The Blue Mosque, with its domes piled on top one another, is one of Islam's most beautiful shrines.

Cultural Clash

The city is built on a picturesque
hilltop at the crossroads of Asia,
Europe and Africa

Silver earrings are just one of the treasures you can find when shopping in the Grand Bazaar.

Day 1
The Old Town, including the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque

Day 2
Grand Bazaar shopping and explorations in the Old Town

Day 3
The New Town, including a stroll through Pera, and Bosphorus Cruise

For more than a thousand years, Istanbul was the Western world's largest and most important city, from 330 when it became capital of the Eastern Roman Empire until the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century.

Once again, Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and presents such an exotic array of attractions and rich history that it should be on everyone's list of places to visit. It was capital of the great Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and the treasury for riches that helped create one of the world's magnificent cities.

Built on a picturesque hilltop and surrounded by water on three sides, this city was easy to defend from marauders. At the same time, its site on the Bosporus, a narrow waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean, put Istanbul at the crossroads of trade between Asia, Europe and Africa.

Many of the most amazing buildings constructed during the era of its long prosperity are still standing within a square-mile section of the Old Town, amidst the lively, friendly and chaotic bustle of the busy city. Four sights stand out:

» Topkapi Palace, home to the Sultan and 5,000 friends for 400 years.

» Hagia Sophia, the world's largest church for 1,000 years.

» Blue Mosque, one of Islam's most beautiful shrines.

» Grand Bazaar, the largest covered market anywhere, with 4,000 shops along 65 alleys.

The proximity of these landmarks makes them easy to see on foot, with time left over to explore more of the old and newer sides of town, and then take a cruise on the Bosporus, filling three days with non-stop action.

Istanbul is sometimes overlooked, even feared as a place to go in today's uncertain political climate, yet Turkey is a peaceful place, an example of a Muslim nation open to Western values, and Americans are welcome.

Turkey is generally less expensive to visit than Western European countries. Currency is the Turkish lira, with an exchange rate of 1.5 million lira to the dollar. There are so many zeros on the currency it can be confusing, so learn the colors of the money instead.

Istanbul dates to the sixth century B.C., when it was founded by the Greeks. Romans took control in the second century B.C., and later transformed this city into their Eastern Empire capital in 330 A.D.

Finally, it was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 and has been a Muslim city ever since. First called Byzantium by the Greeks, it was renamed Constantinople by Roman emperor Constantine, then called Istanbul under the Ottomans. After World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, and in 1923 the borders of modern Turkey were created within an area much smaller than its former territory. Turkey's capital was moved to Ankara, but Istanbul remains the country's economic and cultural center.

In three decades, Istanbul has seen a population explosion, tripling to more than 13 million people. Fortunately, visitors don't have to deal much with traffic jams because most attractions are in the historic center.

Galata Tower provides a panoramic view looking back across the waters to the Old Town.

Day 1 The Old Town

Topkapi Palace: Put the city's most popular attraction on top of your list and get here before 9 a.m., to beat the crowds and long lines. A visit will take at least three hours to complete. The palace originally functioned as an opulent, self-contained city of 5,000, divided in sections covering 700,000 square yards and surrounded by three miles of walls. Four large courtyards with impressive column arcades enclose beautiful gardens.

Topkapi was built after the Muslim conquest in mid-15th century, on a spectacular waterfront peninsula.

You probably won't get to see the entire complex, and could never take in all of the fantastic details in a dozen visits, but stay ahead of the crowds by starting with the most popular part first -- the Harem, where 400 beautiful women vied for the Sultan's attention.

The Imperial Treasury of the Ottoman Empire is one of the most popular exhibits on display, with huge diamonds, golden swords, tiaras and other "crown jewels." Vast kitchens run along one side of the palace. The kitchen space is now used to display an impressive collection of Chinese porcelains from the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties, royal carriages, crystal, silver, costumes and other regalia.

In the Third Courtyard is the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle, enshrining relics of the Prophet Muhammed and other sacred objects.

Istanbul's Archaeology Museum is also found within Topkapi's grounds. Its collection of 50,000 items displayed in 28 large galleries, covering the history of Istanbul's diverse cultures, makes this one of the world's major archaeological museums.

Outside the palace entrance are rare examples of Istanbul's old wooden houses on a street called Sogukcesme Sokagi, which houses the attractive Fountain of Sultan Ahmed III. One block over is Sultanahmet Square, surrounded by sights that will keep you busy all afternoon.

