The flight from London Stansted to Istanbul with Pegasus Airlines arrived one (1) hour late and I was concerned as I had notified the private car I booked of the late arrival and promised to text when I landed however my phone battery decided to die on me and I was unable to do this. On reaching arrivals there was a rep from the company with a name card for me and we were soon shown to a Mercedes Vito limo which whisked us the 50 minute journey to our hotel in comfort for only 29 euro. I definitely recommend www.gettransfer.com if you need a private shuttle from Sabiha Gokcen International Airport into Istanbul.
We were staying in The Golden Crown Hotel in Sultanahmet area which is in a perfect position to reach all of the main sights by foot and if there are two of you sharing it works out a little over €30 each a night.
After a strange buffet breakfast which did include cereals coffee and scrambled eggs with turkey ham we set of on foot to see some of the sights.
Our walking tour started at the ruins of The Hippodrome which in 330 AD when it was named Constantinople it was the centre of the Roman Empire and chariot races were held here. Much has changed over the years but there are still monuments left over standing proud like the German Fountain, and the Hieroglyphic Obelisk of Theodosis from Karnak, The serpentine Column like a broken twisted pipe originally built in honour of Apollo in Delphi Greece and finally The bare stone Constantine Obelisk which was once covered with guided bronze plates that were all stolen and melted down during the crusades in 1204.
The area is open 24 hours a day, free to enter and looks good at night with some mood lighting.
From the Hippodrome you can gain entry through a narrow alley to The Blue Mosque. Built in the former grounds of Constantine's Grand Palace it got its name from the 20,000 blue tiles with light reflecting on them from the 260 windows and became turquoise ( colour of the Turks). The entry is free however it is closed to tourist 30 minutes before prayer time ( 5 times a day) and during. Unfortunately there was scaffolding erected inside and out to allow repairs to be done after a couple of recent quakes when we were there but well worth the time to have a look around in the courtyard and interior. Remember it is a place of prayer and visitors should ensure they dress modestly ( men & women) make sure they cover their shoulders and knees and make sure shoes are removed outside.
On leaving the Blue Mosque you will find yourself in the Sultan Ahmet Park ( free entry anytime) and make sure you take the time to enjoy the open space taking in the view of the Blue Mosque at one end and Hagia Sofia at the other end. Also worth a revisit at night time to see both lit up.
Across the road from the park is The Basilica Cistern supposedly the grandest of many underground water reservoirs and famous for the scene in James Bond " From Russia with Love". The admission price was 20TL (£3) and hours of opening 9 am to 5.30 pm although it was one of the sights I was really looking forward to I found it dark dismal and devoid of any water, not for me.
You will exit he Cistern one road further down the hill walk back the way you came and just past the road with the entrance in you will find a rather nondescript marker known as the " Million Stone " it was part of Constantine's central Arch and in the days it served as the marker which the distance of roads to all corners of his empire were measured from.
Cross back to other side of the main road to join the queue for the main attraction "The Hagia Sophia" (Holy Wisdom" The current building replaced two previously on this site one one built 360 AD which was destroyed in 404 AD and the second was built in 415 AD before being burnt to the ground during riots in 532 AD when half the city was burned down and 30,000 people died.
The current building was completed in 537 AD and at that time had the largest Dome in the world, so big Notre Dame Cathedral could fit inside!!
Before entering there is a marble flower statue next to the fountain that is cool to see.
Enter the building through the doors that are the oldest part of the building reputed to be made from pieces of the wood from Noah's Ark. The Nave was under repair when there but it was still a magnificent structure with plenty to see to pass the time. Oh and the brochure you get on entry will have everything you need to see in English and English description plates so don't bother with the audio guide at extra cost.
One of the fun things tourists like to do is find the "Wishing Column" easy to find just look for the queue of people lined up, at the column is wrapped in bronze and there is a hole at shoulder height . If you put your thumb in the hole and do a complete circle with your hand your wish will come true !!!!
On leaving the ground floor you walk up to the upper gallery via an uneven ramp of magnificent stone slabs where once sultans and Emperors were either carried up or rode on horseback.
At the top note all the marble columns are now green and you get the best views of the inside as you walk along the rear passageway to the white marble wall. Make sure you get to see the Viking Graffiti- yes graffiti preserved from the 9th century. Pre-Mosque Murals can be seen on the upper level although now wearing away, an unusual sight in a Mosque.
The opening times are 9 am to 6.30 pm Tuesday to Sunday with last entry 1 hour before close, closed Monday . The cost of entry is 72 TL (€11.50), ignore the "guides" that stalk the line promising to help you skip the line, they will, but you will pay approx €30 each for their tour. Instead, wait until you have cleared security and buy your ticket at one of the machines with your credit card and stroll in.
On leaving the "Hagia Sofia" facing the Blue Mosque turn left and at the end left again and you are heading for The Topkapi Palace, however, if you can time your exit or entry for one of the hours Muslims are called to prayer it is an experience to listen to one, then the other, what seems to be calling and answering each other.
