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Aannsha’s Blog #81 – Istanbul Part 2 – Exploring Istanbul

The thing I most regret about visiting Istanbul is only staying there for 3 nights. It is such a vast city, with a vast array of historic, ancient and exotic buildings to visit, that I’d really recommend a minimum of 7 nights if you were thinking of exploring Istanbul properly.

Recap of Day 2

To get the most out of your time there, you really need to have more of a plan than Baz and I had on our first full day of sightseeing. We felt we had done some decent research, including which was the best museum pass for us to get; which were the main attractions that we wanted to visit; and what order we thought we’d visit them in. But we hadn’t counted on the length of the queues for each attraction.

As I wrote last week, the queue at the Topkapı Palace Museum looked as if it was at least an hour’s wait. As it was already midday, we thought that most of the main museums would also have long queues, so we hiked 5.6Km over the Galata Bridge to the Galata Tower, which we felt sure would have a shorter wait to enter. Boy were we wrong. This queue ran around two streets! Hungry and a tad disappointed, we walked another 5Km back to the hotel where we found a little café nearby to have late lunch. On the way however, we did unwittingly discover the wonderfully colourful and fragranced Spice Markets.

Day 3

Touring the Opulent Topkapı Palace Museum

We awoke early the next morning, and marched over to the nearby tram station to catch a quick mode of transport to our first destination (Topkapı Palace Museum) before the queues built up. We figured if we got there before the place opened, we’d be in with a good chance. We hadn’t counted on the tram being so packed! But of course, it was Monday morning peak hour. Not fancying the idea of being jammed into the tram like a couple of sardines, we exited the platform and hiked the relatively short 2.5Km from the hotel to the Palace entrance. Along the way, we bought a couple of breakfast snacks from street vendors and munched these as we paced.

Wilfully ignoring the frequent “Hello! Would you like to see some carpets?” from eager street touts who did their very best to engage us, we arrived at our destination to discover only a very short queue of people who’d obviously had the same plan as us. In a fairly short time, we had negotiated the ticket desk and, armed with our Musekarts, excitedly marched in through the Gate of Salutation or Middle Gate, which has a large iron door, made in 1524.

Entrance to Topkapi Palace Museum

After passing through security (present in all Istanbul's historic buildings) tight enough to make an airport security team happy and a turnstile where we got to insert our Musekarts, we found ourselves in the vast and manicured gardens of the second courtyard. From here we visited the ornately decorated domed Imperial Council Chamber and then the Armoury. While we were allowed to film in Council Chamber, Baz was politely asked by a security guard in the Armoury to stop filming.

Some of the attractions in the museum were also closed for renovation and I would very much have liked to have seen the jewels in the Imperial Treasury but it was one that was not open on that day. That was a bit disappointing as we would love to have included more footage for our viewers in this Saturday’s YouTube video.

However, there was still a lot to see and we managed to capture a lot of the breathtaking opulence and beauty. This vast complex of buildings was begun in 1459 and remained the main residence and administrative centre for the Ottoman sultans. It was converted to a museum in 1924 following the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Visiting the Vast Hagia Sophia

Our tour ended about the time the excited, boisterous school tours began to arrive. We made our way to the Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom), which was a mere 400 metres away. Despite having entrance cards, there was still a queue via security and turnstiles, but it was straightforward and gave us a chance to talk about what we’d just seen.

Hagia Sophia

To say the Hagia Sophia is large is an understatement! Built in 537AD, this prime example of Byzantine architecture was said to have influenced the history of construction. Erected originally as a church, then converted to a mosque and subsequently a museum, with several rebuilds after earthquakes and fires, the Hagia Sophia spans 82m x 73m (270ft x 240ft) in size and its central dome reaches 56 metres (184 feet) high and spans 33m (108ft). It is built with 104 columns; the pillars of green marble were sourced from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. It also contains many Byzantine mosaics of Christian motifs, made of tiny tiles of gold, silver, glass and stones. It can be entered by the 7m (23ft) 6th century oak Emperor Door. And to highlight it all, the Hagia Sophia contains large suspended chandeliers from the Ottoman period.

What an awesome place! We were very glad to have visited the Hagia Sophia.

The Very Grand Bazaar

The next site on our list was the Basilica Cistern, a cathedral sized underground cistern and the largest in Istanbul which was pretty much only a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sophia. However, it was past lunchtime and after taking one look at the length of the queue, we decided to continue on to the Grand Bazaar for something to eat. We figured it would be a great, ‘authentic’ experience to have lunch there. We reached the Grand Bazaar after a bracing 2.8Km hike – I was so glad I wore my comfy trainers!

