1 Day in Sultanahmet
Or rather, 1 day of epic queues around Istanbul 😛
Sultanahmet is the historic old city of Istanbul, and where most people spend the most of their time in Istanbul, as there’s where all the major sights are. If you haven’t stood in line for something for a long time, you probably won’t be too fond of the place, because you can’t go anywhere without standing in line for at least 20 minutes. Not Disneyland standards, but still. But hey, these sights are overflowing with tourists for a reason!
You can visit most of the places in Sultanahmet on foot, because the attractions are all quite nicely packed within walking distance. Or even if you’re too tired, the tram line running through the area will get you to all the major sights quite conveniently as well! There are quite a number of attractions in Sultanahmet, but here are four of the most popular ones I visited in the course of a day:
1. Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
The Hagia Sophia is the ultimate icon of Istanbul, and for good reason. It’s had a pretty long history; this is the third time it has been constructed, and this version of the structure has been standing since 537 – that’s 1,476 years, in case you’re counting! It was originally a church, but was converted into a mosque about 500 years ago when the Ottomans were in power, hence the Jawi writing inside, and the minarets outside.
The Hagia Sophia is now a museum, and is open to the public every day except Monday. Expect huge crowds if you happen to be visiting on a Sunday or Tuesday, because everybody who didn’t get to go on Monday will be going then!
I’ve always wanted to visit the Hagia Sophia ever since I heard of it, and though it’s not quite as lavishly decorated as say, St. Peter’s in Rome, the interior is still a sight to behold. Unfortunately when I was there, a lot of things were under renovation, so… scaffolding 😦
I was heartbroken to discover only when I got home that the Hagia Sophia apparently has a resident cat named Gli!!
I didn’t spot any cats inside when I was there, but apparently a lot of people have – Gli’s even got his own Tumblr page. Please help me say hi to him if you ever see him 😦
Although I didn’t manage to see Gli, I saw something else just as lovely outside…
A cherry blossom tree! It’s quite the people magnet, as you can see 🙂 I was really lucky to catch the blossoms in full force, because when I went back a week later, they were all gone.
2. Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is another one of the iconic landmarks of Istanbul, and is literally a stone’s throw away from the Hagia Sophia.
Literally! This is the view of the Hagia Sophia across the grounds of the Blue Mosque when you stand at the entrance to the Blue Mosque.
One of the Blue Mosque’s most unique features is its six minarets, as most mosques usually have only four, two, or even one. There’s a funny story about that; apparently Sultan Ahmet I, who commissioned the construction of the mosque, requested for gold (altin) minarets, which was misunderstood by the architect as six (alti) minarets. When the mosque was finished, it resulted in quite a scandal because even the holiest of mosques, the Haram Mosque in Mecca, had six minarets. The sultan ended up solving the problem by sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret 😀
Another fun fact: the real name of the Blue Mosque is actually the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, in honour of the Sultan! However, it’s more popularly known as the Blue Mosque thanks to the incredibly intricate blue tiles covering the entire interior of the mosque.
Close-up of the tiles! Look at the detail!
3. Basilica Cistern
Lying just about 150m away from the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, yet another one of Istanbul’s top sights. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, because the good stuff is all underground, but just spot the signs (and the queue outside), and you should be fine 😉
The Basilica Cistern is a huge underground structure built in the 6th century, by 7,000 slaves as claimed by some historical texts. It used to provide a water filtration system for buildings nearby including the Topkapi Palace, and could hold up to 100,000 tons of water, but now holds only enough to house some little fishies.
There isn’t much to keep you occupied in the Cistern; you can wander through the labyrinth of columns, and get your picture taken at a photo station somewhere in the middle, and try to take a photo of the eerie glow. But it’s hard to, because like everywhere else in Istanbul, you can’t bring a tripod in where you need it the most!
Another unique characteristic of the Basilica Cistern is the pair of Medusa heads at the end of the Cistern. (sorry for the ugly flash lighting!) It is said that the heads were recycled and brought in after being removed from some other Roman building.
4. Topkapi Palace
A little further away from the Hagia Sophia is the huge (and gorgeous) Topkapi Palace, the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for about 400 years.
Again, just follow the signs from the Hagia Sophia and keep walking until you see this… structure (I don’t really know what it is but it’s beautiful too), and behind that is the entrance to the Topkapi Palace.
The Palace consists of a few “layers” of courtyards, which obviously you have to keep going through deeper until you reach the inner courtyard where the Sultans lived. This is the First Courtyard, which is public – you don’t need to pay to get in here, which is nice! The brown building in the background is the Hagia Irene, which is not normally open to the public.
After going through the First Courtyard, you’ll reach the Gate of Salutations (the first photo of the Topkapi Palace I posted), where you’ll have to buy your tickets to enter. We need to go deeper! So after you get your tickets, you’ll pass through the Second Courtyard to get to the Third Courtyard, where you’ll see all the palace structures!
Just like the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace also serves as a museum now, and houses a vast collection of treasures belonging to the Ottoman dynasty. As you can see from the picture above, there are massive lines of people everywhere waiting their turn to see the various items on display, so I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t feel like putting yourself through that. But really, if you’re not in a rush, just go with it and take a look at the treasures because it’s definitely worth a look! There are some pretty cool items in there, like the sword and mantel of Prophet Muhammed, the staff of Moses, and the Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a MASSIVE 86-carat diamond (!!) which is one of the largest in the world. Seriously, I can’t stress how big that thing was. Everybody who walked past the diamond let out an audible gasp, because it just absolutely blinds you when you see it for yourself.
And on to the Fourth Courtyard, the innermost one where the residences of the Sultans are! I can’t remember which building is which, but they were most definitely the most beautiful structures in the Palace.
Most of my pictures are of the exterior of the structures, because photography isn’t allowed in many of the rooms, especially the ones with the treasures inside.
But hey, the gardens are really pretty as well 🙂
If you visit the Topkapi Palace, especially if it’s towards the end of the day, do remember to visit the Harem section of the palace first if you want, because it closes a full hour before the rest of the palace! I didn’t get to visit the Harem thanks to my doodooheadness 😦 Oh well.
So that was the entirety of what I did on my second day in Istanbul! Up next, the bazaars of Istanbul 🙂