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Istanbul: The Modern Metropolis With Orientalist Charm

View From Galataport, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

Staff Writer Mina Yasar opens the door to the historical and artistic allure of Istanbul and shares some of its local secrets with our readers.

When you think about Istanbul, probably many famous places and districts will come to mind. It is a big city and it is very hard to see everything in just four days. There are many historical places like palaces and historical museums since Istanbul is a city that was the capital of The Ottoman Empire and The Byzantine Empire. However, Istanbul could be a thrilling experience if you are also interested in contemporary art. Let’s see some of the places you should explore.

Day 1: The Old Town

The Topkapi Palace. Photo by Mina Yasar

There is so much to explore in The Old Peninsula of Istanbul. As an insider to Istanbul, I could say that the first area to visit in Istanbul is probably Sultanahmet. You should start your tour in the morning since this neighbourhood has many places to draw your attention – it is a crowded place. Sultanahmet Square, which used to be an ancient hippodrome in the Late Antiquity, could be an interesting place to start your tour. The Walled Obelisk, The Serpent Column and The Obelisk of Theodosius are some of the most interesting historical remains located in Sultanahmet Square.

The Obelisk of Theodosius. Photo by Mina Yasar

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

In Sultanahmet Square, it is quite easy to see most historical sites on foot. If you are interested in architectural history, you could visit The Blue Mosque, which is included in UNESCO World Heritage. The architectural style of the building is considered Classical Ottoman architecture. The construction of the Blue Mosque was completed in 1617. What’s more, in the North gallery it is possible to see İznik tile panels.

The Basilica Cistern, photo by Mina Yasar

After visiting The Blue Mosque, you should check out The Hagia Sophia Mosque – an architectural masterpiece built as a church in the 5th century by Emperor Justinian I. It symbolized Justinian’s power and is still just as impressive today.

After visiting Hagia Sophia, in just seven minutes, you could have a truly unique experience in The Basilica Cistern. The cistern was used for a water filtration system for The Great Palace of The Byzantine Empire.

The Basilica Cistern Museum drew the attention of many visitors with the “Deeper Beneath” exhibition located in the cistern. Some of the artists included in the exhibition are Jennifer Steinkamp and Ozan Ünal. It is interesting to see contemporary art in a cistern nearly 1500 years old. It is a special museum experience that you could not have anywhere else.

The “Deeper Beneath” Exhibition, Jennifer Steinkamp, Mars’a Uçuş 9, Video Yerleştirmesi. Photo by Mina Yasar

Sultanahmet Square and Hagia Sophia Mosque. Photo by Mina Yasar

If you get tired of walking or just don’t have much time you could have lunch in the restaurant located at the entrance of The Topkapi Palace. It is an opportunity to taste the local Turkish food.

View from Topkapi Palace. Photo by Mina Yasar

After you finish your break in the restaurant, you could start your tour with Hagia Irene – another Byzantine architectural masterpiece. The history of the building dates back to the 4th century. It is now used as a museum and concert hall. It was constructed as a church and also used as a museum in the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Irene, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

But don’t spend too much time looking around – Topkapi Palace is really big! It was an imperial palace for the rulers of the Ottoman Empire and the view from its terrace is amazing.

Topkapi Palace, photo by Mina Yasar

If you still have time, you could have lunch at The Four Seasons Hotel Sultanahmet, which was named “The World’s Best Hotel” for this year by Travel + Leisure Magazine. The hotel is a former prison from Ottoman times. It is interesting to see the transformation of the building. Famous Turkish writers like Orhan Kemal and Nazim Hikmet were sentenced there. When you enter the hotel, you could tell the staff that you would like to see the building and you could probably have a short tour if the hotel is available at the time.

The Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet. Photo by Mina Yasar

Day 2: Pera and Nişantaşı

On the second day of your tour, consider visiting The Pera Palace Hotel for afternoon tea, especially if you are a fan of Ernest Hemingway or Agatha Christie. They were some of the famous visitors of the hotel, alongside Queen Elizabeth II and director Albert Hitchcock, known for his renowned movie “Psycho”. It also has a museum room of Atatürk, the founder of The Turkish Republic.

Apart from that, the hotel has a unique exhibition hall called “Galata Fuaye”. If you are interested in art, you should also look at the contemporary art exhibitions there. In September, Gama Gallery will be hosting a new photography exhibition there. The hotel is also famous because of the Netflix series “Midnight at the Pera Palace”.

The hotel’s founding dates back to the 19th century. The architect of the building is Alexandre Vallaury. Vallaury is an important figure in the city’s architectural history.

