COVID-19 restrictions are lifting, and my friends are slowly coming from abroad to see the sights of Istanbul. I had to do the Sultanahmet tour twice this month, and if I have to look at the cisterns one more time I'm going to pull out my hair.
So I'm setting off this morning, trusty Google maps at the ready, to make a day trip around some sights I haven't seen in a while. If you're able to walk 10-15 minutes at a time, you should be able to follow along with this guide and visit every location in a day.
I start the day off by getting off at the Eminönü tram stop and walking toward the back of the Spice Bazaar to Gurmania, a shop that specializes in German pastries. I grab a cappuccino-to-go and a Berliner (a type of filled doughnut) for breakfast and hoist over 17 TL ($2.02). Gurmania doesn't really have seating, but they are dirt cheap and their sickeningly sweet pastries are to die for. As a tourist, you might think "Berliner? I want Turkish food!" I'll remind you Turks make up around 15% of Germany's total population, and there's nothing that screams "Turkish" more than German pastries behind the Spice Bazaar.
You can't get more cliche than the Spice Bazaar – But have you been next door? The historical Eminönü Flower Market is a wacky side street full of plants, pets of all kinds, and even the occasional jar of leeches. Many Istanbulites bought their first pet – a chick or duckling – from this very spot. The more ethical egg farms send their male chicks to places like these for the general populous to buy as pets, and the roosters get a new home to strut about in freedom – it's a win-win!
It used to be that you could walk down the street and look at rows upon rows of animals in cages, but thankfully nowadays it's inspected more carefully. Instead, you need to dip into the shops along the market and peek inside. One shop will be covered wall-to-wall in aquariums, the one next door will be covered from floor to ceiling in bird cages. Best of all, you'll find the occasional shop filled with play-pens of pure-bred puppies and kittens. Usually, these shops source from individual breeders, but if you actually are thinking of buying something, double-check their source. I just visit to get my weekly dose of cute animals!
A five minutes walk down the street is Rüstem Pasha Mosque, a building one could easily call "the original Blue Mosque." After a long four-year restoration, this gorgeous mosque is finally ready to open its beauty to visitors once more.
If you have a keen eye, you'll notice the small mosque from as far away as Taksim, as the building has a subtly raised base that causes the mosque to rise from its busy market neighborhood. And as you enter, you'll notice that the mosque's simple, uninvolved design is overrun with wall-to-wall Iznik tilework. Familiar? The building was designed by the Ottoman imperial architect Sinan, whose student would go on to build the famous Blue Mosque. Now you can tell everyone you saw the original first.
Iznik tilework is a type of ceramic that really embodies the height of the Ottoman empire as a crossroads between East and West. Shortly after Mehmed the Conqueror took over the city of Istanbul, the small city of Iznik finally figured out the trick to recreating the blues and whites of Chinese pottery. Deeply influenced by this pottery that was coming into the subcontinent from the Silk Road, the designs of Iznik pottery combined arabesque patterns with Chinese elements. When you enter Rüstem Pasha Mosque, look very closely and see if you can spot some of those Chinese motifs.
From there, you want to walk 15 minutes up the steep hill to Süleymaniye Mosque, the final resting place of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his famous wife, Hürrem Sultan.
Don't worry, the view is worth the climb. The mosque has a 180-degree view of the Golden Horn and offers some of the city's most stunning views. It gives the Galata Tower a serious run for its money, and best of all, it's free and there's no nightmare queue.
The mosque was built by the architect Sinan, of course; nearly all the best Ottoman structures in this part of the city were built by his genius hand. The building was built in honor of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, known in Turkey as "Kanuni Sultan Süleyman." The 10th and most illustrious of the Ottoman sultans, he received the epithet of Kanuni, "the lawgiver," due to his dedication to order and justice.
However, the sultan is also famous for his private life. Sultan Suleiman had countless concubines in his harem to secure the next generation of the Ottoman line, but his heart belonged to just one of them, Hürrem Sultan. The story became the subject of the hit Turkish TV series "Muhteşem Yüzyıl" ("Magnificent Century"), gathering the interest and admiration of both the national and international audience. Hürrem Sultan was a slave of East Slavic descent born to the name Roxelana. After she was brought to the Sultan's harem, she quickly rose through the ranks of the concubines and caught the eye of the sultan. She became the legal spouse of Suleiman in 1534, becoming the first concubine in the history of the Ottoman harem to marry the Sultan.
