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Exploring Istanbul, Türkiye

Türkiye is a country that takes great pride in its ancient Greek and Roman historic sites,

but when the Emperor Justinian ruled the Holy Roman Empire from Constantinople (now Istanbul), the fallen remains of the classical period were seen as little more than marginally useful junk. Thus, a visit to the vast Basilica Cistern below the streets of the Turkish capital finds what would today be considered priceless relics recycled as building blocks for flooded structures never meant to be seen: chunks of Doric columns that once upheld temples, carved faces of pagan gods, and upended friezes help form the vast vaulted chambers used to store the city’s water supply beginning in the sixth century.


Istanbul, the bridge between Europe and Asia since ancient times, clearly has history to spare. Sadly, some of it is only partly accessible if you don’t adhere to Türkiye’s dominant faith tradition. The Hagia Sophia, for example, was built as a church in 537 A.D., then converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the armies of Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Open to all as a museum for nearly a century, the Hagia Sophia was restored as a mosque in 2020, so while the upper galleries of this timeless house of worship remain open to any visitor, only Muslims are now permitted to visit the ground floor.


A Perfect Blend of the old and the New
If you have money to spend, however, everyone is welcome at Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, founded within the old walled city of Istanbul during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II. Begun as a small textile and jewelry market outside of the Sultan’s palace, the Grand Bazaar has grown over the centuries to occupy more than 61 covered streets in the Fatih district, housing more than 4,000 shops where haggling vendors offer everything from rugs and jewelry to antiques and Turkish taffy.


Istanbul’s skyline is defined by the city’s collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites, most prominently the Blue Mosque with its distinctive ridged domes and six flanking minarets. Dating to the 17th century, the mosque can be visited on a guided tour or simply admired from various vantage points around the city, including the shores of the Bosporus strait that narrowly divides the city as well as the continents of Europe and Asia. The fifth-century walls that once surrounded the old city still stand intact in several places, giving a sense of how daunting they must have seen to arriving would-be conquerers. The remnants of the ancient Hippodrome of Istanbul, built in the 3rd century and used for chariot races, include three monuments that once stood on the infield of the race course.


If descending into the Basilica Cistern — now only partly filled with water to allow visitors — whets your appetite for further underground experiences, book a table at the nearby Sarnıç restaurant (the name means “cistern” in Turkish) on Soğukçeşme Street. Previously used for storing water, and later as an automobile repair shop, this drained cistern is now an elegant, Ottoman-inspired fine dining restaurant, with traditional Turkish food served for lunch and serving as an even more romantic destination for dinner. The Navitas Spa Sarnıç at the Istanbul Curio Collection by Hilton Hagia Sophia hotel, is also located in a former cistern, where soothing soaking pools and baths take natural advantage of ancient water-storage chambers.


The ample opportunities to look back on the past should not be taken to suggest that Istanbul is frozen in time. A vibrant city of 16 million that also attracts 17 million tourists each year, Istanbul bustles with activity whether you’re getting lost in the Grand Bazaar or dodging streetcars on Istiklal Street. Beginning at Taksim Square — a broad, elevated plaza that’s also conveniently the hub of the city’s excellent public transit system — Istiklal Street is open only to pedestrians and the city’s red-painted Taksim-Tünel tram cars. Lined with upscale stores, eateries, shopping arcades and historic buildings, the street is crowded with locals and visitors from all over the world, wearing everything from tank-tops and shorts to women in traditional abayas and men draped in long, flowing thawbs.


A treat for a day trip but a destination that nearly demands that you remain to explore its countless neighborhoods and historic sites, Istanbul is also home base for Turkish Airlines, which has expanded its U.S. destinations to include eight cities in the U.S., including Boston, New York, Newark, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Chicago, and Detroit.


Even if Istanbul isn’t your final destination, Turkish Airlines makes it easy to spend some time in the city with its Stopover in Istanbul program, which allows travelers to spend up to 20 hours in the Turkish capital without the need for a visa; free accommodations in Istanbul also are included in the package. For U.S. travelers, Stopover in Istanbul is available on any international route that features a connection in Istanbul, which includes 52 domestic airports in Turkey as well as many of the airline’s 266 international destinations in 130 countries.

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