The iconic Sultan Ahmet Mosque or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul is undoubtedly the most visited landmark in Istanbul. Located in Sultanahmet district, the heart of the old city where you will find more popular tourist attractions such as Topkapı Palace, Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray).
The mosaics inside the Ayasofya is amazingly beautiful but many didn’t know that Chora Church located in the Fatih district unearthed several stunning mosaics depicting Christianity. This and other places we discovered off the beaten track, with Ryan and Andrew, co-owners of Authentic Turkey Tours, a boutique independent travel company. They brought us to the hidden gems of the city, explored the Asian side of Istanbul and get to experience the local life in the city.
Our awesome day started after a quick breakfast at our accomodation, Hotel Empress Zoe an old turkish style townhouses conveniently located at the Sultanahmet area. They fetched us at exactly 10am and drove shortly to Eminönü, our first stop. We walked along the streets near the Grand Bazaar and went inside an old han which used to store goods coming off the ships anchored in Golden Horn and also a resting place for its merchants. Now, it’s housing several craftsmen making goods such as pots and lamps. Through an old wooden door at the top floor, we climb few steps up to the roof. The views from the roof is breathtaking! Overlooking the city’s old charm and modern skyscrapers. It’s a perfect photo spot where east meets west as you can see both the European and Asian side of Istanbul, the busy Bhosporus bridge and the Golden Horn.
After several photo ops, we went to Chora Church. The exterior of the church is under restoration and looks uninteresting from the outside. It’s one of the old churches converted to a Mosque by the Ottoman empire and is now a museum and home of the most beautiful mosaics of Christianity we have ever seen. It’s a hidden gem of Istanbul, though it is not as big as the Hagia Sophia, the mosaics here are more beautiful, detailed and well maintained. Photography is allowed inside with no flash.
From Chora Church, they drove us to Karaköy. A commercial neighborhood in Istanbul with several interesting shops and graffiti along the streets. The place has a very modern vibe without losing its heritage, which we think will appear to any types of tourists. Here, we went inside a shop famous for their baklava. It’s frequented by locals, they were in and out, grabbing their favorite sweets in a fast phase, while we sat down inside and ordered Turkish tea. We tried some of the best sweets in Istanbul while Ryan and Andrew are sharing more interesting stories about Turkey. They are originally from Australia but they now live and breathe Turkish culture. We’re amazed how knowledgeable they are about the history, culture of Istanbul and other places all over the country.
We then drove towards the Asian side of Istanbul, crossed the Bhosporus bridge and arrived at Kadıköy. Cold wind is blowing when we stepped out of the car and we’re a bit thirsty so we grabbed cups of Salep, a popular winter drink since the Ottoman empire.
Walking around, reminds me of San Francisco due to its hilly streets. It’s a lively neighborhood at the other side of the Bhosporus Strait, with several boutiques, stores, cafés, mid-size residential buildings and huge vibrant street arts. Busy but not crowded, truly an off the beaten track destination.
Ryan and Andrew planned to take us to more interesting off the beaten track spots in the city, however, it’s our last day in Istanbul and we haven’t been at the major sites yet. The Blue Mosque is in Ryazan’s bucket list so there’s no way we can miss it. They are very flexible with our itinerary and we are extremely happy about it. We then head back to Sultanahmet district at the European side and visited The Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern. It is called the Blue Mosque due to its blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. While the Basilica Cistern is the largest among hundreds of other ancient cisterns beneath the city of Istanbul, its famous for the two Medusa head column bases. As an experienced traveler, I believe that having a guide when visiting historical sites is necessary. It brings a depth of experience that you can never get from guide books or audio guides. They also know the best spots for photography.
It was a long day and we really had a great time, but our day didn’t end with just sight seeing and photography. At night, we went at the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest and oldest indoor markets in the world for some shopping. We bought some Turkish Delights, Turkish Lamp, magnets and other souvenirs. Everything was reasonably priced, we avoided being ripped off, thanks to Ryan and Andrew’s mastery of the local language!
We had an awesome time in Istanbul. Thanks to Ryan and Andrew for the first class experience! Authentic Turkey Tours offers a wide range of tour programs and itineraries to suit various types of travelers. Checkout their website for more information.
About the Writer
Jaypee Licudan is a Filipino Expat based in Singapore. He’s a traveller and writer for Two Monkeys Travel Group – Community Travel Blog and has been to over 30 countries across 4 continents. He’s major long term goal is to go back to the Philippines for a long time travel to discover the hidden gems of his home country. Follow his personal blog: The Rustic Nomad