I was in Istanbul for two days which does not give justice to this historical city. It was just enough to visit the main attractions. This is my itinerary of the places that I went and visited during my short visit assuming that it is also your first time there.
I landed at Istanbul Ataturk International Airport (IST) at around 6pm on a Saturday. The immigration queue was very short as it was not busy which mean the free airport wifi also worked. After immigration, I proceeded to the basement floor to catch the metro heading to the city centre.
The Istanbulkart costs TL6 with each trip costing around TL2-3 and can be bought from convenience shops or ticket vending machines. The approximately 35 minute trip to my hostel in Sultanahmet involved a transfer from the metro to the tram line making the total trip costing around TL6.
One thing you’ll notice is the amount of mosques with their minarets piercing through the city skyline. After checking in, I walked around the Sultanahmet area dominated by 3 mosques namely the Hagia Sophia/Aya Sophia, Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque and Firuz Aga mosque ( a smaller mosque just next to the Sultanahmet tram stop). Be captivated by the adzan or call for prayers from these mosques as well as the other numerous mosques in the vicinity. It is an experience that will be hard to miss.
Because it was already night time and all the attractions were closed, I just walked along the main road called Divan Yolu. The tram line follows along this road. Shops and restaurants line both sides of this road and is one of the main tourist areas of the city hence the prices are more expensive. Following a westerly direction, the next station after Sultanahmet is Çemberlitas and then Beyazit. This tram stop is where the name of the road changes to Yeniçeriler Caddesi as well as where you stop to visit the Grand Bazaar. You can also walk around 10-15 minutes to get here from Sultanahmet.
Because I was only there for 2 days, I had to plan carefully so that I can visit the places that I wanted to go. Bear in mind the museums have closing days usually on Monday or Tuesdays. My first full day was the next morning which was a Sunday.
First stop the next morning was Topkapi Palace at the entrance next to the Hagia Sophia and Carpet Museum. It’s closed on Tuesdays. The first gate with guards is just for security checks. After passing through security, you will see a big park with Hagia Irene to the right. You will need to walk in a bit more to buy tickets.
The queues were not as bad as I thought it would be maybe because it mid May and not the peak tourist season yet. Ticket counters open at 9am and I was there at 8.30. So I just queued while enjoying the park view with its red roses and cool spring morning air. The walls of the palace were stacks of old stones around 4 -5 metres high.
There were a lot of renovation and repairs work when I was there. Similarly in Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I bought the Istanbul Museum Pass card for TL125. It’s valid for 5 days but you can not enter the same museum twice even on a different day.Individual access to Topkapi Palace was TL40 and an extra TL25 for the harem. with the card, both were included.
Fearing a long queue, I started my visit at the Harem but there was no queue. Inside the harem ( and other rooms/buildings inside the palace) , there were a lot of Arabic writings on the marble walls which were also decorated with flower motifs. The doors in the harem were of wooden panel doors.
I particularly liked the Queen mothers apartments and the best I think was the Imperial Hall. The hall had a blue and red theme with couches for the sultan to sit in the middle of the hall. The background Turkish music played in the background when you are in this hall helps to bring you back in time. I am in no way an expert in art but it was beautiful and there are descriptions about the building structures, its’ functions as well as the materials used for construction that you read from the information panels.
Outside the harem, there are various parks and buildings that you can visit such as the Royal Kitchen, Audience Hall, Armoury Museum and Imperial Council Hall. There’s also some points you can go to see the views across the Bosphorus Straits.
For those interested in Islamic history, there’s the Privy Chamber – The Sacred Trusts Section containing among others ancient swords as well as various exhibits from the Kaaba in Mecca such as a Kaaba key from the 15th Century and Hajar Aswad.
There’s also information regarding Islam history and the prophets. As I approached the exit, I can hear the Koran recitation which I thought was a recording but it was actually a real person reading it from a small desk at the corner of one of the exhibits. All in all, I spent around 3 hours to finish visiting the palace. When I exited at 12 pm, there was a queue of around 100 metres for tickets.
Next, I went to Hagia Irene which is located within the compound and included in museum pass or else it will cost an extra TL20 (also closed on Tuesdays) . I don’t think it’s worth the extra fee and if it was not included in the museum pass, I wouldn’t have entered. I spent 10 minutes inside the old church which unlike Hagia Sophia, was not converted into a mosque.
Exiting Topkapi Palace from the same gate that I entered from, the next place I visited was the Tomb of Sultans which is located within Hagia Sophia but entered from a separate entrance. It is free to visit and you need to take off you shoes when you enter each building with the tombs.
