10 Fleeting Transit Hours in Istanbul

Realising too late that I had mistakingly selected the wrong connecting flight in Istanbul when I booked my flight from Singapore to London, I was rather annoyed, but there was little I could do to rectify the situation. Paying almost ticket price again to change the flight was not an option! Note to self: do not book flights at 2am when dog tired and always double check before pressing the confirm button.

The problem with my booking was not the flight itself, but the 10 hour transit in Istanbul before my next flight on to London. After the initial dismay at my error,  I realised that the situation could be turned into an opportunity for a mini adventure. I have been to other parts of Turkey but never quite made my way to Istanbul. I was excited though a little apprehensive, being a lone female tourist in a strange city, but I decided to go for it anyway.

Istanbul Sultanhamet Mosque
Istanbul Sultanahmet Mosque

Tired after my 11 hour, 25 minute flight with Turkish Airlines from Singapore I arrived in Istanbul at 4.25 am – giving me more than enough time to get myself sorted for the excursion ahead. Determined to make the most of the opportunity, I purchased a visa for £20 (about SGD$40) and then out through immigration I went. Grabbing a free map, I located my targeted sights, plotted my route, exchanged SGD$200 to Turkish Lira and headed on my adventure.

I took the first train out from Ataturk Havalimani station at 6am – only to realise as soon as the train left the station that (of course) it was still pitch black outside. Luckily, by the time I made my interchange at Zaytinburnu station onto the tram line, the day was starting to break so that by the time I completed my further 30 or so minute ride to Sultanahmet station, the streets where bright and some of Istanbul’s most beautiful and famous sights lay in wait for me to visit only a stones throw from where I had just alighted.

Istanbul Sultanahmet Mosque
Istanbul Sultanahmet Mosque detail above entrance way

First up was the Sultanahmet Mosque and its surrounding gardens, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque. It was around 6.45am and the usual tourist crowds that one might expect were yet to descend. This and the serenity of the early morning air made for a calming atmosphere. I had the whole place to myself except for the odd care taker and passer by. I felt lucky that my first experience of this amazing place was such a peaceful one. I could soak it all up on my own pace and experience the beautiful architecture in its purest form. Very humbling, not to mention a good opportunity to take a few snaps without fellow tourists walking into your shots!

Istanbul Sultanahmet Blue Mosque Courtyard walkway
Istanbul Sultanahmet Blue Mosque Courtyard walkway
Istanbul Sultanahmet floor tiles
Istanbul Sultanahmet tiled floor detail

Opposite the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia Mosque, which now has become a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi). The short walk down the pretty landscaped avenue, led me to a dancing fountain where I stood and watched for a few minutes while it twirled away. I also noticed a good many collared dogs and cats sitting around – a curious sight.

Fountain between Sultanhamet and Hagia Sophia
Fountain between Sultanhamet and Hagia Sophia
Dog of Istanbul
Dog of Istanbul
Tulip Cat
Tulip Cat

Onward towards Hagia Sophia, pretty with its dusky pink exterior, I was again stopped en route by a temporary exhibition of the worlds largest tulip rug.

Worlds Largest Tulip Rug
Worlds largest Tulip rug

As it was still early, the Hagia Sofia museum was not yet open, so after a few snaps on the smart phone, I ventured onto the next item on my map.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

I went searching for the Basilica Cistern. For some reason this was managing to elude me. During my search however, I did stumble upon the Gulhane Park next to the entrance to the Istanbul Museum of History. What a find it was! Swathes of tulips carpeted the floor. (Dare I say, beating the tulip displays I’ve seen during Tulip Festival in The Netherlands.) I lingered, admiring the splendour and again the smart phone was whipped out for a few obligatory shots.

Gulhane Park in April Tulip Festival
Gulhane Park in April during Tulip Festival

I decided it was time to get back on track and look for this elusive Basilica Cistern. Obviously looking lost, a friendly local asked me if he could help. I decided that there was no harm accepting but promptly realised that this was a bit of a mistake. He told me that it was just down the road but not yet open and offered to let me wait in his shop with a cup of tea. I had read enough on the internet and experienced first hand from my past trip to Turkey that this was a common way for shop keepers to lure unsuspecting tourists into their shops and then pressurise them to buy their wares. I wasn’t in the mood to help him make his sale quota for the day so I thanked him for his help and offer of tea, made my excuses and left.

I finally found the Basilica Cistern and realised I had walked past this small and humble building many times already. It was not what I was expecting, due to its rather grand sounding name and being listed as the first thing on my map. Looking at my watch and realising that I would have to choose between waiting for it to open or being able to view the inside of the Blue Mosque, which wasn’t open earlier, I decided the latter would make my heart happier. I was a bit fed up with all the time it had taken me to find this rather unremarkable looking place. (Though after doing a bit of research online for correct spellings for this article, I wished I had made the time to see this place as well. I blame this and all the poor decisions that day on my fuzzy brain and tired legs from lack of sleep on the plane!)

Tiles blue mosque sultanhamet
Tilled dome of the Sultanahmet Mosque

There are two separate entrances to the Sultanahmet, one for worshippers and one for visitors. Being a place of Muslim worship, there was a modesty dress code to be followed. Legs and arms are to be covered, shoes removed by all who enter and female visitors are required to cover their heads with a scarf (the mosque would provide one for you if needed). Inside there is a vast carpeted room with the amazing blue tiled dome that gives the Mosque its more common name of the Blue Mosque. There is also a tour explaining Islam which is available later on in the afternoon. Well worth going if you have time and want to understand more. Unfortunately for me, I would be on my flight to London by then so was not able to attend.

