They might be well visited but there’s a reason – they are special and you can only find them in Turkey.
From the Blue Mosque to Topaki Palace, Istanbul’s most famous sites are still worth your time (despite the crowds).
Prepare Yourself for the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is one of the most visited sites in Istanbul. Because of its popularity, every guidebook will recommend that you go early in the morning.
As everybody is given the same advice, you’d imagine that early in the morning is the worst time to go. Yet, most travellers ignore it, sleep in and linger over breakfast, meaning the line will be shorter if you are there in the morning.
If you’re not an early riser, plan your visit for Friday. Remember that Friday is a holy day for Muslims and the Blue Mosque is closed in the morning and opens for visitors at 1pm.
Dress carefully for your visit. The mosque does have scarves and robes to borrow if you’re deemed to be inappropriately dressed but if you want to avoid the hassle of borrowing and returning, think about what you wear. For men, this is relatively easy. Wear long trousers, not shorts. Where a shirt with sleeves and not a tank top. That’s pretty much it. For women, it’s more complicated. Long skirts or trousers are recommended. But your trousers shouldn’t be too tight. I saw some women being asked to wrap a cloth around their lower half because they wore leggings and a skirt or skin tight jeans. Play it safe and cover your arms to the wrist. Most importantly, cover your hair.
Before you enter the mosque, you will need to remove your shoes and carry them in a bag provided. The carpet is soft and thick and feels lovely underfoot.
Once inside the mosque, take your time to enjoy it. Marvel at the blue flowered tiles and the atmospheric lighting. Nobody will hurry you, spend as much time as you need. You won’t want to join the queue again.
Spend some time in the courtyard of the mosque. It’s an impressive structure from the outside.
Hagia Sofia/Aya Sofia
This impressive building (pictured at the top of the page), opposite the Blue Mosque, was once a Christian Church, then an Islamic Mosque and is now a museum. The building is filled with a gorgeous mix of Christian and Islamic iconography.
There’s not much written information inside the museum so if you want to know more then you should hire the audio guide. If you don’t have the guide, you should read the panels of information at the entrance – it’s last you’ll see beyond a sign that says ‘fountain’. You should also take the time to navigate the stairs to the upper gallery. The views down into the main hall are lovely and there are some well-preserved mosaics. Look for the Viking graffiti on the balcony railings looking down into the main hall.
The Bascilica Cistern leads you to Istanbul’s underground. The Cistern once supplied water to the palace and parts of the city. The water is now home to fish. There are 336 marble columns holding up the structure. Look out for the peacock eye column and the two Medusa Heads at the end of the walkway. The soft lighting adds to the atmosphere.
Unless you want some accompanying music for you visit the audio guide is not really worth it. The signage has very similar information.
Topkapi Palace in an enormous complex. You’ll want to spend about two hours here, longer if it’s summer time and crowded. There are four courtyards and numerous buildings to explore from the palace kitchens to the blue tiles and opulence of various pavilions in the fourth courtyard.
There are also excellent views across the Bosphorous. You can sit and enjoy a drink or lunch in the peaceful café and watch the boats and ferries drift by. The rooms with Islamic reliquary are usually very crowded and it can be difficult to read and see the artefacts. It’s worth battling the crowds to be dazzled by the gems in the Treasury, including the world’s fifth largest diamond.
All these sites are within walking distance of each other.