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What to Do in Istanbul with Only One Day

Before my recent trip to Turkey, I agonized over what to do with a free day in Istanbul. I’d always wanted to spend some time in this ancient city—it is, after all, the heart of Ottoman culture, the gate of the Silk Road, the seat of the Byzantine Empire, the home of the Hagia Sophia, and, oh yes, the third-largest city in the world. Still, when I found myself considering what to do there, I felt, well, stressed. There was simply too much. Before leaving, I read guidebooks, talked with friends who had been there, and researched online. The “must-sees” piled up: Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cisterns, the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, the Blue Mosque. Don’t forget about the landmarks of modern Istanbul as well: Taksim Square and the shops on Istikial Street. And, everyone seemed to agree, a boat cruise along the Bosphorus was mandatory.

I had one day.

Fortunately for my schedule and my sanity, Country Walkers had just created our Turkey: Istanbul Select Experience. This 3 day, 2 night exploration of the city includes numerous opportunities to savor Istanbul’s many landmarks, markets, and side-streets. I didn’t have time to enjoy it all, of course, but was able to make fine use of a key piece of this unique trip: a walking tour of the city with an expert local guide. And, as it turned out, his insider help made all the difference. Rather than run me ragged trying to tick off every highlight on my catalog of “must-sees,” he brought me somewhere I never would have discovered on my own, to experience a piece of the authentic Istanbul.

I met my guide in the lobby of the hotel and we discussed our options. As I ran through my laundry list of destinations, a smile played across his face—a silent comment on the Herculean task I had laid out before him. To his credit, he didn’t try to whip together an itinerary on the spot, however. Instead, he simply lead me to the Hagia Sophia—a short 15-minute walk away—where I wandered among the colossal arches and galleries of this ancient Byzantine basilica-turned-mosque and he did some serious thinking over a cup of Turkish coffee.

When I’d finished my endless picture taking, he told me which of my extensive list of landmarks he’d decided to take me to next. And the answer was: none of the above. “The Blue Mosque is exquisite,” he said, “But it’s not my favorite.”

That’s high praise. With its six towering minarets, nine domes, and 20,000 hand-painted tiles, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque—more commonly known as “the Blue Mosque” for its turquoise and royal blue interior—is said to be rivaled by only the great mosque of Mecca in size and beauty. So, what did he have that was better than that?

My guide took me down a winding alleyway next to the Strawmat Weaver’s Market and near the waterfront. We wandered past baklava stands, bookstalls, spice vendors, and strangely anachronous hardware stores until we arrived at a winding stone staircase. This we climbed to arrive in the courtyard of the Rustem Pasha Mosque. And then, I understood.

Originally built in the 16th century, the guide explained, this Ottoman Mosque was created as a memorial for the Grand Vizier Damat Rustem Pasha, who was married to one of Suleiman the Magnificent’s daughters. He had me at “Suleiman.” The legendary Sultan made clear how partial he was towards his dearly departed son-in-law by swaddling the mosque in beautiful Iznik tiles—they can be found covering the entire facade of Rustem Pasha’s porticoed porch, enveloping massive columns in the vaulted interior, and even checkerboarding the mihrab at the heart of the building. Interestingly, these are the same tiles that give the Blue Mosque its acclaimed blue, but while that landmark gets all the glory, you’ll actually find them in much higher concentrations in Rustem Pasha. So much for the guide books.

There were more pleasures awaiting me in the mosque as well. As I slipped off my shoes and covered my head with a “loaner” scarf, I noticed an iPad displaying an electronic version of the Koran on a stand. What a perfect comment on Istanbul: where Ottoman-era architecture and ancient Muslim texts collide with 21st-century technology. Inside, my eyes rose up to find intricately carved wooden ceilings and window casings mounted atop a wide variety of colorful tiles in floral and geometric motifs. Numerous light fixtures hung from high ceilings, but I couldn’t help imagining the room lit with the candles of yesteryear as my guide explained the patterns of worship and pointed out where men have been bowing and kneeling in prayer for over 450 years. For a few moments, we stood in total silence, alone in this spiritual and historic place, and I enjoyed an oasis of peace and solitude away from a city teeming with people. Then I pictured the tourists vying for photo ops at the Blue Mosque and smiled.

Thanks to my guide’s incredible local knowledge of shortcuts, his quick-moving feet, and his remarkable ability to hail a cab almost immediately, I was able to experience almost everything on my to-do list that day…except the Blue Mosque. But, having savored the beauty of Rustem Pasha, I didn’t regret it one bit. The Blue Mosque will be there next time I travel, and now, I have one more “must see” to pass on to everyone else.

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