How about visiting Turkey for free? I am serious when I say these as it’s very much possible. There are conditions attached to it but with careful planning, it’s very much possible to take a short trip to Istanbul for absolutely nothing. To come straight to the point if you fly with Turkish Airlines to any destination with a transit through Istanbul Ataturk Airport then you can avail their Touristanbul service for absolutely free. The only cost would be to get a Turkish Visa but on the brighter side, you can always apply for e-visa rather than typical visa when travelling to Turkey.
To check the eligibility for Turkish e-visa you need to visit their interactive website and if you follow the instruction you will at the ned be able to generate a visa which you will receive in your email inbox within a couple of minutes. The cost of the e-visa depends on your nationality thus would vary and you will be able to get the exact amount while filling up the details at their interactive site.
To access Touristanbul service you need to ensure that your transit stop at Istanbul Ataturk airport is more than six hours and also those six hours would fit into one of their scheduled tours. On top of then, you need to also ensure that you must report an hour early and reach back to the airport with a minimum of one hour in hand thus I would suggest that you choose a flight such that you at least have eight hours plus of time at Istanbul Ataturk Airport.
As a part of Touristanbul service either you can take their all-expense paid tour around Istanbul which would also include meals and entry tickets at museums and other tourist spots or alternately you can choose to spend some time relaxing at a city hotel. I would always recommend that you take the city tour as you would get a wonderful opportunity to visit a new country however if you have already taken a tour then you can always relax back at a hotel.
I had already booked my ticket with Turkish Airlines for my trip to Rome via Istanbul and with a waiting time of just about seven hours, I found it bit tricky to select any of their free bus tours thus decided to take the matter into my own hand and did some research online. Since I already had a Schengen Visa thus getting the Turkish e-Visa would be a matter of minutes so decided my options whether to stay back at the airport or to venture out on my own.
Immigration at Istanbul
There are many counters thus would take hardly around thirty minutes to pass through them, the time when we had arrived two aircraft had landed back to back thus even with the huge number of passengers we passed the immigration counter quite quickly. You just need to show them your passport and the e-visa printout which you would have got after your application online. Remember that the printout is important and even though some bloggers have mentioned that they just swipe the passport on the scanner still it is asked. After your passport has been stamped you then need to pick up your luggage. But since our luggage was checked through to Rome we just proceeded to the exit.
Local Transport Options
Luckily Ataturk Airport is very near to the main city and a short trip is always possible so decided to go around Istanbul on my own and select the most important landmarks the city can offer and also enjoy visiting them and not rush through one after the other.
From the airport you have three options:-
One you can take a metro ride followed by a short tram ride to the main Sultanahmet Square.
Two, you can take a (yellow) taxi which is available outside the airport.
Three, pre-book a cab to the city centre, this is the most expensive option but the fastest and most comfortable. These pre-book cabs can be easily booked online without paying any money and you will also be able to pay then in Euro or US Dollar thus would not lose money in currency conversion.
The metro station is just to the right of the exit while the taxi and the private car parking exit is to the left.
Start of the Tour
As we reached the gates we found a representative from the taxi service waiting with my name placard and after confirming my arrival with fifteen minutes the minivan was available at our disposal. Usually, there would be two different cars one for the drop and the next for the pickup but since this was a short trip the same car would be there for us for the return trip to the airport.
The drive from the airport to the city centre is a real picturesque one with multi-lane highways and beautiful tulip gardens in between. At one point you would be driving parallel to the waterfront clearly seeing the Asian side of Turkey. There is a diversion midway which will take you to the underwater tunnel linking European Turkey to Asian Turkey. However, we did not want to take this ride and wanted to head straight towards Sultanahmet Square.
Places To See Around Sultanahmet Square
It takes just a little more than thirty minutes to reach the city centre from the airport if you are travelling in the car and you are dropped right at the city centre from where you can access all the important tourist landmarks. Some of the important things that you must visit are:-
All historical data and information have been copied from Wikipedia
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Most of the places of tourist importance at Sultanahmet Square can be found in this stretch. It was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultanahmet Square) in the Turkish city of Istanbul, with a few fragments of the original structure surviving.
Walled Obelisk (Örme Dikilitaş)
This is also known by other names such as Constantine Obelisk or Masonry Obelisk and is the first structure that you will see. There are no records of its original construction date. The 32 m obelisk was reconstructed of roughly cut stones by Constantine VII. At that time, it was reportedly decorated with gilded bronze plaques that portrayed the victories of Basil I, the grandfather of Constantine VII. Also, there was a sphere at the top of the obelisk. However, reportedly these gilded bronze plaques were stolen and melted down by Fourth Crusaders in 1204. This obelisk has been heavily renovated since its age was becoming a crucial factor.
