Aya Sofya, Hagia Sophia or, in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is a mighty structure defining the heart and soul of Istanbul, melding the characteristics of a city that crosses time, continent and culture. If you only have time to visit one sight in Istanbul this is it.
Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Constantius I as a Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia had a hard life and survived an earthquake, fire and revolt over a period of 916 years before being converted to Aya Sofia Mosque in 1453. Four minarets were added and the vast, domed building remained a mosque until 1935. At this time Ataturk proclaimed that it should become a museum where symbols of both religions would be housed side by side to pacify both faiths.
Hagia Sofia Dome
Head upstairs, or rather up wooden ramps, for a spectacular view of the main atrium and nave from the balcony above the main entrance. Bathed in diffused golden light the people gathered below gauge the scale of the building. The central dome, reaches 55.6 m above the museum floor and is supported by four pendentives adorned with winged cherubs.
Hagia Sofia Mosaics
Ancient frescos and gilded mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Christ, restored after the mosque became a museum, are displayed under the magnificent dome alongside 19th century leather medallions gilded with the names of God (Allah) and Mohammed in Arabic lettering. More mosaics, uncovered after the Hagia Sophia became a museum, line the upstairs gallery and give an idea of the grandeur of the original decoration inside the Church.
This is a majestic, beautiful building that inspires a sense of awe and one where I felt compelled to stay awhile, even after having seen all there was to see, just to soak up a sense of time and place and the essence of Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or to give it its official name Sultan Ahmet Camii, is both a place of worship and a major tourist attraction receiving four to five million visitors every year. Facing the Hippodrome in the centre of Old Istanbul, its grey cascading domes and six minarets are one of Istanbul’s iconic views, the interior is just as stunning.
The Blue Mosque, Istanbul
This was my first visit to Istanbul and Sultan Ahmet Camii was high on my must-see list along with Hagia Sophia Mosque and The Basilica Cistern. Since they’re all in close proximity in the Sulthanamet this is the perfect place to start exploring the city.
Sultan Ahmet 1 became the 14th emperor of the Ottoman Empire in 1609 at the age of 13. In a sort of mosque face off he ordered the building of a new mosque to rival the nearby Hagia Sophia. The Sultan demanded the mosque have ‘altin minaret’ or gold minarets. His architect misunderstood and built the mosque with ‘alti minaret’ – six minarets instead. The only other mosque in the world with as many minarets was the Haram Mosque of Mecca. The religious leaders of the time were so outraged that the Sultan sent his architect to Mecca to build a seventh minaret so that the holiest of mosques could retain its superior status.
The Blue Mosque Courtyard
We approach the mosque from the West side near the Hippodrome for our first, close-up, glimpse. This is the best place to appreciate the mosque’s perfect proportions rather than from Sultanahmet Park. A step through the tall wooden gates and into the large square courtyard and we’re face to face with the spectacular dove-grey domes, marble walls and gold-tipped minarets.
At this point most people just stop and stare and the courtyard is busy with people gazing upwards in awe. The mosque is beautiful with its gently curved domes appearing to bubble upwards. We stay for half an hour exploring the courtyard enjoying the beautifully ornate cloisters and the views of the domes.
To enter the mosque itself we exit the courtyard and head around the outside to the south door which is for tourists. This also helps the prayer part of the mosque retain its sacred air. Worshippers enter through the main door after using the ablutions area.
As the mosque is a place of worship dress code is strict. Before we could enter I made sure my legs, head and shoulders were covered. We also took socks with us as shoes had to be placed in plastic bags before we could enter. Recently officials have become stricter and now there are more stringent checks to ensure that visitors dress appropriately. Robes are handed out to under-dressed tourists so if you don’t want to wear one of these don’t dress inappropriately. I visited again in 2014 and despite being covered I was still handed a robe to put on over my clothes.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Inside the mosque is cool and we notice an air of hushed calm as visitors become aware of the beauty inside. A lone worshipper immersed in prayer kneels on the deep red carpet. The building is a work of art and earned the moniker’ Blue Mosque’ because of it’s ornate decoration. More than 20,000 blue Iznik tiles in traditional Ottoman patterns adorn the walls and ceilings. Lilies, carnations and tulips are depicted throughout. We were able to see some of the tiles from the ground floor although the majority are on the upper levels and out of sight.
The interior domes are intricately tiled, painted and decorated with verses from the Koran and the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. We padded across the carpeting in our socks, necks craned upwards. Softly coloured rays of light filtered on to us through the 260 stained-glass windows.
Where: Meydanı Sokak 17, Sultanahmet, Istanbul
When: Open daily from 09.00 till 1 hour before dusk. Plan your visit to arrive mid-morning as the mosque is closed half an hour before until half an hour after prayer time – 90 minutes in all.
Prayers happen five times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at dusk. Avoid visiting a mosque within half an hour after the ezan is chanted from the Mosque minarets. On Friday the doors are closed at 11am and open again an hour after noon prayer.
