The Grand Bazaar has been around since the early days of the Ottoman Empire and is located about a 10 minute walk away from Hagia Sophia. The walk there is enjoyable as you get to take in more of old Istanbul. You can easily find yourself wandering down one side street or another as something catches your eye.
The bazaar is a maze of crisscrossing pathways lined with shops selling an array of goods. Jewelry, spices, tea, clothing, and more unexpected goods can be found inside these shops. When I went the bazaar was busy, but not so crowded as to feel claustrophobic.
The Grand Bazaar appears in the opening of Skyfall. It’s a great location for a chase scene. More generally, Istanbul seems to be consistently intriguing over time. It has appeared in three James Bond movies (From Russia With Love, The World Is Not Enough, Skyfall).
To get to Istiklal Street from the Grand Bazaar you must cross the Golden Horn. I did this by walking across the Atatürk Bridge, which offers some great views of the city.
Istiklal Street is located just off of Taksim Square- Istanbul’s main public gathering point. In the recent years, Taksim was the site of wide scale protests. Things were calmer when I went with people going about their business normally. A focal point of the square is the Statue of the Republic which celebrates the foundation of Turkey and next to which many people may be seen getting their photo taken.
Like the Grand Bazaar, Istiklal Street is an eclectic mix of stimuli for all the senses. The street is lined with shops, restaurants, and a few other points of interest. The street is crowded, though it looked like a fairly light day when I was there compared to some of the photos I have seen.
In walking I heard all the sounds you’d expect in a commercial area and more to make it unique. I found plenty of Turkish music, both recorded and some live. One of the more things to witness and hear was a group dressed up as American Indians playing guitar, shaking maracas, and singing. I’m still not really sure what to make of that. The call to prayer is clearly heard down Istiklal as in just about any other place in the city I visited. I was also briefly teased by about 15 seconds of Katy Perry's "Dark Horse", a universal classic.
You can easily spend several hours walking up and down the nearly mile long street. If you need a break, tucked away and easily overlooked is St. Anthony’s Church. After spending a few days visiting mosque after mosque, this Catholic church felt like a nice change of pace and slightly more familiar to me. The church is set a little way back off of Istiklal and is a beautiful red brick building. Outside is a statue of Pope John XXIII, who served as Vatican ambassador to Turkey prior to his papacy. Inside is a quiet and relaxing space. Not nearly as grand as some of Istanbul’s mosque, it’s a nice spot to escape the crowd for a bit, sit, and reflect.
The capital of Turkey was moved to Ankara in 1923 from Istanbul. The vestiges of Istanbul’s day as capital are visible in the form of former embassies now serving as consulates along Istiklal. Among these the most beautiful may be the former embassy of the Russian Empire (now consulate of the Russian Federation). It was designed by the Fossati brothers, Swiss architects that made major contributions to Istanbul in the 19th century. I was only able to grab a glimpse of the front, but still found it impressive.
Between the Grand Bazaar and Istiklal Street, I was surprisingly well behaved fiscally. After telling myself I would resist buying any souvenirs for myself I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of an old map of Istanbul’s mosques. As anyone who has seen my apartment can attest, I am a sucker for interesting maps from my travels. This particular one is thematically different from anything else I own and I think it will make a good addition to my collection. My only other purchase was decidedly more practical- a few pairs of boxers. It’s the one piece of clothing I realized I had underpacked on.