of competing theories, along with the reason for their eerie directional placement.
A day isn’t nearly enough time to fully explore the Topkapi Palace. Overlooking the Sea of Marmara, this expansive royal residence is layered in more than 400 years of Ottoman history. I entered the palace grounds through the Gate of Salutation, which has two towers that make it look like a medieval castle. There are hundreds of buildings and rooms to visit at Topkapi, but make time for the Imperial Council hall. The gold details, tile ceilings and extensive marble pillars are worth taking in. Also look for the Tower of Justice, the tallest structure at Topkapi Palace where the sultan once surveyed his kingdom from five stories high. If you ride the bus here, find one that takes you to Sultanahmet, not Topkapi. Bus and tram signs that reference Topkapi generally refer to a neighborhood nowhere near the palace.
Tour the Bosphorus
Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents: Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus Straight is a narrow waterway between the two, connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. I joined a boat tour group that took me out onto the Bosphorus along the European and Asian sides of the river.
The history lining the waterway is astounding, including the Dolmabahce Palace, which is on the “to-see” list for my next trip to Istanbul. My tour group stopped for a bite to eat on the Asian side of Istanbul, where the stuffed grape leaves in Turkey were some of the best I’ve ever had. If you have the opportunity, cross the Bosphorus Straight and stop to touch Asia. Two continents in one afternoon? Easy.
Should you be seeking the Three F’s (food, friendly locals, full of history) in your next vacation spot, Istanbul will surpass your expectations. Though I stuck mainly to the ancient sites and cobblestone streets (wear comfortable shoes!), there are plenty of modern areas with upscale shops and restaurants that appeal to all types of travelers. Whether you’re exploring with a tour group or family, this city won’t disappoint. And if you’re traveling solo, let the nerves fall to the wayside and go with gusto. You’ll be glad you did.