The last time I travelled to Istanbul, I was en route to Tanzania and at the time training to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I was lucky enough to have a layover of four days and had an absolute blast exploring the city. It’s an ancient city, of course, and was once known as Constantinople, the centre of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It remains a beautiful and interesting city, with the architecture to match. The number of mosques, temples, palaces, and churches, is matched by contemporary buildings and residences, parks, and sculptures. Istanbul easily appeals if you love wandering through a city aimlessly looking for experiential and memorable moments.
Walking around Istanbul is the perfect way to be introduced to the city, especially in summer. For me the Sultanahmet area made for an amazing first day. For 30 Turkish Lira (around 10€), I was able to visit the epic Hagia Sophia, after which I went to the impressive Blue Mosque, the entrance of which is free. (Make sure you follow the basic Muslim traditions of removing your shoes. Head covers for women are also required.) Both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are very close together, perfect for photography, and easy to visit in a half day.
That afternoon, I walked over to the Basilica Cistern which is one of the coolest and creepiest basements I have ever been inside. This giant underground space was once a park used as city fresh water storage for hundreds of years, completely cut off to sunlight and forgotten, almost. Up until 1985 it was closed to the public. After an extensive cleaning and slight restoration period, the cistern was officially re-opened in 1987. You can now walk through the dimly lit cistern and marvel at the sheer size of the countless pillars holding up the dark and ominous ceiling above.
Keep your eye out for two pillars in the cistern with massive four-metre-square Medusa carvings upside down and at the bottom of both. They are creepy and well worth the visit if only to see these sculptures. These beauties have been buried in darkness at the bottom of a pitch-black cavern for hundreds of years. Amazing.
After a day out exploring the architecture it was time to get a bit more of the modern day culture under my belt. I tried and succeeded to eat at least one döner kebab every day. Turkish döners are amazing. Often they’re pita bread stuffed with chicken, beef, or lamb, and then every veggie and spicy garlic style sauce you can think of. Delicious, although not so great for my Kilimanjaro training. I thoroughly enjoyed that daily ritual and suggest you try at least one during your stay.
My second cultural experience involved going into a Muslim mosque and randomly joining a prayer session. Wow! I originally went in to take photos of the stunning interior, which is free of course, however while I was there a number of men started to gather inside and I realized they were about to start a session. I began to observe their actions and copied some of the closer ones around me. Once this process began I became completely involved in the mass prayer session and although knowing nothing of the importance nor meaning of the chants and movements, the entire half hour was incredibly moving and a great experiential travel memory. Sadly I cannot remember the name of the exact Mosque, but am sure any of the ones you come across will offer a similar experience.
During my stay I also visited the Dolmabahçe Palace and went on a guided tour through the grounds. It was easy to access and walking distance from the Sultanahmet area. The immaculate artwork of both the exterior and interior were incredible and for anyone interested in how the ancient rich and famous lived, which is of course extravagant beyond measure, I suggest checking it out. Bring lots of water; the grounds are deceivingly big and for some reason, everything there is more expensive than on the street.
Continuing my walking adventures around the city, I naturally found myself drawn to the seaside promenade that follows the 13km Kennedy Avenue lining Sultanahmet. There is a really good path you can follow and best of all it’s free and with great views. During one of my afternoon walks along Kennedy I was able to get Turkish Tea from a promenade vendor and sit quietly listening to the city’s summer vibes and watching the people stroll along the path, their clothing light and breezy, their pace slow and comfortable, perfect for another warm afternoon.
I had a few really great days exploring Istanbul. The city has a lot to offer, from admiring the fantastic architecture, to trying local cuisine, following a prayer session in a religion you don’t fully understand, to visiting an ancient palace and sipping Turkish Tea on a sundrenched city promenade by the sea. It was a trip to remember and a city I look forward to visiting again one day. And if you’re wondering, a week later I did summit Kili, even after all those delicious döner kebabs.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Turkey encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.