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Walking Tour 2: Istanbul Underground

Start: Yerebatan Sarniçi (Basilica Cistern), Sultanahmet

Finish: Istiklal Caddesi, Beyoglu

Time: 2 to 4 hours, depending on how much time you spend in the Mosaic Museum and in the Basilica Cistern

Best time: Midafternoon Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday

Worst time: Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday (when at least one of the destinations mentioned in this tour is closed)

Istanbul sits atop a mind-boggling wealth of significant ancient and Ottoman history. A few of the places featured here have been converted into restaurants, while others are preserved as museums. Some are both, while others are neither. This means that not all the sights on this tour will be open at the same time -- museums are open during business hours while restaurants are only open after hours. A visit to the sites under private ownership will require some warm personal interaction. It's best to approach this tour around midafternoon, but you can also choose to split the difference between the sites opened during and after business hours and do half during the daytime and the other by moonlight.

1. Yerebatan Sarniçi

Few would guess that beneath the institutional concrete facade on the corner of Yerebatan Caddesi and Divanyolu lies one of the last remaining, intact monuments to the Byzantine era in Istanbul, the Yerebatan Cistern (closed Tues). After paying the admission fee, take the flight of steps that leads down to a humid subterranean underworld of imperial grandeur accentuated by modern spotlights and even a bit of artistry. The cavernous and palatial space glows with the reds and blues of theatrical mood lighting. You might recognize the space from a scene in the James Bond move, From Russia with Love, which was filmed here.

Upon exit, with Sultanahmet Park on your left, walk west along Divanyolu toward the Sultanahmet tramway stop. After the tramway stop, turn left onto Isik Sok. Down on your right is the main entrance to:

2. Binbirdirek Sarniçi (The Philoxenus Cistern)

In contrast to the celebrity of the Yerebatan Cistern, this underground space is generally ignored by the tour groups. Known colloquially as the Cistern of 1,001 Columns, it was built during Constantine's time, but today the dry, cavernous, and vaulted space serves several purposes: In addition to a museum, the cistern is also a restaurant, cafe, and wine house that accommodates exhibits, cultural performances (like the sema), and weddings. The small cafe is on a platform to the back and serves fresh baked goods; in the evenings, the atmosphere, music, and a stock of water pipes attract a young crowd.

If you're visiting between April and December, exit through the rear entrance to your right and turn left onto Klodferer Cad. Turn left onto Dostluk Yurdu Sok. and then cut through the little corner park on your right to Piyer Loti Cad. For visits at other times of the year, retrace your steps to Divanyolu and turn left. Turn left again down Piyer Loti Cad. The entrance to the next attraction is in the blue Eminönü Municipality Building. Just inside the service entrance, to the right of the main entrance, is:

3. The Serefiye or Theodosius Sarniç

This cistern is still in a fairly raw state -- no mood lighting and mirrors -- but at least they've removed the debris that was scattered about the space. A tunnel in the right wall is said to connect this cistern with the neighboring Binbirdirek cistern. This is a great place to practice your Turkish, because local security and service staff working in the municipal building hanging outside are eager to let visitors have a look. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

Retrace your steps back to Klodferer Cad. and turn right. Klodferer merges onto Üçler Sok., a narrow road with local shops, including a laundry, a grocer, and a neighborhood pasthane (mixed in with a creeping arrival of large restaurants and one or two carpet shops geared toward tourists). You will also pass a mosque with a tiny graveyard. Continue straight along the southwestern rim of the Hippodrome, veering right down the hill onto Nakilbent Sok. The road curves sharply to the left and opens up onto a raised tea garden on your right and, straight ahead, the:

4. Nakkas Store & 6th-Century-A.D. Cistern

The sleek operation of Nakkas is a shopping complex that puts pretty much all of Istanbul's quality commercial ware under one roof. If you can get past the cases of diamond and gold jewelry (carpets, kilims, and ceramics are upstairs) without getting sucked into the glamour, ask a salesperson if they wouldn't mind your having a look at their art gallery, essentially a 6th-century-A.D. cistern transformed into a space for exhibitions and concerts. Tell them I sent you. If you buy something then maybe I can get a free Iznik plate.

