I wrote a summary post of my time in Istanbul in September 2020, detailing the main sights, what I ate, how to get around, and where I stayed. This is the second post in a three-part series (first post here) detailing each of my three days in the city.
I slept better my second night in Istanbul but still couldn’t make it past the early morning hours, which is typical of travel to Europe. I can function on a low as 4 hours of sleep for a couple days in a row, and this night was slightly better that most. Since breakfast didn’t start until far too late (at least for this American), I worked at my lovely room at the Park Hyatt Istanbul until 8:00 AM.
A taxi took me to the Tomtom Suites, my final hotel for the trip, to drop my bags. Uniquely, I ended up being the only guest at the hotel. From here it was easy to hop on the tram to the old city.
Exploring Topkapi Palace
I started the day at the Topkapi Palace Museum, the seat of the Ottoman rulers and their Imperial Palace for over two centuries. It is located near the Hagia Sophia and is an easy walk from the Sultanahmet or Gülhane tram stations. You’ll pass through Gülhane Park and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum on your way to Topkapi Palace. The museum is closed Tuesdays, which is the main reason I didn’t include it into my previous day’s itinerary.
General entry to Topkapi costs ₺100. If you wish to tour the harem, you’ll need to buy an additional ticket (₺70.) for that section of the palace museum. The general ticket provides access to the grounds, kitchens, library, treasury, and the kiosks and pavilions of the fourth court that look out over the Bosporus Strait. There is plenty to see, and a visit to the Topkapi Palace Museum will require a few hours. You’ll buy a ticket in the first court of the grounds and then pass through the middle gate into the second court.
The palace kitchens were my first stop. The Ottomans imported lots of Chinese porcelain, along with taking it as spoils or were given it as gifts. Even with gold and silver dishes available, the sultans often preferred Chinese porcelain. The palace kitchen museum section contains many beautiful sets. But the number on display is just a fraction of the collection of over 10,000 pieces. You can observe changes in the peices used over the years. Ottoman culture in the 19th century was influenced more by Europe, as the sultans adopted some of their cuisine and habits, including the use of forks.
In the corner of the third courtyard is a set of rooms with a number of artifacts displayed. The beautiful tiled halls contain a number of sacred relics of biblical figures collected by the Ottomans, including the supposed staff of Moses and sword of David. There is also a lot of information on the history of Islam. I believe I had to miss the Imperial treasury, unfortunately, as there was a section of the palace being renovated during my visit.
The Library of Ahmed III located in the middle of the court is definitely worth a few minutes to tour. The interior contains some lovely glass and tile work. With all the windows providing light and fresh air, I have to imagine this was an excellent place for relaxation during Imperial times.
Moving to the northern end of the palace, there are a couple kiosks with views of the Bosporus, Sea or Marmara, and the Golden Horn. I enjoyed the Baghdad Kiosk in particular. The octagonal Octagonal Yerevan Kiosk is also cool. There were very few people on the grounds of this section of the museum during my visit, and it felt at times like I had the place to myself (aside from the noise of renovation construction at times).
After a brief stop at the arms collection, I made my way to the harem. The harem was the extremely private section of the palace, guarded by the “black eunuchs” and off limits to anyone except the sultan, his children, and the multitude of women that would have been the wives, concubines, and servants of the sultan. Given that it functioned more like a prison (at least for the women) and that many were brought to the harem as slaves from across the Ottoman Empire, it was interesting to imagine what it would have been like 400 years ago.
Much of the architecture and interior is certainly nice, especially the chambers of the valide sultan, the mother of the Ottoman sultan. She was the most powerful woman in the empire, and often the second most powerful figure behind only the sultan himself. The harem would have been a place of intrigue, as the Ottomans did not observe primogeniture when passing the imperial throne to their heirs. With some sultans fathering dozens of children, there would have been intense competition for who would become the next sultan. But that’s enough weird history for today.
My entire visit to the Topkapi Palace Museum lasted just under three hours. If you just want to see the main grounds, you can be in and out in under two hours. Normally, the harem would be a longer tour, but due to COVID-19, it was a self-guided walkthrough, and it didn’t take all that long.
The Hagia Irene and Basilica Cistern
Across the first courtyard from the entrance to Topkapi is the Hagia Irene. It sits in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia and was built right around the same time. Unfortunately, the interior was undergoing substantial restoration while I was there (and may still be). I decided not to spend ₺60 on a ticket and just to admire it from the outside.
I exited the Topkapi courtyard area into the security-controlled section by the Hagia Sophia. This is Roughly where I would meet the group for the Istanbul boat tour later in the day.
Crossing through the controlled area was simply a shortcut to take me to the Basiclia cistern. The Theodosius Cistern that I visited the previous day is much more well lit, but the Basilica Cistern is far larger. Constructed in 542 AD, it was the main water storage for Constantinople for centuries. Entry costs ₺30. You might also recognize it from the Sean Connery James Bond movie “From Russia with Love.” There are actually three different Bond films that had parts shot in Istanbul.
The Perfect Istanbul Day?
