The first feeling you get of Istanbul is one of arriving in a gigantic city with lots of noise, trafic, and people.
But then you land on Sultanahmet square after a cross-Bosphorus boat trip & a tram trip going through local colorful commercial neighbourhood Gülhane, and in front of you is this magnificent pedestrian only esplanade, with a big fountain, greenery, and two gigantic wonderful mosques.
You start visiting the city (or go to a re-energizing hammam session before that), and by night time, the prayer calls echo all around you, giving it an incredible mystical ambience, and you start to really like the place.
I spent five days in Instanbul, which I would say is just enough to do the main attractions: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Cistern of the basilica, Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Spazaar, Istiklal avenue + Taksim square, Princes Island, a boat tour of the Bosphorus, and a lot of walking around town. I also did a day trip to Ephesus, which will be described in another post.
– Hagia Sofia
Built as a Christian church in the 6th century, then converted to a mosque in the 15th, now only a museum.
Due to fires, it has been rebuild twice, so this is the third version of it.
Don’t miss the Virgin Mary over the mirhab, and look for the Christian symbols around the ceiling.
Don’t forget to go up the first floor! Up there are wonderful golden mosaics remains and decorations, and its a great viewpoint.
My advice: get there at opening time, as it fills up very quickly and the line to get in can get quite (very) long.
Access: Sultanahmet square, next to the tram tracks.
Summer 09:00 – 19:00 / Winter 09:00 – 17:00
Closed on Mondays
– Blue Mosque / Sultanahmet Camii
Most impressive and beautiful mosque, the Sultanahmet Camii (mosque) is still in use.
Therefore, while visiting, you must
The main entrance is reserved for the faithful, and tourist have to go in a side entrance. Following the signs, that’s when you see… the big line that has accumulated while you were in Aya Sofya.
Some “tour guides” will offer you to skip the line for a certain amount of money (100 Liras for us), and will accompany you inside. Basically, you’ll be cheating all the people waiting. Our so-called guide gave us a 10 minute tops explanation of the different parts of the inside of the mosque, then said “Now my job is over” and we gave him the money… inside the mosque! Quite disturbing, but worked out for us, as it was getting close to prayer time, when tourists are asked to leave, even if you’ve queued for an hour or more.
Access: Sultanahmet square, any door in the surrounding walls.
9:00 – 19:00. Closed at praying hours (midday and dawn) !!
Free! Unless you use the services of an obviously unofficial tour guide.
– Topkapi Palace
Built in the 15th century, this was the official home of the Ottoman Sultan, before moving at the Dolmabahce palace in the 19th century.
It is divided in four courtyards.
The first courtyard is mainly a big garden.
The second courtyard starts with a visit of the imperial kitchens, where are exposed some dishes and other cooking pans and tools from the era.
More importantly, it gives also access to the harem, the Sultan and his family’s personal area. You will see many magnificent rooms, all mostly empty, but with beautiful ceilings and domes.
In the third courtyard, you can visit:
– the privy chambers, which contain sacred relics of the prophet. Don’t miss the footprint in one of the cases.
– the treasury rooms, the highlight of the visit. The first room has several thrones from the Sultan’s era. The second (and most interesting one) contains all sorts of jewelery and gifts made to the Sultans. Expect to see some big diamonds and emeralds.
There can be a queue to these rooms. I there’s queue in one, go to the other, and then come back, the queue will have shifted rooms!
The fourth courtyard has a nice fountain square surrounded by rooms mostly covered with traditional, mostly blue, tiles. Down a few steps is a small garden. You also get great views on the Bosphorus, especially from the cafeteria, where you can get an (expensive!) drink and a nice rest from the long visit you just had.
Access: behind Haya Sofya, or up from its park door, near the Gülhane tram stop.
Summer 09:00 – 18:45 / Winter 09:00 – 16:45
Closed on Tuesdays
Map: http://topkapisarayi.gov.tr/sites/default/files/geziplani.pdf. Print it, as they don’t give it inside, unless you take the audio-tour.
