For the next two and a half weeks I will be exploring the fascinating country of Turkey with the journey beginning in the largest and most recognised Turkish city of Istanbul. The first two nights will be spent in this bustling tourist city followed by another night included as part of the twelve day Topdeck Turkey Explored Tour which will take in many of the sights this country has to offer.
This will be my second Topdeck tour, regular readers will know that last year I went on my first Topdeck tour which was the Topdeck Mega European Tour that went for an amazing 49 days and also included Istanbul and Gallipoli. From reading those past experiences in Turkey you will understand why it was a must for me to return to Turkey and experience what the rest of the country has to offer.
On completion of the tour two more nights will be spent in Istanbul to take in the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar and to cruise the Princes’ Islands, a playground for the more wealthy residents of Istanbul before heading back on the long and exhausting flight to Melbourne, but more on that much later on…
Melbourne to Istanbul – 03 & 04 September, 2013
The journey started off from Melbourne departing on the 10:15pm flight to Abu Dhabi flying Etihad Airways with a connecting flight to Istanbul. The flight from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi is an uncomfortable 14 hours long in economy, however the service on Etihad is pretty good and combined with leaving for this trip straight after work to try and tire myself out, it won’t feel like the full 14 hours.
On my connecting flight to Istanbul I was able to experience business class for the first time using the Etihad’s upgrade bidding system which enables passengers who have been sent the email invitation to upgrade to the next class on the flight. If you have booked through a travel agent as soon as you get your itinerary it is advisable that you log into the Etihad site and submit your email address if you wish to take advantage of this system.
On arrival at Istanbul Ataturk International Airport a private vehicle was arranged for the seamless transfer to the hotel which took around 30 minutes in the busy afternoon Istanbul traffic. My first three nights and the first night of the tour I will be staying at the And Hotel, located centrally in the main tourist hub and with direct views of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque it also boasts a rooftop restaurant called Cihannuma Terrace Restaurant, although a little pricy for an Istanbul restaurant it is well worth coming up here at least once to check out the stunning views.
This hotel will also be the starting point of the Topdeck Turkey Explored Tour and also the end point of the tour when we return to Istanbul. The room I had for the first three nights was a small single room on the corner of the building which offered a 270 degree view of Istanbul with the Hagia Sophia right in front of the building.
Jet lagged from the last 20 hours of flying, it was now time to go out an explore the city to reacquaint myself with where everything is once again. It was mid afternoon so it was quite busy particularly being right in the centre of the main tourist hub. As I was exhausted from the flight it was only a short stroll around to look at the outside of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia before heading back to the hotel and collapsing for an early night.
Istanbul – 05 September, 2013
With a small sleep in from the long journey the previous day the view from the hotel room meant the morning started off with an impressive view of the sunrise coming up from behind the Hagia Sophia, the glow of the fresh morning sun also made the view of the Blue Mosque at this time of the morning even more impressive.
Today was all about reacquainting myself with the city with no plans other than wondering the streets and seeing where I would end up. Before leaving home I downloaded a handy iPhone app which provided a GPS tour of the city so I through I would try it out around the main tourist area of Sultanahmet which is the suburb that encompasses the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the hotel.
Starting at one of the tram stops the tour took me to the Blue Mosque, the Hipperdrome, the Little Hagia Sophia, Arasta Bazaar, Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Doing this is an interesting way to see the city particularly when travelling alone, the app would also tell you which roads to turn down and all locations are displayed on a map so you can walk the tour yourself without the guide speaking to you.
Following on from my mini independent tour of Istanbul I continued to walk over the Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn and headed up the steep hill towards the Galata Tower. Once at the tower you have the option to head up to the top for a 360 degree view of Istanbul, entrance fee will be 10 Lira (AUD$5).
Leaving the tower I proceeded up İstiklal Avenue which has an old red tram running along the length of it, this avenue is pretty much the Bourke Street Mall (Melbourne) equivalent of Istanbul. The avenue finishes at Taksim Square the site of many protests in Istanbul recently over the proposed redevelopment of the small park located in the square.
From Taksim Square it’s an interesting walk down the hill heading towards the waterfront walking through some of the areas where the locals live, eventually you can make your way back down the the Bosphorus straight and head towards the Dolmabahce Palace. It’s a nice area to go for a stroll, however those of you who do not like to do too much walking you may want to consider catching the tram back as it is quite a fair distance.
Exhausted from walking around quite a significant amount of Istanbul once I arrived back to my hotel it was time for a Nanna Nap, this Nanna Nap turned into not waking up again until the next morning…
Istanbul – 06 September, 2013
Today I would check out two of the major highlights of Istanbul, both of which I was unable to see the last time I came to the city a year ago. The Basilica Cistern and the Hagia Sophia are both located right in front of the hotel so I didn’t have far to go at all.
First of all it was a good opportunity to check out the Grand Bazaar, arriving at the famous market space at 8:30 in the morning there isn’t much going on, only the hustle and bustle of market traders getting their shops set up for the day of trade ahead, but it’s a good way to see the bazaar without the thousands of other people that enter on a daily basis.
The Basilica Cistern is without a doubt a must visit attraction of Istanbul and for only 10 Lira (AUD$5) entry fee the price is right, last time I was in Istanbul I didn’t even notice or know about this and feel really stupid as I would have walked past the entrance quite a number of times located pretty much opposite the Hagia Sophia entrance.
