Provided you arrive in daylight hours, the cheapest way to get from the aiport to the city is on the airport bus, which is clean, punctual and cheap. Ask at the airport where to board it. The bus will take you via the city centre to Taksim Square, where the best and most expensive hotels are located. The alternative is to travel by taxi, which is cheap but the drivers appear to be descended from the Biblical Jehu, for they drive furiously. You could also hire a car, but Istanbul traffic is likely to be a shock to the system and parking virtually impossible to find.
There is plenty of accommodation in Istanbul, to suit all pockets. For greatest convenience, you should try to find a hotel in the Topkapi area, so that the majority of the attractions listed below can be reached on foot. However these are likely to be the most expensive hotels and if you are working strictly to budget, you may prefer to find somewhere to stay a little further from the centre.
Taxis are relatively cheap in Istanbul and buses are even cheaper. However it can be difficult to determine where a bus is going (or where you should board one for your destination) unless you speak Turkish or can find someone who speaks your language. Taxis are, therefore, the preferred way of travelling. Do not, under any circumstances, hire a car for your stay in Istanbul, as there is absolutely nowhere to park near the main tourist attractions and penalties can be severe.
If you wish to pre-book accommodation, flights, car hire (outside Istanbul), you are welcome to contact our agent at Cappadoce Tours.
Find your way, either by bus, taxi or foot, to Justinian's great church, Haghia Sophia (in Turkish, Aya Sofia). Go in through the main gate, purchase your ticket and then walk along the path to the doorway into the building. Do not enter it, but walk back as far as you can towards the fence and look at the facade. Notice that it appears to be pretty much the same as any ordinary building.
Now walk towards the door. Just as you reach the entrance a mosaic becomes visible in the wall inside the building and beyond, through another doorway, you can see the huge space beyond. Walk through this entrance hallway and as you approach the space look up at what appears to be a dome in front of you. When you have admired it, walk a bit further forward and you realise that this was only a supporting half-dome and there is another dome above. Again, walk forward and at last you catch sight of the real dome impossibly high above you in the gloom. Originally this was covered in gold mosaic. Unfortunately this has been lost over the years and the impression produced by the dome is further ruined by an enormous mass of scaffolding that rises from the floor to the dome. No doubt maintenance work needs to be done, but in all the years I have been coming here, I have never seen a workman on the scaffolding, nor has the scaffolding been moved. A few more years and it will have become an antiquity in its own right.
Skirt the scaffolding and head towards the little pavilion at the far end of the space. Just in front of it note the circles of coloured marble in the floor. These mark the spot where the royal throne was placed during the coronation service for the Byzantine emperors.
Turn left and out into the aisle beyond the scaffolding, head back towards the door and on your right just before the door look for a pillar where a number of people are clustered. (If you are the only one in the building and you can't identify the pillar, just wait. Someone will turn up eventually.) About head height in the pillar is a small hole. You are supposed to make a wish and put a finger or thumb in the hole. If it comes out wet, your wish will be granted.
Now go back out through the door into the entrance hall and turn right. You will probably have to purchase another ticket - a scheme recently introduced by the Turks to swindle more money out of tourists following the fall in numbers after the 11/9/2001 attack on New York. Climb up the stairs at the far end of the hall and go through the low doorway on the right. This gives onto a ramp (not stairs, as the empress and other highborn ladies would be carried up here in litters) that leads to the balcony which was reserved for women.
When you emerge onto the balcony, bear right and walk round the space below you until you come to an elaborate marble screen. Personally I think that this was the area reserved for women, but possibly it was just for upper class women. Just inside the screen on the right there is a beautiful gold mosaic and directly opposite it is a simple plaque in the floor marking the grave of Enrico Dandolo, the Venetian doge who was responsible for diverting the Fourth Crusade away from the Holy Land and persuading it to attack Byzantium. Make a rude gesture to the old crook and go down to the far end of the building where another fragment of gold mosaic remains. The left-hand figures are those of the Empress Zoe and her husband; she came to the throne late in life and rapidly acquired three husbands. The first two were murdered by her, the last one deposed her and then was himself overthrown by popular indignation. No one is sure which of the three is depicted here, for the man's face has been altered at least once and possibly twice.
Explore the church and then return to the entrance hall. You have to leave through the door at the far end, but as you go out, look back to see another gold mosaic depicting Constantine holding the city of Byzantium and Justinian holding the Great Church, both men offering their foundations to the Virgin. The buildings to right and left outside the church are mainly Turkish tombs, but one of them is the baptistry.
Outside the gates turn right and walk down to the busy road that runs past Haghia Sophia. Cross over the road and tram tracks to the opposite corner. Continue down this street for about twenty feet to where a low building on your left allows you access to the Yerebatan Saray, one of the reservoirs which supplied water to the city. It is well worth the modest entrance fee. Note how most of the pillars are reused from elsewhere, as evidenced by the number whose upper and lower halves do not match. At the far end this is further proved by two blocks of stone carved with Medusa heads, which have been placed any old how; they were just scrap being reused in a place where they would never been seen.
You come out of the cistern via the gift shop. Turn right up the hill and cross over the road in which the entrance to the Yerebatan Saray is situated. A few yards beyond the corner, on your right, is a fragment of marble, all that remains of the Milarion, the four triumphal arches that mark the spot from which all distances were measured in the post-Constantine empire. For over a century the True Cross discovered by St Helena stood on top of the Milarion until people realised how badly it was being damaged by the weather.
Continue along the tram tracks for a good quarter of a mile (or slightly more) until you see a huge column on a bulbous base. This is Cemberlitas or the Burned Column and was set up by Constantine to celebrate the founding of Constantinople. To ensure the safety of the new city, a number of valuable relics were interred inside the masonry of the column, including the axe used by Noah to build the ark.
