Exploring (on foot) Offbeat Istanbul Along The Golden Horn & Cruising Down The Bosphorus!

Istanbul – to anyone who has been here, it immediately throws up images of Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar, its most popular tourist delights. We thoroughly enjoyed rambling through the imposing historical buildings, mysterious underground water storage system, colorful and ethnic Turkish wares on display. These couple of days took us back to the era of the Roman and Ottoman Empires and gave us an idea of the strife and the changing culture as empires transcended through the times.

On our last day in Istanbul, before we left for Pamukkale, Fethiye and Cappadocia, we took a walking tour exploring the lesser-known areas of the city and ending the day with the popular Bosphorous tour at sunset, nay ending the day looking up to the imposing Galata Tower, the erstwhile watch tower and later at times a prison.

We started our day at the Chora Church, currently a museum or Kariye Musezi as it is called now. A 15-minute cab drive from our hotel (set in the heart of the city near the iconic Taksim Square) took us there. The Chora Church is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine Church. It is a small place but we saw the best mosaics and frescoes in Istanbul here, the beauty lying in their intricate work and rich colours. The Turkish word Kariye is derived from the ancient Greek word Chora meaning outside of the city (land). Appropriately from here we walked to the ancient City Walls. This was exciting for us as a kaleidoscope of images flashed through our minds having earlier watched ‘Rise of Empires: Ottoman’ on Netflix.

The air had a pleasant chill as we sauntered to Balat and Fener – the perfect place to escape the crowds of Istanbul. The former Greek neighborhood Fener and nearby the old Jewish quarter Balat is situated on the southern shore of the Golden Horn.

Looks like a play school for girls – loosely translating into “Tiny Hearts Child Kindness and Love”. We spotted this on the façade of a house in a street in Balat.
A music shop in Balat with a great collection of vinyl records (LP). Being a music buff, Ranjana found it very interesting to browse through these – yesteryear memories pleasantly refreshed!

After having authentic Turkish coffee, tea and lunch we strolled through the colored Fener houses and then down the Balat street where we took a left from Cooklife. By the shore of the Bosphorous we lucked upon the exquisitely embellished St. Stephen Bulgarian Church. A quick looksee and then along the river we walked to the pier and boarded a motorboat for a short two-hour sunset tour with Tyrol. From the church to the pier is a longish walk and one can take a cab. We didn’t mind the stroll even though it was drizzling as the briny breeze and the cloudy sky upped our anticipation of cruising on the waters.

She takes a break between serving tables
(In a Café in Balat).
Alcove in a Café in Balat – on display an interesting array of traditional Turkish wares.

The boat ride was interesting as the cruise took us on the international waterway separating Asia and Europe presenting views of many iconic historical buildings along the shores.
Later we had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river and then trundled to the Galata Tower, travelling back in history once again as we stood at the base of the tower on the cobbled street.
It had been a tiring but very interesting day, thankful for having done this we took a taxi for the 2.5 kms back to our hotel.

Sharing below a few select images captured through the day from various segments of our walking tour!
However a day like this is best experienced through one’s own eyes filling in the sights and reviling in the vibes.

Mosaics and Frescoes in Chora Church / Kariye Musezi

A hidden beauty, Chora Church was originally built in Constantinople in the early 4th century by Constantine The Great, converted into the Kariye Mosque in the 16th century by The Ottomans, later designated as a museum in 1948 by the Turkish government.

The Kariye Musuem was undergoing major renovation (when we visited in September, 2019) so we don’t have pictures of the exterior and could not go inside either. But were lucky to be able to visit the western entrance where the ceiling depicted beautiful frescoes. These date to the 14th Century, the last period when Byzantine art flourished, perhaps the best to be found in Istanbul.

Frescoes – Main Entrance

The Death of the Virgin Mosaic
This is above the main entrance (where Ranjana is standing), on the western wall and it depicts the death of the Virgin lying stretched out on a funeral bier, surrounded by apostles.

