Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Mosques

After a short night, we were quickly en route the first day of our trip. We had planned to see most of the old city of Istanbul so we were eager to start exploring. Especially after the Blue Mosque (or the person doing the call of prayer in the Blue Mosque) woke us up at 5 am, we really wanted to see that fucker.

Luckily for us, we only had to walk about 200 meters before we were in front of the Hagia Sophia, the Hyppodrome and the Blue Mosque (= Sultanahmet Mosque).

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As you can see, the first day was a really gray day, with lots of rain. Luckily we knew beforehand, which is also why we planned to do most of the inside stuff the first day. So if you’re going anywhere, always check weather forecasts and adapt your planning accordingly.

Our first visit for the day was the Hagia Sophia Museum. The Hagia Sophia used to be a Cathedral, but then became a Mosque in 1453 after it was captured about the Ottoman Empire. Now it’s a museum.

We made sure to be at the Hagia Sophia about fifteen minutes before opening hour at 9am, because we didn’t really fancy queuing a lot to get in. Unfortunately, there was already a small queue in front of the entrance despite the rain. So if you’re going in full season, remember that if you want to see the museum, you’ll have to queue or either be really early. Entrance costs 30 liras.

Important: I forgot to mention something in my general post about changing your money. We couldn’t get any Turkish liras in Belgium, so we needed to change them at our destination. You’ll need money to get to the city center from the airport, so you’ll have to change some money in the change offices at the airport. However, do not change a lot there as those exchange rates aren’t really good. The best exchange rates can be found at the Grand Bazaar, but anywhere else in the center they are also favorable to those at the airport.

Anyway, back to the Hagia Sophia now. To be honest, I was a bit disappointed in this building. I had expected more extravagance and gold etc, but in fact, this building is quite modest on the inside. Nonetheless, it’s a must-see when you’re in Istanbul.

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After the Hagia Sophia, we passed the entrance to the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest cistern (= water storage place) beneath the city of Istanbul. It was built in the sixth century.

We had only planned to visit the cistern the second day early in the morning as we had heard that queues could get long there as well. But as we passed, we saw that there was hardly a queue, so we didn’t hesitate twice and entered the Basilica Cistern immediately. The entrance price is 20 liras and it’s definitely worth it. It’s such a lovely, magical place.

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Inside the Basilica Cistern, there is also a little corner where you can dress up as a sultan and his court and get your touristy picture taken. We hesitated a while but in the end decided to go for it anyway as it would make a lovely souvenir. The picture costs 5 euros (or 15 liras) and you get a lovely frame for that price as well.

Once back above the ground, we continued our walk towards Nuruosmaniye Mosque. To go inside every mosque in Istanbul, you have to take your shoes off and women have to cover their head. Plastic bags are usually provided at the entrance to put your shoes in, and at the Blue Mosque (which I will talk about more extensively in another post) they also offer scarfs to cover your head. The other mosques don’t, so make sure you bring your own scarf if you want to visit the mosques.

The other mosques in the neighborhood that we visisted were the Beyazit Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Sehzade Mosque and the Fatih Mosque. These are all worth your time, especially the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is the biggest one in Istanbul and offers a really nice view on the city. Each mosque might seem the same at first, but when you look more in detail each is so different and beautiful. I didn’t dare to take a lot of pictures inside, out of respect for the people praying, but here are a few pictures of those mosques.

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From the Fatih mosque we then continued downwards towards the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosporus. We kind of got lost there as our map literally sucked and didn’t have enough street names on it to make sure we were able to keep track of where we were. But getting lost sure has it advantages, because we arrived at a point where we had a beautiful view on the city.

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On our way down we also saw the first stall that sold fresh pomegranate juice, which was really delicious and only 1 lira. In the busier parts of the city we also saw the juice, but it was a tad more expensive there.

And then we finally arrived at the harbor of Eminönü. It’s a lot busier there than around the mosques and you can find many stalls selling mais and chestnuts. You also have a lovely view on the Galata Tower and the newer part of Istanbul.

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In Eminönü, you can also find the New Mosque, which is just so lovely.

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As you can see, it was quickly getting dark by then, so we set out to go find a restaurant to have dinner. We walked in the direction of our hotel, hoping to come across one that attracted us. There were plenty, but I literally can’t stand when you can’t even look at the menu without those people starting their sales pitch. I just walk away immediately then. Luckily, we did find a lovely restaurant called ‘Ela Sophia that had the best Turkish spinach pancakes. I never had those before but I’m totally sold on them. Yum! You can even see the women making them, which you could in many other restaurants as well. Definite must try if you ever go to Istanbul.

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With our bellies full, and our feet tired from all the walking, we headed for our hotel for some well deserved rest, but not without stopping to take a few pictures of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque by night.

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Until next time,

With love, Ellen

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