In early November, during Orry’s short school break, we spent 5 days in Istanbul Turkey. Istanbul is the largest and the most populous city in Turkey. It is located on both sides of The Bosphorus Strait which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea and divides the city into an Asian and European side. Istanbul has been voted by Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet and many other travelling sites as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And yes, we truly agree!
We stayed in the old city area called Sultan Ahmed where many of the icons of the city are within walking distance. Playing tourists, here are the sights that we explored.
Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox Church and then turned to mosque and now a museum. During our visit, half of the dome was under re-construction but we still can enjoy the site so much. Inside the building was stunning.
The dome in the Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque
Directly situated across the Hagia Sophia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This historic mosque is also known as Blue Mosque because of blue tiles surrounding the walls of interior design. The Mosque was built in 1600 during the rule of Ahmed I. Besides still being used as a mosque, the Sultan Blue Mosque has also become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul (this includes a glimpse of it in the famous Michael Jackson’s Black or White official video clip 🙂 ).
At the entrance of this sanctuary, you will be asked to take your shoes off (and put them on the available plastic bag) and for women to cover their hairs with scarf. It is good to prepare one before you came but if you forgot, at the entrance they provide blue scarf for women.
‘Blue’ Dome of the Blue Mosque
In between these two iconic building, there is a park with beautiful fountain. At night, the color of the lights are changing, very beautiful. It also has some benches where you can sit and enjoy the views of the Blue Mosque or Haghia Sophia.
The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern means Sunken Palace, is the largest ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to store fresh water for the palace and nearby buildings.
It’s impressive because of its size; 138 meters long and 65 meters wide; covering nearly 1000 square meters (2 times football fields), supported by 336 marble columns and could hold 80,000 cubic meters water. By the way, if you are a James Bond fans, do you remember the scene in the old James Bond movie From Russia With Love when Bond is rowing in a small boat through a forest of marble columns? That scene was filmed here :).
Make sure you walk all the way to the far left-hand corner of the cistern, to see the two Medusa heads. Both heads are casually used as column bases; one positioned upside down, the other tilted to the side. Both their positioning as their origin remain a mystery up till now, although rumor has it that they were recycled form an antique building of the late Roman period.
Inside the Basilica Cistern, we found a pleasant surprise inside. A traditional turkey costume photo for 12 TL (Turkish Lira) or USD 6! We took a shot and we had fun 🙂
Wearing Turkish Customes, feeling like the Sultan, Queen and Princess in 5 minutes 🙂
Taksim Square is considered the heart of modern Istanbul, with the central station of the Istanbul Metro network (from Sultan Ahmed, it took about 15 mins by tram and an exchange into an underground station. Taksim Square is also the location of the Monument of the Republic. In May 2013, Taksim Square was the central location of large demonstrations to oppose a plan to build a shopping center on the land pot of the Gezi Park (urban parks next to Taksim Square).
Just 2 mins from the square, we strolled down to Istiklal Street, a 3-km long pedestrian street only – with local and international brands/stores, bookshops, restaurants and cafes. As an illustration, this is the London’s Oxford Street or Paris’ Champ Elysees of Istanbul. According to Wikipedia, this street is visited by nearly 3 million people everyday!.
Cruising the Bosphorus
This was one of the best part of our holiday :). We took a-1.5 hour tour along the Bophorus strait and enjoying the beautiful landscape of Istanbul both the European and Asia side. As a tip from our hotel manager, we did not take the ‘Bophurus Tour’, costed around 25 TL (Turkish Lira – USD 12) with 3 hours ride. But we took the one (signed TURYOL) further north passing the under-pass of the Galata bridge. It costed us only 12 TL (and kids under 12 yo are free) with 1.5 hour ride which was better given it was rather cold.
How to get there : by Tram. Get off on Emeniou Tram Station
Egyptian Bazaar/Spice Bazaar
After getting off the Bophorus Tour, we walked to the Egyptian Bazaar which also known as Spices Bazaar. Soon you enter the market, you will be overwhelmed with the scent of variety spices and herbs. They also sells nuts, herbal teas, Turkish delight, Cheese, Olives, dried fruits smoked/dried beef, etc.