The Topkapi Palace consists of 4 courtyards and the first is free to visit from dawn to dusk but is made up of parkland to wander. Once you pas through the security check and pay your 72 TL (€11.50) you will enter the interesting parts 2,n3 & 4 which includes the Harem which you have to pay extra 42 TL (€6.75).
The things to visit include The chamber of relics, ( consisted of a staff attributed to Moses., a sword of someone famous a long time ago, parts of the beard of the prophet and a few similar objects) The Imperial treasury, ( closed), The Porcelain Collection ( to be fair there were enormous numbers of dinner services going back a long time if that's what you want to see & The weapons collection.( supposedly one of the best in the world ( it's not) it is one room with some neat objects which includes the emerald Topkapi dagger but oh the performance if you try to take a picture. There is also a room with a collection of clocks but again not for me.
I found that the palace was poorly signposted and many exhibits were closed but we not informed before entry. The taking of pictures was prohibited and guards positioned to enforce this was somewhat annoying as they didn't even sell a booklet with pictures in at the end. You will understand that some of the pics are not up to normal standard due to the covert actions I needed to take to obtain them. I did not pay to go in the Harem but my friend who did said it was a waste of money !!!
There is a restaurant /cafe with some wonderful views over the Bosporus but be warned one Coke,one orange tango and a baklava each cost 66TL (€10.50) and two ice creams 38TL (€6)
If you only have time to see one Palace in Istanbul my advice is to visit the Dolmabace Palace instead.
While I remember to travel around Istanbul buy yourself an Istanbul Kart from any of the many kiosks that sell them or from a machine at any station cost is 7 TL (£1) and then top it up with 20TL (£3) and you will be able to wiz around for ages at about 2TL per ride and top up if you run out. The T1 tram line connects you to everything
The Grand Bazaar is a must just for the mind boggling experience even if you do not want to buy anything. The tram stop is Beyazit Kapalicarsi and you can't miss it a wonderland for shoppers and please remember to barter it is what is expected and makes it all the more fun.
The Spice Market is another must visit place and there is more than just spices on sale and a great place to spend an afternoon. The tram stop is Eminonu and after you have had a great time in the Market walk through into the lanes out the back and enjoy a coffee and kebab or baklavas with the locals in their Market place.
Across the road at this stop you will find all the ferries that leave for the Bosporus cruises or a trip to the princes islands or just to take a ferry ride to the Asia side of Istanbul. The ferries are very cheap. Buy a single fare and when you get off before exploring ask what times the ferries go back so you know how long you have.
One of my favourite sights to visit has to be the Dolmabace Palace which can be reached on T1 tram end of the line stop Kabatas and then continue walking in the same direction for 10 minutes and you will find the entrance in front of you across the road from the Besiktas Football Teams stadium.
The Dolmabace Palace is where all the treasures of the Topkapi Palace were moved to when Ataturk founded the republic and decided he needed a much grander palace to entertain and receive visiting dignitaries. The Palace is much more opulent than Topkapi and positioned on the banks of the Bosporus so as to be accessible by land and sea. The entrance fee is 90 TL (£12.80) which included the entrance to the Harem. The audio guide is included in the price, however, you must leave your passport or driving licence as security and collect when you leave if you do not want to do this you can leave a $100 deposit instead.
Whilst in Istanbul I can recommend "Pereme Tours" Turkish Night Dinner & Cruise Show which you will find advertised everywhere at 70€ unlimited alcohol or 50€ unlimited soft drinks. Without even trying to barter the price down our hotel manager offered us the alcohol cruise for 45€ and it was excellent value for money. Hotel pick up included, Four hours on board, three hours cruising and the dancing girls & guys entertainment was non stop followed by dancing right up until docking.
There are so many wonderful food places to try, to fit most budgets so shop around just because it is expensive doesn't mean it is the best.
I will recommend two establishments - The first is off the main tram line road (Divan Yolu Cd) in a side street named Hoca Rustem Sk. Called Sirevi Restaurant. Our main meal for two with a large beer and glass of wine followed by baklava and tea set us back 225 TL (£32.00) but good food and a good setting with live music with a singer made it worthwhile but do not order the Testi Kebab?
I had read about the Testi Kebab and was determined to try it before I left but everywhere I looked it was priced between 300 - 400TL (£42 - 57) for two but much more than I wanted to pay.
On our last night whilst wandering the back streets we came upon The Hotel Perula that not only had a rooftop Restaurant overlooking The Bosporus but advertised out front the Testi Kebab from 110 TL to 150 TL and so in we went.
The staff were friendly and moved us from our table to a window table with a view as soon as one became available and the meal when it came was all I had expected. We had a very enjoyable meal washed down with a beer and a glass of wine followed by the complimentary tea, with background music and all for 175TL (£25) including a 15% tip.
My trip was only for four (4) days and five (5) nights but I found this was about the right amount of time to see the main sights of Istanbul.