Next to the mosque, you can visit the tombs of the two lovers. Every time I visit Hürrem Sultan's tomb, a large domed building built just for her, I admire the strength of this woman who beat all odds and rose to the status of the sultan's wife.
Before you leave, you might want to stop by the small, discreet tombstone of the architect Sinan, right next to the mosque. You can find it where Mimar Sinan street intersects with Fetva street. By now we've observed two of the great architect's magnificent, almost luxurious buildings, but Sinan's grave is sweet in its humility, hosting just a single gravestone and a water fountain for thirsty passersby.
By this time you're probably tired, so it's time to take a break. If you want lunch, the "Meşhur Kurufasülyeci Erzincanlı Ali Baba," just behind the mosque, is where the locals go. The historical eatery opened its doors in 1924 and specializes in the dish of pilaf rice and kurufasülye, a dish of beans stewed in tomato sauce, akin to Turkish-style baked beans. If you feel a refreshing drink is all you need at the moment and you can survive another 15 minutes of walk, let's try to get to the next location: The historical Vefa Bozacısı, a shop famous for its delicious recipe for a drink named "Boza."
This wacky drink is a classic of Ottoman culture. The drink is a thick, creamy gloop of fermented wheat, topped with roasted chickpeas.
This shop was set up in 1876 by Hacı Sadık Bey and is still run by his fourth-generation descendants. The drink is a mainstay of cold winters, but I'll drink it in any weather if it's made by this family.
I find this drink particularly uncanny as a Muslim, as its fermentation gives it a slight alcoholic content of around 1%. This has caused much debate throughout history on the drink on whether or not it constitutes an alcoholic beverage, and therefore if it is permissible for Muslims to drink. The mainstream typically thought of boza as permissible and it was widely consumed as such. If you think about it, it is quite impossible to get drunk on it. Though it is said that the janissaries, the personal soldiers of the sultan, would drink boza by the gallon to get drunk off it. In the seventeenth century, under Sultan Mehmed IV's rule, the drink was even banned, along with all alcoholic beverages, for a short period. Despite its chaotic history, nowadays it's looked upon favorably by most Muslims scholars, and seen as an acceptable beverage. I do enjoy thinking about its interesting past while I drink it, though.
Some of you might be tired of Sinan-designed mosques by this point, but I believe that mosques are where Ottoman architecture truly shines. Şehzade Mosque is a sprawling complex that from afar looks almost like some kind of fantastical Ottoman spaceship. You'll be able to see it easily from Vefa Bozacısı, which is under five minutes' walking distance.
The building is architect Sinan's earliest finished design of a grand, imperial mosque. It was built to host a mosque, a madrassa, a caravanserai, a primary school, water fountains, a graveyard and select tombs. As it is on a flat surface, the vast scope of the complex is apparent as you approach, which is why it's one of my favorite mosques in the city.
The name "Şehzade" in Turkish literally means "son of the sultan." The mosque complex was built in memory of Şehzade Mehmed, the son of Hürrem Sultan and Sultan Suleiman, after he died tragically young at just 21 years of age.
After seeing Süleymaniye Mosque, we are now in essence getting to enjoy the fruits of their great love affair. The sultan's love was not just for his concubine-turned-wife, but the family he had created with her.
In fact, Sultan Suleiman broke the ongoing tradition of the Ottoman dynasty by giving precedence to his son with Hürrem over the other two surviving and elder sons. Sultan Suleiman wrote poetry expressing his love toward Sultan Mehmed, most likely causing a huge scandal among the rest of his family in the harem.
Walk 15 minutes down to the main street, Atatürk Boulevard, and you'll see that an ancient aqueduct cuts right through the middle of it.
This structure was built in the fourth century by the Eastern Roman Emperor Flavius Valens. It was built to supply the city with water, back when the city was not yet called Constantinople, but simply "Byzantion." You got that right, this aqueduct predates even the Byzantine empire, and cars just whizz away from under it.
As the city exchanged hands throughout the centuries, the aqueduct was restored many times and continued to supply the city with water. Eventually, the aqueduct could not survive the many earthquakes that rocked the city, and only a small part of it remains today.
