In early January, I had a whole week to show off Istanbul to my friends. This was just enough time to give them a taste, a chance to fall in love with the city and a desire to return someday.
So, imagine only having 1 day - basically 8 daylight hours - to see as much as one could in this magnificent city that spans 2 continents.
You might say it's impossible and certainly unfair. How can you see thousands of years of history in just 8 hours?
Well, I did it.
In October, I put together a tight, organized schedule and showed my husband's colleague, Hugh, the top highlights in Sultanahmet in just 8 hours.
I proved it IS possible, but it's certainly not the way I recommend visiting Istanbul. Heck, even after 19 months of living here, I'm still discovering new areas and pieces of the city's history.
Here's how to visit Istanbul in 8 hours:
1. Arriving in Sultanahmet
9 a.m. - Take the convenient tram and get off at the Sultanahmet stop. Arrive at Ayasofya around 9 a.m. to avoid the long lines. The mega tour buses show up between 9:30 and 10 a.m. and the ticket line grows exponentially. Take 45 minutes to admire this beautiful church turned mosque turned museum. (Note: our recent guests spent two hours in awe and taking photos inside Ayasofya.)
|Inside the Ayasofya - taken from the second floor.|
2. Hippodrome area
10 a.m. - Walk across the square and through the Hippodrome area near the Blue Mosque. Try to imagine the rowdy chariot races, javelin games and other ancient practices that took place here.
Starting at the northern end of the Hippodrome, snap some quick photos of the Fountain of Wilhelm II, the Obelisk of Tutmosis III (dating to 13th century B.C.), the bronze Serpentine Column and the Magnetic Column or the Walled Obelisk.
|The Fountain of Wilhelm II was built in Germany and assembled in Istanbul in 1895.|
3. Blue tiles = Blue Mosque
Now, you must get in line to see the inside of Sultanahmet's most visited mosques - the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). Pay attention to the times of ezan (Muslim call to prayer) because the mosque closes to visitors during that time for about an hour. Mid-day and late afternoon are two times to avoid, but the ezan changes from day to day according to the sunrise and sunset.
|Even Turkish cats enjoy sunny themselves by the Blue Mosque.|
Dating back to 1609, the Blue Mosque gets its nickname from the abundant use of decorative Iznik tiles in many shades of blue and green. The tiles feature traditional Ottoman patterns of lillies, lale (tulips, which is my favorite) and carnations.
4. Playing in the Palace
Around 11 a.m., you should find yourself heading toward the Topkapı Sarayı (Topkapi Palace). If you are lucky, very lucky, you will see the infamous green parakeets up in the trees in Gülhane Park before you enter the palace's gates.
You can run through this sprawling palace and the harem in just under 2 hours. I've been there three times now in the past year and have yet to see the palace kitchen! I don't understand why it's always closed. Frankly, the harem is my favorite part, and I'm disappointed you can't pay an admission solely for this section.
|One of the many ornate areas inside the Topkapi Palace's harem section.|
5. Lunch is served!
It's probably getting close to 1 p.m. and your stomach is rumbling. One of my favorite lunch spots is back by the tram, Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta, Divanyolu Cad. No. 12. Since 1920, this köftecisi has been serving up moist and delicious meatballs. Ask for a side of spicy red sauce and some rice pilaf. Sometimes, I share a side salad with friends too.
6. Cool down underground
After a satisfying lunch, stroll over to the nearby 1,400-year-old Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Sunken Cistern or also known as the Basilica Cistern). Take about 30-45 minutes to snap photos of the 300+ columns and of course, the eerie Medusa heads at the end.
7. Bartering time
2 p.m. at the Grand Bazaar - In order to do the bazaar quickly, you basically need to know what you want to buy before you enter in this crazy maze. You also need help if you want to navigate the 4,000+ shops, 24 hans and numerous streets in and surrounding the bazaar. Most tourists don't have the time or language skills (luckily I have some Turkish skills), so you may consider hiring an Istanbul Personal Shopper like Kathy.
|If you have room in your suitcase, you might want to buy one of these|
Turkish lamps at the Grand Bazaar.
At this point, we had a little over 2 hours to go, so we stopped at some of my favorite shops with Hugh's list in hand. We were on a mission to buy gifts for his wife, sister, mother and other family members. We chatted with the shopkeepers, enjoyed our complimentary çay, and our friend bought pashminas, evil eye knick knacks, jewelry, pistachios and a backgammon set.
8. One last stop
Congratulations! You survived a jam-packed day in Sultanahmet!
Even though it's 5 p.m., if you have time, make one last pit stop at Eminönü via the tram. Go inside the Spice Bazaar and say hello to my friend Bilgi at Ucuzcular. She has the most amazing spices and a peppy attitude!
End your busy day back by the Bosphorus and take some photos of the fishermen by the Galata Bridge.
|There are plenty of restaurants under the Galata Bridge if you want to|
relax and enjoy the view with your beer.
Now, it's almost time for dinner and you have certainly earned yourself an Efes beer or two!
(Note: If you are visiting Istanbul during peak tourist season, such as the summer, I doubt this schedule will work for you. However, maybe it will serve as a rough guide of Sultanahet. We didn't have to wait in long lines since it was October, and I knew exactly where to go.)