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an evening photograph of the fountain in front of the hagia Sophia in instanbul The Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom in Greek) is one of the world's finest examples of Byzantine architecture. Once a church, then a mosque, it was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded. The museum consists of two major parts: the church itself and the gallery of mosaics.

One of the major attractions at Topkapi Palace, originally a summer residence in the pre-Christian Byzantium era, is its exhibits of simply over-the-top gorgeous jewels, religious artifacts, silk ceremonial robes and a manuscript collection.

The Blue Mosque (officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is another of Turkey's icons. Built in the 17th century as Islam's take on the Hagia Sophia, the mosque today is still a center for religious demonstrations. The vast dome is an incredible spectacle. The Imperial Pavilion, which is part of the Blue Mosque, houses a carpet museum with exhibits dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Behind the Blue Mosque is another attraction worth catching. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum, nestled into an alleyway of tourist shops, exhibits the flooring of the Bucoleon Palace of the Byzantine era. These mosaics were only (relatively) recently discovered in the 1950's and are believed to date back to 527 - 565 A.D.

Living Like a Local in Istanbul

The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, housed in a 16th-century palace, features exhibits from the Islamic period of the seventh century to the 1800's. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts, an extensive collection of carpets (check out a series depicting works of famous European masters) and tiles.

the hallway of the basilica cistern in istanbul James Bond film buffs should check out the Basilica Cistern, which "From Russia with Love" used as an extremely atmospheric location. Also known as the "sunken palace," the cistern was at one time a reservoir for the Byzantine Great Palace and dates back to about 500 A.D. A neat curiosity: Some of the columns that support the cathedral-style ceiling were taken from pre-Christian temples.

Ortakoy is a fabulous, historic neighborhood that lies on the Bosporus. Its claim to fame is the fact there's a church, a synagogue and a mosque -- the last is quite elaborate -- located within its boundaries. Beyond that, it's a pleasant place for wandering, poking in at various antique shops and art galleries, lunching at a bistro, and sipping coffee at one of the waterfront restaurants. Sunday is an especially good day to go because there's a street market, where locals sell all kinds of merchandise.

Take a day cruise on the Bosporus to Prince's Islands. These islands, south of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, were once a haven for exiled royalty (and luminaries like Leon Trotsky, who came here after being expelled from Russia). Today they're a wonderful -- and peaceful -- place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Attractions include horse-drawn carriage tours, churches and monasteries, and quaint old mansions. There are hotels (and restaurants) on the main islands. Commuter ferries depart several times daily from Kabatas.

A resort/spa in the Turkish tradition, Termal has been famous since Roman times. It's located about 24 miles southeast of Istanbul and features a historic hamam (Turkish bath), a swimming pool, and hotels and restaurants. To get there, take a sea-bus from Kabatas to Yalova (it's a 20-minute ride and the sea bus operates around five departures per day), then a quick taxi.

Discover Istanbul Tours and Activities from Viator

Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns Viator.


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