Tiled ceiling of the Blue Mosque
Tiled ceiling of the Blue Mosque

I decided I’d had a good amount of culture and needed to allow enough time for a little retail therapy. In my mind, there was no better place than the famous Grand Bazaar. A short distance away, I decided walking was (and it is) the best option so that I could soak up the sights as the city was beginning to wake. I had a brief moment of panic when, being on my own, I was approached and then followed by a “tour guide” who would not leave me alone until I politely but firmly told him that I would rather walk on my own. I hadn’t felt like I was in any danger but I didn’t fancy the hassle and was very relieved when he turned around and left.

The Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered bazaars in the world. Housing 61 streets and over 4,000 shops covering 54,653 acres of floor space. It was a sight to behold. Traditional, modern, tacky, original, replica, furs, leather, handbags, carpets, stoneware, sweets, tea, clothes, accessories, towels, scarves, lanterns, you name it, they probably have it. Oh and gold, streets of gold! There was also amazing vaulted ceilings and stone work, some streets wide and some narrow (mostly arranged in a grid system) with some corners housing fountains.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul
9.30am Grand Bazaar Istanbul

With so many streets and the array of shops, it would have been easy to get lost so I made a point of remembering which entrance I started at so I could find my way back out the same way to my tram stop. When I arrived (about 9am), many of the shops where not open or just opening up. As a single girl alone, the experiencing was somewhat intimidating. All shop keepers were men and at this time of day they were milling about in groups having breakfast or chatting whilst waiting for the hoards.

Grand Bazaar Istanbul
Early morning Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Feeling as I mentioned, a bit intimidated, I didn’t initially get too much shopping done and as expected the opening prices of items I asked about seemed inflated for the tourist that I obviously was. I was a bit overwhelmed. I decided to take a rest at a small, traditional looking cafe called Cafe Life where I had a cup of apple tea and took advantage of their free wifi for a chat on FaceTime with my family back in Singapore.

Rested and feeling more confident, I went in for a second attempt at retail therapy and made my attack on to some pretty, decorated dipping bowls along with some fancy Turkish delight. Nothing too adventurous, large or heavy – I would definitely have purchased more if I had hands to carry them. I had been carrying my hand luggage around all this time and as my arms ached, I realised that purchasing a kilo of Turkish Delight would have been better done right at the end!

Exhausted by my adventure and wanting to make sure I was back in time for my next flight, I opted to return to the airport early for lunch rather than having lunch in Istanbul itself. Again the pushiness of the salesmen at the restaurants I walked past put me off and the more familiar style of service found at the airport beckoned.

I don’t usually make a habit of travelling alone, but I learnt a bit about myself in those few short hours (or confirmed what I already knew). Being alone in foreign lands is something that I don’t do so well but I felt proud that I had done it. While it may not be much to some, I know that it helped me a little bit in overcoming my apprehensions. I would confidently say that now, I would definitely venture out again if the chance came up in another city – something I might have thought twice about before this adventure and I would recommend anyone else to do the same – carpe diem and all that!

Summary

Travelling to the Sultanahmet area and Grand Bazaar a must for first time visitors like me especially if you don’t have a lot of time, as you can cover the most (famous) sights in the shortest amount of time.

My itinerary (although slightly edited)

4:25 Arrive at Istanbul
6:00 First metro out
6:45 Arrive Sultanahmet
7:00 Blue Mosque, gardens, Fountains, Hagia Sophia
7:45 Gulhane Park
8:00 Blue Mosque Interior
8:20 Basilica Cistern
9:00 Breakfast and shopping at Grand Bazaar
11:45 Back to airport

the above timings was planned due to my time restraints (many things where not open as I arrived so early) but you can obviously edit depending on your interests and the time that you have/arrive, maybe you can skip Gulhane park if you are not there during the Tulip Festival in April and if I had planned it better, I would have swapped my 7:00 with my 7:45 to save walking back and forth to the Blue Mosque.

Shopping tips

If you want to do some serious shopping, be prepared to haggle and bring a friend for support if like me, you find the experience intimidating or hard to handle.

Decide on the price you want to pay for something before you start haggling and stick to it.

By all means accept offers of tea if you are buying as haggling can be thirsty work but don’t if you’re not, as these guys are well versed in their techniques to earn money from you that you don’t really want to spend and once you accept tea it will be hard to walk away empty handed.

Be polite but firm when refusing services or goods.

Opening times/entry fees

Metro
Opening: 06:00-00:00/01:00 depending on the line and direction of travel
Fee: Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet 8TL using tokens. If you are staying longer than me and making multiple journeys then it might be worth investing in an Istanbulkart, which would make the same journey 3.95TL (excluding the initial cost of the card)

Sultanahmet (Blue mosque)
Opening: 08:00 for visitors to view inside but grounds are open before hand. Unless you wish to pray, avoid prayer times which are closed for tourists. Prayer times are not based on the clock so you will need to check prayer times closer to your visit.
Entry: Free

Hagia Sophia
Opening: 15 Apr-25 Oct 09.00 – 19.00
25 Oct-15 Apr 09:00- 17:00
Entry: 40TL or free for certain groups
Website:http://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en/visiting-information

Basilica Cistern
Opening: Mid-Apr–Sep 09:00 – 18.30
Nov–mid-Apr 09:00 – 17.30
Entry: 10TL for foreign visitors (officially 20TL)
Website: http://yerebatan.com/

Grand Bazaar
Opening: Monday-Saturday 09:00-19:00, Sunday and bank holidays closed
Entry: Free

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