“I poured my soul into the city’s streets, and there it still resides.” – Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
It was our sixth day in Istanbul and we had been putting off going to see the sights in Sultanhamet because we had scheduled a full day walking tour with Walks of Turkey and we were excited to get out and see the sites!
Our Walks of Turkey tour is the best tour we have ever done and a large part of that was due to our guide, Luna. Luna met us in front of the Blue Mosque for our 8.5 hour tour. We saw an incredible amount of sites, shared time with a lovely group of people and were able to ask Luna a ton of questions about the city and its history. Our tour group was only 10 people including ourselves so it was easy to bond with our fellow travelers. We saw other tour groups with 30-40 people and were thankful for the intimacy of our group.
So settle in kids – I have a ton of cool stuff to share with you from our day!
The Blue Mosque was built from 1609-1617 and so named because of the blue tiles that are so prominent in the mosaics. Although the tomato red tiles take the title for most rare – the artist who made them took the secret of how to mix the color to his grave and it has never been accurately duplicated. The Blue Mosque is easy to find on the Istanbul skyline because it is the only mosque with 6 minarets. Also, let’s talk about these tulips for a sec. The Turks have long admired the tulip for its beauty and perfection. The letters that spell tulip are the same as the letters the spell the name of Allah and so they are considered sacred. Here’s where things get crazy – tulips originated here. Not in the Netherlands. They were given as a gift from Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent to the ambassador of Vienna and that is how they came to Europe. I’ll just wait here while you pick your jaw up off the floor. Also, Pella Tulip Time and I are going to need to talk about how to repair our relationship.
The Hippodrome lies outside the entrance to the Blue Mosque and was where the Byzantines would hold chariot races – the word hippdrome translates to “horse path.” When the Ottomans took over Istanbul in 1453, the hippodrome was abandoned as the Empire did not approve of the gambling that accompanied the races. We were impressed with the obelisk of Thutmose III which came to Constantinople from the Temple of Karnak in Egypt. It was so large that it had to be cut in order to transport it, so one portion still remains at Karnak in Luxor.
This one was a mind blower. Meaning “holy wisdom”, the Hagia Sophia began its life as a temple to the sea-god Poseidon before it was sacked and turned into a church during Byzantine rule in 537. Twice it was burnt by rioters and twice rebuilt as a church before the Ottomans took the city and converted it into a mosque. Today it is a museum. And it is freaking stunning! The architecture is awe inspiring and the mosaics are amazing, but what really moved me is that you can look at the design and see its evolution. Inside the Sophia, there is a plaque showing a trident and two dolphins – a reminder to the faithful to not return to their pagan ways. It is considered sacrilegious to have images of people/God inside mosques which is why most mosques have beautiful flower designs. But out of respect to the history of the building, the Ottomans chose to cover the frescoes of Mary and the Archangels and Jesus in the church with plaster rather than destroying them, so between the beautifully flowing letters showing the names of Allah and Mohammad, you can see the face of Mary holding her baby. It’s hard to explain what standing in that space evoked. But it was intense. Luna gave us wonderful information about every place we visited on this tour, but you could tell Hagia Sophia held a special place in her heart.
Once known as the Sunken Palace, the cistern held a huge supply of water for the palace in case the city were cut off in a siege. It was built using random pillars and columns from destroyed pagan temples throughout the city. It was eerie and wonderful. Behold Medusa.
On the Rooftops
After a spin through the Grand Bazaar, Luna led us into what looked like a huge abandoned building. Once we went up a couple of floors, we noticed people working on ceramics and huge piles of carpet laying about and runners bringing tea to artists restoring colorful glass lamps. It was a warehouse area for the shops in the market. We continued down an impossibly long hallway full of doors that intrigued us with what might lie behind them until we reached the end of the hall and a closed door. We waited several minutes until a man appeared, unlocked the door and lead us up spiraling worn stone steps until we emerged on the rooftop. What a view! We could see the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, minarets reaching into the sky, the iron domes of the mosques, the Galata tower. We spent a great deal of time on the rooftop just taking in the city view.
After a quick tour of the spice market, it was time for our Bosphorus cruise. Anyone who knows me, will know that this was a big deal for me. I love being on the water and I was excited to be able take in the historical significance of the strait and its importance to the city from the top deck of our boat. The skies were starting to turn dark, the wind picked up and Luna promised rain. But I was completely in my element. It was out on the water, looking back at the city framed by low lying gray clouds that I had a profound realization about Istanbul. As beautiful as it is in the sunshine (which makes everything look good), its magic is in the shadows and the fog and the rain. That’s when I felt Istanbul’s true beauty showed through.
We chose to make our final stop on a rooftop café where we enjoyed some coffee and tea and each other’s company and were treated with this sight. Not a bad way to end a day in Istanbul.
The Low Down
We aren’t always fans of organized tours, but this one was different. The small size, our great tour guide and the camaraderie of the group made it feel like exploring the city with friends. We got a full day and saw so many things, but I didn’t feel like we were rushed. We still talk about this day as one of the favorites of our trip.
Lily’s favorite – Basilica Cistern
Ian’s favorite – Hagia Sophia
Mason’s favorite – The Rooftop
Staci’s favorite – The Bosphorus Cruise
Walks of Turkey also offers half day tours, Topkapi Palace tours and food tours of Istanbul.
Disclosure: We were guests of Walks of Turkey for this tour, bull all opinions expressed here are my own. ‘Cause I do what I want.