Obviously, you can’t plan a trip to Istanbul if you are looking for a typical European city. Istanbul is different, with its own magic that took me off guard and surprised me greatly.
I have to admit, I was a little unsure when planning this trip. It was my first time going to Middle East, to a place which culture and traditions are so different to mine, that I was a little scared. But truth to be told, we should all visit Istanbul at least once in our lives and let us fall in love with her and her people.
The city has plenty of things to do. Unfortunately, we only had 2 days for touring so we decided to go for the famous spots. If you allow me an advice, do not go to Istanbul on a short trip! Two days is way too short. I think 4 would be ideal, maybe even 5, but just so you can walk the city with no hurry and enjoying every detail of it.
How to get there:
To get to Istanbul, we flew from London with British Airways (I keep saying we, as I went there with a friend). From the airport, we took a taxi to our hotel. Please note that there are other ways on moving around, with public transport for example. In our case, we arrived a little tired and decided to go the easy way by taking a cab.
Where to stay:
Regarding accommodations, the best area to stay in Istanbul is Sultanahmet. This is the city’s oldest neighborhood, house of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. All these jewels from the byzantine’s empire are situated just few meters away from each other, so it’s easy to plan the first day in Istanbul visiting all of them.
Where to go:
Sultanahmet Camii is best known as the Blue Mosque. Its interior and dome are made of more than 20.000 blue tiles. Considered as the last great mosque from the classic ottoman period, the Blue Mosque is open to the public and the entrance is free of charge.
Please, have in mind that to visit any mosque in Turkey you must respect the Muslim’s traditions. You must wear appropriate clothes, especially women, as we have to cover our shoulders and hair, and walk inside barefoot. Once inside, her beauty and details will leave you speechless.
Just a few meters away from the Blue Mosque, you will find the Hagia Sophia Museum (or Ayasofya, in Turkish).
Previously a catholic church, it was turned into a mosque after the fall of the constantinople empire, removing all catholic symbols and replacing them with the Islam’s.
If you pay attention and look carefully, you will see rests from the Constantine period and probably will get surprise to find that catholic’s and Islamism’s religious symbols survive under the same roof.
One tip: Inside the Hagia Sophia lays the rests of Enrico Dandolo, the venetian duque. If you ever read Dan Brown’s books, you will know then that this was the reason that takes Robert Langdon to travel from Italy to Turkey in the book Inferno.
An extra tip: from the top floor, there is a window from where you can see the blue mosque.
Heading out and close by, you can find the Topkapi Palace. Now turned into a museum, the place served as the residential and administrative building of the Ottoman sultans. The entrance might be a little pricey, but includes 2 different tickets: one for the treasury and public areas of the palace, and a second one to enter the harem. In my opinion, this last ticket is worthy. The harem is the most curious part of the tour, giving you the opportunity to learn more about the private life and traditions of the sultans of that time.
The tour also includes an audio guide for an optional extra fee. Again, I would totally recommend you take one. The place has so much history and there is so much you can learn during your visit.
On our second day in Istanbul, we started out by sailing the Bosphorus. You can take the tram to the port and purchase the tickets right there (if you haven’t done it previously). During the ride you will appreciate beautiful landscapes full of mosques, palaces and other impotent buildings both sides of the river. It’s beautiful!
The tour takes a few hours, and during summer is best to schedule it during the morning as later the day can get a bit too hot.
And, because we couldn’t help it, we ended up going shopping to the Grand Bazaar!
The place is a maze. If you go with someone, keep him or her close by, because chances are that you can both lose sights for a while. But at the same time, it’s incredible! It has more than 3.000 shops, where you can find beautiful Turkish lamps, fabrics, jewelry, species, and souvenirs to bring the family back home. Everything can (and must) be bargain. In a way for them is a sign that you really want the object you are trying to purchase and is not badly seen.
Our visit to Istanbul was a short one, mainly because we had a tour hired in advance. A trip that for me was a MUST… the balloon ride over Cappadocia. But that, trust me, is worth a special post…