One often has a choice between packaged tours and independent travel. This time we show how you can explore the heart of the Old City on foot in a day, even if you are not particularly fit.
The old part of Istanbul is the Sirkeci area, which conveniently contains the best examples of architectural wonders stretching from the Byzantine era through to the Ottoman empire. In the space of a few miles there is such an abundance of interesting scenery from different eras that one feels like a time traveller.
There are several decent hotels in Sirkeci and if you stay there then all of the attractions mentioned are accessible by walking.
If you head south, towards the Bosphorus, you will see the Sirkeci Railway Station. It has marvellous frontage and was used as the authentic backdrop for the movie of The Orient Express. It is the terminus of the only rail link to Europe from the city.
At the time the author visited, there was a crowd of dubious-looking men in the area which lead to the conclusion that taking out ones camera might not be a good thing to do. Most other travellers have not reported this.
The Istanbul Railway Museum is inside the station. Entrance is free.
If you walk to the west from the hotel area of Sirkeci you will find it a short walk to the old centre. The curio and trinket shops along the way offer better value than we were able to find at most other places. Needless to say, they do a roaring trade.
Within a short distance are the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the cistern, the Istanbul Archaeology Museum and the Topkapi Palace. We decided to skip the Archaeology Museum, the cistern and the Hippodrome for our one-day venture.
Still a breathtaking spectacle and a monument to Byzantine architecture, this grand edifice was for nearly a 1000 years the largest cathedral in Christendom. It has been a museum since 1935 and no religion is practiced there nowadays. The elegance of its external lines was somewhat spoiled by buttresses added by the Ottomans, but then again they saved the dome from falling down, which it had previously had a habit of doing.
It is a marvellous building and well worth exploring to see the patina of history. One surprise for us was to see that the four large Islamic medallions are merely painted on a light membrane stretched over wooden frames.
Oddly enough, the queues for people who already had tickets were much longer than those who that wanted to buy one. (Is that your experience too? Please comment.) Salesmen went up and down the queues trying to sell guidebooks. The prices were often more expensive than one can pay at the museum shop inside. One particular con trick was to offer a book plus a ticket for a low price. When we entered there was a large pile of tickets that had been confiscated. They were all counterfeit! When we spoke to the agent at the barrier he freely gave us one. They were good-looking fakes and to the untrained eye they seemed to be the real thing. At that point we felt just a little smug at having rebuffed the salesmen.
The Blue mosque is still a house of worship. It was built to showcase Islamic architecture and to rival the splendour of the Hagia Sophia. We think that they succeeded. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia stare at each other across an ornamental garden with a pond, which, owing to renovations taking place in the area, sounds much better than it looked.
The honesty of a significant proportion of the salesmen plying their rather aggressive trade in the park did not seem to be affected by their proximity to places of worship. One old lady was selling pashminas. We found a whole pile of tags behind a small hedge that we realised she had torn off them. The tags told the real story: 50% Viscose, 50% Acrylic. In case you are uncertain, neither of those are traditional pashmina materials.
The park was a good training in how to avoid the schtiks used by various con-artists that work the tourist crowds in Turkey. The shoe-shines that dirty your shoes for free, then charge to return them to their original condition; the cheap guidebooks sold for above the going rate; and handmade musical instruments of suspect hygiene.
The common greeting in Turkey is mirhaba! (The “h” is always pronounced in Turkish.) If you learn one word in the language, that is it. It will help you to be friendly to those that deserve it, and some of the vendors find it off-putting, particularly if you are dressed right. They are looking for tourists, after all, not Turks.
The sequence of Sultans who ruled from the Topkapi each vied with their predecessors as to who could leave the most lavish legacy. As a result, instead of re-investing into upgrading the existing buildings, they would lay out their own new palace. As a result the area comprises a range of architectural styles any of which is not nearly as impressive as the much later Dolmabahce Palace. Entrance to the family living quarters, the harem, requires the purchase of an additional ticket.
The palace was not just the residence of the Sultans. It served as the centre of government and the huge kitchens give an indication of how an entire town worked there each day. The kitchens usually fed 4000 people on an average day though on special occasions they could cater for up to 6000.
Though the site has been a museum since the 1920s the Privy Chamber is a site of Islamic pilgrimage as it stores sacred relics of Mohammed. The lighting there is dim, to protect the relics. An Islamic cleric intones the Koran continuously. Conservation measures do not appear to be implemented, in particular, the regulation of temperature and humidity.
The views over the Bosphorus from the far end of the palace complex are really quite stunning.