30 Liras for the main part + 15 Liras for the Harem + 15 Liras for the Hagia Irene church.
– The Grand Bazaar / Kapali Carsi
Huge covered market with 61 streets and more than 3000 shops. You can find anything there, from antique jewelery and daggers to fake football team shirts, money exchange and restaurants. The most impressive district is the antique district, centrally located inside the bazaar, where you’ll find the authentic jewelery, and lots of silver objets, like bows (!) and daggers.
Look for the marble drinking fountains, faucet fountains, a kiosque, look up at the ceilings and at the tiny corridors, and at the speakers hanging from the ceiling (maybe for prayer calls?!).
Try and bargain, but for small touristy objects, don’t expect much. For antique and expensive objects, you should be able to get a price. But they know who the tourists are!
Access: Beyazit tram stop.
08:30 – 19:00
Closed on Sundays
Free, unless you buy stuff
– Walks around town
– Sultanahmet by night
Both mosques are wonderfully lighted up, and the fountain changes colors. Walk around the small streets accross the tram tracks, and also the streets on the opposite side of the square, where there are lots of restaurants.
– Street going from behind the Haya Sofya down to Gülhane
With its traditional Ottoman houses, the fortification wall of the Topkapi palace, and the Hooka café.
With its local restaurants and stores much cheaper than the ones around Sultanahmet, and pastry shops. My favourite one: Baklavaci Muhammed Said, very good and very nice owner. Right on the tram street, between Gülhane and Sirkeci stops.
Try to go by night, when all the stores are lighted up.
– Between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar
Lots and lots of shops, everywhere, any kind of stuff, from clothes to cell phones to signs to ……..
– Rustem Pasa Camii (mosque)
Do not miss this small mosque covered with blue tiles on the inside. One of the best I saw, it is hidden on the first floor in the shopping streets. Look for staircases leading to it. Totally empty of tourists, except connoisseurs or with a tour guide.
If someone tells you it is closed for prayer a little bit before prayer time, insist a little and he’ll let you in for a couple minutes, unless it really is prayer time.
– Around the Yeni Camii (New Mosque) and the Galata Bridge
Where you can eat fresh fish kebab grilled on boats.
Also a nice bakery, Hafiz Mustafa, in the street going from the mosque to the Sirkeci tram stop.
– Around the Galata Tower.
– Around the Sehzade Camii (mosque)
With its cemetary visible from barred windows in the surrounding walls.
Don’t hesitate to go inside.
– Boat tour of the Bosphorus
Leaving from Kabatas, you will go up to the Sultan Mehmet bridge (the second bridge on the Bosphorus), first going up the European side, then down on the Asian side. Some of them will go up the Golden Horn too.
You will see palaces, outdoor discotheques, million-dollar houses, even a pool and its club house on a floating structure, the Bebek neighborhood.
Of course, a sunny day is better.
Access: Kabatas port, or Kadiköy port.
Any price, starting 12 liras (spotted at Kadiköy) to 95$ or more (within a tour, on a yacht, with apetizers and drinks served).
Nice to do
I found the Buyuk Turkish Bath on the internet, and didn’t regret it. I was the only tourist there, only locals, but don’t worry, they know who you are. The guy at the reception speaks good english, and the guy taking care of you knows how to ask for tips! He even wrote in soap bubbles, on his hand, the amount he wanted. Don’t be shocked, I guess it’s normal, tipping is a traditional thing, and they are afraid we won’t give anything. Don’t forget to tip the guy who… takes and brings you back your shoes either.
I was exhausted from my flight, so went on the first evening, and got the full treatment: sauna, scrubbing and massage, which lasts about ten minute, expect it to be rough.
When I got out of there, I was as good as new!
Afterwards, I luckily found a boat going from right next to the hammam, crossing the Golden Horn to Eminönu. It was sunset, it took about 20 minutes, I got some of the best views of my whole trip! And for 1.5 liras.
– Cistern of the Basilica
One of several water tanks beneath the city.
You can walk around it, passing between numerous columns, nicely lighted.
At the opposite end are two column bases carved with the face of Medusa.
Quite surprisingly, you can get a picture of you taken… dressed in a Sultan epoque costume!
Access: Yerebatan Cd, the street accross the tram tracks from Haya Sofya.
Summer 09:00 – 19:00 / Winter 09:00 – 16:00
– Spice Bazaar / Misir Carsisi
Smaller than the Grand Bazaar, many people prefer going there for its less touristy hence more local ambiance.