Hagia Sophia: This once was not only the world's biggest church but also the tallest, largest man-made enclosed space when it was built in 532-537 A.D. for the Emperor Justinian. The dome towers 184 feet from the ground and appears to float above the church. This is enhanced by 40 windows circling the dome's base, two half-domes on either side of the central dome, and four semi-domes that enlarge the corners. The main walls have dozens of huge windows that flood the interior with light, further magnifying its size. The architectural beauty is enhanced by an elaborate mosaics from the Christian era and Muslim calligraphy decorations.

This miracle of architecture is still the world's fourth largest church.

The building was used as a Christian church for 916 years until the Muslim conquest, when it was converted into a mosque and the religious decorations were covered with plaster. In 1932 Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum and many of the covered paintings and mosaics were restored.

Walk up to the second floor for the excellent view across the interior and to see the finest mosaics in the Empress Zoe Gallery. When finished with your visit, walk to the center of Sultanahmet Park for a look back at the building, which is so huge you need to distance yourself to see it properly. On the other side of the park is a similar structure, the famous Blue Mosque, but before walking across the square to the mosque, walk a block on your right to the Underground Cistern, Yerebatan Sarnici.

The Romans constructed a series of underground cisterns -- large water basins that were especially important during times of siege. One of the most spectacular of these is the Yerebatan Sarnici, which costs a small fee to walk through. It is 145 yards long by 75 yards wide, with a vaulted brick ceiling held up by 336 stone columns, each 25 feet high.

Blue Mosque: More properly called Sultanahmet Mosque, the Blue Mosque is named for the blue ceramic tiles covering much of the interior. The interior is breathtakingly vast: The high ceiling is a cascade of spheres, starting with the large dome suspended 135 feet above the ground, surrounded by four smaller semi-domes, which are flanked by smaller cupolas and round turrets that create a magical expansive sensation. There are 260 windows brightening the space and highlighting intricate geometric patterns and calligraphy on the blue faience tiles.

The exterior is poetry in stone, with four, tall minaret towers at each corner and two more in front of the open courtyard, which is surrounded by a portico of 26 columns and 30 more small domes along the arcade ceiling. In the courtyard's center is a large ablution fountain, or sadirvan, for cleansing before prayers.

Hippodrome: The oldest major site in town is the Hippodrome, located in a broad esplanade alongside the Blue Mosque. This once was a racetrack and arena that could seat 100,000 spectators, built in the second and third centuries by the Romans. It was the site of important public events and frequent athletic competitions.

In later centuries, the Hippodrome was abandoned, then used as a quarry for construction of the Blue Mosque. Little remains except the oval outline of this open park and three major monuments: the Egyptian obelisk, built in 1,500 B.C. at Karnak Temple in Luxor and transported here by ship in 390 A.D.; Constantine's Column, a stone pillar covered in gold; and the Serpent Column, a large, spiraling bronze shaft dating to fifth century B.C.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, housed in a 500-year-old palace, is here as well, and features objects from the seventh through 19th centuries.

Walk to The Wall: By late afternoon, if you have the energy, walk through the narrow back streets behind the Blue Mosque toward the wall that fortified the old city along the Sea of Marmara, then back to the Blue Mosque in a one-mile circuit through picturesque neighborhoods. Extending from the south end of the Hippodrome, Sehit Mehmet Pasa Yokusu is a narrow street that winds a couple hundred yards downhill. Midway on this street you'll arrive at an impressive mosque built by the city's most important architect, Sinan, in 1571-72.

The route continues along another picturesque street, Kucuk Ayasofya, to a mosque of the same name. It is a smaller version of Hagia Sophia and may have been a model for the larger monument, built a few years later. In another block, passing underneath the train tracks, you arrive at defensive walls built for Constantine the Great along the Sea of Marmara. These were part of a system of walls extending 15 miles around the city to protected it from attack.

Next, continue back up the hill. The Great Palace of Byzantium, which once sprawled across most of this hill between the Blue Mosque and the sea, has disappeared, but the ancient atmosphere remains.

Hagia Sophia was the world's biggest church and tallest man-made enclosed space when it was built in 532-537 A.D.

Day 2 Grand shopping and explorations in the Old Town

Grand Bazaar: In the heart of the Old Town are 4,000 shops under one roof and a maze of 65 alleys connecting them into a disorienting conglomeration. It started 500 years ago as a smaller market and kept expanding. More streets were covered with roofs to form a single massive building that reached its current size in 1701.

