I was recently on a trip to Istanbul in Turkey. This post is about that trip, but I used Hagia Sofia in the title because that was the place that left a very strong impression on me.
Amidst all the warnings about Istanbul being in a turmoil, there I was booking myself on a trip to this city. The land itself sits on two continents, Asia and Europe. Now how cool is that! I took Turkish Airlines which had a direct flight from Oslo Gardermoen to Ataturk Airrport.
Turkish Airlines flies several days a week to Turkey.
Getting through immigration and customs was a test of patience, due to very long lines. And I mean really long. If Istanbul is your final destination, then I guess its fine. However, if you plan to stop-over as part of a long-haul trip, I suggest that you think it over. This way, you do not get to land tired of a long-haul trip on your way back and then have to stand the long line. But do whatever suits you, of course, it may be a waste of time for some, but others may consider it part of the journey.
The airport is connected to the city center through the metro (train). There is a tourist information counter at the airport so there is no need to worry about about getting lost, you can even ask for suggestions on where to. You can also take a taxi, bus or rent-a-car. But this trip was a budget one so I took the metro.
After one station change, I got off at Taksim Square.
The cheapest way to stay in a city is to live with family or friends. And that is what I did. My flight landed at 16.35 and I was in Taksim at around 18.30. Two hours with the metro, it is about 8TL per ride. (Check here for the exchange rate of your currency). With a taxi it is about an hour, saves time especially if one does not live around the area. The taxi has a flat rate of 3.2 TL and then it is about 2TL per kilometer. Only take official taxis. They are color yellow and a sign on the roof that says “taksi”. ALWAYS insist on using a meter. A lot of drivers speak bad english so make sure you have a map with you to point to them to where you want to go. Better yet, let the hotel write the words in Turkish so you can show it to the driver.
I did have luggage with me, but for the price of around USD 3, you can store it while going around. We just asked a regular restaurant to do this. They usually say yes if you offer to pay them for this service. One thing you should realize is that stores here will try to get money out of you, but will not steal from you. There are almost no reports of pickpocketing here.
When I was told that we would be eating at a local restaurant with the best home-cooked meals, I didn’t realize how understated that was. The place was so anonymous that you should not blink while trying to locate it. When you go inside, it is like stepping into somebody else’s home. There were like 30 different kinds of food on the “buffet table” and our host explained kindly to us what is on the menu.
The name of the restaurant i NO 19 and you can read a Norwegian review of it here.
NO 19 Restaurant has a very anonymous facade
Eating here is like visiting a family in their house and beins served home-cooked meals.
Inside No 19
I took the hop-on-hop off bus starting at Taksim Square. It costs around EUR 125 for 24 hours, EUR 150 for 3 day pass, and EUR 175 for 7 day pass. Now some people would like to avoid this as they want to try the public transport. But if you are only here for a short time and do not want to use your time trying to find the must-see places, then the hop-on-hop off bus is recommended. It is recommended to save you time and make use of your time optimally. The bus drives around ONLY on tourist places. And these places are marked on a map.
Blue Mosque from the hop-on-hop-off bus
Instead of using your time finding the places by public transport, you just hop on the bus and spend as long as you want on each of the stops. I suggest a minimum of 3 day pass. There is so much to see and one day or 24 hours is just not enough. Unless of course you know you will only be there one day. I suggest that you take the two day pass which was around 115 liras local currency. In Norwegian kroner it is about NOK 300 for 48 hours. A great way to explore the city.
I purposely decided to just sit and not get off until the bus got to Sultanahmet Square, where one can see both the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. These two are must-sees in Istanbul. Sultanahmet is actually the place in Istanbul that was earlier called Constantinopole.
I am glad I made the choice to stop here first. What a humonguous area full of beauty and history. I can’t remember the names of what we had that dinner, but everything that was served was delicious, Needless to say I was satisfied with Day 1.
For someone like me who is interested in history and culture, I can be here two days and still find fascinating things to learn about.
It costs 40 liras to get in and the lines can be long. However, for only 50 liras, you get to skip the line and have your own private guide. Guess what I chose. Time is money, too. For 10 liras extra, I got to skip the line, and had a guide explain to me the things one can find inside.
Inside the Hagia Sofia
It was truly amazing. This is the only building I have seen anywhere where you have the two major religions honored in one building. It was originally meant to be a church, then it became a mosque. And now it is a museum. They however, did not remove the catholic not the muslim symbols (to include photos of both catholic and muslim symbols in the museum). Even Hvaldan the Viking was there! Just goes to show that as long as we respect each other’s religion, then one can exist side by side.
Just across the Hagia is the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque
It was prayer time when I got to the Blue Mosque. They said it was only a short waiting time, about 20 minutes before they are done. I decided it was worth the wait and used my time strolling around Sultanahmet Square. There were literally thousands of devotees at the Blue Mosque. It was sad to see that some tourists do not respect the dress code of covering their hair while inside this place of worship.
If you are interested in history as I am, then I suggest to use one day just for Sultanahmet Square where you have both the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque.
Further on, I took the hop-on-hop off bus again back to Taksim Square. On the way, we drove across the bridge separating the east and west, Asia and Europe. This is the only hop-on-hop off bus that takes you to two continents along its route. While driving across the bridge, you get to admire the great Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus is a strait that divides Turkey into east and west.
Arriving Taksim Square again, I had some time to have some Turkish tea, which seems like they have a thousand different varieties.
I booked a Turkish bath at Galatasaray Hamami, which offered traditional Turkish massage. The rates are not that bad, considering that I was getting about two hours of bath and massage, I think the price of 240 liras (around NOK 750) was a great deal, definitely within the budget. I however expected more from this turkish bath. I paid top price, but the person who bathed me couldn’t speak any English at all. I was thinking I could do some small talk or at least tell her not to rub too much or have a longer hair wash, but alas she could not understand what I was saying. I would also recommend that you make an appointment in advance.
We walked also to this coloured street. Each and every structure on that street had a lot of colours on it. What a sight to behold!
Even the restaurants had coloured tables and chairs.
Dinner was at this street restaurant where they served the best kebab I have ever tasted. Anthony Bourdain has been here and he also had great reviews of this place. Best of all it was so cheap! The name is Durumzade.
It is very very spartan, almost no place to sit. They do not have a website and no reservations needed. Just drop by and order. I tasted chicken and beef kebab and had to order additional portions. They are that good! Watch his Istanbul episode here.
Back home after a hefty kebab meal.
I do hope that most people do not get scared by all the things happening in Turkey. The land has so much history, the food is great, and you can really stretch your budget here.
I am definitely coming back here.
I did come back and wrote about it here: