I think it’s wonderful that Istanbul was my last and final stop on my journey through Turkey. I had traversed through the country and seen its natural wonders, heard its historical myths and legends, and marvelled at its ancient ruins; and then to end the adventure at the epicentre of it all in one of the most important cities in history… is like a cherry on top.
Traversing Turkey with Parlo Tours (Pt.4 of 4)
I was traveling on a 9 days 7 nights group tour in Turkey with Parlo Tours (click here for the detailed itinerary). Istanbul was the last stop on the tour after visiting the the ruins of Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Ephesus and Troy (Pt.3); and the fourth part of this four part series of articles on my journey around Turkey. The other cities we (my Mum and I) visited were Ankara and Cappadocia. As with all group tours, entrance tickets and fees are included; but my articles will include the prices to some of the local attractions. To find out more about Parlo Tours and the other different tours this Malaysian travel company offers, click here.
Journey to Istanbul
It was an early morning (before sunrise) start for the journey from our location in Canakkale to the final destination in Istanbul. By 7am, we were on the passenger ferry, crossing the Dardanelles Straits to Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula on the other side — we were basically traveling from the Asian part of the country to the European part! The ferry trip took about 20 minutes and costs T₺3 (~US$0.5) per person. We landed in the town of Eceabat and from there, we had to endure another 5 hours on the road until we reached Istanbul — the very last of all the long bus rides on our travels around Turkey.
Lunch at Kebap House Restaurant
It was raining when we arrived in Istanbul, and we got stuck in the lunch hour jam before arriving at the Kebap House Restaurant for lunch. We had been having buffet meals over the last few days in Turkey, so I was actually pretty excited to have our first meal of kebap! Kebap is a Turkish dish of meat, fish or vegetables roasted on a large skewer/spit — and can be served either on a skewer, in a pita bread, or as meat pieces (we were mainly served this way). I think our tour group might have requested for kebap one too many times throughout our trip, that our tour guide took us for kebap almost every meal during our time in Istanbul!
Our first stop in the city was at the Dolmabache Palace, the palace that served as the administrative centre of the last 6 sultans of the Ottoman Empire from its completion in 1856 till the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The palace is the largest one in the country, and was built in the most opulent and elaborate style — combining European and traditional Ottoman architecture.
As we toured around the lavish palace, I couldn’t help gawking at the extravagant rooms with intricately designed Turkish carpets, gold gilded ceilings and crystal chandeliers (the one in the Ceremonial Hall is the world’s largest and weighs 4,500kgs). But as beautiful as the palace is, all that noisy decoration is a little too much for me; and I also couldn’t stop thinking about the time and effort it would take to clean all those carpets and all the crystal pieces! No photographs are allowed inside the palace. Entrance fee to the main area of the palace costs T₺60 (~US$10.5), and an extra T₺40 (~US$7) for the Harem section.
The Grand Bazaar
Time for shopping! It was in the late afternoon that we stopped by Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and had about 2 hours to explore one of the world’s oldest (mid-15th century) and largest (with 61 streets) covered markets. Of course, that is not nearly enough time to actually cover the entire area — but as we noticed later, most of the trinkets, jewellery, local products and souvenirs being sold are pretty much the same from one end to the other. So we didn’t roam too far, as we didn’t want to go off-track and lose our entrance/exit gate (there are 18 gates in total)! Our tour guide also reminded us to be aware of our belongings, and to bear in mind that most stuff sold at the bazaar are probably fake so bargain at our own discretion. I just ended buying some cheap bracelets and lots of little souvenirs.
Crowne Plaza Istanbul-Harbiye
It was dark by the time we finished our shopping, and it started raining heavily after dinner (of kebap). We arrived at our hotel for the night at the Crowne Plaza Istanbul, which is located in the old town area of Harbiye. Our room was comfortable with all the modern amenities; and breakfast the next morning was pretty decent. A couple of tour group members and I wanted to experience the Istanbul nightlife while we were in the city — but the rain didn’t stop that night so we couldn’t do a further walk out to Taksim to explore the bars and clubs. We ended up chilling at the Sisha Pub next to the hotel — and had some drinks with little snacks of cheese bread and more kebap!
The next day, we had a whole day to explore Istanbul before our flight home later at night. And we started the day’s adventures with a cruise! The Bosphorus Cruise is a must-do while in the city; just because you’ll get to sail across the very strait that divides Istanbul’s European and Asian sides; and links the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. While on the cruise, we passed two of the three Istanbul suspension bridges (one of which we crossed when we arrived a few days earlier).
I had a lovely time sitting on the boat’s top deck; enjoying the sun and wind, and admiring the panorama of Europe and Asia (on each side) with its majestic palaces, imposing mosques and churches, and beautiful buildings. Most importantly though, I was at sea. We took the shorter Bosphorus Cruise that lasted about 1.5 hours and costs T₺20 (~US$3.5). There are also longer 6-hour cruises, dinner cruises, and hop-on-hop-off boats along the Bosphorus Strait.