Koimesis (Dormition of the Virgin)
Closeup of the door lintel, shows Jesus Christ in a double mandorla (an almond-shaped light surrounding the entire figure of a holy person), standing by the deathbed of the Virgin, holding the swathed babe-in-arms symbolizing the soul of the Virgin Mary being born into eternal life.

Frescoes – Outer Narthex (Porch)

Birth Of Christ

Depictions of Saints on Arches

Enrollment for Taxation

Temptation of Christ and John the Baptist Bearing Witness

Frescoes – Inner Narthex (Porch)

The Genealogy of Christ

Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple

City Walls

The Walls of Constantinople (today Istanbul in Turkey) were a series of defensive stone walls that surrounded and protected the city, since its founding as the new capital of the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great.
This is the fortification which Mehmed The Conqueror breached after 55 days of war to defeat Constantine XI Palaeologus – the last Byzantine emperor (1449–53), killed in the final defense of Constantinople against the Ottoman Turks.

We Give You A Conquest.
Tuesday, 29th May 1453 AD.
In the morning, The Conqueror’s army entered Istanbul through the breach that opened in this area.

This plaque, you will notice, is placed on the right side of the arch with inscriptions in Turkish. Curious to know what it said, Google Translate unfailingly assisted us as always (what a boon it is). As the interpretation dawned, a shiver ran through our bodies, imaginary visuals of the Ottoman Army storming into the city racing through our heads.

Edirnekapi Walls

We walked through the ancient arched gate and found the history of the Edirnekapi Walls described by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality with old pictures of the structures. Truly fascinating, as in those moments we felt time-machined 565 years back!
Transcribing below the writing so that you don’t need to zoom the image.

It is one of the most important structures of the land walls. The gate by which Mehmood The Conqueror entered the city with ceremony on May 29, 1453 was Edirnekapi. It is the highest gate of the “seven hills” with 76 metres. The Byzantines named it “Porta Harisius” but also called it “Adrinipolis”. The reason was the road leading to Edrine started here. The name of Edrine in the Roman era was Hadrianpolis, after its founder Hadrian. One branch of the Mese (the main road of Istanbul at the Byzantine era) reached this gate, connecting Istanbul to Edrine. Because of this Turks continued to use the name Edirnekapi (Edirne Gate).

After the conquest of Istanbul, the Sultans ceremoniously left by this gate when going on military campaigns to Europe. After this the gate was also ceremoniously used when the Sultans were to be throned after “the girding” in Eyup Sultan Mosque.

Within and outside of the walls that were the the starting point of the road leading to Edrine in Ottoman period, there were some tablets regarding the maintenances in Ottoman era. In the earthquake of 1999, the southern tower was destroyed and later it was restored.

Balat and Fener Neighbourhoods

In the 15th century as the Ottoman empire was advancing, the Greek people chose Fener to settle in and the Jewish denizens made Balat their home. These neighborhoods are located along the Golden Horn.

Fener Houses (Mansions)

After the conquest, Mehmed The Conqueror encouraged the Greeks who had migrated to return.
The Greek noble families received privileges and built aristocratic mansions in Fener, the area where they settled in Istanbul. Down the years the original mansions were rebuilt and some of the houses are rundown but still a quaint area to explore with its cobbled streets and colorful buildings.

Balat – Picturesque & Halcyon

Balat is a peaceful neighborhood with pretty hued buildings, historical religious monuments and cobble stone roads. The main street of Balat is lined with coffee houses, cafes and antique shops.
The locals are a gentle, pleasing and friendly people. We spent the afternoon walking at leisure and browsing through the shops, stopping for coffee and lunch. It felt as if time had taken a break and the moments stood still.

While roaming the streets of Balat, Ranjana was drawn to this fascinating souvenir shop which was packed from floor to ceiling with an eclectic mix of wares in a variety of colors and designs, ranging from lamps to sea shell hangings, anchors, hanging fish, jute hat, kiddie stuff, picture postcards and an old gramophone adding to the personality and whimsy to the space!

