Two weekends ago, using my friend’s visit as an excuse, I hopped on an overnight bus to Istanbul to discover this beautiful city once again. The last time I had been there properly was November 2013 (yes a very long time ago!) when I had just moved to Turkey and I’m almost ashamed to say that even after two years of living in Turkey, I have barely scratched the surface on this one. I did end up going to almost the same places I did last time; however it was quite interesting to compare my two almost similar visits which were world apart, as a first timer in Turkey and then as an almost local – we didn’t get as ripped off as we did the first time, that’s for sure.
We had chosen a hotel in the Sultanahmet area, about 5 min walk from the main sights as we knew we would be limited on time and hence it would be better to be as close as possible to the places we want to go. Istanbul however has quite a developed public transport and you can almost go anywhere using the metro, tram and ferry connections – given the traffic in Istanbul, I wouldn’t personally use the bus but you may at your own risk. I’d recommend first getting a Istanbul Kart (similar to the Oyster in London) from the airport or a main station, which would make it much more easier to get around than using this “jeton” system they implemented – which as everything else is yet another rip off. You can also get a Museum Card costing 85 TL valid for 5 days in Istanbul, which will also allow you to skip the long queues (although for a 2 day trip as this one, a museum card is not necessary as it will about to just a little bit less that buying one).
For the first day, we already had quite a packed programme already – the whole Sultan Ahmet area. Our first stop, the Hagia Sophia mosque. The Hagia Sophia must be my favourite place to be in Istanbul. Originally a church commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 (as most churches were during that time). I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed that renovations work from my visit two years ago were still going on as I had been hoping to see it in all its glory but even with that, it remains one of the most extraordinary places I have every visited.
After our time admiring and imagining how everything must have looked when it was all new, we walked to the Basilica Cistern, just a few minutes away and again, we were not disappointed. The Cistern was also commissioned by Emperor Justinian and is as old as the Hagia Sophia. It is apparently the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul, constructed using 336 columns. Designed to provide water to the Great Palace and surroundings, it would get its water delivered by aquaducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea. As we walked along the wooden platforms hearing the water mixed with the soothing music in the background, it definitely created a whole other atmosphere as compared to the vibrant life of Istanbul overground.
Our next stop would have been the Blue Mosque but since there was an insanely long queue, we went there the next day first thing in the morning. The Blue Mosque must be the most famous building in Istanbul. Whilst its official name actually is the Sultan Ahmet mosque, the blue tiles inside are the reason for its other, more known, name.
This was it for us in the Sultan Ahmet area, although there are so many more places to go there. The Topkapi Palace definitely deserves a mention although we skipped it this time (as we had both already been) and it would take at least half a day to appreciate it properly. If I had to make a comparison, I would say it was the Versailles of Turkey, where sultans starting with Mehmet the Conqueror with their concubines, courtiers and eunuchs lived between the 15th and 19th century.
We already had our eyes set on shopping though although we had another stop planned before we were all into shopping mode: the Suleimaniye Mosque. This is another beautiful mosque which is a must-see of course both interior and exterior, which offers an amazing glimpse of the Bosphorus from above. We also passed by the Cağaloğlu Hamamı, which we both found a bit hilarious because it’s marketing strategy was basically based on the book ‘1000 Places to See Before You Die’, a book we both loved and always tagged after our travels. We did promise that next time, we’re going to the hamam together – especially when I told her the story of my first hamam experience.
Continuing our way, ending up in the local Turkish streets with barely a tourists in sight, we stopped by a little corner restaurant for some food before continuing on to the Spice Bazaar. We managed to find some ‘edible souvenirs’ for my friend, in terms of Turkish delights, herbs, dried fruits, nuts (and many more things than you can even imagine) after some obligatory bargaining of course but not as much as in the Grand Bazaar. We were a bit annoyed at everyone calling us out so we ended up only going to those vendors who did not show any interest and interestingly enough, those were where we found the cheapest things of what we want to buy – okay we know we could have knocked off another 10 TL off that wooden box but it was already a 100 TL cheaper compared to the prices everywhere else.
Some baklavas and tea – for fuel – later, over the Galata Bridge we went to the Galata Tower. We had initially planned to be there for sunset but the weather wasn’t being very cooperative so we gave up on that. I also got shat on there by the bloody seagulls so be aware of that when you’re hanging out in the area (definitely developed a phobia to shitting seagulls on the trip).
The upper balcony of the tower on the Golden Horn offers a 360 view of the city which would have been magnificent had the sky not been grey and grim. It was however still popular and we did have to wait a bit before going in so we were entertained by a young candy maker who obviously took advantage of the long queue to make his living. Not many people could resist him but we managed to, barely – we were already feeling guilty from stuffing ourselves with baklavas.
As the day was closing on us, we made our way to Istiklal Street, the Turkish version of Oxford Street and nightmares of spending a Saturday on Oxford Street came back to me. There were people EVERYWHERE, going in all directions. Walking up to Taksim looking at the shops reminded us both of our time in London although we were starting to get hungry so on our way back, we stopped at a rooftop restaurant for some food. We were exactly sure if our feet could take us anywhere else actually – the pedometer on my phone had counted almost 26,000 steps before it went dead on me.
However the day wasn’t over. We made our way back to Sultanahmet to have a look – I remembered how different it was the last time. Peaceful, unlike the buzzing touristic vibe from the day, and we were served! We also did get approached by some men who wanted us to help them with their ‘homework’; I have to admit, I had never heard that one before.
That night was definitely the best sleep I had had in a while, and the wakeup was not as easy as I had hoped but there was more to do.
We had saved the Sunday for our Bosphorus cruise tour after our stop at the Blue Mosque but since none of the private tours had any suitable times for us, we decided to take the ferry instead, which was much much cheaper. I’m definitely going to do the longer one next time: all across the Bosphorus to the Black Sea. We took the ferry from Eminönü to Üsküdar and then from Üsküdar to Beşiktaş. Short but sweet. There actually are proper, albeit seasonal, ‘cruises’ offered by the official ferry company of Istanbul but even those were too long for us. Time tables for the ferry can be accessed on the official website.
From Besiktas, we walked up past the Dolmabahce Palace, where apparently there would have been a meeting between the President of Turkey and Chancellor of Germany. There were journalists and the military everywhere so we got out of there as fast as we could and made our way back on Istiklal Caddesi using the funicular and metro and then on to the Pera Palace Hotel, a historical hotel built for the passengers of the Orient Express back in the days and also where Agatha’s Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express was written. We sat down for a tea – the most expensive one I had had in my life, which was worth it. Girls need a treat sometimes! Which brought us to our last meal together: the pistachio rolls which are my absolute favourites after a cheeky stop at the Spice Bazaar again.