The three-country packaged tour of Turkey we are doing had only one day for Istanbul, which was really disappointing. Istanbul was on my list for a long time and I wanted to see all the main attractions.
It turned out that with a bit of prior knowledge and planning, you can cover a lot in a day.
Most of Istanbul’s attractions are concentrated in one area. They are within walking distance, which makes it easier because by walking you can avoid traffic jams in old Istanbul, which can have you stranded for hours.
Our group had 21 members and we were all staying in the same hotel. After a good night’s rest were are all eager to get started. Ahmet, our guide picked us at nine. Driving through the morning crowd we headed straight towards old Istanbul.
We got off the bus near the Blue Mosque and walked through the alleyways to Sultanahmet Square. ( I wrote about three columns and Blue Mosque in my post, Istanbul — The City of 3200 Mosques).
The entry to the Blue mosque was just next to the columns. We managed to get in before the prayer time. Unfortunately, the mosque was going through major restorations. As a result, only a quarter of the interior was visible.
Whatever was visible was exquisite.
First of all, you have no idea how big the interior is from the outside. Second, it is hard to fathom the beauty of the intricate design. Each panel, each pillar had different designs and yet they all blended so well with each other.
We spent a good half an hour inside taking photos, reading the information, and admiring the walls and ceiling artwork. I managed to find a corner without any tourists to take a picture. But even the picture can’t capture the true beauty and serenity of the place.
Right next to the mosque is the Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia was built in 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinianus. It used to be a church in the golden age of Byzantine. In the 15th century, it was converted into a mosque. Then again in the twentieth century, it was converted into a museum and now holds the Christian and Muslim relics side by side.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time for us to go inside. The queue was long and you need at least an hour and a half inside. We discovered that there was a fast lane available if we were willing to pay extra. But we decided to keep it for our next visit to Istanbul.
At about five minutes’ walk from Hagia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace.
Topkapi Palace was a residence of Ottoman Sultans for 350 years. For more than three centuries it was the seat of supreme executives and judiciary council until the 17th century when Topkapı gradually lost its importance.
The sultans of that period preferred to spend more time in their new palace the Domabahce Palace along the Bosphorus. In 1856 Sultan Abdulmejid moved his court permanently to the new place and Topkapi became the imperial treasury, library, and mint.
We entered the palace through the Cannon Gate, (the literal meaning of Topkapi is cannon gate)and were greeted by the first courtyard. Some of the trees there are hundreds of years old.
The palace complex has four courtyards and many smaller buildings. Although the palace has hundreds of rooms and chambers I didn’t find it intimidating or overpowering. The buildings are scattered and low-key.
It has four main areas:
- the ministers meeting place, which has expensive antique watches and weapons are on display;
- the museum for holy Islamic and Jewish relics;
- the newly opened library and
- Ottoman kiosks where ministers used to entertain.
The longest queues were at the museum. But luck was favoring us. When we reached there the lines thinned. We were able to spend a good amount of time looking at the relic. The crowding drawing replica was Moses’s shaft.
The wooden shaft kept under a lot of security is said to be the one that Moses used in his later years.
Outside gardens provided relief from the crowds. Two horsemen gave a nice touch to the antiquity of the palace.
By this time, we were starving. Ahmet made us walk through the streets and took us to the cobbled alleyways of inner Istanbul.
He had a treat in store for us. We were dining at the famous restaurant ‘By Kinyas.’ The whole restaurant was booked for us. We sat on the rooftop and had beautifully grilled fish with salads. Turkish dips and salads are something to die for. Creamy but light, flavorsome but not spicy.
Speaking of spices, our next stop was the Spice Market, also known as the Egyptian Market.
The Spice Market is an indoor market with impressive archways. It has 86 shops, mostly selling spices, jewelry, and souvenirs.
Each shop had an army of young men recruited to lure tourists to come inside the shop. But they are very friendly and polite. There was no pressure selling; instead, you are offered free pomegranate tea and Turkish delights.
An Arminian guy charmed us so much that we took photos with him and promised to see him if we came to Istanbul again.
The Grand Bazaar is similar to the Spice market and has more than 4000 shops. Again we did have enough time to go to the Grand Bazaar. That is something I have added to my next trip to Istambul.
After the Spice Market, we came back to the hotel for a short rest. At seven-thirty Ahmet picked us up again for a Bosphorus dinner cruise. It was the perfect finale for the day. A food and dance spectacle spiced with the light show of the building along the Bosphorus strait.
Although my husband and I were a bit disappointed that the packaged tour had only one day for Istanbul, we were able to cover a lot within a day.
That doesn’t mean I will not go back there. Istanbul is one place I want to spend more time to really enjoy it. And when I go there next time I know exactly where to head first.
That was Istanbul in a day.
Next week I will write about Gallipoli.