Thousands of visitors visit Istanbul each year, but it’s only a fraction of these that manage to make it up to the wonderful Chora Church (also known as Kariye Church). Chora Church is my favourite site in Istanbul, and if I were asked to recommend just one place for anyone to visit in Istanbul it would be this! Most of the more busily-visited tourist destinations (Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia etc) are located in the busy Sultanahmet district and can be reached on foot, but Chora Church is a bit further out, and so entails a bit more of a trip. In my opinion, this makes it all the more exciting to visit…
Chora Church is in the north of Istanbul. You can get a bus or a taxi there, but I recommend a ferry up the Golden Horn, so that you can kill two birds with one stone. These go every hour from Eminönü (at the time of writing, at 45 minutes past each hour), but since there are many ferries that go from Eminönü it can be a little difficult to find – ask for the ferry that goes to Eyüp, and it’s the furthest north ferry stop there (just keep on walking up the coast until there are no more boats). The boats stop at Kasımpaşa and Hasköy before they reach your stop at Ayvansaray (about 25 minutes later), and it only costs 3 lira each way (= £1). It’s a lovely boat trip in the sun at this time of year, and you pass some interesting areas on both sides of the Golden Horn. We particularly liked the long submarine at Hasköy: I’m not entirely sure what it was doing there but it looked quite old so I assume it was some sort of tourist attraction. On board the boat we enjoyed a delicious freshly squeezed orange juice – all the more appreciated since we had had to sprint to catch the ferry and so were completely out of breath.
From Ayvansaray, it’s a short brisk walk up the hill to Chora Church. You don’t really need a map – when you get off the ferry, just locate the old city walls (they’re so thick it’s difficult to miss them!) and try and find streets that go alongside it.
Edirnekapi – the district around Chora Church
This area of Istanbul is a real maze – so it doesn’t matter which route exactly you take to reach the top of the hill, as long as you stick near the walls. I found it an interesting district to wander through because it’s so different to the other areas of Istanbul. You pass plenty of houses that are on the fallen side down of things, and tiny mosques tucked away on every corner: it’s a more authentic taste of what it’s like to live in Istanbul away from the pricey Sultanahmet district. The walls were built by Theodosius II when he expanded his capital in the 5th AD. They are metres and metres thick, and partly explain why Constantinople was able to withstand so many attack, before finally falling in 1453 to the Ottomans. They stood strong for a thousand years and only were scaled in the end because of the invention of the siege cannon.
If you are tired after the walk upwards (as we were), there’s a lovely cafe where you can refresh yourself with a delicious cup of apple tea before making your way into the church itself, which is filled with breath-taking Byzantine mosaics. It’s difficult to take good photos because it’s quite dark inside, and the mosaics are at odd angles. Don’t let this tempt you to use a flash however – it’s incredibly damaging to the images. As well as beautiful mosaics there are some pretty stunning frescoes. Like many Byzantine churches in Istanbul, after the city fell to the Ottomans it was converted into a mosque, and the minaret still stands attached to the church.
It’s a hidden-away treasure that shouldn’t be missed.
Have you been to Istanbul? If so, what is your favourite place in the city that you would recommend?