A lovely quaint brasserie with excellent service, a regional choice of dishes at reasonable prices. Very warm and hospitable hosts. We chanced upon this café, stopped here for lunch and fell in love with the eatery!
While the spaghetti chicken with arrabbiata which we had ordered was being prepared, the café owner insisted on taking our picture. He served us complimentary tea at the end though we made up for that by leaving a generous tip and a kind review on Google.

In Turkish, Kumda means ‘in sand’ and Kahve stands for ‘coffee’, and that is exactly what you get served here, coffee brewed in the sand!

Ground coffee beans are spooned into brass cezves, placed in hot sand which is heated over a flame. These are then filled with water and the coffee powder is stirred. After a few minutes, the hot sand makes the beverage come to a boil with coffee foaming at the surface and ready to be served! The small vessels left on the hot sand surface stay warm and the heat used for brewing can be adjusted by the depth of the pot in the sand.

We were served the Turkish Coffee in a aesthetic wooden platter with complimentary Turkish Delight, candy and chocolate balls on the side. The coffee was thick and strong and our entire observation and involvement in the process was delightful and fascinating.

Interesting street art (open to interpretation!) down the Balat street opposite Cooklife café.
We took a left from here and along the shore of the Bosphorous we lucked upon the exquisitely embellished St. Stephen Bulgarian Church.

Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, Balat

The richly ornamented Bulgarian church is a three-domed, cross-shaped basilica set inside a garden was built in the neo-Byzantine style on the banks of Istanbul’s Golden Horn in 1898 with 500-tons of prefabricated cast iron components shipped from Austria.

The iron oxidized and started to decay over time. My guess would be this was aggravated because of the salty sea water environment. To preserve the magnificent edifice of historical beauty, restoration work was taken up in 2011 and fully completed in 2018. We were lucky to see the church in its full splendor since our visit was in 2019.

There is a 40-meter-high bell tower above the entrance door of the church, 3 Russian-casted domes, and 6 bells including one weighing 750 kilograms. All of the bells were sent as gifts from Russia’s Yaroslavl, a place also known as the ‘bell city’ since it is a major production hub for Orthodox church bells.

The ‘Iron Church’ has ornately adorned interiors, glittering with goldwork and beautiful paintings sparkling in the soft light that breaks through stained-glass windows.
We found some tombs in the garden of the Church.

Our Bosphorus Cruise: Exploring Istanbul by Boat

As we left the Bulgarian Church a light drizzle had started, nevertheless we walked to the jetty for a Bosphorous Sunset Tour (one can take a taxi as well as the walk isn’t very short). We found the Turyol ticket window and after getting our tickets, additionally at 10 TL got an audio guide downloaded on our phone which had both text and pictures and was extremely useful in identifying the buildings. Without it the tour wouldn’t have been half as interesting.
However, as the light rain continued, we missed out on the visuals of the setting sun. It was somewhat disappointing that instead of the spectacular pictures we had seen on the internet, we only chanced upon cloudy skies without much character.

The Bosphorus is also an international waterway being a border on the sea separating the continents of Europe and Asia. From the boat we saw both the European and Asian halves of Istanbul, delighting in the panoramic views of many attractive and charming architectural wonders – mosques, palaces, fortresses, seaside villas. Since we weren’t staying in Istanbul long enough to have been able to visit all of these historical marvels individually, cruising along the shoreline was the next best thing; the visual treat from the sea a feast for the eyes and mind and an opportunity to shoot some great pictures. After many hours of walking, relaxing on the cruise was what we earnestly needed.

It was enthralling to be able to enjoy more of the hypnotic antiquity, our senses catapulted back over the centuries, soaking in the saga of bygone eras characterizing the Byzantium and Ottoman periods. We were almost transported in time with a surreal feeling that we were sailing from across the high seas and would soon drop anchor to a show of pageantry and the sound of bugles!

Pic credit: A fellow traveler.

