Our final four and a half days in Turkey were spent in Istanbul. We were excited because there is much to see in the great city and we looked forward to taking our time in visiting them.
Tip: When planning to spend time in Istanbul, review the places you want to visit and plan ahead. Many of the primary tourist sites in Istanbul are closed on one or more days a week. Many, but not all, are closed on Mondays. Even the Grand Bazaar and the restaurants in the area around the Grand Bazaar close early on Monday evenings.
Here is a run down of all of the places we visited in Istanbul in our final days:
Chora Church (also known as Kariye Museum): During our trip, we had been reading the fictional mystery Belshazzar’s Daughter by Barbara Nadel. It mentioned Chora Church/Kariye Museum so we were determined to visit it ourselves and we are very glad that we did. It is located outside the main area of town and is a bit out of the way. We decided to be adventurous and take the Golden Horn Ferry and then walk up the hill to the church. Finding the loading area of the ferry was a bit of a challenge as it’s hidden off behind a car park near the main boat loading areas for Bosphorus Tours. We finally did find it, bought our tickets and embarked on a boat ride up the Golden Horn. We got off at the appointed stop and headed up the hill to find the Chora Church. Many locals in the area were more than eager to help us find the church as it’s a bit hard to find among the narrow streets in the area.
The Chora Church is well worth the trip out of town. The mosaics and frescoes in the Chora are stunning. They date from the last period of the Byzantine period (14th century). As with many churches in Instanbul, following the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, it was converted into a mosque in 1511. It was then converted into a museum in 1945, and during the restoration in 1948-1959, the mosaics and frescoes were uncovered and brought to the light.
Plan to have a freshly fried fish sandwich right along the river/harbor when exiting the Golden Horn Ferry back in Istanbul – they are delicious and very inexpensive.
Dolmabahce Palace: Dolmabahce Palace was built in the 19th century and was lived in by the last Ottoman Sultan. It is one of the most glamorous palaces in the world, rivaling anything you’ll find in Europe, including Versailles. Inside you will see an entire staircase with banisters made from crystal and a 4 1/2 ton crystal chandelier as well as several 3 ton chandeliers. While not it the traditional “Turkish” style, the palace and harem are well worth the visit. You are required to be part of a tour to visit the inside of both the Palace and haren. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside. The Palace sits right on the Bosphorus and is a lovely place to have lunch on a nice day. It’s quite easy to get to, just take the Metro to the end of the line to the East and walk on the main street a couple of blocks. You can’t miss it.
Spice Market: While much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, we enjoyed our visit to the Spice Market more. The smaller size makes it less formidable and the piles of spices are beautiful and a great bargain! Saffron is so inexpensive here, it’s crazy! It’s also a wonderful spot for photographers.
Topkapi Palace: Of course you will visit Topkapi Palace while in Istanbul because everyone does. It was constructed in 1478 and used as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and residence of the Sultans for 380 years. The overwhelming number of tourists visiting Topkapi definitely can put a damper on your visit. And it’s very expensive if you buy tickets for everything. We recommend visiting first thing in morning, when it opens, and going to the Treasure Room and Islamic Relics Rooms first. That way you’ll beat most of the crowds. We purchased the audio tour and it wasn’t overly helpful so if you’re looking to save some money, don’t get the audio tour. Allow at least 3 hours for the complete tour.
Istanbul Archaeological Museums: The Archaeological Museums are behind the Hagia Sophia and near Topkapi Palace. They are not large but well worth the visit, especially the Museum of Archaeology, as opposed to the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of the Tiled Kiosk. The Alexander Sarcophagus and related items unearthed in the excavation at the Royal Necropolis of Sidon are amazing.
Blue Mosque: Of course you will also visit the Blue Mosque since it’s one of the most famous mosques in the world and a popular tourist attraction. And it is spectacular, in both size and beauty. It too is very busy. We found one of the best times to visit is in the late afternoon/early evening in between times of prayer as most of the tourists are gone by then.
New Mosque or Yeni Camii: The New Mosque is next to the Spice Market and overlooks the harbor next to the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn. This mosque is also spectacular in size and beauty and worth a visit.
Rustem Pasa Mosque: Tucked away behind the Spice Market and New Mosque is the Rustem Pasa Mosque. The entrance is a bit hard to find but definitely worth seeking out. Built in 1561, this small, but beautiful mosque has a very intimate feel compared with the larger buildings. It is a wonderful place to spend some quiet time and escape the heat.
Suleymaniye and Tomb of the Architect Sinan: This mosque was designed by the Architect Sinan, the same architect who designed the Taj Majal. In fact, his tomb is right outside the main wall. This mosque sits atop a hill and is easily visible from the Golden Horn. You’ll get some great views of the city and the Golden Horn from here.
Kucuk Ayasofya (Little Hagia Sofia): The Kucuk Ayasofya is a couple of blocks down the hill from the Blue Mosque. Again, it’s quite small but very beautiful and a quiet, restful place.
Of course, there are many wonderful places that you’ll stumble upon when wandering the streets. And the food is delicious, everywhere! Istanbul is a great city and one we hope to visit again in the future.