Istanbul!! A place that has been on my bucket list since the time I got my first passport. Every year I would start planning a holiday with Istanbul first but somehow it just never worked out. So recently when I was travelling to Vienna and realized that my flight was transiting via Istanbul, I was elated! It was meant to be this time and it happened.
So first things first. Getting a visa for Turkey for Indians is super easy if you have a valid Schengen, US or UK visa. You can get it online by applying here https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ . All you need is your travel dates and passport details. So it hardly took 15-20 minutes for me to get my visa.
Now for the hotel booking. My key interest in Istanbul was heritage tourism. A quick search on the internet told me that everything I wanted to see was in Sultanahmet, the heart of the city. It made total sense then for me to book a hotel in Sultanahmet. Sultanahmet is quite close to the Ataturk airport. While shuttles would cost you 10-12 euros, hotels can arrange airport transfers for 25 euros. Most hotels would offer discounts if you book airport transfers online. Most hotels would be at a 10 minute walking distance from the heritage sites. I checked for some reviews, particularly for hotels where reviewers said that it took them less than 10 minutes to get to the heritage sites. Of course since I was travelling alone, the quality of the hotel was key. I landed up with Hotel Sultania. My return was from Sabiha Gokcen airport which is a bit distant from Sultanahmet and took about 90 minutes to reach. A solo ride to Sabiha Gokcen airport would cost about 80 Euros. Shuttle rides are cheaper but run at pre-decided timings.
I arranged for the airport transfer through the hotel since I was travelling alone and did not want to take the risk of figuring out the shuttle with my luggage in tow. The hotel representative met me at the arrival gate with a placard. She turned me over to the shuttle driver. The shuttle was a 6 seater but I had it all for myself for 25 euros. The chauffeur offered me packed juice and freshly baked cookies. The ride to the hotel took about 30 minutes and was very smooth at around 11 a.m in the morning.
At the hotel, I asked the hotel staff about the sightseeing. While they had a walking tour for a price, they were upfront in telling me that I could easily see all the places by myself. There was a tram station right outside the hotel but they told me I wouldn’t even need it as the walk was just 10 minutes. They gave me a map with directions. Within an hour of checking into the hotel, I was out on my tour!
Honestly, I am not much of a map reader. I prefer to move around by asking the locals. So I just started walking in the direction the hotel staff asked me to. The first sight I came across was the Topkapi palace and museum. The ticket was for 40 TL.
The palace is very spread out. It’s not like getting into one main building. There is a restaurant inside from where you can see the beautiful Istanbul skyline along the Bosphorus strait. The architecture inside the palace is beautiful. The Islamic artifacts in the museum are a wonder. You cannot take photographs in these sections though. There is sprawling greenery in the palace and you can take breaks easily if you get tired. It took me about an hour to see the palace.
From the Topkapi palace, I just followed the tram tracks. It took me 5 minutes to walk up to the Blue Mosque. The Hagia Sophia (also known as Ayasofya) is right opposite to the Blue Mosque. The Basilica Cistern is diagonally opposite to it. The entrance of the cistern is not very noticeable so you may need to ask if you miss it. The Basilica Cistern and the Hagia Sophia close by 5:30 p.m so see them first. The Blue Mosque is open till 7 p.m.
I went into the Basilica Cistern first. It looked like I was entering a basement subway, till I reached the bottom. The cistern is beautifully lit. Its serene and quiet apart from the photo studio on one side where you can dress up in traditional Turkish attire and get clicked. They click 25-30 shots. You get to select one for 20 TL (you can take more for 20L each). I negotiated and got the entire CD of 25 off shots for 80TL along with one printed copy (so don’t mind bargaining there). In the cistern, the lamps against each pillar glowing against the darkness and with water flowing below is a very peaceful sight to see. I walked in further to get to the statue of the Medusa. The area around the statue is well lit. The whole experience of the cistern would take about 30-35 minutes.
My next stop was the much awaited Hagia Sophia. Words cannot describe the beauty of this place. How has it sustained this beauty for 1500 years is beyond comprehension. A cathedral originally converted to a mosque later, the frescoes inside the Ayasofya are jaw dropping. Please do go up to the upper floor to see the views from there. It took about an hour and a half there. One can spend more time if you want to.
