24 hours in Istanbul

The first time I’ve read about tourism in Turkey was back in 2005. A Geography teacher from Taiwan published a series of books which told her travel stories throughout Turkey in cute illustrations. Back then I was just a young kid in junior high, buried in books each day and did not think too much about it. 

Fast forward to 2016, tourism in Turkey sees a sharp drop (25 million from the 37 million peak in 2014) because of several major terrorist attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and Diyarbakir. It also doesn’t help that to the south of Turkey, the war in Syria rages on. I was aware of this but decided to willfully ignore it. The only precaution was taking Singapore airlines to Zurich as the cross-continental flight for their safety track record. 

Außerdem (Furthermore), of the 7 million foreigners that visit Istanbul, 1 million are Germans, the odds are not against me. 

Jokes aside, this mega 2-week trip comprised of Singapore > (Zurich) > Istanbul > Cappadocia > Venice > Milan > Lake Como > (road trip through Switzerland) > Zurich and surrounding area > Singapore 

Istanbul was a short layover of just shy of 24hrs as the entry point into Cappadocia, in fact, 50% of all travelers who go to Istanbul will end up heading for Cappadocia. So what can you do in 24hrs in Istanbul? 
  • For a good view: Galata Tower, Seven Hills Hotel (rooftop restaurant) 
  • For a cultural experience: Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia 
  • For a good bargain: The Grand Bazaar 
Galata Tower 
This 9 floor tower on the north side the city of Istanbul was founded in 1348 AD during the Ottoman Empire. Now you can take the elevator to the top for a panoramic view of the city itself. Nearby are a lot of small cafes for you to enjoy breakfast, and I’d recommend to come here around 8am to best the crowds. 

Seven Hills Hotel & Restaurant
This is a hotel just nearby the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. On the rooftop they have a restaurant (Sultanahmet) which offers an amazing view of these mosques. They have this amazing baked Shrimp hot appetizer dish that was like nothing I’ve ever had before. It had this really raw charcoal taste (If you’ve ever watched Ratatouille, there is a thunderstorm scene where Remy is grilling a piece of cheese on the roof top and gets hit by thunder and he describes the taste of it like a Kaboom, that’s exactly how it tasted like). 

Blue Mosque/Sultan Ahmed Mosque
This is THE icon of Istanbul, you see this represented everywhere and you can’t miss it with the six tall minarets (tall pointy towers that surround the main building) Some quick facts about this mosque:
    ↠ Constructed between 1609-1616
    ↠ The name Blue mosque comes from the 20,000 hand-painted blue tiles on the interior walls of the mosque
    ↠ It is opened for visits but closes during prayer times for 90 minutes
    ↠ It has 260 stained glass windows
   ↠ Famous people who have visited the Blue mosque include Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and Obama.

(A lot of the mosque was under renovation when I went)

Photo credit: KayYen

Hagia Sophia
This particular place has a complicated history, and even with a local explaining to me, I became pretty confused. After some research, this is Hagia Sophia explained in simple English. 
   ↠ Construction: 537 – 1453 AD, Greek Orthodox Christian basilica (Church) named Αγία Σοφία
   ↠ Exception: 1204 – 1261 it was converted a to Roman Catholic Cathedral under the Latin Empire
    ↠ Ottoman Mosque: 1453 – 1931 
   ↠ Museum: 1935 ~ today 

It was the largest cathedral for almost 1,000 years until Seville Cathedral of Spain was constructed in 1520 

The Hagia Sophia is also very significant as it sees through the history of Turkey and the changes in empires, religion, and stands the test of time and natural disasters such as earthquakes. The original catholic paintings can still be found on the walls, mixed in with Muslim calligraphic roundels on the upper floor balcony wall with names of Allah, Muhammad and more. 

There are no longer any prayers here as it is converted into a museum so you are less restricted with visiting hours. 

Grand Bazaar
This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, founded in 1,455 at the heart of Istanbul. 

   ↠ Streets: 61
   ↠ Shops: 4,000
   ↠ Daily visitors 250,000 ~ 400,000 

Having been to Marrakech, Morocco, that’s the only reference I had - the open-air medinas which so many people say you have to get lost in. You don’t really “get lost” in the Marrakech medina but it is a UNESCO heritage site. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul though, wow I got lost within the first 5 minutes. There seem to be an infinite amount of streets you can turn into and another street full of different products (61 streets to cover here). 

My partner and I ran into a rug seller who helped us cut the lines massively for both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, but of course we did buy rugs from them. We were looking for rugs for our living room and the study anyhow so it was a good deal. For large living room size silk rugs, they are around $5,000 a piece (of course you can bargain more), and the price is fair since it is also clearly stated on their website. Later on in Cappadocia, we’ll learn the process of hand made silk carpets. Big pieces can take up to 9 months or a year to make. 

Back to the Grand Bazaar, incredibly lost with no sense of direction, I found an exit which lead us to the Nuruomaniye Camii mosque. Most people were sitting at the steps and/or distracted by the Grand Bazaar and completely missed the beautiful side entrance just behind it. 

Because we were flying out from the other Istanbul airport on the east end to Kayseri (Cappadocia), we stayed not in the city center, but at the Sheraton Grand on the other side. The suite upgrade was amazing though only for one night. It was nice and quiet, away from the traffic (and just loud chatter as it was elections weekend).

Next up, we head to the fairytale landscapes and hot air balloon land of Cappadocia.

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