You can spend a week or more sightseeing in Istanbul, we only had a few days and have picked out a few highlights. A dervish ceremony and slow gentle trip down the Bosphorus on the local ferry should definitely make it onto any Istanbul must do list.
Sultanahmet to Galata
Our first full day of sightseeing in Istanbul began with a walk from our hotel around the sights of Sultanahmet. We warmed up with a visit to the small beautifully restored mosque near to our hotel. It is called Little Aya Sofya, built in 530 AD just before its big cousin further up the hill and was a good introduction to Ottoman architecture before we made our way to the two iconic sights of Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia to give it its other name) .
The walk there is uphill, very uphill!. We had not realised, but once you move from the waterfront anywhere in Istanbul you will be walking skyward as hills surround the water; so get ready for some very steep inclines on your Istanbul sightseeing treks.
We decided not to do any internal visits on our first day and were happy just to wander around the Sultanahmet Square taking in the sights of the mosques, the fountains and the obelisks which litter this tourist mecca of Istanbul. This will take a very pleasant hour or two as you watch the tourists and the touts spar with each other offering you city bus tours, Bosphorus boat tours or a full guide service to get you round the city.
Where to see the Dervish Ceremony in Istanbul
Instead we popped into the very friendly tourist information office to find out where we can get to see a whirling dervish ceremony and the cheapest way to get down the Bosphorus on a boat that wasn’t sold by one of the touts. We were told to make our way to the Galata Mevlevi Museum for around three pm to ensure we got hold of a ticket for the 5pm Dervish ceremony. She also gave us details about the public boat which ferries you down the Bosphorus for an hour and a half and back for just 25 TL. It sets off at 10.30 am from the pier by the Galata bridge.
We had a few hours before the ticket deadline for the dervish ceremony so we decided we would walk our way to Galata via the Gulhane park with its beautiful plane tree walkways and hilltop outdoor tea cafe’s. Here you can buy an overpriced pot of tea which is well worth the extra expense just for the stunning views of the Galata in the distance and the Bosphorus below.
Refreshed with tea we made our way down to the harbour front here we sampled a fish sandwich (balık-ekmek) from one of the vendors and tried a local turnip juice drink with pickles. The fish sandwich was scrumptious, but we won’t be trying the turnip juice again. We watched the fishermen who line the top of the Galata bridge for a while before walking underneath it and sampling an afternoon beer (8 Lira per 500ml glass) and watched the world go by along the river.
It’s a good job we had the break, because the walk up to Galata tower and the museum was the steepest we had encountered yet. It was a lung stretching one hundred near vertical steps to get up there. There is a funicular train if you want to save your lungs, but that seemed like cheating really. In the end the walk was interesting as there are some quite talented graffiti artists around town who have done a nice job on some abandoned buildings and walls in this area. We also happened across an old American car abandoned surrounded by graffiti art and for a moment I thought we were in New York or Baltimore, quite an unexpected sight.
The Whirling Dervish of Istanbul
The Galata Mevlevi Museum was just a short hop from the tower and the tickets for the ceremony can be purchased at the entrance, a snip at 40 TL. The ceremony takes place here only on a Sunday and there are not many seats so don’t be late or you will miss your chance. We paid the additional 5 TL entrance to the museum and took a look at the history of the Dervish Mevlevi sect which was an interesting introduction for what we were about to see. It also allowed us to get a good seat ready for the spectacle.
We really didn’t know what to expect, we knew they whirled a lot and could walk in a straight line afterwards and that it was part of some religious ceremony, but beyond that we were clueless. What we were treated to was a truly spiritual experience. You can witness the trance like state the followers get into as they move through each stage of the ritual. This really isn’t just a tourist performance they mean it and it shows. The Sufi Dervish order is not unique to Turkey, but Istanbul is firmly probably the most accessible place to see these unique performances.
