In its long and rich history, Istanbul has served as the capital city of three major Empires; yet the average tourist spends a mere 3 days exploring this exotic, chaotic and often mysterious city. Add another day or two to your itinerary, grab a map, and hunt down a few of Istanbul's overlooked gems. Away from the tour buses and crowds you'll discover a completely different Istanbul that few ever take the time or effort to explore. You'll be glad you did.
Chora Church (Kariye Camii)
If you are impressed by the mosaics in Haghia Sophia, do not miss the Chora Church. The Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in this 11th century Church are considered the finest in the world. The Mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. The church was converted into a mosque in the 17th century and it's now a museum, (so there's no need for women to worry about covering their heads here).
Open Thursday through Tuesday, 9 a. m. until 4 p. m. Address: Kariye Camii Sokak, Edirnekapi. (Next to the city walls in Edirnekapi. )
After Mecca, Medina, and Jeruselum, Eyup is a Major pilgrimage point for Muslims. The Prophet Mohammed's Standard-bearer, Eyup Ensari, is buried in the courtyard in a tomb covered in Iznik tiles. Under the Plane tree in the courtyard is where sultans performed a ceremony called “The Girding of the Sword of Osman" as part of their inauguration to the throne. This is a sacred site, so it's best to be very respectful when visiting, there will be groups of faithful praying and asking for intercession, (so women will definitely need to worry about covering their heads here). This Mosque is especially busy during Ramadan.
Open daily from the first call to prayer in the morning to the last call to payer in the evening. Address: Camii Kebir Sokak, Eyup.
"Little Haghia Sophia" was built in 530 as a Church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and like the famous Haghia Sophia, it was later converted into a mosque, (cover!). From the outside, the mosque looks a lot like a “mini Haghia Sophia" hence the name. The mosque has just re-opened after a year of renovations, and although the outside looks similar to Haghia Sophia, the light and airy inside couldn't differ more. Walk up onto the balcony for a different perspective on the building's skewed plan.
Open daily from the first call to prayer in the morning to the last call to prayer in the evening. Address: Kucuk Ayasofya Sokak, Kucuk Ayasofya, (behind the Blue Mosque).
Located in Gulhane Park on the grounds of Topkapi palace, it's amazing how many people miss this excellent museum complex. There are actually three museums here: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Tiled Kiosk.
Together they house over one million objects that represent almost all of the eras and civilizations in world history. The Archeological Museum includes many of the finest Greek and Roman marble statues discovered in Anatolia, as well as the beautiful Alexander Sarcophagus. For those who have been following Istanbul's Underground Metro saga, there is a very good exhibition on the ground floor showcasing the discoveries made while digging for the project.
The oldest items are found in the Museum of the Ancient Near East, the first building through the entrance gate. Among these items, don't miss the cuneiform tablets. The tablets run from a letter home to mom to the world's oldest written peace treaty!
Finally, on the far side of the courtyard is the stunning Tiled Pavilion. One of the oldest Turkish residential buildings in Istanbul, the sultan used to come here when he needed some “down time" away from his harem and plethora of children. Today it exhibits a beautiful collection of Turkish tiles, but the building itself is definitely worth a look.
The entire museum complex is open daily except Monday, from 9a. m. to 7p. m. Address: Osman Hamdi Bey Yokusu
Imagine. Collectors will pay thousands just to get their hands on a single original Iznik tile at auction and every square inch of wall space in Rustem Pasha Mosque's interior is covered in them. Many people miss this hidden little jewel of a mosque because it's a bit challenging to locate. Walk to the far end of Eminonu Square, away from the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and New Mosque. Most likely you will have to ask, as the entrance is not at street level but up a flight of stairs in the Straw Mat Weaver's Market. The men in the market know what you're looking for though, and will point the way.
Open from the first morning prayer to the last evening prayer. Address: Hacilar Carsisi, Eminonu.
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