Blue Mosque | Aya Sofya Hürrem Sultan Hamman | Grand Bazaar | Rooftop views
I’ve not even been here for one hour and my heart hurts already over how beautiful this city is. I’m not going to lie the airport was hell due to long immigration lines but once outside it all changes (remember British citizens require a visa to travel to Turkey but this can be easily obtained online for approximately £15 from http://www.evisa.gov.tr).
Getting from the airport is easy. You can either take a taxi (though make sure the meter is on as the Turkish taxi drivers have a habit of significantly ’rounding up’) or you can try the metro. I took the metro to Sultanahmet and then the tram over the Galata Bride to Karakoy. It took about an hour. I think given the amount of traffic on the roads then a taxi would be no quicker. You can buy an Istanbulkart from all the metro stops which then works like the Oyster cards we are all familiar with. They cost 10 TL initially (6 TL for the card and 4 TL credit) and you can top them up anytime. The advantage of this is that a single fare using this card is almost half the price of buying just a regular ticket.
I’m staying at The Vault House Hotel in Karakoy (https://househotels.com/en/hotels/vault-karakoy/) which is beautiful. It is an old converted bank, located right on the edge of the Galata Bridge and has panoramic views over Old Town Istanbul from the rooftop terrace bar (which is where I am currently sat enjoying a cold glass of rosè wine). The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are practically within touching distance and I can not wait to get out and explore.
I was initially nervous about coming to Istanbul on my own but now that I am here I honestly think I am in love. I was due to come last June but sadly the airport was targeted in a terror attack which led to my trip being cancelled. It has taken me a year to summon up the courage to rebook this trip but after recent attacks in Manchester and London I have decided that I will not give in to the fear that terrorism spreads and instead carry on doing exactly what I want to do! So last week I took the plunge and made a last minute booking (oh and it’s my birthday while I’m here too so it was a treat to myself to celebrate).
The Sultan Ahmet I Mosque was my first stop, or more commonly known as The Blue Mosque due to the blue Iznik tiles that adorn the interior (almost 21000 of them), and it is simply stunning. My photos do not begin to do it justice. You can see the six minarets standing tall above the city from almost anywhere. This was a definite Bucketlist moment for me. It was busy but I managed to find a quiet corner for 15 minutes to take in my surroundings. Admission is free but you must be appropriately dressed so for the ladies its hair and shoulders covered and long trousers. Any scantily clad women are promptly given robes and head scarves before entry is allowed. And remember the Mosque is closed to tourists during times of prayer. These times are clearly listed on the board outside (or just listen out for the call to prayer) so try to plan your visit around this.
I then visited Basilica Cistern to see the famous Medusa heads. Admission is 20 TL and although it was a little dark and eerie it was still worth the visit.
Lunch was a quick stop at a street vendor for some Turkish bread (Simit) which was about 25p.
Hagia Sofia was next. It is worth noting that you can purchase a 5 day museum pass for 85 TL which includes fast track and entry to many of the city’s museums such as Hagia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Archeological museum (you can purchase online at http://www.muze.gov.tr/museum_pass or at any of the museum ticket offices). So if you are visiting 2 or more of the places included, it is definitely worth the price as most of the entry costs are 30-40 TL.
I really didn’t think anything would top The Blue Mosque and from the outside Hagia Sofia is much less impressive but once inside I could see that I was wrong. Just WOW.
One side of the dome is currently under scaffolding as they are restoring parts of the building but that really doesn’t distract from the beauty of the interior.
After whiling away another hour taking endless pictures I wondered back towards the hotel stopping at the Spice Bazaar and Süleymaniye Mosque.
At the Spice Bazaar I was nearly persuaded to buy a £650 Turkish carpet but seeing as I actually have no where to put it I settled for some pomegranate and ‘Love’ tea and some pomegranate and pistachio Turkish Delight (I have never eaten Turkish Delight before and was pleasantly surprised as it was truly delicious).
