We set our alarms for 6am, but were awoken by the 5am call to prayer, and decided to stay awake and head out to explore as much of Istanbul as we could see during our 26 hour stop over.
Here is our walking tour route (for some reason it wont allow me to embed it): https://goo.gl/maps/ZMHXzARcChJ2
We started off at Hagia Sophia Mosque and watched as the sun slowly rose over the city. The view is spectacular from this high up vantage point. From here we tried to enter the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, but they did not open until 8am. Instead of visiting the Palace grounds, we decided to wander the park that is at the base of the palace, Gulhane Park.
From here we walked towards the Grand Bazaar, stopping off at a Mosque we found along the way (Nuruosmaniye Camii). When we arrived at the Grand Bazaar, we realized that it is closed on Sundays. Had we visited the Grand Bazaar the night before, we would not have missed this iconic sight.
At this point we were getting pretty hungry, so we stopped off for a snack breakfast at a place called Yucel Bufe. It was at this point that we remembered that it was my 30th birthday! oops. We ordered some fresh baked goods and tea from the really friendly shop owner, (who called me “princess”). I ended up with a savoury pastry that was filled with spicy potato!!! The tea was also delicious and warm on a cold morning.
We then walked towards the Blue Mosque to be there for open and try to avoid some of the crowds. The Blue Mosque was definitely the crown jewel of our trip to Istanbul . The interior is something that cannot be described easily. The Blue Mosque had been on my bucket list for years and I cannot believe that this is how I got to spent my 30th birthday! I feel so incredibly lucky.
After the Blue Mosque, we headed back towards the Topkapi Palace, and walked through the park for a bit. The crowds were getting pretty intense, so we opted to not enter the palace, and instead headed towards the Basillica Cistern.
The Basillica Cistern was once used as a cistern for the city of Istanbul. It resides under the spot where a giant Basillica historically stood, hence the name Basillica Cistern. A really neat feature of the cisterns are two giant carved medusa heads. No one seems quite sure as to why these medusa heads exist in such a place. The Cistern was featured in the Bond film “From Russia with Love” (i’m a huge Bond fan so this was quite exciting to see).
After this visit to the Cistern, we had to make our way back to the hotel to catch our transfer to the airport.
One final thing to keep in mind about the Istanbul Ataturk airport, over the past few years they have greatly increased security around and at the airport. This is because of more than one attempt to attack the airport. There is a vehicle checkpoint on route to the airport, where they stop and search vehicles. As well, I believe we went through an additional four metal detector scanners and additional searches of our person before we were able to board our plane. We arrived at the airport four hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, but we barely made our flight.
Some of the searches were personally invasive (I felt I was singled out because I was not wearing a hijab, I was made to remove all of my clothing down to an undershirt in front of over 100 people) and I boarded the plane in tears, having narrowly avoided a full blown panic attack in the middle of the boarding gate.
I think the best way to minimize your discomfort at this airport is to arrive at least 4 hours early and have as little baggage and clothing on your person as possible. Take a lot of deep breaths and don’t be afraid to ask to sit down if it becomes overwhelming. I wish I had known how incredibly draining the process in this airport was before we flew out of it.