Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tourist Sights we visited on the Big Bus Istanbul Hop on Hop off Tour

When we visited Istanbul last year, we were deciding whether to stay in the Beyoğlu area, a popular area for tourists in the modern part of Europe with a lot of restaurants and shops, or in the Sultanahmet area, which is known as Old Istanbul and where most of the tourist sights are. 

We opted to stay in the modern part, and we just got a 24 hour Big Bus Hop On Hop Off Tour to get around on our designated sightseeing days. 

You can buy ticket to the Big Bus Tours online, or right at the heart of Taksim Square.
If you know the exact dates you plan to avail of the tour, it's cheaper to buy a ticket online.

All tickets come with free earphones, commentary in different languages,
and WiFi on the bus.

We started sightseeing in the afternoon of the day we arrived, and used the Hop On Hop Off Bus to go back to Sultanahmet on the next day, to shop at the Grand Bazaar and check out the nearby areas.

Istanbul Sights from the Big Bus
While there are definitely a lot of places to see, I think there are three main places of interest, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and of course the Grand Bazaar (which to be honest, is the reason that Turkey was on my bucket list). The rest of the sights, we were happy enough to enjoy from our seats on the bus.
Crossing this bridge brings you from the modern part to the older part of town.
This is the New Mosque (Yeni Camii). It's famous for the pigeon feeder
stalls outside the mosque where you can buy wheat to feed the pigeons.

The Blue Mosque
The Sultan Ahmed (or Ahmet) Mosque is a historic Mosque constructed during the time of Ahmed I, still remain to be a place of worship until today. It got it's name from the hand-painted blue tiles in the interior of the mosque. Entrance is free, but you need to make sure you are properly attired and women are required to cover their hair (they will provide you with the necessary cover).

This is the interior:

The mosque is also very beautiful from the outside, and I heard also at night.

Right across the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. You just need to walk across the square.
To the right is a luxurious looking hammam, but if it's anything like my
experience in Morocco, seeing naked ugly people roaming around
is not my thing.

You need to buy a ticket to enter the Hagia Sophia Museum, but entrance to the Tombs (which we didn't visit) is free.
Tip: If ticket booth lines are long, it's easier to use
the self-service booth so you can enter directly.

The Hagia Sophia, which means "Holy Wisdom" was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. My daughter Sofia, shares the same name as she was named after the Greek-goddess of wisdom. 

Interestingly, this place reminds me of the Temple of Luxor, which has been in almost continuous use as a place of worship right up to the present day. It also used to have a Christian church, then for thousands of years, the temple was buried beneath the streets and houses of Luxor. Eventually the mosque of Sufi Shaykh Yusuf Abu al-Hajjaj was built over it. This mosque and church remains was carefully preserved when the temple was uncovered and forms an integral part of the site today.

At the Temple of Luxor, where the missing Obelisk now
stands at Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Back to the Hagia Sophia...
It was quite a trek to get to the second floor... since there were actually
no steps, just a steep cobblestone climb.

We visited in August so it was really a hot and humid climb. Make sure you bring bottled water.
My favorite part is the Marble Door from the 6th Century.
It separates the chambers of the emperor from the members
of the church.
They have a photo of what the mosaic walls looked like before.
You can see the Blue Mosque from the second floor window.
View from the first floor of Hagia Sophia:

Of course we needed to do a stop at the museum gift shop. They had everything from reproductions to notebooks.

Outside the museum, there's a beautiful well-restored wash area.

Don't forget to grab Turkish Ice Cream from this stall right outside the Hagia Sophia. Complete with tricks and pranks from the servers.
I love the gummy quality of Turkish Ice Cream, and the
strawberry, lemon and salted caramel flavors are to die for.

Where to Eat: 
If you're within the area during meal time, you can have lunch at Dervis Cafe, which is right in the square infront of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Despite it's very central location, the food was good and it seemed like the prices were reasonable too.

We ordered the Mixed-Grill Platter, Kofta, and Lamb Chops to shared between four of us. Everything came fries, veggies and rice.
Our meal, with drinks included cost around US$40 (Php2,000).

After doing the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, we went back to sightseeing from the bus.
This is where you take the ferry, if you are crossing the Bosphorous
Strait from Europe to Asia.

It was such a thrill crossing continents.

The next day, we took the Big Bus Tour Again to get on the Blue Route to explore the Golden Horn but we just listened to the commentary on the bus without exploring any further. If you have limited time, you can skip this.

Both the Red Routes and the Blue Routes stop at Sultanahmet, so we ended our tour back here, with the intention of shopping this time.

Arasta Bazaar
There is a shopping arcade just beside the Blue Mosque called the Arasta Bazaar. It's just a fraction of the size of the Grand Bazaar, but it will give you a good idea of what is available, and the range of prices that they are selling for.

Of course, bargaining is very much expected, but in my experience, the starting prices here are not as outrageously high as the main areas of the Grand Bazaar. My tip is look around here first to give you an idea, then move on to the Grand Bazaar to see much more options but with a general price range in mind for reference.

Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is a few blocks away from the square but definitely accessible on foot. It's everything I imagined and more. It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. I don't think I managed to visit the whole place but I sure did try. It's so wonderful, it deserves a separate post.

So this wraps by my post on the mandatory tourist attractions side of the trip. In following posts, I will cover the food and the shopping.

Thank you so much Big Bus Istanbul for making sightseeing easy and fun, and very informative too. just saying.

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