The Spice Bazaar is long covered alleyway filled with vendors selling teas, Turkish Delights and not surprisingly, spices. Surrounding this are even more shops and alleyways. It’s easy to get lost. I did. But just keep walking and you will eventually find your way out. The smells, sights, colours, and people can be overwhelming to begin with. All the vendors want to sell to you but just be firm and polite if you’re not interested and it’s always worth trying a little bartering as you will definitely be able to knock a few Lira off the first price they give if you are buying.
I settled on buying my tea and Turkish Delight from a small, stocky Turkish man (his shop was called Develi / http://www.develibaharat.com.tr) who I instantly liked because he was happy to let me try EVERYTHING and didn’t seem to mind that I only wanted to purchase small quantities (some of the other vendors are a little more pushy and want you to buy products by the kilogram. The prices are listed per kilogram but you can always ask for smaller amounts). I sat and had tea with him while he wrapped my goods and he informed me that accepting tea from a Turkish man will bring 40 years of luck and friendship! I’m not sure if that is true but he was very charming and it would have been rude to decline. It was also nice to sit down for a few minutes.
It was a steep walk up to The Süleymaniye Mosque but I had been told that the views of the Golden Horn from the garden terrace were spectacular. They did not disappoint. I could look back over the Galata Bridge to my hotel and see all the way over the Bosphorus to Asia and out to the Sea of Marmara.
After a long day of walking I finally headed home back across the Galata Bridge taking in the evening sun, dodging the seagulls and watching the fishermen try their luck.
I literally walked EVERYWHERE today, which I highly recommend so you can see much more, but for those who are not up to it the public transport is good and the major sites are easily accessible. As my reward for almost 9 hours on my feet…..I’m heading up to the roof terrace bar at my hotel for a glass of something sparkling and cold 🍾🥂
It’s my birthday! 🎉 And with no expense spared I have treated myself to the most luxurious package at the Aya Sofya Hürrem Sultan Hamman (http://www.ayasofyahamami.com/). The AB-I HAYAT package comprises of a traditional body scrub in the Sultan’s Eyvan (Sultan’ s Quarter), a Judas tree scent moisturizing body clay mask, a relaxing bubble wash ritual, a head and neck massage with Judas tree scent Aromatherapy oils, a facial mask with face massage, a Judas tree scent oil foot massage in the Sultan’s Massage Room, all finished with a complimentary homemade Ottoman nature cold drink “sherbet” and some Turkish tea.
What an incredible way to start the day. In fact, what an incredible experience! I was informed that I didn’t need to bring anything and I didn’t really know what to expect.
This particular Hamman was lovingly restored and reopened in 2011 after a $13 million refurbishment. However, it has retained its original features and now offers the most luxurious traditional bath experience in the city. The baths are separated in to male and female and upon arrival you are greeted by your therapist. Handan was looking after me today and she showed me to my private changing cubicle where I was presented with my arrival Hamman pack which included everything I needed (all toiletries, Turkish towel, robe, slippers). I was told to strip down naked and put on the practically see through paper thong provided 😱
This is not for the prude and if you have any issue being naked amongst strangers then maybe give this a miss.
Handan then led me in to the baths. For the first hour I was completely alone except for my therapist. It was so peaceful with just the sound of the water and the distant call to prayer. The bright white marble that form the baths are heated to a delightful temperature. I was then cleansed, scrubbed, massaged and oiled to within an inch of my life. I was horrified at the amount of dead skin coming off my body but Handan advised me this was normal. I was in the baths for about 2 hours in total.
I would highly recommend this Hamman. Although a little on the pricey side (cheaper alternatives are available), I enjoyed every minute of the experience. I definitely felt like a Sultan after my visit here and my skin is now positively glowing.
There are no photos allowed inside the baths but I obviously sneaked a couple in.
After the relaxation of the Hamman, I wanted to find a place to sit and watch the world go by with some Turkish tea. Handan told me about a back street roof terrace (I think it was her Uncle’s hotel) with views that are out of this world so this is where I headed next.
