One of visitors’ favourite characteristics about the city is the overwhelming sense of past, which, like the Valens Aqueduct, whose arches now straddle one of the city’s busy roads, is quite literally built into the streets of Istanbul. Remnants of the city’s past are hard to miss, but for the history buff who’d like a deeper dive into Istanbul’s hidden gems, here are five off-the-beaten-track attractions you shouldn’t miss.
Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century upon the grounds of an earlier chapel, this church was located outside Constantinople’s city walls; “chora” literally means “country” and the church was originally known as the one “outside the walls.” Rebuilt no less than five times, most of the structure that remains today is a remnant from the construction of the late Byzantine era, when statesman Theodore Metochites used his considerable personal wealth to refurbish the church during the fourteenth century.
Smaller in scale than the Hagia Sofia—and with no comparable volume of tourists—the Chora Church nevertheless remains a fascinating glimpse into Byzantine art and history: its breathtaking murals and frescoes display the artists’ skills at their finest, retelling scenes from the lives of Jesus, Mary, and other important biblical figures. Chora Church’s location may be off the beaten tourist path, but it’s an easy taxi ride from Sultanahmet—and its peaceful atmosphere and more intimate setting is well worth the trip.
Related: Istanbul for nature lovers
Constructed primarily in the twelfth century, this large monastery originally comprised three churches, built in quick succession, and also served as the mausoleum for a few dynasties of Byzantine emperors. Like many of the Christian churches in the city, it was turned into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century. This particular structure—considered by some to be one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture—is made unique, however, for it served as much more than only a house of worship during Ottoman times: it was also a medrese, or Islamic school, and was renamed after the scholar Zeyrek Molla Mehmet Efendi, the first head of the school.
Severe deterioration in recent years has led the World Monuments Fund to select it as one of the most endangered cultural sites in the world. The monastery is now undergoing a renovation—not without controversy of its own—but is well worth a visit for its historical significance in both Byzantine and Ottoman times. You can also enjoy a beautiful view of the Golden Horn from its vantage point.
Constantine the Great initially built fortification around Constantinople to protect it from land and sea attacks, but it wasn’t until the fifth century that the Theodosian walls were built. With their double line of defence, the walls are famous for being a feat of military architecture; indeed, the Byzantine empire was able to survive numerous attacks before finally being conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. Today, atop the remnants of these storied walls, one can see what was once the prized (and much fought-over) jewel of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman worlds.
Running from the Marmara Sea to the Golden Horn, those seeking more physical activity during a stay in Istanbul can take a few hours to walk segments of the old walls; it’s not only an effective way to feel the layers of history in the city, but also to witness modern life in Istanbul, far from any tourist attractions.
© Dennis Jarvis/Flickr
Related: How to drink Raki in Istanbul
Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
Porphyrogenitus literally means “born to the purple,” a title that was granted to a child born to a reigning emperor: this palace, built as an annex to the Blachernae complex in the thirteenth century, served as the residence for some of the last of them in the dwindling days of the Byzantine empire. One can only imagine the opulence of the structure in its heyday; unfortunately, after the conquest of Constantinople, the palace was systematically stripped of all its valuables.
The structure itself, however, was largely left alone to ruin, meaning its current state still gives a close approximation to what its exterior must have once looked like: certainly worth a visit, especially given its status as one of the rare surviving examples of secular Byzantine architecture. The palace’s story doesn’t end in the fifteenth century, however; after the fall of Constantinople, the palace was put to use for less royal purposes: first to house the Sultan’s menagerie, then as a brothel, and finally as a pottery workshop in the eighteenth century.
Bulgarian St. Stephen Church
Originally a small wooden church, St. Stephen was established for Bulgarian Orthodox residents of Istanbul, who—due to a nationalist movement—requested to have a house of worship separate from their Greek counterparts in the city. After a fire destroyed the original church in the nineteenth century, work began to build a new structure in its place.
Made from cast iron parts manufactured in Austria and transported to Istanbul via the Danube River, it’s easy to see why this church has become known as “The Iron Church”: with its imposing edifice, it presents a striking sight in modern day Istanbul, notably different from much of the architecture surrounding it in the colourful and hilly neighbourhood of Balat. Currently undergoing a much-delayed renovation, the church’s interior is set to open once again later this year.
© Marcus Deretten/Flickr