Similar shops tend to cluster inside the bazaar, so there are streets for carpets, jewelry, furniture, clothing and so on. Bargaining is mandatory.

There is a domed hall in the center called the Old Bedesten, which is part of the original structure and specializes in antiques and expensive jewelry.

If you want to see more mosques, look inside the Beyazidiye Cami'i, built from 1501 in what is considered the first classical-style design, with an attractive courtyard in front and entrances on three sides.

A more magnificent mosque waits 500 yards away, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent.

Suleymaniye Camai'i: After Hagia Sophia, this is the most remarkable of Turkey's religious structures. It was built in the seven years after 1550 to honor the Sultan Suleyman, who ruled from 1520 to 1566. His mosque is the work of architect Sinan, responsible for at least 120 other buildings in Istanbul. The dome reaches 162 feet above the vast prayer hall, and additional side domes and aisles further expand the room, with very few columns to interrupt the space. Iznik tiles delicately decorated in floral and geometric motifs cover most of the walls, and prayer carpets cover the floor.

Kariye Museum: Kariye is the city's first church, built during the fourth century for Constantine as the "Church of the Holy Savior Outside the Walls." From the 11th century, it was extensively decorated with murals and mosaics. A major mosaic inside the main nave depicts the death of the Virgin, surrounded by Christ and important saints.

Vivid paintings and mosaics covering the ceiling depict the lives of Christ and the Virgin. These remarkably energetic, realistic figures were created in the late Byzantine period.

After 1,000 years as a Christian church, the building was converted into a mosque, and the religious scenes were covered with plaster, as Islam does not permit representational pictures in mosques.

Now Kariye is a museum in which the earlier religious scenes have been revealed, presenting some of the only original Christian images still surviving in Istanbul.

Spice Market: The Spice Market is one of the world's oldest shopping centers, dating to the seventh century. Inside, they sell exotic spices, nuts, candy and dried fruits. Remember to bargain for the goods. The L-shaped market is also called the Egyptian Bazaar and has shops on two floors with a nice caf upstairs.

If you care to squeeze in one final mosque -- really, this is the last one -- you could do no better than the New Mosque, also called Yeni Valide Cami'i, built from 1600 to 1650 and situated between the Spice Market and Galata Bridge.

The Sultanahmet Mosque is also called the Blue Mosque for the blue ceramic tiles that cover much of its interior.

Day 3 The New Town and Bosporus Cruise

While the old section of town is important for discovering the many layers of Istanbul history, the newer section on the other side of Galata Bridge has more European charm.

Dolmabahce Palace: After residing in Topkapi Palace for 400 years, the royal Sultanate built the palace of Dolmabahce in 1842-1856 after deciding that Topkapi no longer met royal standards. Builders used more than 10 tons of gold and 15 tons of silver in decorating the palace, which blends Asian and Western influences. Palace furnishings were designed by Sechan, who also created the interior of the Paris Opera.

Admission includes the services of a palace guide who walks you through many of the 285 rooms and 46 salons. The main entrance has a grand staircase lined with Baccarat crystal banisters, impressive Corinthian columns all around, golden carved decorations and a glass ceiling from which hangs the world's third biggest chandelier, weighing 1 ton.

Just when you thought the decor couldn't get more outrageous, you enter the Grand Hall, with its golden dome towering 100 feet over a vast room decorated in a brilliant display of gold, crystal and marble, with tall columns and vaulted arches all around. The tour then continues into the ladies side of the palace, which is similarly beautiful.

The palace stretches 600 yards along the Bosporus shore and is surrounded by vast gardens filled with plants gathered from all over the world.

Taksim Square and Pera: This neighborhood, called Pera, or Beyoglu, presents the European face of Istanbul that continues from Taksim Square along the main pedestrian road of Istiklal Caddesi. Some very good, humble restaurants tucked away on side lanes offer tasty meals for a few dollars.

An old-fashioned tram runs along the middle of Istiklal Caddesi.

There are some fine buildings along this boulevard that were designed in the mid-19th-century style, somewhat weathered but filled with character.

Don't dawdle too long, however, because you have a boat to catch on the other side of the Galata Bridge.

