A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend a work offsite in Istanbul. Naturally I accepted the offer, although my excitement dipped a bit when I realised I’d have to wake up at 4am on my birthday to fly out! Ned came out to visit me the day after so that we could enjoy an Istanbul city break together.
I bagged a room at the Raffles Hotel in Istanbul, complete with a giant balcony as well as his n’ hers sinks and the comfiest bed I’ve ever laid in. Downstairs there’s a gorgeous spa area with a vitality pool, indoor pool and a row of loungers with complimentary Egyptian cotton towel to dry off. Visiting Istanbul in October wasn’t ideal with the rain only ceasing on our final day. But, it did mean we were lucky enough to take in a view of Bosphorus Bridge from our balcony:
In order to see as much as possible with the one full day off while out there, we decided to take Walks of Turkey‘s Istanbul in a Day Tour which is essentially two of their tours rolled into one. You can easily see the sights without a tour guide, but the benefits are numerous:
1) They buy all tickets in advance so you can stroll past the queues
2) No need to worry about checking directions
3) The tour guide is on hand to answer any questions you have – our guide was extremely knowledgeable and helped really bring to life each attraction
4) Small group tour size of no more than 15. Ours was just five people!
What an experience it is to step inside Hagia Sophia. The building (bear with me) is a church built on top of a church built on top of a Pagan temple, then turned mosque, now a museum.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable of this architectural beauty and told us many, many facts about its history which really helped to bring it all alive. What really captured my imagination was how in one building I could witness Islamic influences such as the minbar (pulpit found in a mosque), mosaics of Jesus Christ, Greek graffiti and Viking scripture all at once! It also bore the scars of changing times – you can still see the crevices where gold plating was ransacked by 13th-century crusaders.
A great fact was how the portraits of seraphs (positioned in the arches underneath the domes) were painted in that position to symbolise the weight of the universe they carry on their shoulders. During the Muslim occupation of the space, the faces were actually covered. The faces we now see today were painted by the Fossati brothers from Switzerland in 1847.
Tip #1: Head to Hagia Sophia before 9am and make sure you’re first in line. After security, walk straight into the main building before it gets clogged with other tourists
Tip #2: Don’t forget to rotate your thumb inside the wishing column and make a wish while you’re there!
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)
This is a few minutes’ walk from Hagia Sophia and is still in use by Muslims to this day. Because of this, you have to time your arrival at the Mosque so that it doesn’t clash with prayer times.
Tip: Go on a weekday as the weekends see if fill up with lots of tourists.
Again, we waltzed past the queues thanks to our tour guide and went underground to take in the sight of 336 illuminated pillars in a body of water. When the cisterns were first built, the faces on the two Medusa pillars would have been submerged under water. It’s only now the body of water has decreased that we can see the faces.
Fuego Restaurant was our next step for a buffet lunch. The Turkish bread was still warm from the oven, and they served us stuffed aubergine and chicken and lamb kofte accompanied with some superb sauces. The cost of the lunch was included as part of the tour which is a nice bonus.
Grand Bazaar & Spice Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar hosts over 3000 stalls, selling gold jewellery, fake designer handbags, trinkets, lanterns, scarves, copperware … the list goes on. We spent over an hour walking through both bazaars and surrounding streets and only really had five minutes to stop and purchase anything.
We did get a 10-minute reprieve to try out some pomegranate tea and various Turkish delights. After the spice bazaar, we walked down a hill and were then escorted up a flight of decrepit stairs towards a rooftop! The exact location (based on my phone GPS) is here on Google Maps if you want to discover it for yourself.
Tip: Visiting the place on your own (with the help of this map) and NOT as part of a group tour.
Staying in the brand new Zorlu Center, it was even more apparent to me what a city of contrasts Istanbul is. I can’t wait to visit again one day so that I can hopefully to see it in warm weather, under a blue sky. Oh, and buy myself a Turkish rug. Thanks to The Blonde Abroad for her write-up of the tour – this actually convinced me to go with Walks of Turkey!