When deciding where to go for my study abroad semester, I knew I wanted to go to a country that barely spoke English, was away from the western world, and a place that will open me to a different lifestyle. That’s how ended up in Istanbul and I completely fell in love with the city.

So for those planning on visiting this beautiful city, here is my advice and experience on visiting the most touristy Istanbul places, which I hope will help.

Blue Mosque · Sultan Ahmet Camii

Completed in 1616 by Sultan Ahmet I, the Blue Mosque was built to reassert Ottoman power after losing a major war with Persia.

Today, unlike the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque still functions as a mosque; men kneel to pray on the carpet of the mosque after the call to prayer.

blue mosque 1

Good to Know

With that being said, Muslims call to prayer occurs six times a day, so about a half hour before the call to prayer mosques are closed to visitors, but if you’re willing to pray you can stay.

There’s no exact time of the prayers since it changes each day according to the movement of the sun so plan your visit accordingly.

(You can check the exact times of the call to prayer on the website of the Republic of Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs.)

Entrance to the Blue Mosque is freeeee and open err day.

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Also, wear appropriate clothing or you will not be allowed into the mosque or any of the mosques.

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Ladies they will allow mid-sleeve shirts, though.

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But if you do find yourself not in the right clothing after reading this post, lucky for you the Blue Mosque staff provides clothing upon entering this beautiful structure. Annnnndddd….I swear this is the last thing on clothing….you will be asked to take off your shoes before entering soooo try to wear nice socks (you know the ones without the holes) and easy footwear.

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Inside the Blue Mosque is gorgeous…and I wish I had a better camera so you can see how stunning this place is or even better, go see it for yourself.

Basilica Cistern · Yerebatan Sarnıcı

Located 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern.

basilica-cistern-1

Good to Know

One thing to keep in mind, especially if you’re going to Istanbul during tourist season, don’t get discouraged by the line to get into the cistern. Unlike the Hagia Sophia line, the cistern line goes by rather fast.

Also, be patient when descending the fifty-two stone steps down to the cistern. It could get a little crowded, but once you’re on the platform there’s lot of space to roam and find the perfect background for your Instagram pic. (Pheww!)

Now that I’ve cleared up your Instapic worries, entrance to this underground structure is about $3 USD, which I was pretty surprised by considering how beautiful it is.

basilica cistern 2

Walk into a forest of 336 marble columns.

Medusa Column Bases

In one of the corners of the cistern are these really huge blocks carved with the face of Medusa. All I could really tell you about these blocks is good luck getting a picture! Not because of crappy lighting (which was clearly my problem), but so many people hovering for a long time trying to get a picture.

medusa-head

Water and Fishes

With the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, the cistern provided a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople. Today, though, it stands pretty much empty with only a few feet of water, buuuttt there’s nice little fishies.

Now, if you’re curious like me or just a fish enthusiast, I wondered how those fish got there so after visiting the cistern I looked into it and here’s what I found.

The fish are native to the cistern. The Romans actually put the fish in the cistern as an early warning signal. Since the water supply came from the mountains and outside the city, aqueducts were built to bring the water into the cisterns. However, during a siege, the aqueducts cannot be protected and the enemy can easily access the water supply and poison it. So fish were put in the water and if the fish died the Romans would know the water was not drinkable. How smart.

I loved the Basilica Cistern so much, I visited it twice!

Hagia Sophia · Ayasofya

Once the center of worship for an entire empire, the Hagia Sophia started as a Greek Orthodox Church, later converted to an imperial mosque and now a museum.

Considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, it is famous for its massive dome and iconography.

Hagia Sophia View From Blue Mosque

Good to Know

During tourist season, a long snake line forms in front of the museum so the wait can be rather long to get in. Please dress accordingly to weather conditions because you will freeze or burn waiting in line otherwise. Put on an extra sweater, take an umbrella or a hand fan, seriously, I’ve seen many tourists unprepared and I just feel so bad

With that being said, since I was living in Istanbul, I went to the tourist area many times with friends so we noticed the line clear about an hour or two before closing. This is when we decided to go and it was very nice to roam free without being crowded.

Anyways, there are two lines; one to buy a ticket and the other to get in. To save time (and money), especially if you do decide to go during peak hours, buy an Istanbul Museum Pass. It is 85 TL and can be found at the front desks of some hotels (call and ask your hotel), mobile sales stations, other museums and online. Besides that, entrance to the Hagia Sophia is 40 TL ($11 USD).

(For more information on the museum pass, here are some links: Istanbul Tourist Pass & Istanbul Insider)

Inside The Hagia Sophia

Once inside I was just stunned by the grandeur beauty and sheer size of this structure. It is really something magnificent and mesmerizing.

Hagia Sophia Christian and Islamic Symbols

Architecturally, there is just so many things to look at. The columns, chandeliers, and mosaics, all of it together make it for a very inspirational experience.

Gli The Mosque Cat
Gli The Mosque Cat

Hey, check out Gli! Gli has been living in Hagis Sophia since he was a kitten. He is not shy about having his picture taken, and has met Obama (Whatttt???). During the day he likes to supervise the tourists.

Hagia Sophia At Night

A view of the Hagia Sophia at night from the rooftop of a tea restaurant.

Dolmabahçe Palace · Dolmabahçe Sarayı

If you want to see how modern Ottoman sultans lived before they were abolished, head across the Golden Horn to the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul.

Ordered by the Empire’s 31st Sultan, Dolmabahçe is Turkey’s 3rd largest palace.

Dolmabahçe Palace Entrance
Gate of the Sultan

Good to Know

The Palace is closed Mondays and Thursdays and the only way to see the interior of Dolmabahçe is with a guided tour. Depending on the tour you choose, admission fees range from $3 USD to $11 USD.

I decided to take the Harem (Private Chambers) Tour which was $8 USD.

Crystal Staircase
Crystal Staircase

Walls and ceilings inside the palace are decorated with gold and crystal. The famous Crystal Staircase (above) is built of Baccarat crystal, brass and mahogany.

Ceremonial Hall
Ceremonial Hall

Hanging in the Ceremonial Hall is the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier. This room is just spectacular. Makes me want to slip into a yellow dress and dance the night away.

 

Gate to the Bosphorus
Gate to the Bosphorus

What a beautiful view to end the tour.

So the thing I didn’t like about the Dolmabahçe Palace?

The tour. I felt we were being rushed from room to room. The guides, one in the front and another at the tail of the group, seemed to be patrolling more than guiding and at one point, the group was told to keep quite for whispering.

Other than that it’s a really beautiful building, both inside and out.

 

 

 

 

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