After spending two hours exploring Hagia Sophia, we grabbed a quick lunch at the museum’s outdoor cafe and plotted our next stop. We exited Hagia Sophia and made our way to the beautiful Blue Mosque, one of the world’s most famous religious buildings. Commissioned by Sultan Ahmet I, it was built between 1609 and 1616 during a period of declining Ottoman fortune. It was designed by imperial architect Mehmet Aga. Historians say he caused significant controvery when creating the Blue Mosque because it was constructed with six minarets. Religious leaders at the time thought that any mosque with six minarets was an attempt to rival Mecca itself and was therefore sacrilegious. The Blue Mosque takes its name from the blue iznik tile work that covers the interior. When the sun shines through the windows, the mosque sparkles blue from the reflection off of the tiles.
When visiting mosques in Istanbul, be mindful of the five daily prayer times calculated according to sunrise and sunset. Mosques place signs outside their entrances indicating when they close throughout the day for prayer. Also, tourists are requested to enter through a side entrance (we did not realize this at first and were strongly encouraged to find the appropriate doorway). Before entry, women are given scarves to cover their heads and everyone must remove their shoes.
After spending time in the Blue Mosque, we headed next door to the ruins of the gigantic Hippodrome that once stood at the center of Byzantine Constantinople. Built originally in the third century AD, Emperor Constantine greatly expanded it. Historians believe the Hippodrome was designed to hold as many as 100,000 people. The site is now a large public garden known as At Meydani. The road that runs around the garden is believed to follow the original race track for chariots. In the middle of the former Hippodrome site are two ancient Greek and Egyptian relics. Constantine decorated the Hippodrome with various treasures, and today, an Egyptian Obelisk from 1500 BC thought to be from Luxor remains. Next to the Obelisk is the Serpentine Column, which experts believe dates from 479 BC and originated in Delphi.
Around mid-afternoon, we made our way to Topkapi Palace overlooking the Bosphorus River. Constructed between 1459 and 1465, Mehmet II built Topkapi Palace shortly after his conquest of Constantinople. The palace is a series of building and courtyards encompassed by a large stone perimeter wall. The entry fee for the Palace is 25 TL and it houses treasures amassed by the Ottoman sultans during their 470 year reign. The Palace is also home to several of the holiest relics of Islam, the most sacred of which is a mantle once worn by the Prophet Muhammad.
Our first stop in the Palace was a special exhibit featuring artifacts from the harems of the ruling sultans. A harem was the residence of the sultan’s wives, concubines, and children, guarded by black slave eunuchs. The harem was off-limits to any men other than the sultan and his sons. After viewing the exhibit, we headed over to the former harem section of the palace. An additional fee of 15 TL is required for admission into the harem. It is definitely worth a visit, as the harem is a unique series of interconnected building with gorgeous architecture and beautiful tile work.
After touring the harem, we walked around the grounds and stopped for a coffee at the restaurant on the Bosphorus side of the Palace. While the coffee was very pricey, it was worth it for the view of the river.
By the time we finished at the Palace, it was nearly 6:00 p.m. Realizing we only had another hour and a half of daylight, we wondered down the hill toward Kennedy Caddesi (street), bound for the ferry boat launch at the foot of the Galata Bridge. We hoped to catch a Bosphorus River cruise. Luckily, we arrived just in time to board the last sightseeing tour for a very reasonable cost 10 TL. The boat was two stories, with a large open air deck on top. We made our way upstairs and secured great seats for the the boat ride.
The cruise lasted an hour and a half and took us up north for amazing views of the city along the river. The crew served delicious hot tea and we snapped great sunset pictures.
Final Night in Istanbul
Following the boat cruise, we walked across the Galata Bridge in the direction of our hotel, stopping along the way to watch the fisherman casting lines and reeling in fresh Bosphorus fish. We looked forward to reaching the hotel and resting for a few minutes after an intense day exploring Istanbul.
Once back at the hotel, we researched our destination for dinner. We found lots of great recommendations, but soon discovered that many restaurants in Istanbul are closed on Sundays. Feeling somewhat discouraged, we finally found a good option, Leb-i derya Restaurant on the top floor of the Richmond Hotel only a few blocks from our hotel. The restaurant has great unobstructed views of the Bosphorus and the prices are reasonable. James tried the 40 spice beef fillet, with saffron spiced sauce, and creamy potato gratin. I chose Bosphorus kebab, with lamb and chicken, yogurt-bell peppered eggplant puree, and spicy pesto. We both enjoyed a couple glasses of Turkish cabernet sauvignon.
The following morning, we had breakfast at the restaurant on top of our hotel and made our way to the airport. When we arrived in Istanbul, we had the hotel arrange a car to pick us up at the airport for a cost of $100 US. When we headed back to the airport, we discovered a simple cab was only $3o US and just as comfortable. This is definitely the better and cheaper option. Now we know for next time.
Istanbul is an amazing city with so much unique culture and history. Visiting Hagia Sophia was definitely on my bucket list. Our quick weekend trip was certainly too short and really a preview for a future longer visit. Next time, we will spend a few more days in Istanbul and then map out an itinerary to explore other cities and regions in the county. We would definitely fly Turkish Airlines (airline review here) to get there, but likely look for a different hotel than the Georges Hotel Galata (hotel review here). In case you missed it, be sure to check out part one of our Istanbul trip summary here.