Saturday, December 24, 2016

Istanbul, Turkey: A Walk Around the City

I took KLM for my first trip to Europe in 2014 and Turkish Airlines for my second visit in 2015. A major determining factor was the price of the air tickets, and I was always on the lookout for promotions and good deals. A big plus about flying Turkish Airlines is the free Istanbul city tour (there may be an option for free accommodation if you prefer, do check) if your stopover is between 6 to 24 hours. I deliberately scheduled my return flight about 10 hours apart so I had time for a full day tour - no regrets there!

I arrived early morning in Ataturk Airport and proceeded to the Hotel Desk in the International Arrival Hall (you need to clear customs and get out of transit first). It wasn't that easy to find, so keep a lookout for Starbucks, that's the best (and only) place to chill and wait for them to call your name before the tour starts. Your check-in luggage will be enroute to the next flight so keep your essentials in your hand-carry. If you have too much baggage on hand, you can leave it at the airport for a fee, as with most other airports. The weather in Istanbul in July was much hotter than expected (and Europe) so my regret was wearing jeans and not having a change of clothes in my hand-carry. That made for a good reason to leave the tour just as it ended to stop by the Grand Bazaar for some shopping.

Meals (breakfast and lunch) and all entrance fees for the attractions as per the itinerary is covered - how awesome is that! Each guest is provided with a headset and new headphones at the start of the tour and the guides were knowledgeable and hospitable (are all Turkish so outspoken and passionate about their country?).

From Manchester to Istanbul

Scottish Highlands

Istanbul, Turkey

The Hotel Desk in the International Arrival Hall

Istanbul, Turkey

On board the tour bus

Istanbul, Turkey

First stop: Breakfast 

Istanbul, Turkey

Golden Horn And Bopshorus Cruise (this was only for the full day tour, do check the updated itineraries on the website) 

Go for this if you'd like a leisurely cruise down a major waterway, peppered with many landmarks and lots of commentary. Admittedly, I like to find a comfortable spot, indulge in the sea breeze, admire the sights and take scenic photos, more so than listening and taking multiple photos of tourists (by request).

So don't ask me what some of the landmarks are below because I wasn't listening attentively. But to be located along or near the banks (and perhaps even a private pier!) - must be quite important.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

After the cruise, it was time for lunch - which was good.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

After lunch, we headed to the Sultanahmet district - the historical centre of Istanbul. 

First, the Sultan Ahmet Square, which was previously the Hippodrome of Constantinople (a horse or chariot racing stadium during the time of the Byzantine Empire, when Istanbul was Constantinople). 

And pushcarts peddling food, and sleeping dogs. 

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

First stop, Hagia Sophia, which was built almost 1500 years ago. What is now a museum has been both a church and mosque and traces of both remain, interestingly. Not restored to perfection but the authenticity has a charm of its own. Centuries of history, what do you expect?

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Construction has been ongoing, which explains the scafolding

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Next, the Basilica Cistern, which served as underground storage for water. I read Dan Brown's Inferno months after visiting Istanbul - it was nice to finally have visited places featured in the Langdon series. I hope it was as fiction as fiction can be.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Pictures are blurry purely because there was low light (and partly the shaky hands).

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

I think the official tour ended at the Cistern, and by then I was "fast friends" with a fellow Asian tourist. I wasn't that up-to-date about world news then but she shared that there were some Turkish anti-China protests earlier in Istanbul, with Korean tourists mistakenly harassed even. I did have some second thoughts about wandering around Istanbul after the official tour, the deciding factor was, I really had to get out of those jeans for the flight home after sweating in it for a day! I'm glad I did - our fears were unwarranted to say the least (no one batted an eyelid seeing two obviously Chinese girls), and I got to visit the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, all within walking distance of Sultanahmet. And I got a pair of comfy pants to change into! Indeed, news reports may not be a true reflection of reality on the ground.

It was also easy to get back to the airport by metro - just allocate enough time. We reached so early, there was time for dinner, and Starbucks (for the wifi password, duh). If you want to leave the tour at any time, remember to let your guide know (we signed an indemnity form).

We wandered to the Blue Mosque (or Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish), so called because of the blue tiles in its interior. Scarfs and gowns are provided for free for women to cover up before entering - it is fully-functioning and closed to non-worshippers for a half hour or so during the five daily prayers.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

The photos have not been edited, so the colour difference may be due to the differences in the lighting or colour balance on my phone and camera. I think it was more white-blue than yellow-gold. Either way, it was very, very pretty.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey


Istanbul, Turkey

Finally we left for the Grand Bazaar, "one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world", and " "one of the first shopping malls of the world". It was about 10 walk from the Sultanahmet district. Looking at how nondescript the entrance was, it was easy to miss! Inside, a labyrinth of shops that spills out to the open streets. Thank you, my new friend for helping me to attempt to bargain down my pair of pants.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

This day-trip was an excellent introduction to the city of Istanbul. It's definitely a place at the crossroads of Europe and Asia (another must-visit is Morocco, or so I heard!) to visit and revisit! One thing I considered but missed trying was taking a Turkish bath. Till next time!

P.S. Cats are such an icon in Istanbul there's a movie based on them! (Search Kedi)

Istanbul, Turkey

After a free lunch, dinner wasn't that good. (And it's not because I had to pay for this!)

Istanbul, Turkey

I wonder where we are flying over.

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

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