Interior of historic Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar
Interior of Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

After you finish your tour of The Pera Palace Hotel, you could visit the Pera Museum, just two minutes by walking from the hotel! The building was designed by Achille Manoussos in 1893. The museum has an Orientalist painting collection, a Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics Collection and an Anatolian Weights and Measures Collection. It is excellent if you are interested in art history or archaeology. “The Tortoise Trainer” by the painter and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey and Antoine De Favray’s “Panorama of Istanbul” are some of my favourite paintings you can see there!

Pera Museum, photo by Mina Yasar

After having a good time in Pera, surrounded by history and art, you would probably like to see the most famous fashion district in Istanbul – Nişantaşı. Nişantaşı is nearly 20 minutes by taxi or car from Pera. Taking a bus or finding the metro station nearby is also an option. However, it is good to note that you must walk a little to the next metro station.

Nişantaşı, İstanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar
Nişantaşı, İstanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

Nişantaşı is famous for its fashion boutiques, restaurants and Art-Nouveau-style buildings. The House Cafe Nişantaşı, or Midpoint Nişantaşı, is one of the famous restaurants in Nişantaşı and one of my favourites for lunchtime. However, there are many different restaurant options in Nişantaşı and you will definitely find some that are good for you!

Nişantaşı, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

Day 3: A Day Full of Art

If you are interested in contemporary and modern art, you should visit the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, designed by the famous architecture firm Renzo Piano, which also designed the renowned museum Centre Pompidou in Paris. Some artists included in the museum’s art collection are Sarah Morris, Tracey Emin, Anselm Kiefer, Tony Cragg, Seçkin Pirim, Rahmi Aksungur and many more!

View from Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Mina Yasar

The construction of the new building of the museum was completed this year. The museum is located in Galataport, Karaköy. Galataport also has a cruise terminal and a shopping centre. It is a shopping, gastronomy and art neighbourhood – and one of my favourite places in Istanbul! After you complete your tour in the museum, you can see the artwork “İsimlerin Şehri İstanbul” by famous artist Ahmet Güneştekin. It is a fascinating example of public art.

“İsimlerin Şehri İstanbul” Artwork by Ahmet Güneştekin in Galataport. Photo by Mina Yasar

If you are tired and would like to see some more luxury hotels in Istanbul, you could have lunch or afternoon tea at The Peninsula Istanbul Hotel. If you don’t like luxury hotels, don’t worry – there are many restaurants in Galataport!

After you finish your tour in Galataport, you could visit Anna Laudel Contemporary Art Gallery in Cihangir or Merdiven Art Space in Findikli. Anna Laudel is nearly 20 minutes by walking or ten minutes by car and Merdiven Art Space is just five minutes away from Galataport.

However, if you are not that into contemporary art, you could visit The Galata Tower. It was built as a watchtower and its history dates back to medieval times. Its observation deck is a perfect place for a 360-degree view of Istanbul.

Galata Tower, photo by Mina Yasar

Day 4Last Day in Istanbul
To finish your trip, you could spend a calmer day in Istanbul. To have a relaxing day in nature, check out Yıldız Park – a historical urban park. Historically, Yıldız Park was part of the Yıldız Palace, which was an imperial Ottoman pavilion. It is an exciting experience because it is a lovely place for a walk and at the same time you can see the historical pavilions there.

Some buildings you can see there are The Malta Kiosk and Çadır Köşkü (Çadır Pavilion). Malta Kiosk was constructed in the 19th century by the famous architect Sarkis Balyan. Nowadays, Malta Kiosk is also used as a restaurant; you could sit there and have a good time.

Çadır Köşkü, Yıldız Park, İstanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar
Çadır Köşkü, Yıldız Park, İstanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

Your last stop in Istanbul could be the Ortaköy district. Ortaköy is nearly 25 minutes by walking or 15 minutes by car or taxi. It is an excellent place to have a view of the Bosphorus. If you prefer to have a ferry ride, you should take a ferry from Besiktas to Ortaköy.

Ortaköy, Istanbul. Photo by Mina Yasar

By the way, if you are planning to be in Istanbul from 28 September to 1 October, instead of exploring Yıldız Park you can visit the 18th edition of the Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair located in Tersane Istanbul, Haliç (Golden Horn). The fair features nearly 75 galleries. However, it may not be very easy to come to Haliç and you should consult with your hotel about how to get to the art fair.

17th edition of Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair. Photo by Mina Yasar

Although you could never fully explore the historical and artistic treasure that is Istanbul, you can start by visiting some of the sites and galleries that I already mentioned. But be aware – the eclectic charm of Istanbul is strong so you might have to come back!

Staff Writer


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