With a population of 14 million, the traffic in Istanbul was brutal. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and it took us almost 3 hours to get from the airport to our hotel. Amazingly though, the mood of the drivers were calm and cooperative. There were no horns blaring or road rage – everyone navigated the tight streets and occasionally the one-lane two-way streets with ease. We reversed several times down narrow roads to let oncoming traffic pass before we could proceed. It was all very civilised.
We were staying only a minute walk away from Taksim Square, which was heavily patrolled by riot police most evenings (following the protests back in June). Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Ave) is the main pedestrian street that people funnel down from Taksim Square. It is filled with shops and restaurants and dessert places…. YUM… teeming with people of an evening. It definitely is worth a visit even just to people watch!
One of our “things” when travelling is to visit UNESCO World Heritage sites when and where we can. Its kind of our unofficial bucket list. So a visit to the historical area of Istanbul was on the cards. We didn’t get to see everything considered to be part of the historical areas but we did see several very incredible things.
Istanbul, although is the largest city in Turkey, is not the capital. It is a city that is steeped in history. It once was the capital of Eastern Roman Empire (it was known then as Byzantium) and then subsequently the Ottoman Empire (to which it was then known as Constantinople). Ankara became the capital of Turkey, post World War I.
It is from the grounds of this palace that we saw Istanbul straddling Europe and Asia. Simply being in Turkey meant that we were going to be visiting two continents 🙂
The main entrance fee (approximately 25 Turkish Lira) to the palace allows you to visit the exhibits of the museum which are divided into the different buildings throughout. There are sections for the treasury, Sacred Relics, portraits, armoury and clocks. The collection of armoury and clocks were exceptionally fascinating. To visit the Harem was an additional fee which we didn’t care to visit.
One thing we can say we have seen is one of the largest diamonds in the world. The 86-carat pear-shaped Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The tale of its discovery was that a fisherman found the diamond amongst some rubbish and was traded 3 spoons for it. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like a fair trade!
This is definitely an ancient wonder of the world although, maybe not one of the 7, it still is an amazing piece of architecture. Also known as St Sophia or Aya Sophia, it was built in 6th Century. It started as a Greek Orthodox church before later becoming an imperial mosque and now a museum. There are still representation of both religions throughout the building.
The dome is probably what is most impressive for something that was built so long ago. Words and photos cannot do this place justice, a case of you just got to see it to feel it and be wow-ed.
Entrance Fee: Yes – approximately 25 Turkish Lira
Known to the locals as Sultanahmet Mosque, it was built in the mid 1500s. It is referred to as the Blue Mosque due to the blue tiles in its interior and around the dome.
Looking around and up once inside is simply magnificent. We could only look around in complete awe at the large pillars, arches and dome.
In the main dome, there is a triangular frame housing 3 ostrich eggs which is said to repel spiders. We thought this to be a very handy natural solution to the spiders in summer back home however didn’t think we would manage to track any down to bring back.
There is no fee to enter however dress appropriately. We know this sounds REALLY obvious but if not dressed appropriately, there are blue garments and shawls that they hand out at the entrance which is to be worn before you can proceed. This advice is directed at both men and women as anyone in shorts will be given the blue garment (worn like a sarong). Women need to ensure their head/hair is covered. Shoes will also need to be removed and plastic bags are provided to carry shoes through the mosque.
The Hippodrome was probably the least compelling of the ancient sites we saw in Istanbul and possibly in Turkey. There was not much to see except a couple of obelisks (without trying to downplay it) but probably because it had been a long day for us, we were also getting weary. Good ole jet-lag rearing its ugly head!
So our first day in Turkey was jam-packed and a few additional highlights that were not UNESCO related would have been that we ate our first kebab (in a shop called Pudding House that Bill Clinton also ate in) and visited the Spice Market where we got to try the real-deal Turkish Delight. Sadly the Grand Bazaar was closed on Sundays and we would not get an opportunity to visit it.
Due to our limited time in Turkey, we were moving on the following day, so we will one day have to go back to explore Istanbul some more!