When traveling back from our Christmas in London we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to stop for a mini vacation in Istanbul! Since we flew Turkish air in both directions to and from Nairobi we also had a long layover on our way out, and as exhausted as we were we took advantage of those hours to get a “preview” of what we would be able to do when we had days on our way back.
Turkish Air has an awesome program called TourIstanbul – it is a free city tour for anyone flying with them with a layover over 10 hours. We had heard rumors about the tour but we didn’t know anyone who had actually taken advantage of the deal and we were skeptical because, really? Free?
Really, it’s free! While it took us a little while to find the counter where you can sign up for the program (in between Starbucks and and Café Nero on the bottom floor of the airport, across from arrivals lounge and next to a reasonably priced baggage drop that we took advantage of), after we found our way the entire day was remarkably easy and well taken care of. We presented our boarding passes and were given maps of the city and an information slip along with name tags marking us as part of the tour. We sat and waited and Starbucks for about 15 minutes before our tour guide showed up – just long enough to get coffees since after our red eye we were already dragging.
There were about 20 people on the tour – they seemed to be from every corner of Europe, but we were definitely the only Americans. There were old people and little kids, families and single travelers and the tour seemed to work well for everyone. After a brief intro in heavily accented but really clear English our tour guide ushered us onto a bus and told us we would be heading straight for a free lunch in the city (free!). Everyone let up a quiet cheer. It appears the love of free food is universal!
Medusa’s head, re purposed for the bottom of a pillar in the Basilica Cistern
We drove from the airport into the city as our tour guide pointed out the pieces of Hadrian’s wall scattered along the road side and water’s edge. It was really amazing to see the modern city and roads juxtaposed with the crumbling remnants of one of the most ancient empires. We stopped just inside town for lunch, and while it wasn’t the best food we had in Turkey it was really quite good and totally free, and there was plenty of food for everyone.
Once we were all happy and well fed, our guide marched us off to see the sites. We stopped at the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi palace. At each place with an entrance fee the guide left us waiting while he ran off to pay for all of us. Like I said, FREE! Between the Cisterns and Topkapi palace we saved about $40 each in entrance fees by going with the tour. The guide gave us a short intro to each site and then plenty of time to explore – we didn’t feel rushed at all. Our only complaint would be that coming straight from Nairobi we didn’t have any winter coats, and it had snowed the week before! The other people on the tour kept asking us if we were cold. Yes!
The Blue Mosque is so named for all the blue tile work inside, but is locally known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Sultan Ahmed almost got in trouble for building the mosque with six minarets – much more than the ordinarily accepted four, and equal with the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The issue was settled after Ahmed agreed to pay for a seventh minaret to be added to the Grand Mosque. The vibrant colors on the interior and the Arabic script are beautiful, and the scale of the building inside and out is awe inspiring. Since it is a working mosque and open for prayer you have to dress appropriately (women, I’m talking to you!) but there were women at the entrance handing any particularly immodest visitors pieces of fabric to cover up their legs and heads. I was wearing pants but they were deemed modest enough for a visit, and I had my own scarf to cover up with so I didn’t have to wear anything borrowed. You also have to take your shoes off.
Around the outside of the mosque were a series of taps intended for ritual washing before prayer, and despite the cold there were dozens of people cleaning thoroughly before going in to prayer. The stones in front of each tap showed worn grooves from the knees of worshippers, and I was impressed both by the history apparent in the worn stone and the dedication of all those taking their time to get clean out in freezing cold!
While it was a great sight to see, we also witnessed some really appalling behavior by tourists such as adopting a pose of mock prayer for pictures, and loudly exclaiming about the oddness of the actual worshipers. I suppose that the community puts up with this because they see the opportunity to evangelize (there were “Ask us about Islam” signs around the mosque), but I felt embarrassed by the display and bad for the devout trying to pray.
We also had the opportunity during the tour to see the Egyptian Obolisk in the hippodrome, which was once the site of ancient chariot races, and the carved head of Medusa deep inside the underground cisterns – an artifact thought to have been brought from Greece. As a major world power the Ottoman Empire attracted gifts and the spoils of conquest from all across antiquity, and there is much to see in Istanbul that is actually from somewhere else.
At Topkapi Palace we saw the rooms where Sultans would receive guests, enormous jewels, elaborate thrones, and rich clothing from the height of the empire. By this point we were exhausted, so we were also happy to take a moment in the palace gardens looking across the Bosphorus into Asia.
We were cold and very tired by the end of day, but after a warm bus ride we were dropped back at the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to London. The day was relaxing and we were well taken care of. While we aren’t usually tour people, this was an awesome way to see some really spectacular and expensive sites for free, and gave us a great preview of the city for our return a couple weeks later!