Here, you can buy… spice, of course, but also, soap, tea, cups, hookas, jewelery, turkish delish, etc, etc…
If you go out the middle, you will land on the New Mosque square.
Access: right behind the New Mosque, in what looks like an L-shaped hangar. Seeing Internet pictures, I think it was undergoing renovations at the time.
08:30 – 19:00
Free, unless you buy stuff 😉
– Istiklal Avenue & Taksim square
Famous for its riots a few years ago (and now a few days ago! because of the Kobani inaction of the Turkish government), Taksim square is a big square with several streets leaving from it.
One of them is Itiklal, the pedestrian only Champs-Elysées or 5th Avenue of Istanbul. There are lots of fashion shops and bars, and it is where the young people of the city go out to party.
Just walk down the street and take the “Nostalgy tram” back up, walking by the Saint-Antoine church, a mosque, the Kommunist Party Building (not in a good shape!), the Galatasaraÿ Highschool, etc… Look out for the police, as there is quite an impressive contingent.
Try to go in the Arter art space, a 5 story building dedicated to contemporary art. Entrance is free, and the art is interesting.
Also, walk around the streets between Istiklal Avenue and Tarlabasi Boulevard. The ambiance is much darker, a bit ghetto, but much more local or full of bars, where the real party starts.
Access: Up the Tünel cable car, or Taksim Metro stop.
Arter: Istiklal Cad No. 211. http://www.arter.org.tr
Could have done without
– Princes Island
Princes Islands are a group of seven or so islands. Only 4 are inhabited, and cars are prohibited. The main and most interesting one is Büyükada. Actually a pretty nice place, where you can rent a horse cart and go around the island. You will mainly see houses and mansions, and you can have fresh fish at many restaurants on the quay. It is said to be the place to find rest and peace for Istanbulites. Apart from the beach, there’s not much else to do.
There was a long queue for the horse carts, so I decided to walk, hence follow the carts by foot, as there basically is only one street, making a loop. Unfortunately, there are many, many horse carts going around the street it gets on your nerves. You can barely cross the street and the horse dung stinks all along the way. I was there on a week day, and it wasn’t nice weather, so I can’t imagine what it must be like on a sunny week-end.
Access: boats leave regularly from Kabatas or Kadiköy. One company accepts the Istanbulkart. 1h15′ ride.
Didn’t do but was advised to
– Go up the Galata Tower
– Bebek neighbourhood
– Palaces (mainly Dolmabahce) and Museums
– Walk around the asian side (Kadiköy and Üsküdar).
– Atatürk Havalimani (Airport)
On the european side, this airport is usually prefered by tourists heading to Sultanahmet or Beyoglu.
It is connected to the public transportation system, which, with a change at Zeytinburnu or Aksaray for the tramway, will take you down to Sultanahmet, or, with a change at the terminus Yemikapi to the green line, will take you to Taksim.
Or take a cab (taksi). Watch out, at rush hour, the trafic is really bad, and they are not that many taxis coming by. But, surprisingly enough, the taxi fare doesn’t change much with or without trafic. Took me an hour longer with trafic, for only 10 liras more. Count about 60 liras for the taxi ride.
– Sabiha Gökcen Havalimani (Airport)
On the asian side of the city, about 60 kms away, its access tends to frighten most tourists.
I personally arrived through this airport.
I followed the instructions from the airport website:
Take bus E11 Express to Kadiköy.
– for Sultanahmet, take a boat to Eminonü, then take the tramway.
– for Taksim, take a boat to Kabatas, then the cable-train.
Fairly easy! Plan two hours to get to your destination.
As in most modern cities, getting around is easiest with public transportation. That is also true for Istanbul.
To do all the main touristy points, you either take the tramway, the metro, or… the boat.
All these transportation means work with a single card, the Istanbulkart, which costs 7 liras.
The fares are cheaper (about 2 liras) than buying single-faire coins (jeton, 4 liras), and it gets cheaper everytime you use it (I didn’t quite get the discount system, though, but in the end, I was paying cents to use the transports!).
The money is the Turkish Lira, or TRY.
In October 2014, 1€ was a bit less than 3 liras, and a dollar a bit more than 2 liras.