Most of Istanbuls highlights are to be found on the historic peninsula; the area of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. How to get around? How to see the most important places if you have only 1 day to spend?
We visited Istanbul end of February. The weather was gloomy but still we had a great time experiencing the vibe of the city. A city where East literally meets West; where Europe and Asia are connected by the impressive Bosphorus bridge.
I would like to show you how we walked through the historic part of Istanbul, from the Galata Tower all the way to the Blue Mosque. A walking tour that will cover all the highlights, easily to manage within 1 day.
Highlights Istanbul: Galata
In Istanbul we stayed at the Mövenpick hotel in the Levent area (Northern part of the city). We traveled down to the old part of Istanbul by subway. Our walking tour starts at the subway station of Şişhane. If you turn left you directly walk towards the most famous tower in the city: Galata Tower.
The Galata tower is a true landmark and visible from many places in Istanbul. It offers you a nice view over the city (at least on days with a clear blue sky!). You pay 15TL (around 5 Euro) entrance fee, but for that you can use the elevator!
Turkish women taking pictures of the Galata Tower.
The area around the tower is nice for a short stay. There are shops selling art, souvenirs, design, music instruments and more. Don’t rush and do stay around for a while.
Bosphorus and Galata Bridge
From the Galata tower, walk down to the Galata bridge spanning the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus river. Day and night you will find local fishermen on the bridge trying to catch some sardines or shrimps. Don’t miss out on the small Karaköy fish market with again great views of the historic peninsula!
In the middle of the bridge there is a nice photographic opportunity to be found! Take the stairs down to the river. Again, enjoy the view of the peninsula with all the mosques on top of the hill. But also look back…look at the stairs. They might look a bit ugly from close-by, but from a distance it’s quite a design!
Rüstem Pasha mosque
We all know the names of the huge and famous mosques in Istanbul, but this smaller one is a little jewel. At the end of the Galata bridge you enter the historic peninsula. Head right a bit and cross the street. Amidst small shops and narrow streets you will find the Rüstem Pasha mosque. The entrance is a bit hidden between shops, but ask anybody if you cannot find it.
Great thing about this mosque are the red and bleu tiles with all different patterns. It’s small compared to its well-known brothers but a real hidden gem!
Before heading towards the spice market and grand bazaar, walk a bit further to the West to visit the Suleymaniye Mosque. I was told this mosque is the largest and the grandest in Istanbul. We were definitely impressed by the design, the view (it’s situated on top of a hill) and the interior.
Outside each mosque lines of water taps where people can wash their feet before going inside.
You don’t have to pay any entrance fees when you visit a mosque. They are open throughout the day but some close during prayer time.
After visiting these two mosques it is time for some shopping! First up: the Egyptian or Spice Market. Walk downhill from Suleymaniye Mosque to enter the world of food, herbs and spices… Feel free to taste some Lokum (Turkish delight), it’s so delicious. The smell of the spices are wonderful…and the colorful piles a feast for the photographer.
From the Spice Market head down to the famous Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of colorful covered markets. It’s quite a walk but enough to see along the way. At the Grand Bazaar you can easily walk around for an hour or more. There is so much to discover and with all the small shopping alleys left and right it’s easy to get lost! But no worries, there are clear signs showing you the way out. And getting lost is also part of the fun right?
Lots of Turkish Delight (lokum) with so many different flavors!
Inside the Grand Bazaar you will find some nice coffee shops. Have you tried the strong Turkish coffee yet?
Mind you that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.
Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque
Another beautiful mosque, built in the early 1600s. It’s a popular place so expect lots of visitors. Have you ever wondered what to do when visiting a mosque? Well, there are a couple of things you need to know. Before entering the mosque you have to take off your shoes that you can put in a plastic bag provided to you at the entrance.
Women need to cover their hair. Head coverings are available at the entrance of the mosque for free (or just use your own scarf). The Muslim call to prayer is chanted six times a day; the first one two hours before dawn and the last one right before the last light of the day disappears…
This place is also called the “Sunken Palace”. Sounds nice, but it was actually built to serve as an underground reservoir for water storage for the Great Palace. It’s a perfect place to escape the heat in Summer I guess…
I loved the place: the 336 underground columns lighted to create a bit of a spooky atmosphere. Classical music is played while you walk the 130 meter long and 65 meter wide reservoir.
Did you know that there are hundreds of hidden cisterns underneath the streets of Istanbul? There are only two cisterns open for the public; Basilica Cistern is the largest one.
Hagia Sophia and Topkapi
Opposite the Blue Mosque you find the other famous mosque: Hagia Sophia. It’s not a mosque in function anymore, it’s has turned into a museum. Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays.
The nearby Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays (you have to carefully plan your visit if you want to see all of these places!). It’s a huge palace and the former residence of the Ottoman sultans. From Topkapi you also have superb views of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara.
Ortaköy is actually far away from the historic peninsula. If you have more time to spend this can be a very good option. It’s a small neighborhood close to the Bosphorus bridge. Restaurants and shops on the banks of the river make this a great place to relax. Local bars are very popular in the weekend. The picture below is taken from the bridge. The famous mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus (one of the most photographed places in Istanbul!) was sadly enough under renovation…
After such a long walk we were so happy to return to the Mövenpick hotel Istanbul for a well-deserved stay in the wellness center, perfect dinner and comfortable beds…. we would love to return to Istanbul (especially when we have blue skies and sunshine!).
Disclaimer: the original post about our trip to Istanbul was written in 2014. Things like opening times and prices might have changed.