My first day in Turkey was actually the day before this one. Having arrived at 3pm and after getting the visa-upon-arrival and clearing customs, I took the Havataş shuttle bus from Ataturk airport to Taksim Square (costs TL 10). By the time I arrived at the apartment I had booked through AirBnB (see below), it was 7pm so I had an early dinner and called it a day, recovering from jet-lag.
So this makes my second day in Istanbul, but first one to go around the city. Having pre-planned on sights to visit in the two days of Istanbul, I headed out early; and realized that it was Saturday morning and people were heading home from partying all night!
Stopped by the local bakery next door for some Sütlü Kahve (coffee with milk) and a light breakfast, while going through the places I will be visiting today – Aya Sofya, Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Grand Bazar, Çemberlitaş hamam, Basilica Cistern, Column of Constantine and Süleymaniye Mosque.
IstanbulKart (Istanbul Card) is an all-round public transportation boarding pass. It is a must if you plan to use the cheap and effective public transportation multiple times during your stay in Istanbul. So, unless you prefer to do everything on foot or take a taxi to get around, please get one!
The card was introduced in 2009 and is a contact less or RFID (Radio-frequency identification) card for public transportation fare payment. It has the exact same size as a regular credit card, so it fits perfectly in your wallet. The card is pre-paid and easily rechargeable. There are quite a few advantages to getting an Istanbul Kart as opposed to buying tokens or ticket every time you’re going to use public transportation.
Multi-Purpose — This single card enables you to pay for multiple types of transportation: buses, metros, ferries, funiculars, and tramways (yes, even the nostalgic one running on Istiklal Caddesi). Moreover, most of these transportation types no longer accept cash payments, so you’ll have to buy some kind of token or ticket before boarding anyway.
Pre-Paid — Istanbul Kart is a prepaid and rechargeable card. This means that you don’t have to stand in line (and maybe miss the bus or tram) to get a valid boarding pass every time you plan to make use of public transportation. And uploading more credits can be done at designated machines, most of the times without a queue in front of you.
Ease of Use — It is not necessary to bring the Istanbul Kart in contact with the reader. You can pay for your fare by ‘waving’ the smart card within 8 cm (3.1 in) of the reader. In most cases you don’t even have to take it out of your wallet, purse or light hand bag. Upon making a successful payment, the reader will make a sound and the screen will light up showing the amount left on the card. In case of insufficient funds, the screen will read Kontör Yetersiz.
Multiple Travelers — There is no need to buy multiple cards since one Istanbul Kart can be used for up to 5 passengers. After paying the fare for the first passenger, let him or her hop on or pass through the turnpike, wait a few seconds, and again wave the card in front of the reader.
Discounts — By using the card, you already benefit from a 10% discount over the normal fare. Instead of paying 2 TL per ride, you pay 1.95. And there is more. You can make up until five transfers/connections within a two hour period, and you’ll pay less for every transfer, already only 1.25 TL for the first transfer.
The easiest way to get the Istanbul Kart is at major transit stops such as Taksim, Eminönü, Sultanahmet, Beyazıt/Kapalı Çarşı (Grand Bazaar), etc. You can’t buy them at the airport. The closest place to the airport where you can obtain them currently is Zeytinburnu. To buy an Istanbul Kart, you need to give a refundable TL 10 deposit, and of course an amount of your choice to load onto the card.
To reload the card, you can either go to newsstands and small shops (look for the phrase Akbil Dolum Noktası) which offer this service, use self-service special purpose machines at major transit stations. The machines accept notes of 5, 10, 20, and 50 TL and have instructions in multiple languages.
The easiest way of getting from Taksim Square to Sultanahmet neighborhood is to take the funicular from Taksim station to Kabataş (pronounced kaa-baa-tash) metro station and hop on the metro train to Sultanahmet station.
From Sultanahmet station, it is two minute walk to the Blue Mosque
Sultan Ahmet I set out to build a monument that would rival and surpass the nearby Aya Sofya in grandeur and beauty. This is the one of the only two mosques in the world with six minarets, the other being in Saudi Arabia. The courtyard is the biggest of all Ottoman mosques. The interior is grand and huge, with tens of thousands of blue tiles that give this mosque its name.
The mosque is one of the top attractions on Istanbul and to preserve the sacred atmosphere, only worshippers are allowed through the main door, whereas tourists enter through the south door.
Right across from the Blue Mosque is the most extraordinary and visited places – Aya Sofya. Also called Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and Church of the Divine Wisdom, this was reigned as the greatest church when it was completed in 537 until the Conquest in 1453. Mehmet the Conqueror converted it in to a mosque until 1935 when Ataturk proclaimed it as a museum (entrance fees TL 25).
The gigantic circular-framed disks or medallions hung on columns are inscribed with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed: Hassan and Hussain.
In the main area where the altar used to stand, notice the mihrab, which was shifted to the right, now point to Mecca.
At the northwest of the building, you will see a long line of people waiting to poke their thumb inside a hole in a column. This column goes by different names; the perspiring column, the wishing column, the sweating column or the crying column. The column is said to be damp when touched and have supernatural powers. It is believed that if you poke your thumb in the hole, turn clockwise and if your thumb gets wet then your wishes come true.
This 65m wide and 143m long cistern is supported by 336 columns arranged in 12 rows. It once held 80,000 cu meters of water pumped and delivered through nearly 20km of aqueducts. It was used to store water for the great palace and the surrounding buildings. The sheer grandeur of the cistern is quite extraordinary.
Don’t miss the two columns in way back supported by upside-down Medusa heads and the column towards the center featuring a teardrop design.
After all the walking around, I headed to the neighborhood of Çemberlitaş to the Çemberlitaş Hamam and soaked in the Turkish massage and sauna of one of the best hamams in town.
See – Hamams of Istanbul
Right outside the door of the hamam is the Column of Constantine that commemorates the declaration of Byzantium as the new capital city of the Roman Empire.
It was time for some lunch at Garden View restaurant right outside Aya Sofya, before heading to the Grand Bazaar.
This labyrinthine and chaotic bazaar is the heart of the Old City and no visit to Istanbul is complete without a stop here. The bazaar is closed on Sundays and open from 8:30am to 7:30pm from Monday to Saturday.
Today the bazaar has 16 hans (caravanserais), 64 lanes, banks, mosques, restaurants, workshops and more than 2000 shops making it a world in itself. Allow at least 2 hours here.
By the time I got out of Grand Bazaar, it was almost past sunset and time for some fresh fish by the Galata bridge. Make sure to ask the price of the fish or you will be charged a heavy load of money at the end of your meal.
After some Calamari and Salmon, it was time to head back to Taksim Square and call it a day.
Note: All values in USD, unless otherwise mentioned, are approximate and based on the exchange rate at the time of publishing. Each cost is for one adult. The exchange rate at the time of publishing is assumed to be USD 1 = TRY 1.80.
|Istanbulkart top-up||TL 30 or $16.70||To be used for all transportation for two days.|
|Aya Sofya||TL 25 or $13.90||Entrance Fees|
|Aya Sofya Tour guide||TL 20 or $11.40||Entrance fees.|
|Basilica Cistern||TL 10 or $5.60|
|Lunch at Garden restaurant||TL 23 or $12.80|
|Çemberlitas Hamam||€90 or $117||One hour of massage & sauna|
|Dinner at Fish market||TL 132 or $73.30|
|Snacks & water||TL 10 or $5.60|
|Toilets||TL 3 or $1.70|
|Total Costs||$258||Per person|
|Overall Costs||$1,585.20||Per person|
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