Upon existing the cistern, I was (of course) accosted by another Turkish man who wanted to take me to a carpet shop. This was the third time. Luckily, it was just around the corner from the cistern, so I didn’t mind going, if just for the cup of tea and to enjoy the spiel. These guys at El Rincon De Fehmi (who knows why the Spanish name) were the smoothest. The conversation was friendly, but I did feel the immense guilty pressure to buy a carpet. Fortunately, I was still clear on my “no” and walked out unscathed.
The shopkeeper did leave me with one tidbit that I found hysterical: The “Perfect Istanbul Day” includes three things: a boat tour, hammam, and buying a Turkish carpet! LOL. There may be just a little bias in that list. But since I was sitting there in a carpet shop with a hammam and boat tour planned for the remainder of the day, he had me very close to making it the perfect Istanbul day. I’d have to just settle for visiting a carpet shop and call it good.
My phone was nearly dead at this point, so that meant one thing: Starbucks. You can take the American out of America, but you can’t remove the Americano from him. Honestly, I just wanted a place with AC and a plug to charge my cell, and I’d seen Starbucks in Sultanahmet the previous day. Wednesday was much hotter than Tuesday, and I was sweating within minutes every time I walked in the sun. I enjoyed an iced coffee in the back corner of the coffee shop. Can’t get better than $2.12 USD for an iced coffee. Wish that was the price in the U.S.
Like everyone, the barista initially assumed I was Russian. His second guess was German. Maybe he is completely unfamiliar with Americans, but that wouldn’t make sense, given that it is a Starbucks and there have to be other silly U.S. tourists that crave a taste of home. I’d have thought my accent would instantly give it away. English is spoken impressively well by the Germans and Dutch, though, and I have quite a bit of German ancestry, so his was a reasonable guess. Germans also love to travel. It was a funny exchange, nonetheless.
Bosporus Boat Tour
My phone charged sufficiently for the tour ahead, I made my way to the meeting area in the park between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. It’s a bit of a walk to the actual boat, so keep that in mind if you plan a similar tour. This is just a much easier meeting point, and it totally makes sense why they count people and check tickets at this point.
A Bosporus boat tour is absolutely worth the price. The Bosporus is an integral part of Istanbul’s strategic importance through the centuries, and seeing Istanbul from the water is a must. I will argue that it actually is part of the perfect Istanbul day.
The boat tour first takes you into the Golden Horn and under the Galata Bridge, which is super cool. I hadn’t taken any of the ferries, so I was glad to get some shots of the city from the water. You can see the Galata Tower standing above the other buildings in the photo below.
Our tour was given in English, Spanish, and Turkish. It surprised me that it wasn’t offered in Russian as well. The Turkish and English segments were recorded, while the Spanish was given live and was much better. The guy did an excellent job explaining the sights and history.
The tour takes you under the 15 July Martyrs Bridge, which spans the Bosporus and links Europe and Asia. There are a total of three bridges and two tunnels that link the continents across the Strait. There was some water traffic, but not a lot during our tour. I’d noticed many more ships earlier in the day in the Sea of Marmara. An average of 160 shipping vessels pass through the Bosporus on any given day.
The boat turned around just past the Rumeli fortress at the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge. The fortress was built by the Otttomans as they sought to control the Bosporus and plan their conquest of Istanbul just a handful of miles away. It was on my list of sights to see during the trip, but I would not end up having sufficient time. Can’t see everything in three days.
I’d been told by the ticket salesman that the trip would turn around at the third bridge, which was nearly at the Black Sea. This turned out not to be the case. He oversold me. But I was still entirely happy with the experience.
The final sight was the Maiden’s Tower, a tiny island lighthouse near the Asia side of Istanbul. It’s now a restaurant, and one I think would be super cool to experience. Our tour concluded a few minutes later at the dock from which we’d embarked.
The Hammam (Turkish Bath) Experience
I had a couple hours to kill between the end of the boat tour and my appointment with the Cağaloğlu Hamami, so I walked back along the waterfront to the Galata Bridge and caught the tram back to my hotel. It was nice to rest after a full day out already. I was excited for the hammam experience, though.
The Cağaloğlu Hamami is a 300-year-old hammam in the old part of the city. The beautiful marble bathhouse was built in 1741. I booked the “Istanbul Dream” for €50 from the list of services. It’s a pricey experience, but far from being the most expensive on the list.
The Cağaloğlu Hamami has been a popular spot over the decades, with a number of the rich and famous visiting and a whole wall of their photos gracing the entrance hall.
I’ll write up my whole hammam experience in a separate post. I knew very little going into it, but I am game for new cultural experiences. I will say that it is super refreshing, and at the Cağaloğlu Hamami you finish off with tea, sherbet, and Turkish delight.
Wrapping Up the Day
It was now nearly 9:00 PM, the latest I’d stayed out in Istanbul. With a tram station nearby, it was easy to head back to the hotel. Overall, this had been a fantastic day. The Turkish carpet salesman was mostly right in his assessment of the perfect day in Istanbul. Both the boat tour and hammam were excellent. I’m just not sure I’d put buying a Turkish carpet in the same category. 😂
Tomorrow would be my final day. With an evening flight booked to Amsterdam, I’d still have several hours to enjoy the city. Have to make every minute count on such a short trip!