No city can realistically be explored in 1 day, not least a city as vast and historic as Istanbul. But I love a challenge, so with only one full day to spare I gave it shot.
1. Hagia Sophia
This huge and imposing building, which dominates the skyline as you cross the Golden Horn, was originally built as a Byzantine church in AD537. Then it was a mosque when Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman empire. But in the 1930’s the Turkish Government re-opened it as a museum.
The scale of the building becomes truly apparent once you enter the museum. The main dome is 55 metres high and there is so much open space between the ground and the roof that a haze of dust hangs in the air, giving a mystical feel to the place.
The decorations seem to be mostly Christian, but in stark contrast four huge black and gold medallions are hung high up. They bear some beautiful gold Ottoman calligraphy.
The best views can be had from the first floor, accessed by a fantastic spiralling walkway. Windows on the first floor also enable great views out towards the Blue Mosque. It is worth seeking these windows out.
Access costs 30 Turkish Lira, which is around UK£8. It is open every day except Monday. Be sure to look out of the windows. Most people seemed to miss the impressive views that they afford.
2. The Blue Mosque
An easy walk across the park from the Sophia brings you to the equally striking Blue Mosque. Be sure to turn around and get a proper look back at Hagia Sophia once you reach the mosque.
The exterior of the Blue Mosque is quite something. The size of the building becomes apparent as you reach the base and look up.
Sadly at the moment I reached the Mosque the call to prayer started. My awful planning showing itself once again. I was assured by the tour guides outside that the interior is an awesome spectacle. I am sure it is, but I will have to come back next time to see for myself.
Access is free though, and I was told that the mosque offers clothing to tourists not dressed suitably.
3. The Grand Bazaar
This is something I was really looking forward to. I hoped it would rival the crazy, confusing and exciting souks of Morocco.
In fact the Grand Bazaar is far more organised and sedate. It is a rather pleasant shopping experience, with areas specifically for gold, handbags, belly dancing costumes and the like.
Exploring is easy and the goods on offer are more than enough to keep a souvenir hunter busy for hours. I didn’t need any souvenirs though so after an hour I moved on..
4. The Spice Market
Now this was an experience. The Spice Market was crowded and loud, with the pungent smell of spices in the air. The sellers work hard to draw customers into the shops, handing out free samples of Turkish Delight as they delivered their smooth sales pitch.
The Turkish Delight, offered in every colour and shape imaginable, makes a trip here worth it. I left with a box to devour later.
Istanbul is dominated by the Bosphurus, which divides the European and Asian parts of the city and is one the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The Spice Market is right at the end of the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn at Eminönü, and here a great number of tour boats and ferries dock.
The tours, venturing in all directions, take 2 to 3 hours and are priced from 20 Turkish Lira (UK£5.50).
As I was trying to cram as much into the day as possible I opted to take the passenger ferry to Üsküdar instead, which is over on the Asian part of the city.
The views were great from the top deck, and if you can’t spare 2 hours for a tour this makes perfect sense.
Üsküdar seemed a little unremarkable, so I stayed for a Turkish coffee and then boarded the ferry back to Eminönü. I sat on the other side to get a different view.
The journey cost 4 Turkish Lira each way. Payment is made with some metal tokens, available from the slightly confusing machines outside the ferry terminal. Luckily there always seems to a helpful official close by in Istanbul.
If you too are short of time you should consider the ferry trip. There are various destinations and the views really are splendid.
I love finding slightly unusual things to do and I spotted this on a map I was carrying around with me.
By this point in my self guided tour the sun was beginning to set and I was determined to eat in the Galatasary area, which is high up above the Golden Horn. I crossed the Galata Bridge, trying a fish sandwich (balik ekmek) on the way, and then I sought out the Tünel funicular railway.
This short service saves a rather tiring walk up the hill. It is the only funicular railway I have ever seen that is underground, and in fact this is the second oldest underground railway in the world. It was built in 1875, 12 years after the London Underground was completed.
It only takes a couple of minutes to reach the top station, but the tunnel is well lit so I could see that it was brick lined. I guess I am a bit of an engineering geek and I found this a really interesting experience. So much so that when I ventured back into the tunnel for a photograph a local chap became concerned for my safety.
The Tünel costs 4 Turkish Lira per journey, a small price to pay to save your energy for…
8. Istiklal Street
After visiting this absolutely brilliant and very long pedestrianised street I can say with great confidence that Istanbul has one hell of a night-life.
The road starts close to the Tünel and leads all the way to Taksim Square. As I walked I encountered street performers, happy couples, excitable kids and endless restaurants and snacks that made my mouth water. The street has a great buzz in the evening.
The side streets and alleyways that lead away from Istiklal street are quieter but just as interesting. I saw endless bars and music clubs as well as cheaper restaurants.
I can not speak for any other evening destinations in Istanbul, but I am pretty sure that Istiklal Street would not disappoint.
What I Missed
Well, that wasn’t a bad effort for one day. Though I did miss the Topkapi Palace – but I managed to visit the morning after before my flight.
I also think the longer Bosphurus Cruises would be worth trying.
And I wish I had managed to get inside the Blue Mosque.
What Would You Have Done Differently?
I admit to not liking planning, so I always miss something great. Let me know what your favourite Istanbul sites are and tell me where I went wrong…