Hi Frugalistas! Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace. The “big three” tourist sites in Istanbul. Before I arrived in Istanbul I was worried that perhaps these sites would fall into what I call the “too loved by tourists” category. Well, I’m happy to announce that no, in my experience they aren’t. But, like visiting most popular tourist sites, there are some tricks to getting the most out of your visit. So here are my tips for a successful visit to the “big three” regardless of the length of your Istanbul itinerary.
There is a combo ticket you can buy from any participating site that covers many of the larger tourist destinations in Istanbul. Do your sums and see if buying one will work for you. It didn’t seem to offer any advantage to skip the lines to get in, but of course, not having to queue to buy a ticket can be a bonus in its own right (queues just to buy tickets can be quite long).
All three sites lie in a straight line along the Hippodrome. Depending on the number of people around, and whether you stop at the souvenir stalls or to take photos etc the walk from Topkapi Palace at one to end to the Blue Mosque at the other should take you no more than about 7minutes.
Personally, I think it is a bit of a cultural overload, but if time is short it is quite possible to visit all three on one day. For a one day itinerary, I would start at Topkapi Palace first thing in the morning, then move onto Hagia Sophia, and then finally in the late afternoon, visit the Blue Mosque. If you are in Istanbul with kids I would definitely suggest spacing the activities out over 2 days.
My other key tip is to put the camera away!! All three sites are wonderfully photogenic, and you will want, and indeed should take lots of photos. But also, all are majestic and so, so beautiful. Regardless of your faith they are all deserving of your full attention to absorb, reflect and enjoy. So click away to your heart’s content, but then put the camera away, and just drink it in. I promise you you won’t forget it, and it will be time very well spent!
Visiting the Topkapi Palace
Regardless of what else you want to do that day, I suggest visiting the Topkapi Palace first thing in the morning. Arriving there at 9.10am (it opens at 9am) there were already eight tour buses parked out the front, and more arriving all the time when I visited.
Once I entered the garden area of the Palace where you buy your ticket, I realised I’d actually arrived at a good time – the tour groups were all in the garden having their orientation talk with their guides. This meant the queue for tickets was almost non-existent, as was the security and ticket check to enter the actual palace. So my suggestion is to get there early, buy your ticket straight away and get into the palace as quickly as possible. There is no entry fee for the garden, so you can either come back and view it on another day, or spend more time there on the way out (you exit the same way).
Inside the palace there are two points where people tend to congregate – the harem and the treasure house. Depending on your interests, head to one of these first. The harem is particularly pretty, and great for those who love Iznik tiles and Middle Eastern architecture. The treasure house is full of, you guessed it, treasures, including some very fine jewellery, interesting costumes, and what I actually found the most interesting, a beautiful display of religious art and relics.
Make sure you have time to venture down to the far reaches of the palace and its gardens. There are opportunities for some very pretty views over the Bosphorus, and the gardens make a pleasant respite from the tourist hordes.
Personally I found a full morning at the Topkapi Palace was enough for me, but you could easily stay longer.
Visiting Hagia Sophia
The queues for Hagia Sophia may be long, but they move quickly, so don’t be put off. Once inside people do tend to “dissolve” somewhat. I think about Hagia Sophia in three sections – the entry areas, the main area on the ground floor and the galleries upstairs. All offer a very different architectural and religious experience. The entry areas are quite austere and Roman, the main ground floor area marries Christian and Islamic religious art, and the upper galleries are a testament to Byzantine religious art, as well as offering an insight into the ongoing restoration of this amazing building.
Start in the entry foyer areas and admire the stone architectural details – so different to the rest of the site. Then head into the main ground floor area, and drink in its majesty. There isn’t really anywhere to sit, but you should be able to find a little partition or piece of wall to lean against. Take your time. Even though it will be busy with tour groups, and tourists all clicking away, taking selfies and photos of each other, it does have a certain tranquillity. Sit quietly, with your camera away, and I think you’ll find it.
Then it’s upstairs to the upper gallery. Mosaics rule here. Don’t forget to look up to see the magnificent details of the mosaics under the arches. Then don’t forget to look down back into the main ground floor area for some lovely photos from a completely different perspective.
Visiting The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is open all the time – except for half an hour at prayer time. Prayer times are posted outside the tourist entrance (there is a separate entrance for visitors and worshippers, which are both well sign posted). I’ll be posting separately about visiting a mosque, but as a quick reminder here, remember to dress modestly, whether you are a man or woman (knees and shoulders covered). Women need a scarf to cover their heads. Scarves and cloaks are available, but do the right thing and dress respectfully in the first place.
When you enter the mosque you’ll see there is a little fence that divides the mosque into a prayer and visitor area. Don’t enter the prayer area unless you wish to pray. I found everyone tended to congregate around the centre of the visitor area and it became quite crowded. Move off to the sides and you’ll be rewarded with a different perspective, and some very lovely views.
Don’t forget to look up and study the details of the painted ceiling – so pretty. The other thing I noticed particularly was how pretty the stained glass windows are. I love stained glass windows at the best of times, and these are especially lovely. As is traditional in Islamic art there are no people represented in the windows and the other art. Instead, flowers, text from the Koran, and other dainty designs rule.
The Blue Mosque is free to enter, however, there is an opportunity to make a donation to upkeep of the mosque on the way out. A few Lira will be gratefully accepted.
I’ll be writing about visiting each of these sites in upcoming posts, but I hope this gives you a taster of great things to come!
If you’ve visited, what are your top tips for enjoying these fabulous tourist sites in Istanbul?