Turn left out of Nakkas and stop at the next intersection. Notice on your right the Spherion, or retaining wall of the Hippodrome. Turn left. The next street is Küçük Ayasofya Cad.; turn right to see the bright Eresin Crown Hotel.

5. Byzantine Artifacts

A small section of another ancient cistern was uncovered during the construction of the Eresin Crown Hotel. To the left of the lobby is a sitting area built on and around the cistern, and above an exposed (preserved) Byzantine mosaic detail. Off the lobby is the Column Bar, where some of the 49 artifacts recovered during construction are on display, including upright columns, capitals, and funerary stelae.

Go up the incline of Küçük Ayasofya Cad. (taking the right fork at the top) and follow the road around to the right past the entrance to the Arasta Bazaar. Be careful, as there is little sidewalk to speak of. Just past where the road curves left and in front of the Sultanahmet Sarayi Restaurant and Hotel is the entrance to:

6. The Mosaic Museum

For now, the Mosaic Museum is the best (and perhaps the only large-scale) example of the grandiose lost Great Palace. The museum preserves, partially in situ, a recovered portion of a peristyle courtyard that was completely tiled in mosaic patterns, in predominantly greens and ochers, of hunting and pastoral scenes. Amazingly, this portion of the "underground" tour was once the top layer of the city. Closed Monday.

The museum exit opens into the middle of the Arasta Bazaar. Continue up (to the left) and exit the bazaar to the right just before the tea garden. Cross Torun Sok. and continue straight along Mimar Mehmet Aga Caddesi to no. 39 and:

7. Sedir's Carpet Shop

Try and get past the commercial wolves to the shop's basement where you can find the remains of two significant Byzantine findings. Below, on the floor of the first (upper) level is a geometric mosaic depicting patterns found in both religious buildings and in private homes; for this reason the building has not been identified. Speculation is that the mosaic belongs to the Palace of Marina, sister of Theodosius II (5th c. A.D.). About 5m (16 ft.) below the level of the mosaic is a barrel-vaulted space, and in the south wall, a niche with a sacred spring. The presence of a worn depiction of the iconographic Hodegetria (literally: Greek for "She who shows the way," here, the Holy Mother pointing to son as Savior) on the wall of the niche suggests that this was the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria, founded by Saint Pulcheria, daughter of Emperor Arcadius.

Backtrack up Mimar Mehmet Aga Cad. and turn right onto Torun/Utangaç Sok. Continue a short distance up for a perfect place to:

Take a Break -- Java Studio is a unique and artsy coffee shop-cum-cultural center and art gallery located opposite the Blue Mosque. Offering a variety of coffees, hot chocolate, and cappuccinos along with refreshing sweet or salty lassis and bakery items to die for, this spot rapidly became a popular hangout for local expats. The owner, herself an expat, donates 20% of the shop's proceeds to support art, music, and sports activities for local children. (Dalbasti Sok. 13A, Sultanahmet; tel. 0212/517-2378).

Turn left onto Torün Sok. and go up the steep cobbled incline past the Blue House on your right and the domes of the Blue Mosque to your left. Straight ahead (the street changes names to Utangaç Sok.) are some of the more intrusive carpet salesmen in town; ignore them and turn right at the end onto Tevkifhane Sok. past the saffron-colored Four Seasons Hotel -- converted in the 1970s from a political prison. Turn left onto Kutlugün Sok., turn right into the Asia Minor carpet shop, and go into the garden courtyard at the back.

8. The Magnaura or Senate House

A cement staircase in the courtyard leads down into the subterranean remains of the Senate House. The salesmen will be more than happy to let you have a look at the gray and dusty stones, and then give you a tour of their carpet collection in the adjacent shop.

