Visiting the three most popular tourist sites in Istanbul

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”.

travel, travel tips, travel planning, photo of the Blue Mosque with four minarets in the day light

The Blue Mosque – almost impossible to take a bad photo of it

General considerations

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).

domed arch of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

The exterior of Hagia Sophia as seen from the Hippodrome

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.

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!

Detail of the painted ceiling of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Take in every detail of Hagia Sophia, but take time to put the camera away and enjoy

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.

pathway and trees leading to the entrance of the Topkapi Palace gateway in Istanbul

The garden entrance to Topkapi Palace

 

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).

Blue Iznik tiles in a flower pattern, with Islamic writing in the centre

Tile detail in the harem, Topkapi Palace

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.

Detail in the harem

Detail in the harem

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.

boats on the water of the Bosphorus, Istanbul

View of the Bosphorus from Topkapi Palace

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.

arched ceiling of bricks at Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Detail of the entry hall of Hagia Sophia

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.

round medallion of Islamic writing in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Islamic detail in Hagia Sophia

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.

golden mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ

Twelfth century mosaics are a real highlight of Hagia Sophia

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.

interior of mosque, with lights, domes and windows

The main prayer area of the Blue Mosque

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.

multicoloured stained glass windows

Stained glass windows in the Blue Mosque

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.

Islamic text in a blue circle surrounded by other coloured decoration

Decorative details in a dome at the Blue Mosque

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?

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10 Comments on “Visiting the three most popular tourist sites in Istanbul”

  1. Geek Goddess 17/02/2014 at 4:46 am #

    When I visited Istanbul a couple of years ago, I saw these places twice. I arrived a few days before the bulk of my friends did, and saw these places with just two friends, on a weekday. When the rest of the gang arrived (18 more people!), most of them wanted to see these sites, so I went with them again. It was the weekend, and the places were definitely more crowded, and there were several buses that weren’t around earlier in the week.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 17/02/2014 at 6:12 am #

      Good pick up Naomi. I was there during the week – cruise ships, but no weekend trippers.

      • Pamela 18/02/2014 at 12:32 am #

        Must have been lucky, I was there in April 1996. A dream. And before the age of selfies too. It was quiet in all three fabulous places with people awed, silently soaking it all in. No queues and no crowds anywhere. But then all these gigantic cruise ships seem to be a more recent phenomenon.

        They’re quite dreadful in Venice, sometimes as many as four or more in port at the same time. Once stood on the pavement outside Il Redentore and watched four, one after the other, sail out of the Giudecca canal. And that was in May, before the height of the season. They’re so large they completely dwarf the city of Venice. Completely out of scale to their surroundings. It’s rather obscene. They travel fairly slowly at that point, but still just think what damage they may be wreaking on the fragile city. Cheers, Pamela

  2. emptyrucksack 18/02/2014 at 5:35 am #

    Istanbul big three are real giants. More than cultural overload, there is a real risk and a high chance of historical overload in Istanbul. Love Istanbul and I wil check out all your posts on it.

    • frugalfirstclasstravel 18/02/2014 at 6:21 am #

      Yes, it is abit like that isn’t it? All that random architecture, and historic sites at almost every turn

  3. frugalfirstclasstravel 18/02/2014 at 6:19 am #

    Hi Pamela, there was only one cruise ship in the day I visited Topkapi but there were still noticeable. I’d hate to be there in July/Aug in full tourist and cruise season.

  4. karisabroad 18/02/2014 at 10:52 am #

    My sister and I were just talking about traveling to Turkey! I’d love to see all three of these sites.

  5. Travis H 24/02/2014 at 4:35 pm #

    Great post and photos…totally agree with what you said. We had a week in Istanbul so we made sure to only do one of the major sites in a day, which really let us soak in the buildings and how breathtaking they each are. Thanks for sharing and safe travels!

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