Istanbul has been forever the most visited tourist spots in the world. Even though 2016 saw a brief slump in the number of tourists, Istanbul was on top of my list. (Especially after reading Dan Browns’ Inferno).
The recent bombings at the Ataturk Airport had been on news everywhere. My family (pretty skeptical of letting me board the flight) was in constant pique. Though nothing changed my strong-willed decision to visit this beautiful city.
Solo. And How??
So, this is how I made my solo trip to Istanbul possible even with little time on hand.
I took a 10-hour stopover between my flight from Newyork to Bombay. It is very easy to get a long stopover in Istanbul when you choose Turkish Airlines.
Even though the staff at Ataturk Airport was apathetic, Istanbul is full of friendly people, excellent hospitality, and grandiose architecture. It is a perfect meld of Europe and Asia; alluring and ethnic. So while you still can, just take a glimpse of the remaining Ottoman Empire.
First Things First
How To Get On-Arrival Visa:
Once you land at the Ataturk International Airport, head straight to the Visa Payment Kiosk. The rules will differ for all nationalities. Getting Turkey visa-on-arrival is easiest of all. You just have to fill in your information on the kiosk, make payment and get your e-visa.
Card or Cash:
Before I planned my trip to Turkey, I went through a few blogs on how to get e-visa. Most of the blogs mentioned that the payment was only done in cash.
I visited Istanbul in Sep 2016. That time the payment method was Card only. But I was carrying cash and had no card. It was difficult for me to get the visa without a card and I had almost given up visiting my listed places.
However, after helping a few people on how to go about the visa, someone offered me help. And that is how I paid that person in cash and in return, she helped me use her card for payment. Although it would be best if you carry both cash and card if you are getting a visa on arrival.
How To Get Around The City
Once you arrive in Istanbul, the first place to visit is definitely the Historic Center of Istanbul. I hired a return cab for $100 from the airport. There are people who will bargain this price for you. (I overpaid as I was running short of time.)
Do make sure you have a mobile (that works) handy to call your cab driver for your return journey. The cab drivers are bound to turn up late as there is no parking available at the historic center and they have to leave the premises.
Hop-on Hop-off Bus
The best way to travel in any European city is to hop on the Big Bus when you are running short on time. Big Bus Istanbul offers great deals for one day, two days and weekly passes. For transit travelers, a day pass will cost €45. You’re free to hop-on and hop-off as many times as you like till the validity of the pass.
The day pass allows you to take two routes; the red route and the golden hour route. It also allows for convenient stops near famous landmarks, hotels, and train stations.
5 Instagram Worthy Monuments In One Place
1. Sultanahmet Square
The first thing to visit when in Istanbul is without any doubt, the Sultanahmet Square. It is a great place to travel on foot as it demonstrates not only the stunning architecture but also the finest street culture. Being host to the famous Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Basilica Cistern and more, you will be surprised to see all those iconic monuments standing together in one place.
Sultanahmet Square also exhibits the glorious Grand Bazaar that is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Also known as Kapali Carsi, this place is prodded by shopaholic tourists.
This place is huge and it takes a lot out of you if you are on a time limit. It is equipped with benches and seating area mostly everywhere. It also has a park where one can just sit and rest.
There’s a lot to walk and the scorching sun will melt you down. I had a good time just lying down in the grass, gazing up at the sky and soaking myself in the sun.
2. The Blue Mosque
As its name suggests, the Blue Mosque is called so because of its unique interiors that are characterized by ornate blue and white tiles. The Blue Mosque still functions as a mosque, and people still bow down to pray under its cavernous dome.
Till the 19th century, this place was host to a madrasa, a primary school, hospital, market, imaret, and a tomb of the Sultan.
It is very difficult to get the whole picture of the Blue Mosque; it is gigantic. The interiors of this place are absolutely stunning.
Interesting Fact!! Or Myth!! The Story
The Sultan of this mosque had ordered the minarets to be made in gold but he ran out of money. So he decided to build 6 minarets instead of 4 to bring uniqueness to the mosque. And hence, the Blue Mosque is the only mosque in Turkey with 6 minarets. It has 260 windows and a central dome with 4 half domes on either side.
Well, this is one of the stories I heard from the locals. The other one depicts that there was a misunderstanding between the Sultan and the architect. The Sultan wanted the mosque to be unique so he instructed that the minarets be made in “altin” (meaning gold); however, the architect misheard as “alti” (meaning six) minarets. That is how there are 6 minarets to this mosque.
A French poet once wrote – “If one had but a single glance, to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
3. Hagia Sophia: Aya Sofya
Standing right next to the Blue Mosque is one of the finest architectural masterpieces of Turkey; Hagia Sophia. It is considered to be the most admired structure of Byzantine times. It was built as an Orthodox church during the Eastern Roman Empire and was the most imposing monument of those times.
It was converted to a mosque immediately after the Turks conquered Istanbul; then Constantinople. It was after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum. The building dates back in the 1400s and even today, you will see the juxtaposition of Islamic and Christian art within.
The whole structure is a rise up of domes and minarets that centers around the huge central dome. Inside, it has a cavernous interior that is an array of domed and arched spaces, focusing on the shell-like alcove and the gigantic dome.
Quick Tip: To get the best pictures and glimpse of the mosaic of the Virgin and the child, head to the upstairs gallery.
4. Basilica Cistern
Istanbul is not just the cliché of East meets West. Not far from the Hagia Sophia is this immensely bizarre cave, known as the Basilica Cistern. This 6th-century structure is built-up with rugged pillars whose bases rest in deep waters. The whole structure is lit in red and consists of 12 rows of 28 pillars.
The Basilica Cistern, also known as the Sunken Palace, can easily go unnoticed while you are overwhelmed with all the circumambient beauty. However, it is highly recommended that you make it to this beautiful cave for an eerie yet fantastic experience.
Dan Brown writes about the Basilica Cistern in his best-seller Inferno. (The minute I read about the Sunken Palace in this book, I knew I had to visit this place. And luckily, I was able to visit the same year I read the book, Yay!!!)
5. The Grand Bazaar: Kapaliçarşi
The beauty of this bazaar lies in the local items that you can purchase; like souvenirs, spices, jewelry, handicrafts and more. While at the Grand Bazaar, take your time to travel to every shop. The local shopkeepers are very friendly and they bargain easily. Just make sure you don’t push too much as tourism is their only income.
Some of the shopkeepers might follow you but do not be afraid; they are only trying to convince you to visit their personal store where you can buy more products that are not on display at the stall.
As a solo female traveler, it did not once bother me to get into their shop and listen to them trying to sell me things.
Yes, it is very difficult to say NO to these men. They are cute!! And they lure you into buying at least one item.
So I bought a souvenir key with Istanbul engraved, a fridge magnet, a small lamp, a pashmina, and some Turkish coffee.
It just amazed me that the craftsmen who make these carpets, rugs, and ceramics offer to personally take you around.
If you get along well with the locals, they might as well offer a cup of Turkish tea which one must try. There are many food delicacies you cannot miss while here. To find out more, read my blog on Turkish Food