Istanbul is a city that has successfully incorporated a rich past into a promising future -- no small feat considering the sheer magnitude of history buried under those cobblestone streets. Three of the greatest empires in Western history each claimed Istanbul as their capital; as a result, the city overflows with extraordinary sites all vying for equal time. Conveniently, all of the top sights are located on or immediately around Sultanahmet Park, but that by no means is an indication that there's nothing worth seeing outside of that neighborhood. A dizzying number of restoration projects are underway in the Old City (of which Sultanahmet is a part) and Taksim, Beyoglu, Çukurcuma, Galata, and Tünel. In these Beyoglu neighrborhoods, you can stroll past freshly restored turn-of-the-19th-century ambassadorial palaces and barracks, converted 16th-century waterhouses, and crisp, minimalist museums, all while shopping for an expensive pair of Levi's.
The number of restorations and modernization projects scheduled to be unveiled in time for 2010, when Istanbul ascends to the throne of European Culture Capital, is simply dizzying. At the head of the list is the Ayasofya: After several years of cleaning, preserving, restoring, and uncovering, the upper galleries are again open to the public. Even more exciting is the removal of the interior scaffolding, which had been obscuring the unobstructed splendor of the dome since 1993.
Hours & Admission Costs for Mosques & Churches -- Unless otherwise noted, opening hours for mosques and churches are daily, from dawn to dusk; unless otherwise noted, admission is free.
Fishing for Customers: Local Shop "Commissioners" -- The dregs of Turkish society mill around the entrances to the major sites in Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, Topkapi, and the Hippodrome), lying in wait to pounce on you (and a percentage of anything you buy) with apparently harmless -- even helpful -- offers of assistance. It's called "fishing" in local jargon, and you're the fish. The point is to gain your confidence, so that you trust this person and the people/places/shops he recommends. If you don't mind the company, that's your choice. But in the event you buy, rest assured that after the transaction is completed, your new friend will find his way back to the shop (or hotel) for his cut.
Catch the Ottoman Mehter Band Outdoors
That must-see Ottoman Mehter Band that I tout so much no longer requires that you head over to the Military Museum in the middle of your day. There's now a performance every Friday, an hour and a half prior to noon prayers, right in front of the Eyüp Sultan Mosque. After the music and a visit to the mosque complex, hop onto the brand-new cable car for the 2-minute ride up to the top of Pierre Loti Hill. In the summertime, you can catch the spectacle at the far end of the first courtyard of Topkapi Palace, under the Babüsselâm Gate (Gate of Salutation, or Middle Gate) at 11am on Wednesdays and outside Dolmabahçe Palace at 10am on Tuesdays.
Constantinople's Defensive Walls
Even before the arrival of the great Roman emperors, the city on the hill (then called Megara) was a target for attack. Persian King Darius I took the city in 512 B.C.; then in 478 B.C., the Athenians squeezed out the Persians. Alexander the Great reinforced the city's Hellenistic bend, until in 146 B.C. the city came under Roman domination. For the next 350 years, the city basked in the glow of Pax Romana, notwithstanding Septimus Severus's massacre and destruction of the city when, having proclaimed himself emperor, he was met with resistance by the citizens loyal to his opponent, Pescennius Niger. When Severus rebuilt the city, he expanded the original boundaries to those enclosed by a defensive wall running roughly north to south from the Galata Bridge around the Hippodrome to the Marmara Sea. Constantine's walls again enlarged the city, forming a ceinture that expanded the city out into the middle of today's Fatih district. Nothing of either the Severus or Constantine walls survive.
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.