ISTANBUL: THE HAGIA SOFIA AND THE GRAND BAZAAR
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The European city of Istanbul has stood at the crossroads of history since the days of the Byzantine Empire, when it was known as Constantinople. Two of the most popular things to do in Istanbul personify this cultural confluence: the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. One, a Byzantine church turned Ottoman mosque, the other, a bustling marketplace. Don’t return home from your visit to Istanbul without a tour of these incredible sites.
Meaning “Church of Holy Wisdom” in Greek, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Constructed in the 6th century A.D. on the site of an earlier church, its gold mosaics, polychrome marble, and great dome make the Hagia Sophia a breathtaking testament to both art and faith.
Its floorplan is of the classic European basilica — with the main rectangular space serving as the ground floor. The dome, with a diameter of 108 feet, sits atop four sections known as pendentives — concave, triangular structures supported by piers. The second floor gallery is thought to have served as seating for royals during services.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Over the following centuries, the minarets (towers) were added. In 1935, the site was secularized and turned into a national museum in Europe. In 2020, it reopened as a mosque, but visitors are still welcome to Hagia Sophia and its mosaics will remain uncovered except during worship.
What to see during your Hagia Sophia visit:
- A series of stone cannonballs line the courtyard — these were used during the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.
- Under the main dome where ornate Muslim calligraphy is juxtaposed with Christian mosaics.
- The ground floor retains much of the decoration and equipment from the Muslim era, while the second floor, in the galleries, is where the Christian mosaics can be found. Some are still being uncovered.
- Afterward, be sure to visit the mausoleums of the sultans as well as several pieces from the old Roman-era church just outside the Hagia Sophia.
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul
One of the largest covered markets in the world and one of the most highly rated things to do in Istanbul, The Grand Bazaar has lured shoppers to its halls since the 15th century. There are thousands of shops and stalls offering jewelry, ceramics, embroideries, leather goods, furnishings, copper and brassware, antiques, spices, and, of course, Turkish carpets. This huge complex comprises 60 streets and houses several mosques, as well as cafes and restaurants.
No visit to Istanbul can be complete without at least a few hours spent roaming the bazaar’s many stalls or sitting at a café watching the bustle.
Tips for your visit to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar:
- Much of the market is organized according to category; for instance, an entire street will have carpets for sale, while another will have stalls selling only leather goods. Save time by targeting just items you’re interested in.
- This is one of the most popular things to do in Istanbul, for locals and visitors. On any given day between 250,000 to 400,000 people visit the Grand Bazaar — so prepare for crowds. And as with any commercial district, petty crime exists. Be mindful of your possessions and surroundings.
- Shop early to save — most salespeople work off of commission and must meet a daily quota. They’re often more apt to strike deals early in the day to be sure they reach that quota.
- Bring your negotiating A-game to the Grand Bazaar. Haggling is part of the experience and it’s expected. Don’t jump at the first price offered.
The Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar are just the highlights. There are so many more things to do in this enchanting city. Visit Istanbul on a cruise to Europe with Holland America Line.