Suleymaniye Mosque

Better known as the Mosque of Suleyman The Magnificent, the 16th century lofty edifice perched atop third hill, crowns the Golden Horn, enhancing the skyline of Istanbul.

Istanbul is known as the City on the Seven Hills . Like Rome, Istanbul was built on seven hills. In the Ottoman Age, as in the earlier Byzantine period, each hill was surmounted by monumental religious buildings.

Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Bridge is one of two bridges that spans the Bosphorus Strait, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Prior to its construction, the Bosphorus strait could only be crossed by boat.
Our cruise offered us the chance to cross between the two continents and admire the magnificently unending vistas.

Ciragan Palace

The only Ottoman Imperial Palace and Hotel on the Bosphorus.
For curious travelers, these architectural, religious and historical sites provide a glimpse into Ottoman-era life. Numerous fortresses on the Bosphorus remain as testaments to history.


Also known as Rumelian Castle, this is a medieval fortress, (dating to 1452) located in Istanbul, Turkey, on a series of hills on the European banks of the Bosphorus.

This was another of the impressive series of ancient structures that we crossed on the cruise.

Dolmabahce Palace

This is Istanbul’s first European-style palace, right on the Bosphorus.

As it stands it is of the highest interest, showing remarkable decorated work, with windows of beautiful and unusual design giving it a very romantic appearance.

The Maiden’s Tower

The Maiden’s Tower, which seemingly floats in the Bosphorus off Asia, served many different purposes throughout the centuries, including a merchantman tax collection center, a defense tower and a lighthouse. It has a rich history dating back to the fourth century, as well as a few legends adding to its fame.

Golden Horn & Galata Bridge

The Golden Horn is an inlet of the Bosphorus dividing the city of Istanbul and forming the natural harbor. Its name comes from the romantic artistic interpretations of the rich yellow light blazing upon the estuary’s waters as the sun sets over the city. Golden Horn was an old trading harbor and a popular residential area during the Byzantine period. Its entrance was blocked by a huge chain to stop unwanted ships to enter.

Galata Bridge is a dual-level bridge that handles vehicles and pedestrian traffic on the top level with restaurants and bars on the level below.
After disembarking from our cruise we found ourselves at the the entrance of the Galata Bridge which connects the old part of Istanbul to the new city.

There was a viewpoint under the Galata Bridge from where we could literally take pictures 360 degrees around it. We could see the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Galata tower and various other famous attractions.

Under the Galata Bridge, overlooking the river, there was a great selection of restaurants.
We chose one with absolutely stunning views across the waters.

Since there was a chill in the air, a heater above our table felt rather welcome. Hot coffee and a delicious thin crust chicken margarita pizza added to our comfort.

Pic credit: A server at the restaurant.

An evening view of Sultan Suleymaniye Mosque from under the Galata Bridge.

Galata Tower

Our frugal meal done, we moved on and after negotiating some stairs and gradient, through cobbled streets, reached Galata Tower. It was a buzzing place with souvenir shops and small cafes.
The Galata Tower looked imposing with yellow lights. We even got some romantic shots with reflections as the rain had left water on the road. 

There is a restaurant and café on the upper floors of the tower providing a mesmerizing view of Istanbul and Bosphorus. A night club is also located on the upper floor which hosts a Turkish Show.

As it had been a long day and our bandwidth was exhausting, we gave climbing to the top of the tower a miss. Our hotel was 2.5 kms away to which we cabbed back.

Discovering a city on foot lets you truly imbibe its vibe and culture, feeling the beat and energy on the street and being to some extent a part of the community rather than an intrusive tourist. Casual conversations with locals is an added bonus.
It also presents chances to explore interesting places not on the regular sightseeing map, which could have been easily missed otherwise. We delight in undertaking walking tours wherever an opportunity is flung at us.

Life can’t be all that bad, I’d think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus.
~ Orhan Pamuk ( One of Turkey’s most prominent novelists, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature.)

Article Authored By: Achal Bindraban.
Page Design By: Ranjana Achal.
Pictures By: Achal and Ranjana, unless otherwise credited.

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