HAGIA SOPHIA / AYASOFYA MUSEUM
The queue was around 100 metres at 1pm on Sunday. Do make sure that if you have a museum card, you have a look at the front of the line to see if you are actually in the queue to go through security and not in the queue to buy tickets. Hagia Sophia is included in the museum card or else it’s TL40 to enter. Closed on Mondays.
I have always wanted visit this place. It used to be a church which was then converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire and now it is a museum. However the night before, I saw a small mosque that was still in use next to the building and can be entered from a door located close to the entrance of Topkapi Palace and Carpet Museum.
While I walked around the insides of Hagia Sophia, I overheard tourist guides explaining the structure of the building. Some parts of the walls near the roof above are black because back in olden days they needed to burn candles and the smoke rose up the building which made the walls turn dark.
Also, the Kiblat which is in the direction Mecca is slightly off by around 1 metre to the right of the altar ( as explained earlier it used to be a church ) . Instead of destroying the structure to realign it, they set up the mihrab ( indicating the direction of Kiblat/ Mecca) a bit to the right. Hence, you will see that the mihrab and the windows are not aligned and it is set up a bit to the right of the windows . On top of the mihrab is where you will see the picture of Virgin Mary.
You can get a view from above by going up the stairs where there will be more paintings/mosaics from the days when the building was still a church. Before you exit, there’s a wishing column where if you can manage to twist your thumb in a hole in the column, it is said your dreams will come through. My visit was around 1 hour and there are some repair works inside so I didn’t get the whole view like the ones you see in the tourist brochures.
After that, I went to the Archaeological Museum next to Topkapi Museum ( TL 20 or included in the museum card ) . You can also go here before Hagia Sophia but I decided Hagia Sophia was more important. I was right. I have little interest in looking at ancient ruins and artefacts or the mummification process. I still spent an hour there though. There were renovation works at the main building.
MUSEUM OF TURKISH AND ISLAMIC ART
At around 4.30 pm on the way to the museum, I stopped by Sultan Ahmed’s Tomb located a 2 minutes walk away since it was closing at 5 pm. The museum of Turkish and Islamic Art is open everyday 9 am to 7pm during summer time. It’s across the park close to the Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque. Not sure how much it costs to enter but it’s also included in the museum card. I also did not find it particularly interesting apart from some of the exhibits such as the Kaaba door covers. I spent around 45 minutes here.
After visiting the Turkish and Islamic Arts museum, I decided to walk around the nearby Sultanahmet park. Behind the mosque, there’s a bazaar selling Turkish arts and some restaurants/cafes called Arasta Bazaar. The buildings are colourful and worth passing through if you happen to be in the area. Maybe it used to be a residential area because some of the buildings nearby the bazaar looked really old.
Before exiting Topkapi Palaces earlier, there were people distributing leaflets about Whirling Dervishes at Marmaray Sirkeci Train Station. It was reasonably priced ( for tourists coming from countries with weak currencies like me ). It costs TL50 or TL40 for students and included free tea which were given before the start of the performance ( I’ve seen the prices for other Whirling Dervish performances going as much as 40 Euros per person). It starts at 7.30 pm so I had to go buy my tickets because it was on a first come first served basis. I took the tram to Sirkeci station and the train station is just across the road.
It starts with 4 people playing music instruments and singing followed by another 4 people coming in and whirling their way around the centre of the room. It was an interesting experience but the millennial in me found it hard to not record the event which did take some of the fascination and mystique away. Same when I see other guests moving to other parts of the room to get the right angle for a shot. I did not want to look rude since it was still a religious ceremony. So a compromise was that I recorded on and off and not the whole performance. The show lasted around 50 minutes. Information about the show was detailed in the brochure.
That’s the end of day one.
SULTANAHMET / BLUE MOSQUE
Because i was staying in the area, I started my second day visiting the mosque. You need to take off and bring your shoes with you. Plastic bags to put your shoes are provided. There was no queue when I went there around 10am. I spent around 30 minutes inside. There’s also an Islamic Information inside the mosque which is opened to everyone to drop in but it is only manned at certain times. Before you leave, you have an option of giving a donation for the maintenance of the mosque after which you will be provided with a receipt.
Going to the grand bazaar is like walking through the Ottaman times. The building itself is from the 1461. Next to the main grand bazaar is a maze of small alleyways and old buildings selling various goods and merchandise. All around and inside the grand bazaar you can hear people calling for customers, workers transporting goods and people sending tea and food to their customers. It seems like there’s a theme inside the bazaar with some sections selling gold and silver, some selling arts and clothing etc. The interior of the building had beautiful paintings some of them having faded with time and barely visible.