Upon entry you walk down a staircase to then be confronted with an elaborate maze of ancient Roman Columns supporting the land, road and restaurants above. An elevated walk way above the water will guide you around the cistern taking you past the weeping column and eventually down to the two Medusa heads which have been turned on their side.
Be sure to look down into the water for the large Gold Fish that are constantly keeping the water clean and be sure to have your camera ready to take some creative shots of all the columns lined up. You can spend as much time as you like down here, which can be a relief if the weather above is quite warm. To top it all off it wouldn’t be a tourist attraction without a neon lit sign for the cafe that is located within this ancient attraction.
Next there was still time to check out Hagia Sophia which is truly an amazing building full of so much history, regrettably last time I came to Istanbul I missed out on seeing the inside of this building and learning more about the history of this grand building. Construction on the current structure started in the year 532 as a church under the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and upon completion would have been one of the biggest man made structures in the world.
The church was then converted in 1453 to a Mosque after the city of Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks with the Sultan Mehmet II retaining many buildings and converting them rather than destroying them. The building remained a Mosque right up until 1935 when founding president of the Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Atatürk converted the building to a museum for all to enjoy, this also lead to many of the covered up mosaics that were plastered over and the marble floor to the revealed for the first time in centuries.
Tonight after a long day of exploring the city I have decided to dine at the rooftop restaurant at the And Hotel which is called the Cihannuma Restaurant, this is without a doubt a restaurant with a view, boasting the best view in all of Istanbul (see image below). From here you can take in 360 degree views of the entire city and of course have prime position right in front of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The restaurant is quite pricy for Istanbul but it is well worth at least giving it a go for the view once.
Istanbul – 07 September, 2013
Today would be my final day alone, tonight my 12 day Topdeck Turkey Explored Tour would begin but it would not start until 6pm so I still had the whole day to keep myself busy. For something different today I caught a ferry and headed up the Bosphorus for the ‘Full Bosphorus Tour‘ which will make six stops along the way with the final destination at the mouth of the Black Sea.
The ferry departs the terminal closest to the Galata Bridge, there is also the option to have a half tour called the short circle tour, this will cost 10 Lira as opposed to 25 Lira for the full tour. If you have a full day to spare it is well worth going for the full day tour to get out of the main centre of Istanbul and see how massive this city of 14 million people is. Departure times and a map of the towns the ferry stops at can be seen on their website here.
Cruising up the Bosphorus you gain another perspective about Istanbul and realise that the main tourist area is just a small part of the city. You pass many other landmarks such as the two major bridges that transport traffic from Europe to Asia and a number of old medieval castles and their fortified walls. The ferry is also a passenger ferry for the locals so it is a good way to explore the city the way the locals would rather than paying extra for a tour tailored for tourists.
The final stop on the ferry is a town called Anadolu Kavağı which is on the Asian side of Turkey, it is the last small town before the major oil and container ships enter the Black Sea bound for Russia. On arrival into the town the many restaurants that flank the shoreline are opening for business knowing that the vast majority of people on board are tourists, the restauranteurs yell and wave flags to attract everyone’s attention fighting for your business.
The main attraction of the town is a medieval castle located at the top of the hill, it takes a good 20 minutes to walk up the sometimes steep road, for me this was my main goal to head straight for the castle and avoid all the crazy commotion of everyone trying to get tourists into their restaurants. If you’re hungry, try and hold off until you reach the top as there are more restaurants up there and you will then have views of the Bosphorus while you eat.
While the castle here is the main attraction, don’t get too excited about seeing a grand castle. It is well worth the trek to the summit however the castle is in ruin and you will only really get to see the main entrance, the only major part still standing. The rest of the castle is blocked off but looking through the fence there isn’t much going on in there anyway.
From the top here you can get a nice view of the opening to the Black Sea and watch some of the massive ships entering that body of water, you might even be able to spot the odd fishing boat trying to find their catch of the day.
After reaching the summit it was well past lunch time so it was time to stop in at one of the restaurants, while the food wasn’t that great it was good to sit back and relax with a view. Heading back down to the town there really isn’t much to see or do other than stroll past the many tourist targeted shops before the ferry was due to depart.
On arriving back I still had some time up my sleeve, this morning I was in the awkward situation of having to check out of my hotel only to have to check back into the same hotel again today, but under the Topdeck tour. I would be sharing a room this time, this person had already been checked into this room for one night and so I had to be let into this new room by the hotel staff. After getting ready I then met the first person on the Topdeck tour who would ultimately remain my room mate for the entire length of the tour before heading down to the lobby to meet everyone else in the tour group and our tour leader.
Tarik would be our tour guide for the next 12 days, he went through a quick run down on what we would experience over the next 12 days and what our plans were for this evening. He left most of the details until we were on the bus tomorrow after we were shown around the main attractions of Istanbul.
After our group meeting we all headed out for our first included group dinner at a restaurant just a few doors down from the hotel, after dinner we all went out to a bar around the corner so that we could all meet each other a bit better. While we were at the bar a large crowd was gathered down at Sultanahmet Square for the live announcement of the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games of which Istanbul was a candidate city. A small group of us decided to head down to the square to join the party, however at the end it wasn’t good news for Istanbul with the games heading to Tokyo.
Once the crowd dispersed we all called it a night and headed back to the hotel, tomorrow morning the tour will really begin with a tour of Istanbul before heading to the Turkish capital of Ankara.