Strolling around Istanbul, the intoxicating air of history, the well worn streets and the breathlessness of the electrifying hum draws you into its endless energy. A city split between two continents, a city of sharp contrasts and diversity, a beacon of symbolism for Turkey, its modern incarnation and long historic enduring historic past. It’s a chaotic but romantic city to explore, the enchanting call to prayer swirls through the thick air of the city, mixing poetically with the rhythmic chants of the street sellers and the constant beeping of the dense traffic. The mosques of Istanbul punctuate the skyline over the Galata bridge, offering a place of refuge from the beautiful chaos. But somewhere along the line something was lost, the mystical Blue Mosque has become a zoo of selfie sticks and jostling tourists rubbing shoulders with the devoted. But walk a few streets on, to the historic neighbourhood of Suleymaniye, where the crumbling Ottoman houses still echo with the shrieks of playing children and the tin pots of the kitchen bang together. The mosque of the neighbourhoods name offers a real look inside one of Istanbul’s large majestic mosques with the authentic pause for reflection they were intended and is one of the most underrated places in Istanbul.
Istanbul travel guide: An alternative to the Blue Mosque
Many flock to the ancient city of Constantinople for the charms of it’s crumbling Hagia Sophia and the Ottoman landmark of the Blue Mosque. The towering minarets of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque as it is better known rise high above Istanbul, drawing crowds from around the world. Legend has it that its famous and controversial six minarets were a result of miscommunication, the sultans request “altın minareler” (gold minarets) was misheard as “altı minare” (six minarets). It caused a stir at the time, 1616, as the only other mosque with six minarets was the mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca, the Sultan soon after ordered a seventh mosque to be built in Mecca!
There’s no denying the majesty of the Blue Mosque, it’s intricate azure tiling that covers its incredible interior dome is something one should see at least once in a lifetime. But the spell of the magic is crudely broken by the queues that snake around the pale blue exterior courtyard. Beginning hours before each opening time and creating a chaotic and overburdening atmosphere rather than the intended peace and tranquility that should become of visiting a mosque.
But rather than being disheartened by the over tourism of the Blue Mosque, an inevitable result of it’s beauty, instead we turn our eyes towards a just as incredible alternative, the Suleymaniye Mosque. Located on the third hill of Istanbul the four minarets of this stunning mosque have dominated the skyline since 1557, before the construction of the Blue Mosque. It’s silhouette ends each day from the Galata Bridge with a burning red, but most people mistake it for it’s more famous compatriot but it also offers one of the most underrated places in Istanbul to visit.
One thing also to note is that of October 2018 the Blue Mosque is also undergoing major renovations which effect both the interior and exterior but most importantly the entire dome and its incredible blue tiles are not longer visible, likely leaving many visitors disappointed.
An authentic and enchanting experience that avoids the crowds of Istanbul
The Ottoman imperial mosque is typical of the time, combining elements of Islamic and Byzantine architectural styles and taking influence from the Hagia Sophia. Visiting this imposing mosque offers a real escape from the external noise that is Istanbul and provides one of the most underrated places in Istanbul to experience. Stepping into its elaborate stone courtyard through the domed passageways reveals a contemplative and quiet space with just a few visitors strolling around rather than the circus of the Blue Mosques court yard. It gives you the opportunity to really explore the space in detail, soak it all in and embrace it’s calming but overpowering atmosphere.
Rather than being funnelled in and out in one way traffic, here you are free to come and go, to wander, to pause, to look up in awe or sit down and breathe. It is inside the courtyard before entered into the mosque itself where appropriate garments are given out. Here there is no queue, but several boxes of full gowns, scarves and shirts to pick out at leisure.
Stepping barefoot into the enormous domed interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque you feel an instant curtain of calm decent upon you. The blaring exterior of the city fades away into the distance and your aching feet from miles of walking are soothed by the cushioning of the carpet below. If the Blue Mosque is so named by its tiled interior then here is the red mosque. It’s vast central dome, flanked by several other smaller domes is decorated in inconceivable detail in red, gold and green with its phenomenally large chandelier hanging low above the heads of the praying faithful.
Being able to sit and soak it all in rather than feeling rushed and crowded is a poignant and moving experience of Istanbul. Hearing the majestic call the prayer ring out in the courtyard, the running water of feet being washed and the silent hum of the remarkable interior makes it one of our favourite spots in the city, a city we’ve fallen in love with over and over. A mosque is a communal space, for those in the city to take a moment to reflect, whether that be as a muslim or not. The Suleymaniye mosque offers that real communal feel rather than that of a tourist attraction to be shepherded in and out of which is what makes it one of the most underrated places in Istanbul.
Exploring the authentic neighbourhood of Suleymaniye and the crumbling wooden ottoman houses
Beyond the charming courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque lies a neighbourhood of the same name. This historic district is still home to many of the wooden Ottoman houses that were once characteristic of the city as a whole. As the rest of central Istanbul has been updated and gentrified, Suleymaniye has been left in the 16th century for better or for worse. It’s characteristic houses are crumbling, many in ruins and yet still somehow occupied. Children run freely from one ramshackle building to the next as the smell of their mothers cooking fills the air, many can be seen taking a break with a Chai and a chat with their neighbour. Experiencing everyday life here makes it one of the most underrated places in Istanbul to visit.
Down the hill there is a commotion of activity, everything you could ever think of is for sale, from the charms of fresh fruit and handmade carpets to the practicality of sewing machines and 100 different sizes of wheel! The Grand Bazaar might entice visitors with the lure of far eastern treasures, but in truth its all top show and over priced for tourists.
The real local markets are down here on these unassuming and grubby streets drenched in the authenticity of the banality of everyday life. To wander here is to peer into someones life, a glance into a story you will only see a fleeting moment of, but one which surely captures the imagination of the traveller. It’s seeing these moments in which the city lets its guard down that makes Suleymaniye one of the most underrated places in Istanbul.
A look into the real Istanbul beyond the tourists attractions and the overwhelming chaos: one of the most underrated places in Istanbul.
Istanbul is a city we’ve been lucky enough to visit twice and gladly know we will come again having family living in Turkey. As a country it is one that continues to enchant us, revealing yet more fascinating narratives, history, landscapes and experiences each time we visit.
A trip to Istanbul just has to include the well known attractions of course, there is something intoxicatingly romantic about crossing the Bosporus and the sense of history is overwhelming upon entering the almost one and a half thousand year old Haggia Sophia. But a visit to the other districts and neighbourhoods, especially Suleymaniye, is just as beautiful and much more authentic and one of the underrated places in Istanbul.
Alternatives things to do in Istanbul: Practical advice for visiting Suleymaniye
The district can be easily found by heading towards the towering minarets, it’s a walkable distance from the Blue Mosque and relatively close by to the Grand Bazaar. We suggest downloading the app Maps.me, which is a free offline map and then making your way on foot, exploring the surrounding areas too. The wooden houses here are found right around the corner from the Mosque, below and towards the river. To get here on public transport you can take the river boat and walk up toward the mosque and several buses run here from the Galata Bridge.
Visiting Suleymaniye Mosque is free and so is lending clothing if needed. To visit you don’t need to wear any thing different to visit the mosque. The outer and inner courtyard can be visited without wearing any a headscarf or long pants and the public toilets are also ok to visit. However to go inside the Mosque itself you will need to lend a headscarf for women and for anyone wearing shorts that are higher than the knees you will need to wear what is essentially a long skirt!
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