Finally, I went to my last destination for the day – The Blue Mosque. Now there are plenty of benches outside the Blue Mosque. I realized people just sit on those benches all evening admiring and may be ogling at the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The entire area between these two sites is landscaped with manicured lawns and fountains. The only thing which I disliked was the lack of waste disposal there. People just ate stuff and threw it all around.
There are some dressing norms for the blue mosque, women have to have their head covered. Denims are ok but of you are wearing a short top you may be asked to take a sarong. I had never been inside a mosque so I can’t compare it to anything else. Apart from some areas restricted to praying only, tourists were practically allowed everywhere and could even take pictures. True to its fame, the architecture inside the mosque is mesmerizing. You can just sit inside if you want to.
The night view of both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is not to be missed. The place is pretty crowded till about 8 p.m. The two beautiful monuments against the changing lights of the fountains is truly a sight to be seen.
With the key heritage sites seen all in a day, I had the next day to enjoy a leisurely visit to a Turkish Hammam. While there are more modern Hammams in Istanbul, I selected the Cagaloglu ( pronounced as Jaa-Logoo) Hammam based on my research and recommendation from the hotel. The hammam was a little distance away from the monuments. They were all on the route. Having been to a Moroccan hammam in the past, I wasn’t scandalized by the Hammam experience. On the contrary as compared to a Moroccan hammam which was just a bath house, the Turkish hammam was an architectural delight. The staff at the hammam spoke English. It was a huge place with separate private cabins assigned to each guest. I left my clothes in one of the cabins and was allowed to lock it and keep the key with myself.
As I had read, the actual hammam area had a huge dome for a ceiling. I was taken to the sauna room first which was a much smaller room made of marble. After about 15 minutes in the sauna room, my attendant came and asked me to lie down in the centre of the room under the dome. It is actually a relaxing experience. The marble floor is warm and one can actually roll like a serpent on it. I had gone in the morning and initially was the only one there till I a couple of women walked in a little later. This was very different from my experience in Morocco where I stepped into a hall filled with 50 odd bathing women and had to make my way through. So after a leisurely nap on the warm floor, my attendant took me to a side for the scrub, massage and bath rituals. This experience was similar to the Moroccan Hammam but the ambience was far luxurious.
Site seeing, Hammaming and Shopping are the three must dos in Istanbul. My last big stop was the famous Grand Bazaar. True to its name it was huge and one can easily get lost. The stuff in most shops is similar, the most prevalent ones being the evil eye souvenirs, pottery, carpets and trinkets. While the stuff is the same everywhere, you may not get the same deal in all shops. If you do strike a good bargain, do buy it there as you may not be able to find the same shop again. The experience is very similar to that of a Sarojini Nagar or Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. The rates are pretty much the same everywhere (in the grand bazaar and outside as well) so you might as well just do your shopping there for the abundance of choice.
The rest of my trip was spent in eating Kebabs, drinking Turkish tea and soaking in the local life of Istanbul. There were many traditional places to eat along the way. I felt quite safe throughout my two days there. During my walks, I was often stopped by local shopkeepers and we would strike a conversation. There are very few old town areas across the world that a solo woman traveler can find herself safe in and Sultanahmet was one of them. If I had one more day there, I would have visited the Taksim Square and done a Bosphorus boat cruise but I for now I have left it for another visit…
- There were multiple ATMs on the way and one could draw out both Euros and Turkish Lira so you don’t need to pay for currency exchange to hotels or money changers as long as you have your ATM card.
- The trams do a round tour across Sultanahmet. So if you lose your way, just follow the tram tracks.
- There are cats everywhere. Don’t be surprised to have one pawing at you and asking for food at the restaurant. They are considered somewhat auspicious and no one would chase them away.
Other than the mosque, there are no dressing restrictions elsewhere. However, would recommend that one should dress as per the weather.
Tourists are easily identified by the locals. They are very helpful and courteous. Don’t take offense if they call you out by nationality of religion. They just want to grab attention. If you don’t want to buy anything, just tell them you will come later. They wouldn’t bother you.