Entry: Free but donations are gratefully accepted.
Seven Sisters Country Park is a beautiful East Sussex hotspot. The iconic coastguard cottages, Cuckmere Haven and the clifftop walk to Birling Gap make for an epic day out.
View of Seven Sisters, East Sussex
Updated April 2020
The towering white cliffs, near Brighton, in East Sussex are part of England’s South Downs National Park. The cliffs stretch along the Sussex Heritage coast from Cuckmere Haven to Birling Gap in the Sussex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It’s somewhere every Brit should visit at least once.
The South Downs roll along one side of the cliffs and the English Channel reaches into the horizon on the other. If you love stunning coastal views, meandering rivers and dramatic chalk cliffs then you should spend a day at Seven Sisters Country Park, in East Sussex.
We packed a lot into our three days in Amsterdam; boat trips through the canal district, museum visits, free sight-seeing and, of course, plenty of gable-spotting. But I can’t leave Amsterdam behind without mentioning its more infamous attractions; The Red Light District and the cannabis-selling Coffee Shops. We didn’t encounter any rock and roll during our trip but pedalos were prevalent and it sort of rhymed…
Amsterdam’s Red Light District
The Red Light District area of De Wallen is actually one of the oldest and prettiest areas of Amsterdam. Winding cobbled streets, pretty, leaf-lined canals, the gothic 13th century Oude Kerk (Old Church) as a backdrop and plenty of canal-side cafés makes it a pleasant area to enjoy in daylight hours.
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Come dusk the Red Light District becomes a major tourist attraction and when my travelling companion, a girlfriend from school, and I returned to the area in the evening it was cast in a somewhat different light. The lanes were bustling with goggle-eyed tourists, us included, couples strolling hand-in-hand, tour groups and hen parties giggling and gasping their way past less than barely-clad women gyrating their way round the window frames. And, of course, there were those looking to buy. The atmosphere was now a tad edgier.
As the lamplight cast a red glow onto the inky waters of the canal I heard a shout behind me. Looking back, I saw one of the girls launch herself from behind her window, run into the street and loudly admonish a tourist who’d been taking photos – photography is banned here. Luckily the camera remained intact and I know I shouldn’t laugh but seeing my friend being yelled at by a prostitute wearing 6 inch heels and little else still causes me to smile. What a rotten friend I am… We spent the next half an hour recovering with a gin and tonic watching the comings and goings from the safety of a busy pub. We reckoned the average curtain closure time to be 11 minutes. As you can imagine the people-watching here is unparalleled.
De Wallen (red light district), Amsterdam
Nowadays the government is cleaning up the city’s three Red Light Districts. Since prostitution was legalised in 2000 the country’s liberal attitude has been exploited more and more by organised criminal gangs. The aim is to discourage the types of business that are conducive to crime and to allow prostitution in just two areas. Brothels are bought-up as soon as they are vacated, renovated and new business ventures moved-in, such as fashion designers and restaurants, to strengthen the area’s character and help economic growth. It’s thought that a third of the brothels will eventually close. Safety is key here and the prostitution regulations were tightened in 2012 to further control organised crime and trafficking – the workers also have their own union and police protection.
Coffee and Cake, or something else…
So you fancy a coffee caramelata and slice of carrot cake during your Amsterdam trip? First rule of thumb is don’t get your coffee house (koffiehuis) or café confused with your coffee shop. It could get messy. There are definite rules for both types of establishment – one of which doesn’t involve a hot beverage.
Amsterdam is known for its liberal attitude to cannabis and if you’re looking for a coffee and a slice of cake you may get more than you bargain for if you go to the wrong type of café, Let me set you straight – a licensed seller of cannabis products is always referred to as a coffee shop. A coffee house sells coffee and snacks. A café is a casual restaurant or bar. Hopefully I’ve lifted the haze but If you still need help look for the green and white sticker in the window, a license which shows that the establishment is a coffee shop.
Coffee shops don’t sell alcohol as Dutch laws dictate that a shop may sell either alcohol or cannabis products but not both. I would just point out that I don’t partake in the weed via cake or any other means – in fact I’ve never even smoked cigarettes – but Amsterdam has an unmistakable aroma and it was impossible for even me to miss as we first entered the city on the walk from Centraal Station to our hotel.
And so to Pedalos…
After all that naughtiness here’s something to calm you down bit. If you fancy something a little more sedate than the RLD and the hazy high of a coffee shop then hire yourself a pedalo, or canal bike, and trundle the canals to your heart’s content. It’s not bad value and afterwards you’ll be too worn out to get up to any mischief…
Amsterdam comes packed with museums, galleries and attractions but it all comes at a price. If you’re visiting Amsterdam on a budget by the time you’ve added travel to and around the city, accommodation and meals into your itinerary you’ll have made quite a dent in your wallet. I’ve compiled a handy list of what to see for free in Amsterdam with a handy sightseeing map to help balance the bottom line of your Amsterdam budget and get just a little more bang for your buck.