After taking the elevator and a flight of stairs I found myself on top of the world. Well, on top of Istanbul at least. The views speak for themselves…..
The last two stops on my itinerary for the day were Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.
Topkapi Palace admission was included in my Museum Pass and skipping the line was a bonus as they were long! I opted for the audio tour but it was information overload and I soon got bored. I’ve never really got in to history that much so I just stuck to what I like doing best. Taking photos. Topkapi Palace is an Instagrammers dream. If it’s not the intricate details and colours that line the walls and ceilings then it’s the sweeping views from the multiple terraces.
For the best views make sure you head to The Marble Terrace in the Fourth Court for breath taking views over the old city (like the one above) and to the terrace at the Konyali Restaurant for endless views along the Bosphorus out to the Sea of Marmara.
I then wandered through the Bazaar District to the Grand Bazaar, grabbing another lunch on the go. Double carbs…..yes, there are chips inside that Turkish kebab!! 🙈
So, the Grand Bazaar was RIDICULOUS! Be prepared to be pushed, shoved, shouted out and get very sweaty as it is as hot as hell in there! Despite this it has a certain charm. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with over 3000 shops covering 60 streets. It’s an Aladdins cave and I felt just like Princess Jasmine…..
But, forty minutes here was my limit and I was soon longing for the serenity of the Hamman so I wondered back to the hotel to take the weight off my achy feet.
And to end the day…..
Well, it is my birthday after all 😊
Sadly, I only had a few hours left before it was time to head back to the airport and fly home. The weather is much cooler today and it’s raining but that didn’t hamper my explorers spirit!
The Galata Tower is only a 5 minute walk from my hotel. Admission is 25 TL and the views are definitely worth it. It’s an elevator ride and a two steep flights of stairs to the top where you will find 360 degree views over Istanbul encompassing all the famous landmarks within the skyline.
I spent the next hour wandering the Beyoglu neighbourhood where the roads are steep and there is some incredible street art.
The rain worsened, forcing me to take shelter in a coffee shop where I had a traditional Turkish breakfast for 5 TL. It was then time to admit defeat, my time in Istanbul was over and I made my back to the hotel to pack and prepare to leave.
As I sit here at Ataturk airport I am reflecting on my trip over one last cup of Turkish tea and there are a few things that struck me about my time here…..
I immediately noticed the fact that there were hardly any British tourists around. I think I encountered a handful if that. And to be honest, it was somewhat refreshing to be in the minority as most of the tourists here are Arabic or from the Far East. Sadly, I think the threat of terrorism has taken its toll here and visitors from the Western world now shy away from coming to this city.
But for me, Istanbul is a city like no other I have visited. It’s proximity to Asia make for a heady mix of cultures. The food is incredible, it’s cheap due to the fact it still uses the Lira and the historical and religious sights are an architectural marvel.
Turkish people are also amongst some of the friendliest I have encountered. The woman are passive but if you engage in conversation with them they soon open up. The men however, are a little more forward. But never intimidating or threatening. They genuinely want to chat to find out where you are from and if they can help you in any way. I must have looked lost many times as I was inundated with offers from ‘unofficial tour guides’ who wanted to show me around 😂. As I mentioned earlier the numbers of British and American tourists have significantly declined so they just appreciate the chance to practice their English language skills.
I never once felt unsafe here as a solo female traveller (I would probably feel more at risk at home) but you must always use your common sense and be aware of your surroundings. Security is tight and it’s not uncommon to see heavily armed police patrolling the streets and major tourist sites.
This trip came at the right time for me and was just what I needed. Having some ‘me time’ away from the usual humdrum of life back home has helped me to refocus my mind and give me back some of the confidence I have recently lost. I’m so grateful that I was able to visit this amazing place and it will forever have a special place in my heart…..
And yes, I am already planning a return trip as there is still so much more to see in this crazy city 💙