Serpent Column (Yılanlı Sütun)
This is also known by other names such as the Plataean Tripod or Delphi Tripod. Don’t get shocked when you see that the serpent head is missing from the column, one of the head has been preserved in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. It is part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod, originally in Delphi and relocated to Constantinople by Constantine the Great in 324. It was built to commemorate the Greeks who fought and defeated the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). The serpent heads of the 8-metre (26 ft) high column remained intact until the end of the 17th century.
Obelisk of Theodosius (Theodosius Dikilitaş)
If you have not been to Egypt then this is the closest that you can come to something that was once part of the Pharaohs. The hieroglyphs can clearly be seen on the faces of the obelisk which belonged to that of Pharaoh Thutmose III. The obelisk was erected during the 18th dynasty by Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC), to the south of the seventh pylon of the great temple of Karnak. The Roman emperor Constantius II (337–361 AD) had it and another obelisk transported along the river Nile to Alexandria to commemorate his ventennalia or 20 years on the throne in 357. The obelisk of Theodosius remained in Alexandria until 390, when Theodosius I (379–395 AD) had it transported to Constantinople and put up on the spina of the Hippodrome (Sultanahmet Square).
Museum of Turkish Islamic Arts Ibrahim Pasha Palace (Türk İslam Eserleri Müzesi İbrahim Paşa Sarayı)
Constructed in 1524, the building was formerly the palace of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, who was the second grand vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent and was once thought to have been the husband of the Sultan’s sister, Hatice Sultan. The collection includes notable examples of Islamic calligraphy, tiles, and rugs as well as ethnographic displays on various cultures in Turkey, particularly nomad groups. These displays recreate rooms or dwellings from different time periods and regions.
Regional Directorate of Land Registry and Cadastre (Tapu Ve Kadastro Bölge Müdürlüğü)
The building itself has a beautiful architecture.
German Fountain (Alman Çeşmesi)
It was constructed to commemorate the second anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898. It was built in Germany, then transported piece by piece and assembled in its current site in 1900. The neo-Byzantine style fountain’s octagonal dome has eight marble columns, and dome’s interior is covered with golden mosaics.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı)
It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The name of this subterranean structure derives from a large public square on the First Hill of Constantinople, the Stoa Basilica, beneath which it was originally constructed. Before being converted to a cistern, a great Basilica stood in its place, built between the 3rd and 4th centuries during the Early Roman Age as a commercial, legal and artistic centre. The basilica was reconstructed by Illus after a fire in 476. Ancient texts indicated that the basilica contained gardens, surrounded by a colonnade and facing the Hagia Sophia. According to ancient historians, Emperor Constantine built a structure that was later rebuilt and enlarged by Emperor Justinian after the Nika riots of 532, which devastated the city.
Hagia Sophia Triple Fountain (Ayasofya Üçyüzlü Çeşmesi)
Just up ahead from the gate to the Hagia Sophia is this small fountain.
Topkapi Palace Museum (Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi)
This place is little ahead from the main Sultanahmet Square but can easily be walked. This is a large palace in Istanbul, Turkey, that was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years (1465–1856) of their 624-year reign.
Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi)
This is one of the main reason to be at this place thus keep enough time in your hand for this. It was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum. From the date of its construction in 537 AD, and until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted by the Fourth Crusaders to a Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was later converted into an Ottoman mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931. It was then secularised and opened as a museum on 1 February 1935. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”. It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.
Once inside you will find the magnanimity of the structure when you look up towards the ceiling. At the time of my visit this place was going under massive renovation work thus one side of the hall was covered. This place at least will take more than an hour if you want to look around in details.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque / Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
After all this please is famous for this very particular mosque which is also commonly known as the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque, as it is popularly known, was constructed between 1609 and 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I. Its Külliye contains Ahmed’s tomb, a madrasah and a hospice. Hand-painted blue tiles adorn the mosque’s interior walls, and at night the mosque is bathed in blue as lights frame the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes.
Haseki Hürrem Sultan Fountain (Haseki Hürrem Sultan Cesmesi)
Hope you enjoyed a short trip to Istanbul – Turkey, even though this was a short tour en route to Rome but nevertheless a very meaningful one for me as I always wanted to see the Blue Mosque. My next set of blog will be from the trip to Italy do keep watching this place.
Walking Routes of All the Tourist Spots at Sultanahmet Square
Click here to open route on Google Map