They say to allow 2 hours to walk around the Grand Bazaar and to “take patience with you”. Having visited this vast complex of covered shops that is 30,700 square metres in size with 64 streets containing 4,000 shops and 500 stalls. The original bazaar was constructed in 1461 and added to over the centuries until it reached its current size.

Colour and bustle at Grand Bazaar

It is impossible to convey the lively, bustling atmosphere of this immense covered ancient shopping mall! Fortunately, if you’re looking for something in particular, you’ll notice that most shops are grouped into sections according to what they’re selling and they’re colour coded on maps that you can find on the internet. Here is a great site for lots of information if you’re visiting Istanbul and includes a map of the Grand Bazaar. For instance, most of the bag shops are all together and are pink on the map. The same applies for:

  • Leather (brown on the map)

  • Gold Jewelry (yellow on the map)

  • Silverware (yellow on the map)

  • Antiques (orange-brown on the map)

  • Copperware ()

  • Carpets (orange-brown on the map)

  • Handbags, Briefcases & Suitcases (pink on the map)

  • (Cheap) Clothing ()

  • Fabric (purple on the map)

  • Belly-dancing costumes (pink on the map)

  • Ceramic & Souvenirs (pink & green on the map)

After oohing and aahing our way around some of the stalls, our noses eventually prompted us to turn left down an alleyway and we found ourselves in an open air courtyard with a handful of Turkish restaurants. We gladly sat down at a table and ordered ourselves lunch. Baz had a doner durum and I had a doner kebab, washed down with a Turkish tea.

On our way out of the bazaar, Baz spotted a little alleyway which looked very old. We stepped up the ancient steps and found ourselves in a small quiet courtyard, paved with very old stones, surrounded by two storey buildings and with a tall tree growing from the centre. The colourful old buildings opened onto the courtyard and contained carpet shops. Auntie Google told me later that we had discovered Zincirli Han, one of several hans that originally served as accommodation, stables and storage for the merchants who visited the Grand Bazaar. This one was built in the 18th century, although it felt older.

On the trail of a decadent cake

As if we hadn’t walked enough, I’d spotted a patisserie on one of our zigzags across the city and the images had been playing havoc with my taste buds. So.

9 minutes to walk 700m to Cigdem Pastanesi. 15 minutes to choose one chileki dilim (chocolate strawberry gateau). Can you believe it, Baz didn’t want one? (What’s the matter with the man??)

We returned to Darkhill hotel via one of only a few supermarkets in the area that sell alcohol to buy Bazza’s preferred afternoon treat of beer. And 1.4Km and 20 minutes later, we were resting our throbbing tootsies on our beds back in our hotel room. Baz happily glugged down a beer while I savoured. Every. Single. Mouthful. Of gateau.

What would we do differently in Istanbul?

With mouths half full of food and drink, we ruminated over what we’d do differently if we visited Istanbul again.

  1. We’d allow a lot more time to visit this amazing city with so many sites of interest.At least 7-10 days.

  2. We would have a definite plan of what to see on which days, and get there early before the queues built up to save wastefully waiting around.

  3. We would keep one day to explore the Grand Bazaar, and enter the markets with a shopping list to keep us focused.

  4. After our first day’s experience of being scammed by the hotel Milano (see last week’s blog #80), we’d absolutely read reviews before booking, but we’d be happy to stay at the Darkhill hotel again, or even the Q Hotel which which we’d visited on our way from scam-city hotel to the very pleasant Darkhill hotel which was our home in Istanbul for three nights.

  5. We’d save up before staying so that we could visit a few more restaurants along the way.

Day 4 - Home to A B Sea

The return journey home the next morning followed a hearty breakfast at the nearby corner café and was pretty much a reverse of our 5-hour journey to Istanbul, with the exception of beginning with a tram to the Marmaray line. The last leg of our journey should have been by bus, but after taking a while to find the correct bus stop and waiting for a nerve-wracking 20 minutes, the bus didn’t arrive. Instead, we hopped into a nearby taxi which only cost us 35TL (AUD8.40) and took a short time to arrive at the airport.

We rushed through the check in process as we were close to our boarding time. It was fairly simple except Baz was stopped so security could check out his laptop which they swabbed for explosives. Luckily our flight was running late, and by the time we touched down at Dalaman airport we were 15 minutes behind schedule. We’d arranged for a shuttle bus to take us back to Kas and they were waiting for us with an easy to spot board.

Two hours later, we were stepping on board A B Sea. We’d had a grand adventure in Istanbul. But it was good to be home in Kaş.

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