Istanbul on foot is absolutely the way to go

Thanks to our friend, Colin, we are now “walking tour” people. I highly doubt we will ever go to a new city again without taking a walking tour there.

So when we decided upon visiting Istanbul, I immediately researched tour companies. Guided Istanbul Tours lived up to all of its great reviews. My parents, Daniel, and I had a 7 hour private tour with a wonderful guide named Ceren.

And although this was technically an all day walking tour, the amazing part was how little we actually had to walk. All six of these locations were absurdly close to each other and to our hotel. Three of these locations are UNESCO World Heritage sites. What city has three UNESCO sites within easy walking distance of each other?!? UGH. I need to go back to Istanbul.

For now I will just have to relive this trip through all the pictures we took. Photos were a join effort between myself and my Dad, with a small contribution from Daniel.

Topkapi Palace

According to a CNN article, Topkapi Palace had 3,335,000 visitors in the year 2013. At about 3.5 million people, the total population of Moldova just barely beats out the number of annual visitors to Topkapi Palace. And it’s easy to see why.

The palace isn’t a stand alone building, but rather an entire complex in which the sultans lived along with thousands of their best people. There was a mint, an armory, educational institutions, and more.

I was continually astonished as we wandered among the many buildings and gates. Ornate script, smooth marble, bright blue tile, and gilded everything caught my eye from all directions. Some of the highlights were seeing the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, as well as the building with the super sacred religious artifacts. I wasn’t quite sure what to think when told us that we were looking at Moses’ staff. But actually, I kind of enjoyed my own uncertainty about that experience.

It’s complicated to be in a building of sickening wealth, looking at religious relics that are supposed to be significant to my Christian faith, all the while listening to prayers being read aloud in Arabic. It was a lot of food for thought.

Basilica Cistern

After leaving Topkapi Palace, we walked not far to the Basilica Cistern. And if you are still having reservations about walking tours, listen up. With Ceren leading the way, we totally jumped the entire line. Like small children, she bought our tickets for us and practically led us by the hand down into the cistern.

Once inside, things initially felt kind of hokey. I kid you not, there was a photo station set up with sultan-like costumes. It was just like those Old West photo booths at theme parks, but Istanbul-style.

But the farther along we ventured, the more I grew to appreciate this marvelous feat of engineering…as well as modern day plumbing.

I don’t know if you can see in the picture, but there is row after row after row of huge columns. The air is stale and smelly. Everything is dark. Even seeing it with my eyes, I can barely comprehend how such a thing was built underground, and then how it was filled to the brim with water.

I enjoyed hearing about some of the quirks of the cistern from Ceren. Apparently, constructors recycled columns from above-ground buildings and put them to use down in the cistern. Near the back of the cistern sit two stone Medusa’s heads. Apparently, the constructors placed them on their side or upside down as a way to prevent Medusa’s line of sight from turning the viewer themselves to stone.

Turkish Rugs and Turkish Tiles

Because Ceren was a tour guide goddess, she adapted her schedule to fit our souvenir needs. She brought us to both an authentic tile/ceramic maker as well as a rug maker.

Although I hoped to leave with just a souvenir, I actually left with much more. The most surprising takeaway? Silk worms are fascinating. The most memorable takeaway? An attempt at making a rug with a lovely older lady. She was so kind. And sure – maybe she was supposed to be kind so that we would buy a rug from them. (That did happen.) But even if that was the case, she didn’t make the experience feel like a business transaction. And that is precisely what I loved about tourist hospitality in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia

After a quick bite to eat, we ventured on to Hagia Sophia. This had to have been my favorite spot. Though I’ll be honest, the outside looks strange to me – even now. The inside though…WOW.

From the outside, the building seems almost short and stubby, but the inside is anything but. There are domes and arches everywhere. And even with a huge array of scaffolding on one side of the interior, the view was just remarkable. Stunning. Breathtaking.

All the historical stories attached to the building were remarkable as well. Because the Hagia Sophia started as church and then became a mosque, much of the original Christian artwork was painted over. Now that it has been converted into a museum, some of the artwork has been recovered.

I might have had a similar feeling here as I did in Topkapi Palace. It’s thought-provoking to be in a place where two religions vied for authority throughout time, but now both are highlighted in one spectacular place. Across from the wall with a fresco of Jesus sits an enormous oval with the name of Allah.

And yet, even here is a fun reminder that not all people submit to religious authority. Apparently, in the 9th century, a bored Viking sitting in the balcony of Hagia Sophia etched his name into the banister. Oh those vikings…

Blue Mosque

Separated only be a manicured garden plaza, the Blue Mosque seems to look straight at Hagia Sophia. The two buildings look similar from the outside, but the insides provide quite different experiences.

I felt welcomed in Hagia Sophia, but also awed. I wanted to speak in whispers merely because I was overwhelmed by the grandiosity. In the Blue Mosque, I very much felt like an out-of-place visitor. There I whispered because I was afraid to offend. I worried about the smell of my feet after taking off my shoes and leaving them at the door. I constantly fiddled with the scarf covering my head.

The large center dome was not visible due to construction, but the tile work inside was still stunning. I snapped a few pictures even as I worried about being disrespectful doing so.

I must say, it was pretty amazing to have a tourist experience in a functioning place of worship. The caretakers of the Blue Mosque have thought of everything – including modest skirts and scarves to borrow, as well as a sign reminding you not to sit on the steps as you put your shoes back on. We all got a good laugh out of my mom ignoring said sign. So I guess the caretakers have thought of everything except for well-placed benches at the exit.


Our final stop was one of the few that required imagination. Everywhere else in Istanbul I simply looked and marveled at the well-preserved beauty. The Hippodrome, however, doesn’t exist today in its ancient form.

Today, the Hippodrome is a large, pedestrian-only promenade. Its most impressive feature is the Obelisk of Theodosius. The Obelisk itself is red granite and was erected in Egypt sometime between 1479–1425 BC. (!!!!!!!!) My brain hurts thinking about this.

I can barely comprehend two things: both its age AND how the heck it made it from Egypt to Istanbul. It looks to be in perfect condition, especially in comparison to the marble pedestal it sits upon.

It is this contrast that is the most interesting part to me. The pedestal dates back to the year 390 AD when the obelisk was finally brought to Istanbul. Despite being more than a thousand years younger than the carvings on the obelisk, those in the marble look much more worn.

History and the passage of time almost feels random. Some beautiful pieces of architecture survive whereas others do not. We know most about the history of victorious leaders and peoples; the stories of the losers have been changed or lost. My own life feels very significant to me, and yet Istanbul has become the city it is today due to the lives of those countless millions of “lost” or otherwise unknown people.

These thoughts make my head swim. And although I don’t want philosophical thoughts always reverberating in my brain, I do feel so lucky to be able to encourage them every now and again. How often as adults do we think deeply and thirst for new knowledge? I left Istanbul with a vow to learn more about silk worms and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Any trip that makes you excited to delve into the world you experienced is a trip well spent.