EMINONU / SPICE BAZAAR
After the Grand Bazaar, I went down to Sirkeci Station in Eminonu to explore the area. Eminonu contains a lot of buildings with Victorian designs. It has a European vibe with exception being there are numerous amounts of mosques around the area such as the Suleymeniye and Rustem Pasa Mosque. Similarly with the Sultanahmet area, it is quite breathtaking to hear the call for prayers as you walk the streets in this area.
There’s a big square located across the road from the ferry piers. It’s also where the spice market is located. As with the Grand Bazaar, the place was an assault to the senses. It is busy with people calling for out for customers and was very crowded. The air smelled of spices, soaps and perfumes. Other things sold around the market include arts, seafood and Turkish sweets/desserts.
Also nearby Sirkeci is the Eminonu pier where various boat and ferry services departs. I took the Bosphorus Boat Cruise from Turyol Company which costs TL15 , lasting 1.5 hours and departed almost every hour ( at least that’s what is put up on the ticketing window ). If you want the view of the city, you should sit on the left side of the boat ( i.e the right side of the boat when you enter from the pier ). Board early if you want to get a good seat. Someone will walk around selling drinks if you need it.
The boat cruises across from Eminonu to Karakoy which is still the European side of the city. It is the part that is most visible from the pier. I made the mistake of thinking that Karakoy was the Asian side. The Asian side is the landmass that’s further away in the distance across the sea.
The cruise continues north along the coast before it starts turning underneath a big bridge ( Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge ). That bridge crosses to the Asian side. Once the boat has turned, it will now cruise along the coast of the Asian side before coming back to Eminonu.
TAKSIM SQUARE / ISTIKLAL ROAD
After the boat cruise, I took the tram from Sirkeci to Kabatas (last stop of the line) then change to another funicular service to Taksim Square. Nearby the square, Istiklal pedestrian shopping street begins. Left and right of the road are various international brands selling clothings and food just like any other shopping streets you can find in Europe. The road is quite long and I did not have that much time to explore everything. There’s also a church along the road ( St Anthony’s Church ).
That’s the end of my 2 day stay in Istanbul.
Recapping the places I went to in the two days :
Topkapi Palace ( closed on Tuesdays )
Hagia Sophia ( closed on Mondays )
Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art
Whirling Dervishes at Marmaray Sirkeci Train Station
Sirkeci / Spice Bazaar
Taksim Square / Istiklal Pedestrian Shopping Street
Weatherwise it was cool and not too hot during the day when I was there ( between 14-24C )
If you’re staying in the Sultanahmet/Çemberlitas area, I stumbled on a small supermarket near Çemberlitas tram station. Exit the tram station via the turnstile that’s towards Sultanahmet then turn right into Peykhane Sokagi. Walk around 150m it’s on the right side of the road.
Another small supermarket called “Greens” along Kazim Ismail and Nur-u Osmaniye road. There are a lot of convenience stores that sell similar stuff but maybe a bit more expensive e.g 1.5L water for TL 2 instead of just TL 1 -1.25 at supermarkets.
I got my local simcard direct from Vodafone at their shop close to Beziyet/Grand Bazaar tram station. It was TL130 which included 12 gb of data, 1000 minutes local calls and 30 minutes local calls. That was the only package they had. I was expecting to stay in Turkey longer hence why I took the bigger package. I’m sure you can get cheaper maybe from other operatos such as Turkcell. I couldn’t find any Turkcell shops that were opened ( not the agents that sell Turkcell products ). I only saw a lot of Turkcell shops in Sirkeci and Istiklal Road. So head there if you want to get one.
As for the Museum Pass, if you just want to visit Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia then it’s better to just buy separate tickets as it would only cost TL105. The only drawback is the need to queue for to buy tickets.
However, if you visit an additional one or two more museums, then it’s better to get one. I managed to just barely the cost of mine though since I did not enjoy the two other museums (Archaeological as well as Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum), I should’ve just bought two separate tickets for Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia.
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Orient Hostel in Sultanahmet area for 2 nights – €15.40
Istanbul Kart for transportation = TL6
Istanbul Kart top up = TL24
Istanbul Museum Card ( valid for 5 days )= 125
Whirling Dervish =TL 40 (student) ( or full price TL50 )
Vodafone = TL 130
Drinking water (1.5L) ranged from TL0.99 to TL2 = TL7.50
Food (mostly fast food, some pastries, doner) = 23
Other expenses ( such as souvenirs, juices, blue mosque donation) = TL14
TOTAL = TL370 and €15.40
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