Eventually we stopped our minds spinning after the ceremony and admired the Galata tower by night, enjoying our downward trek to the bridge to gaze at the nighttime lighted mosques and banks of the Bosphorus. If the place has a mystique by day the banks of the Bosphorus take on a magical quality by night.
We found a nice local restaurant to eat in that evening near to the hotel and enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the owner and some of his wife’s home cooked food. The highlight surprisingly was the lentil soup which was spiced and flavoured beautifully. We washed the meal down with a bottle of Efes and raki or two and we went to bed dreaming of the whirling and looking forward to our boat trip the next day.
Our Bosphorus Ferry Cruise
We arrived at the public ferry terminal about ten minutes before the daily departure at 10.35 and bought our return trip tickets to Anadolu Kavagi. This village sits at the end of the Bosphorus just before it spills into the Black Sea.
The trip there takes just over an hour and a half leaving you two to three hours to wander the very small village where you alight. The village has an interesting castle, well we think it does, we’re not too sure we never really got to see it. The trip up there was yet another super steep slope and the place was covered in such low dense fog clouds that you couldn’t see further than 10 metres in front of you.
The village is no more than a collection of tourist restaurants, but the trip here on the water will keep you entertained as you make your way from Istanbul almost to the Black Sea. You will see birds skimming across the water, the seagulls swarming the boat for fish disturbance behind and the offerings from the passengers on the top deck. You can sample the local yoghurt produced at Kanlica, try it, it costs next to nothing and really does taste very good.
Lunch at the village will begin with you being overawed by the restaurant touts who will try and get you in and steer you to the expensive fish sold by weight, if you don’t specify you will be served a forty pound shark!!. Also watch out for extra prices of service tax and overcharging you for your beer (quoting the small beer price, serving you the big one then trying to charge you more). They tried it on with us but met their match with John.
The boats are comfortable and warm with radiators to snuggle up to if you feel the spring chill on your trip. On the way there we spent most of our time outside in a chilly breeze, but the spring sun warmed us. We were wrapped up warm in our recently purchased ski gear. On board you can keep yourself topped up with Turkish cay (tea), coffee or a snack from the buffet for a small charge.
You will be back at the harbour for about four thirty and if you feel the need you can go for a beer under the bridge to watch the sun set behind the mosques, well worth it at least once during your stay here.
Istanbul Sightseeing: The Big Sights
The Blue mosque in Istanbul is free to visit, but you are welcomed in to fit around prayer times which are dependent upon the moon and the sun. So on your first day wandering past check out the board outside the entrance and see what times visitors are allowed in, or you can check online here. The visit here for me was a little disappointing, I don’t know why, it was just one of the those places I had built up to be something that it is not. It is a very old and important mosque, but I just didn’t get the significance of it when I was inside. Shame really.
Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia) on the other hand more than made up for it. It started life as a church centuries ago (360AD) and remained so for a thousand years until it was converted to a mosque in 1453 and stayed that way for hundreds of years before Ataturk transformed it into the museum it is today back in the 1930’s
The mosaics, the windows and the sheer scale make for an impressive piece of history and it is well worth the entrance fee (25 TL) to wander its corridors and marvel at the sheer scale of this structure.
Our final tourist trail visit was to the Grand Bazaar, truly deserving if its name, it is enormous, warren like and very easy to get lost in. It really is perfect for a rainy day Istanbul. Carpets, clothes, jewellery, ceramics, lamps, leather and anything else remotely associated with Turkey can be found here which includes tea and Turkish Delight. The delightful Turkish traders will show off their bargaining skills over a cup of cay and a cheeky smile. We didn’t buy anything but really enjoyed our time in here just taking in the atmosphere and wandering around the lanes, as you’d expect we found the prices for tourists ridiculously high compared to everywhere else we visited around Istanbul.
Istanbul has been a real pleasure for us, the people have been friendly and welcoming, the prices not too expensive and has eased us very gently back into Europe after spending so long in Asia. We are off to try our hand at skiing but will be back later in the month to set a few roots in Turkey and hopefully find out a little bit more of this gateway to Europe.