It's a 10-minute walk from the aqueduct to this mosque, a building that was once known as the Pantokrator Monastery.
Honestly, I'm mad no one ever took me to this site before last year. Every time I walk toward the building I feel like I've fallen out of time, exited Istanbul, and entered Constantinople.
The building is the second oldest Byzantine church in the city left standing, after the Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 12th century as a sprawling monastery complex and was one of the most major buildings in the empire.
Over the centuries, the building changed hands and purpose numerous times. During the crusades, Venetian catholic clergy took over the monastery for themselves. After Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror took over Constantinople, he turned the monastery into a madrassa (a university) and the complex' central church into a mosque. The monastery fell into disrepair the newer, more modern Fatih madrassa was built and students moved. Today nothing of the monastery remains. The only buildings left standing are the two churches of the complex, now fused into one mosque.
If you missed your chance to eat back at Süleymaniye, now's the time for you meat-eaters out there. Baran Et Mangal is a local eatery that serves just barbecue a la Turkey. I really have to recommend the lamb şiş kebabs, home-made ayran, and their baklava, which comes in daily from the province of Gaziantep in southern Turkey.
From here, you want to walk down 15 minutes to the Cibali tram stop and get on the line heading in the Alibeyköy direction. Get off at the Feshane stop, cross the street, walk down the main road for five minutes, and turn left up S. Reşat street. As you walk up, make sure you stop to admire the gorgeous buildings, most of them elaborate tombs of pashas and princesses. Make a prayer and get permission from the dearly departed to take some photos in front of their lovely tombs, and selfie away.
After a short uphill walk, you will see the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, known in Turkish as simply Eyüp Sultan. This area is, in some ways, the oldest Islamic site of the city.
Eyüp Sultan was one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and the standard-bearer in the prophet's army. However, he is probably most famous for the day he was chosen by a camel. When the prophet arrived in Medina after his expulsion from his home, all of the city's inhabitants scrambled to accommodate him. The story goes that the prophet decided to let his camel pick where the two should rest, and ultimately the animal decided to stop in front of the house of Eyüp Sultan. The companion and his family were delighted to host the Prophet Muhammad for the seven months it took for the prophet's house to be built.
Eyüp Sultan had a rich and eventful life, which I recommend those curious to read up on further. When he became an elderly man, he traveled from the Arabic peninsula all the way to Constantinople, then owned by the Byzantine Empire, to take part in the First Arab Siege of the city. The siege was unsuccessful, and Eyüp Sultan died before he could see it conquered. As per his will, he was buried under the walls of Constantinople.
His grave was lost to time until it was rediscovered after the Ottoman Empire took over the city. Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror built a magnificent tomb and sprawling mosque compound on top of the site of his final resting place.
For Muslims, this spot is a must-visit as one of the holiest sites of the city. However, our non-Muslim friends should also take the chance to see this gorgeous 15th-century building covered in magnificent tilework. However, it's also a chance to observe how locals actually interact with their beloved saints, as tomb-visiting is an essential part of Islam in Anatolia.
After you're done with your visit, you can walk to the telpher that will take you to the top of Pierre Loti Hill. I reached the location just in time to watch the sunset.
Pierre Loti has quite the history to it, but to be honest, locals mostly care about the fantastic view of the Golden Horn that you can watch from one of the countless tea houses dotted around the top of the hill. Overpriced? Yes. Worth it? God, yes.
For you history buffs out there, I'll tell you some interesting stories about the place as we sip our tea. A writer by the name of Julien Viaud, known by his epithet "Pierre Loti," fell in love with the city of Istanbul when he first visited it as a soldier. It's said he often would come to a coffeehouse at the top of this hill, and eventually popularized the area. The hill became the stop of many a writer and poet. After the declaration of the republic, the government decided to name the coffeehouse after him, and shortly after that, the hill was named after him.
Stay tuned for next time – Off the beaten path: A morning in historical Karaköy!
Sources: The TDV Encyclopedia of Islam, the Brill Encyclopedia of Islam, “Osmanlı Mimarisi” (Ottoman Architecture) by Doğan Kuban, “Bir Kent: Istanbul 101 Yapı” by Engin Yenal.
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