Herbal teas and Ceramics for Turkish delight
Turkish cheese and sausage, smoked beef
Olives and dried fruits
It took only 15 minutes walk or 3 minutes with trams from where we stayed. It’s huge, Iconic and colorful market you need to visit for the shopping experience and movie scene (latest James Bond’s Skyfall first scene was on the roof top of Grand Bazaar!).
However, when as we travel with you kid, we could not stay long in this market. There are not benches inside to rest your legs.
Also, most traders sell the same products such as poetry/ceramics, silverwares, Turkish silk scarf/pashmina (which is many are made China- by the way), rugs and carpets, Turkish lanterns, gold, and of course made-in China Turkish souvenirs; fridge magnet, T-Shirt, etc, with more expensive prices compared to the other markets. Compared to the Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market, we found Chatuchak is much more attractive.
How to get there: tram, get off at Grand Bazaar, or 10-15 mins walk from Sultan Ahmed Area
Galata Tower is one of the oldest and most beautiful towers in Istanbul. It was built 1500 years ago during the Byzantine Emperor Justinianus. Its height 66,90 m from the ground or 140 me above sea level with a diameter of 8.95 m and wall thickness 3.75 m. We went to the top, cost 12 TL, for 360 degree magnificent view of Istanbul city.
After the view, we took a rest in the restaurant. At night it could be very nice as not so many fellow travelers strolling outside the restaurant hence the views are not blocked from the inside.
How to get there : by Tram. get off at Karakoy Station and walk north-west.
Travelling with a kid made us have always to find places that are interested for kid. So we undertook a visit to Miniaturk, Turkey in a mini form. We all loved this place. It gave a very good orientation to learn about Turkey as a country (beyond Istanbul) even though majority of the country icons (40%) are located in Istanbul. We saw the miniature of beautiful mosques (a lot!), building, palaces, museums, etc across the country. There was a small cho-cho train that can take you around the park and it has some playgrounds too. Highly recommended for travelling with kids.
In front of Mini Rock Houses of Mardin
How to get there : Get off Eminou Tram sta, walk 5 mins to the bus station, bus # 97, 97B.
Istanbul Forum – Aquarium and Dinosaur Land
We paid a visit to the aquarium within the Istanbul Forum, the largest mall in Europe.
Istanbul has two aquariums, we heard the new aquarium is much bigger than the one in the mall, but it was quite far and not reachable by underground station. Having been regular visitors to the largest aquarium in South East Asia – Siam Ocean World Bangkok – this one was not very impressive. It had only few collections and the best part was the tunnel with sharks.
But surprisingly, within the same mall, we found out there was a Dinosaur Land. It was mini tour with English (or Turkish) speaking guide and we were guided through some sections like in the Jurassic Park movie, including a ‘laboratory’ where there are dinosaurs’ eggs of plant-eaters and meat-eaters (T-Rex) and also sections where you pass the ‘real-size’ of T-Rex. It also has museum and 3D movie (scary!). It was quite fun.
All in all, we like the dinosaur than the aquarium. We did not any shopping as were very tired after the two visits. We took the underground to the different direction (not back to Aksaray) but to the Attaturk airport and got off at the Zytenburnu where there was intersection with trams. From this tram station, we managed to get seats and it was a nice ride passing the other parts of the city where as a tourist you don’t normally visit and got a sense of a real Istanbul life.
How to get there : by tram. get off at the Yosufpassa station and walk about 7 minutes to the Aksaray underground station (that goes to the Attaturk International Airport) and got off at the Kotacepe station.
We truly enjoyed our holiday in Istanbul, these are our top 5 favorites :
1) Bophurus Tour
3) Hagia Sophia & The Blue Mosque
4) Spices Bazar
5) Galata Tower
If we have chance to come back, we would like to have trips to other parts of the countries such as the Antalya or Izmir regions. There is also another popular site which we did not pay a visit – the Tokapi Palace in Sultan Ahmed area. We learned it is a good one – but we decided not to go as we did not have much time left.
One final tip: highly recommended to purchase the Istanbul Card, eligible for trams. bus and underground, cost around 7 TL and you can top up as needed. You pay less price rather than purchasing coin for individual trip. At the end of your journey, you can cash back (5 TL), but pay attention on the remaining balance as the shop only cash back the price of the Card but not the remaining balance. Cards use can also be shared.
Check out more stories on Turkish Food, Drinks and Culture – later:).
See you Istanbul! 🙂