The Blue Mosque
After the cruise, we headed to the old town of Istanbul, where all the city’s most notable sights and significant buildings stand. Our first stop was at the stunning Blue Mosque, officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Constructed during the Ottoman era in the early 17th century by Sultan Ahmed I; it is still a functioning mosque but is open to the public outside of prayer times. The Blue Mosque is named as such because of the beautiful hand-painted blue (and pinkish) tiles that adorn its interior walls, and built in such a grand scale with its five main domes and six minarets (more than any mosque of its time). Appropriate clothing is compulsory and women are required to wear scarfs; and there are certain inner areas that are off-limits to women. As this is a place of worship, entrance is free.
Topkapi Palace was once the residence and administrative centre of the Ottoman sultans from the mid-15th to the mid-19th century (when it was shifted to the Dolmabache Palace) — but became a museum in 1923. The grounds of the palace is huge, with 4 main courtyards with gates leading into them. The first courtyard was the meeting place of visitors to the palace and is the biggest of all the courtyards; the second courtyard was the location of the palace’s hospital and kitchen buildings among others; and the third courtyard was the centre and inner palace. It was where the Imperial Harem and the Eunuch Quarters were located; and it has beautiful buildings like the Audience Chamber and the oldest Treasury Building that now houses the hand of St John the Baptist. Queues to enter are super long!
But I think we spent most of our visit in the fourth courtyard. It was the private sanctuary of the sultan and his family back then — but now you can walk around its mosaic buildings and chill at the cafe and terrace overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. And that’s what we did. Entrance costs T₺72 (~US$12.5).
We had a quick kebap lunch around the area before finally heading to one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Hagia Sophia. Located right opposite the Blue Mosque and in front of the Topkapi Palace; it was the world’s largest and most magnificent building (with its gigantic dome) during its time. Built in the Middle Ages around 360AD, Hagia Sophia was first a (Byzantine, then Greek, then Roman) Cathedral; then it was converted into an Ottoman Mosque in the mid-15th century; and finally declared a museum from 1935 till now.
It’s just incredible how a building that is more than 1,600 years old is still so beautifully preserved. The interior has a combination of mosaic decorations, marble pillars, elaborate chandeliers and religious drawings on the walls — made even more amazing with murals of Christ and Virgin Mary next to Arabic calligraphy. So much of what the cathedral and mosque was is still retained till this day (with some renovation going on during our visit). And then there’s also the Wishing (or Sweating) Column, which is a pillar with a hole in the middle. It is said to be always moist; and if you make a wish while twisting your thumb in the hole, it will be fulfilled. So I did (I hope my wish comes true)! Tickets to enter cost T₺72 (~US$12.5).
After our visit to the three buildings in Istanbul’s old town; we passed by what was once the Hippodome. It was built within the 3rd to 4th centuries during the time of Constantinople (Istanbul’s ancient name from the Byzantine era), and was a social place where people came to watch sporting events like chariot races. Now it is just a vast square called the Sultan Ahmet Meydani; and our tour guide took us for a walk around to see the 3,500-year-old Obelisk of Thutmose II and the remains of the Serpentine Column.
Dinner at Patara Restaurant in Kumkapi
Our final stop in Istanbul (and our entire trip) was for dinner at Kumkapi, a Turkish food and drinks quarter that is famous for its fish restaurants. So yes, that was what we had for our final meal in Turkey — fish! As I’ve written in the previous posts on this Turkey series, the fish dishes I’ve been having in the country has not been exactly to my taste. That being said, Patara Restaurant managed to change my mind a little. We were served cockles and squid for starters (it was just alright); but surprisingly, I enjoyed the fish and managed to finish it up!
Before leaving the quarters, we stopped by a Turkish ice-cream shop hidden within one of the side lanes of Kumkapi. The ice-cream man was a happy fellow, and made everyone laugh when he played the Turkish ice-cream tricks on us. It was good fun, and his goat’s milk ice-cream is delicious too! I couldn’t find the name of his ice-cream shop, but if you’re in the area — do drop by.
The End of Tour
After dinner, it was straight to the airport and the end of our travels in Turkey. I had such a lovely, albeit too short time in Istanbul — and I really wished I had more time to really dig deeper and discover more of what makes the city tick. And explore more of its food scene too! But I guess I have to leave all that for another time. Turkey itself has been amazing, and my tour with Parlo Tours around the country to some of its most well-known and beautiful sites (from Ankara to Cappadocia to Pamukkale to Ephesus to Troy and finally to Istanbul) brought me back to an era that I didn’t know much about. I discovered more of this ancient country, while learning new history, stories and legends. It has been a fulfilling trip. Read more about my entire adventure in Turkey here!
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*She Walks the World was a guest on a trip to Turkey with Parlo Tours. Istanbul was one out of the many city stops on the group tour. And as always, all opinions stated here are my own.
*The ticket pricing to some of the attractions are stated, but it is all included in the tour package with Parlo Tours.