We started our day by exploring some sights near our hotel starting by walking through Sultan Ahmet Square where the Hippodrome, Egyptian Obelisk, Column of Constantine and German Fountain are. This is a nice, open, park-like area that you walk through to get to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Hippodrome used to be Roman chariot racetrack. The square never closes and is often packed with tourists during the day, but not worth spending a great deal of time.
We quickly headed to the Hagia Sophia, which started off as a church for the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and then became a mosque when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453. After serving as an important mosque for centuries, it was converted to a museum. The Hagia Sophia is open Tuesday-Sunday from 9:00-18:30 in the summer (until 16:30 in the off season) with last entry one hour before closing. You will need 20 TL for admission and at least an hour and half of your time. We used the “Hagia Sophia Tour” chapter of Rick Steve’s Istanbul as our guide.
Nave of the Hagia Sophia
I was in awe of how this great structure was constructed without the technology and tools that we have available today and it is still so well preserved. It truly is a magnificent sight and it was amazing to stand in a structure so full of history. Just entering the nave took my breath away. Here are some of the highlights for me:
The architecture: The main dome was definitely one of my favorite architectural highlight. And to see that the architects would adhere to the Byzantine style of symmetry in all parts of the structure by painting a false window or door where real one would weaken the structure made the architecture even more impressive.
The dome of the Hagia Sophia (not the false windows on each side of the dome)
The transition from church to mosque: Throughout the structure, you can see Christian paintings that have been partially covered where the Ottomans tried to cover up anything Christian so the structure could be used as a mosque.
Evidence of the Ottomans covering up Christian paintings
Column of St. Gregory: Near the entrance to the nave from the interior narthex is the Column of St. Gregory. People believed that this column “wept” holy water that would cure illness. You can try putting your thumb in the hole where so many others have over the years. If it feels damp, perhaps you will be cured! It did not feel damp to me (darn).
Column of St. Gregory
Then, we went across the street to the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque is one of Istanbul’s most iconic sights and is named for the rich blue color of the ceramic tiles on the walls inside. The Blue Mosque is known for it’s six minarets (only to be outdone by the mosque in Mecca, which now has seven). The Blue Mosque is open daily from one hour before sunrise until one hour before sunset and closed to visitors five times a day for prayer. Women need to cover their heads and everyone has to remove their shoes to enter the mosque. The interior with it’s richly colored ceramic tiles is so beautiful and it was wonderful to just be able to sit there in the quiet and take it all in.
Inside the Blue Mosque
While we were planning for our trip, my husband read about these boats that serve fish sandwiches while the boats rock side to side like crazy and he convinced me to ride the tram down to the Galata Bridge for some fish sandwiches for lunch. The sandwiches were pretty cheap and the fish tasted very fresh and smelled delicious. If you’re not a fan of fish with bones, you may not be a fan of these sandwiches. And it was so much fun to watch the men cook fish and make sandwiches while the boat rocked side to side. I definitely would’ve been motion sick on that boat. There are plenty of tables and chairs nearby to sit and enjoy your meal. There are also many other vendors selling pickled vegetables, popcorn and chestnuts.
Fish sandwich boat
After lunch, we took the tram back to Sultan Ahmet Square to go to the Underground Cistern which is located across the tram from the Hagia Sophia. The Underground Cistern is a underground reservoir built during the Byzantine Empire. There are hundreds of columns supporting the brick ceiling with a shallow pool of water below you (with fish swimming in it!). At the far end of the cistern are two Medusa heads lying on the ground. The Underground Cistern is open daily from 9:00-20:00 and is a quick 15-20 minute visit with 10 TL for admission. It’s a fun and neat place to visit, but can be skipped if you are short on time.
For dinner, we went to a place recommended by Rick Steves for it’s seafood, Balikci Sabahattin, located a few blocks away from the Blue Mosque. We showed up with a reservation and were promptly seated. We got several mezes and tried the rice with mussels, eggplant, octopus salad, monkfish and jumbo shrimp. The food was all very good, but a bit overpriced as mezes usually are.
Rice with mussels, eggplant and octopus salad at Balikci Sabahattin
Monkfish and jumbo shrimp at Balikci Sabahattin
It was another wonderful day in Turkey!