At the end of the pedestrian mall, walk down the hill to the water, or better yet, ride the Tunel, an unusual funicular. Tunel went into service in 1875, making it the oldest subway in continental Europe and the world's second oldest, just behind the London Underground, which opened in 1863. The line only has two stations and reaches just about 600 yards, but it does a good service bringing people up and down the hill between Istiklal Street and the Galata Bridge.

Bosporus Cruise: Now it is time to reward yourself with a pleasant out-of-town diversion -- a ferry ride on the Bosporus, the strategic waterway that divides Asia and Europe. This excursion offers beautiful views of palaces and villages along the waterfront and a wonderful choice of fish restaurants in one of three villages on the north end near the Black Sea: Sariyer, Rumeli Kavagi or Anadolu Kavagi. It takes about two hours to get to the end of the line, three hours for a meal, and two hours to return the same way. You could shorten the ride by turning around sooner and just buying a snack on board, but the fish restaurants complete the experience.

To find the Bosporus ferry, look for Pier 3 and the sign that says "Bogaz Hatti," operated by the official Istanbul Sehir Hatlari Boats.

One of your first sights will be the extravagant Palace of Dolmabahce, with its 600-yard frontage on the water. Leaving the city, you'll pass under the Bosporus suspension bridge, one of the world's longest.

Soon, you come to two remarkable fortresses facing each other across the strait: Rumeli, built by Muslims in 1452, and Anadolu, on the Asian side, built 50 years earlier. The ferry then passes under Fatih Sultan Mehmet, a newer suspension bridge linking the two continents, and then continues north past small villages and lush green hillsides.

More palaces and historic old wooden mansions called "yali" line the shores on both sides.

When you've reached your destination and finished a meal, return to Istanbul by boat or local bus for a different perspective of the trip.

Back in the heart of Istanbul, cap your visit with a tourist night out at a belly dance show. Alternatively, you could settle in at one of the great restaurants in the heart of town. Or enjoy both at a dinner show in the Galata Tower, complete with a panoramic view looking back across the waters to the Old Town.

Dennis Callan is president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series airing 6-7 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He leads frequent tours through Europe, Canada and the United States, and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday of each month.


If you go...

Here are a few places to stay and dine while in Istanbul. Add the prefix 011-90-212 when calling from the United States.

>> Best Western Senator Hotel, 7 Gencturk Caddesi. Call 528-1865; fax 522-7397;; e-mail
» Ambassador Hotel, 19 Divanyolu Ticarethane. Just 200 yards from Hagia Sophia. Call toll free (866) 211-0557; fax 512-0005;; e-mail
» Four Seasons, 1 Tevvkifhane Sokak. The most deluxe. Call 638-8200; fax 638-8210.
» Ayasofya Pensions, 28 Kucukayasofya. Call 516-9446; fax 513-7622.
» Ayasofya Pensions, Sogukcesme Sokagi. Call 513-3660; fax 513-3669.
» Armada Hotel, 34400 Ahirkapi. Call 638-1370; fax 518-5060.

» Pera Palace: 98 Mesrutiyet. Call 251-4560; fax 251-4089.
» Hotel Euro Plaza: 292 Tarlabasi Bulvari near Taksim Square. Call 254-5900; fax 238-1374;; e-mail

Istanbul's Beyoglu district to the north of the Golden Horn has plenty of variety.
» Haci Bab: Istiklal Caddesi 49 a block southwest of Taksim Square; call 244-1886.
» Nature & Peace: Bykparmakkapi Sokak 21 off Istiklal Caddesi has good New Age food, including some vegetarian, served in cozy, candlelight surroundings, for about $10 per meal; closed Sunday.
» Haci Abdullah: A half block northwest off Istiklal Caddesi at Sakizagaci Caddesi 17; call 293-8561.
» Drt Mevsim: Inside Four Seasons at Istiklal Caddesi 509, near Tnel Square. Has been offering excellent Turkish and continental dishes for 30 years; (212) 293-3941.
» Sukru Nun Yeri: 23 Kucuk Ayasofa Caddessi, just downhill behind the Blue Mosque; call 458-3653
» iek Pasaji: At Istiklal Caddesi 172, is a long narrow courtyard within a historic building. The courtyard is lined with restaurants.
» Nevizade Sokak: Off Sahne Sokak near the iek Pasaji, is full of meyhanes (Turkish tavernas) serving excellent food and copious booze at outdoor tables in a bright, active, noisy atmosphere. Choose any restaurant. If you're stumped, try Asirli, Boncuk, aglar, Kadri'nin Yeri, or Imroz.



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