This shop is just one of the hundreds of neighborhood structures built atop the ruins of the Great Palace. In fact, excavations and construction are ongoing next door behind the Four Seasons. After the lot behind the hotel was reclassified from an "archaeological park" to an "urban and archaeological site," the hotel obtained permission to build three new wings on the site. The additional wings will be supported by pylons, allowing excavations and eventually visits to continue to the remains of either the former Senate or Magnaura Palace below.

Continue along Kutlugün Sok. along the wall of the Four Seasons (on your left) and some dilapidated painted cement-block houses on your right. At the end of the street is a restored Ottoman mansion, now a hotel; turn left here onto Isak Pasa Cad. and head up the hill along the outer wall of Topkapi Palace. Go around to the right of the grand Sultanahmet Fountain, past the entrance to Topkapi Palace, and enter into the cobbled and picturesque Sogukçesme Sok. Down on your right, tucked against the palace walls, is:

9. Sarniç

Believe it or not, this 1,600-year-old cistern used to house a mechanic's garage. The auto paraphernalia was removed only 25 years ago, and today the cistern is occupied by Sarniç, an atmospheric restaurant. The "wow" quotient goes off the charts when the entryway and staircase down to the dining room/cistern glows under the light of hundreds of candles. Take a minute to survey this spectacular medieval re-creation. The only "modern" addition is the brick fireplace on the left wall.

Continue along the cobbled Sogukçesme Sokagi past the rear gardens of the Ayasofya, full of archaeological pieces to the ancient puzzle strewn about the yard. If you happen to be back here when the bells go off, it'll be quite an audible shock. Sogukçesme Sokagi descends sharply, past the open gardens of the Ayasofya Konaklari containing a garden conservatory. The sharp descent spills out onto Alemdag Caddesi, with the entrance to Gülhane Park on your right, enclosed behind the Topkapi Palace walls.

Here is the Gülhane tramway stop; hop on any tram heading toward Eminönü and get off at the third stop, Karaköy, just on the far side of the Galata Bridge. Note: If your train ends at Eminönü, just step out and wait for one heading to Kabatas. At Karaköy, exit the tram to the right and go down to the water and seaside promenade at the base of the Galata Bridge. Follow the promenade to the left (away from the bridge), passing seafood restaurants and fishermen along the way. Up on your left you will see a ramshackle but beautiful blue government building and a plaza. Directly behind the blue building is:

10. The Yeralti Camii (Underground Mosque)

This mosque is a somewhat ominous grid of isolated, individual spaces sectioned off by thick, squat columns supporting a low vaulted ceiling. The scattered prayerful, worshiping in the privacy of their little compartments, may either ignore you or gaze curiously upon you, as few visitors to Istanbul even know to venture here.

Exit the mosque and return to Karaköy Square, where you disembarked from the tramway. Cross Karaköy Square (via the underground pedestrian walkway) and head west to Tersane Cad. Almost immediately on your right is the entrance to the underground funicular.

11. Tünel

Just as it always has from 1876 onward, Istanbul's one-stop subway, Tünel, will ease your passage up the very steep Galata Hill to the old neighborhood of Pera (now imaginatively called Tünel). In its early days, the public remained wary of this new system, so the city added an extra wagon and used it to transport animals as proof of its safety. Tünel consists of two cars cleverly designed to accommodate the heavy sloping of the landscape.

Exit Tünel to the right and follow the Nostalgic Tramway tracks up Istiklal Cad. (If you're tired or your feet hurt, take the Nostalgic Tramway and get off at Galatasaray Lisesi.) Opposite the Galatasaray Lisesi (Galatasaray High School) is:

12. Sarabi Wine Bar

By now, the wine bar should be hosting enough guests to allow you to migrate to a table in the cellar, which is a brick vaulted cavern and a 19th-century aqueduct. According to the locals, this was part of a system that conducted water from the British Embassy around the corner all the way to Tophane, down the hill along the Bosphorus north of Karaköy. This is the end of the tour, and with a cellar representing around 100 labels, a perfect venue for sampling some of Turkey's outstanding wines.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.