Istanbul is sometimes described as the world’s largest open air museum. Antiquities abound but due to time constraints, tourists need be selective. There are numerous popular venues to visit and magnificent sights to see, especially in the historic heart of the old city.
Off the beaten track lie the hidden gems of the city though. Once vitally important to the capital, many of these are often overlooked. If your desire is to explore these in more depth, contact our knowledgeable guides who will arrange a personalised private tour just for you.
The Aqueduct of Valens
This historic gem of Istanbul is hidden in plain sight. The ancient arched bridge that carried water to the city from the hills of Thrace for almost 1500 years is now an integral part of the city’s road network. When Emperor Constantine surveyed his eastern territories in search of a new Imperial capital, he chose what is now Istanbul. The settlement was built on seven hills, as was Rome, and was surrounded on three sides by the sea. Unfortunately, there was ”water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.
Constantine’s successors, including Hadrian and Valens, established a 250 km network of bridges, underground tunnels, and storage tanks to bring water to the burgeoning city. Once there, it was stored in reservoirs and cisterns, including the popular Cistern Basilica. Due to this phenomenal feat of pre-industrial surveying and engineering, a quarter of a million cubic meters of water flowed into the city each day.
The Byzantine system made use of gravity, with gradients just sufficient to make the water flow without gushing. The Aqueduct of Valens spans the dip between Istanbul’s third and fourth hills. Across a span of 76 double arches, the five meter wide aqueduct dropped less than one meter. Fifty-one arches remain intact, towering to 28 meters in places. Parts of the aqueduct span the Ateturk Boulevard on the outskirts of the old city, about 2.5 km from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and it is free to visit.
The Theodosian Walls
Almost as old as the aqueduct are the Theodosian Walls, also known as the Walls of Constantinople. They were built in the early part of the 5th century, during the regency of Theodosius II, who was only seven years old when he became Emperor. Anthemius, an Egyptian Preatorian Prefect, oversaw an era of peace and prosperity on his behalf.
Ninety years after it had been established, the imperial city was bursting at the seams and its walls had to be replaced. A magnificent three-layered defensive system was constructed, from the Sea of Marmara in the south, to Propontis midway up the Golden Horn. The 66 meter impregnable barrier, with sea walls at each end, held for over a thousand years. The inner limestone walls were punctuated by 96 towers, each 20 meters tall and topped with terraces and battlements. Sixteen meters away, a further 90 towers on the lower outer walls were linked by ramparts, and beyond the walls lay a 10 meter wide moat.
Unfortunately much of the structure has been lost due to the expansion of the road and rail systems, much needed by the expanding modern city. Remnants of the walls are best seen at each end, where visitors can climb the towers, walk the ramparts, and scramble over the ruins. On the south side, the Golden Gate, an imperial triumphal arch, is still intact. Near the Golden Horn, the Blachernae Palace complex was incorporated into the wall after the Ottoman occupation and is now a museum. Contact one of our local guides to organize a tour of this amazing structure today.
Orient Express Terminal – Sirkeci Station
The Orient Express was once described as a palace on wheels. It was the ground breaking, lifelong dream of Belgian born George Nagelmackers. The son of a wealthy banker, he set out to revolutionise overnight train travel across Europe. Establishing the 3,000 km route which ran from Paris to Istanbul was a monumental accomplishment. In total, ten railway operators were persuaded to cooperate in allowing seamless cross-border travel. Royals and nobles along the route were eager to become part of the modern movement.
Nagelmackers, ever conscious of the comfort and convenience of his overnight customers, had the sleeping carriages re-engineered. He increased the number of axles and altered the suspension for a smoother, quieter ride. The heavier carriages called for much larger steam engines which became legends in their own right.
Sleeping carriages had heating, lighting, as well as hot and cold running water, and the privacy of separate compartments made travel safer for women. He not only introduced the dining car but went a step further - on board was a fine dining experience prepared by the best chefs, and rounded off with a world class wine list. Many patrons would ride the ‘train of trains’ from one stop to the next just to enjoy a meal.
To welcome the well-heeled passengers, Sultan Abdul Hamid II had a station built in the historic part of the city almost on the shores of the Golden Horn. He employed the services of August Jasmund, a Prussian architect who was lecturing in the city at the time. The terminal is a hybrid of Art Nouveau and Oriental styles, and remains one of the most famous examples of European Orientalism. The original wooden doors and elaborate stained glass windows have been well preserved. The Orient Express ran three times a week, from 1889 to 1977. The terminal restaurant, once the mid-century meeting point of members of the international media, is still open.
The Maiden’s Tower
Just 200 meters off the coast of Uskudar on the Asian side of Istanbul, is an islet that was once part of the mainland. Since the 4th century BCE, it has been home to a watch tower of sorts. The islet has also been used for other purposes through the ages, including a radio station and a quarantine hospital. The current tower was built in 1725 in the Ottoman Baroque style. In 1857, a lantern was added to the tower, turning it into a functioning lighthouse.
Three romantic legends swirl around the tower, which houses several eateries. The legends are explained on successive floors, each offering a different dining experience. Breakfasts are served in the main restaurant and outdoors, while the middle floor is available for private functions and dinner. Coffee and light meals can be enjoyed on the top floor under the dome. The wrap around balcony affords panoramic views of the city skyline, on both continents. Reserving a table is advised, something one of our private guides can help you with.
At the northern end of the Bosphorus on the Anatolian side, lies what was once an ancient fishing village. Over the years, the area has been used as a customs collection point, a strategically placed control post, and a quarantine center. However, Anadolu Kavagi has retained its village appeal and still offers tasty seafood to anyone who ventures this far from the crowds.
At sea level, the Bosphorus laps at the jetties that lead straight to the front doors of the colourful seaside houses. Perched on a hill above the village lies the ruins of Yoros Castle. The ‘guardian of the straits’ dates back to the Byzantine era and was once the largest castle on the Bosphorus. It is recognised as a Genoese Fort because of that city’s brief occupation in the 15tth century.
From the castle there are splendid views of the Bosphorus, the Black Sea, and the 322 m high Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge. In early spring and autumn, birdwatchers gather to watch the biannual migration of millions of large birds up and down the strait. The village is accessible by ferries from the European and Asian side of the city, as well as overland.
If the ancient cobbled stone paths of Istanbul could talk, they would lead you to more of the city’s best kept secrets. Since they cannot, we recommend that you contact one of our local guides who will accompany you on your quest to discover more hidden treasures. They are experts at designing private tours that will match your interests.
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