Turn right at the pillar and then left again, following the signs to the Grand Bazaar. When you have finished wandering around - and assuming you can find your way back (get a taxi if you can't) - return to Haghia Sopha and stand with your back to the gateway to the ticket office. Cross over the square and head towards the open space on the right. This is the site of the old Hippodrome, where chariot races were held and where riots were most likely to break out. Placed along the spina or dividing wall running down the middle of the Hippodrome were a number of works of art, including a red granite obelisk brought from Egypt. Note the carvings on the white base. On the side facing you there is a depiction of how the obelisk was brought by ship to Byzantium and erected with ropes and pulleys. Move round clockwise. The next face shows cheerleaders and musicians "working" the crowd. The next face depicts the empress and her court watching the races. The final face shows Persian and barbarian envoys appearing before the emperor in the Hippodrome.
The next monument is the bronze tripod in the form of three intertwined serpents, brought here from Delphi. Unfortunately the heads of the serpents have been broken off, but part of one may be seen in the Archaeology Museum. Beyond the tripod is a second obelisk made of blocks of stone. This was once covered with bronze plates, but they were looted at some time, probably during the Fourth Crusade.
You may wish to return through the Blue Mosque. If you can enter the grounds through the central doorway, well and good, otherwise make your way however you can and stand in that central doorway without looking up at the mosque. Once you are in position, however, look up and see the dome framed in the doorway. Walk across the courtyard and up the stairs and as you do so one half-dome after another is revealed until finally you can see five domes rising up to the central dome. Probably the original approach to Haghia Sophia had a similar effect.
The entrance to the mosque is round to the left. You will have to remove your shoes and ladies should wear a scarf over their heads. Carry your shoes in the plastic bag provided and enter the mosque. The Turks themselves vandalise and desecrate Christian churches, but that is no reason why we should sink to their level. Please remember that this is a place of worship, so behave decorously and talk in whispers. Leave through the far doorway and make a donation.
Signs outside the mosque point to a bazaar (which is not worth looking at compared to the Grand Bazaar) and the Mosaic Museum, which is worth a visit. Well laid-out and with plenty of signs in English. Photography is permitted, though not with tripod or flash, but there is adequate natural light.
Return to Haghia Sophia and this time walk anti-clockwise around the building. Past the souvenir shops there is a large entrance gate leading to the Topkapi Palace. Go through the gate. A rather battered building on your left is the church of Haghia Eirene or Holy Peace, now used by the Turks as an occasional concert hall. Take the road on the left beyond Haghia Eirene and go down the hill to the Archaeological Museum. There are three buildings: the one on the left contains objects from Babylon and the Hittite cities; the one on the right is the main museum; the one in front of you is the Ceramic Museum, which I have never entered, having no interest whatsoever in fine china.
It is worthwhile asking what museums are open before you purchase your ticket. You will pay the full price whatever, but sometimes only one floor of one of the museums is open, which makes it hardly worth your while to bother. If you are lucky, you will be allowed into the Hittite and the ground floor of the main museum. If you are very lucky you will get onto the first floor of the main museum as well. If it is the Prophet's birthday and a blue moon and the curator got out of bed on the right side that morning, you may actually get onto the top floor of the main museum. This happy concatenation of circumstances has only happened to me once - and the Hittite Museum was closed to make up for it!
On the ground floor of the main museum look for the Phoenician sarcophagii from Byblos, including the Hiram Sarcophagus. Pride of place is afforded to the "Alexander Sarcophagus", a Greek era sarcophagus richly carved with scenes from Alexander's life. On the first floor look for the broken head of a serpent from the tripod in the Hippodrome and for the half-dozen links from the great chain that once sealed the Golden Horn. On the top floor there are too many riches to mention: the original of the Siloam Inscription, the Hittite version of the treaty with Rameses II, fascinating tablets of divination and spells, and so on.
The Topkapi Palace is nothing more than a scheme for extorting money from tourists. You always had to purchase a separate ticket to enter the harem, but following 11/9/2001 the Turks now demand another ticket to visit the treasury. Except for the fact that you can't visit Istanbul and not "do" the Topkapi, I would advise you to give the place a miss. As it is you will just have to pay up with as good a grace as you can muster. They'll be charging for breathing next.
From outside the Topkapi take a taxi to Yedikule Hisar and notice the sea walls on your right. Yedikule Hisar is a seven-towered fortress build by the Turks around the Golden Gate, the main processional entry into Byzantium. You will have to search around and go through blocked up doorways in order to find the beautiful marble gate among the towers and chambers of the Turkish fort.
Unless you have asked your taxi to wait, go outside the city and walk to the right, along the walls for another two hundred yards or so to where a section has been restored. Note how the first line of defence was a deep ditch or dry moat some 60 feet wide. Then came a low wall pierced by loopholes every twenty feet or so. Behind that was a higher wall and behind that the main wall, high and thick. Go inside the city and climb up onto the wall. These Theodosian Walls kept Byzantium safe for nearly a millennium.
If you have time, continue walking along the walls - but we are talking about a couple of miles, so be warned. If you have to take a taxi, you will have to direct the driver along the walls until you come to an underpass. Take the first exit, which is actually in the underpass and head into town. Get the driver to do a U-turn as soon as possible and then turn off the main road and head along the inside of the walls. Somewhere near here is where Constantine Paleologus, the last emperor of Byzantium, was killed defending the city. At the top of the slope there is an insignificant gateway on your left. (You may have to try two or three before you locate the correct one.) Walk through it and on the other side you will find, on the right of the gate, a marble plaque in Turkish stating that this is the gate through which Mehmet Fatih (the Conqueror) entered the city in May (Mayis) 1453.
Continue along the walls but get outside the city as soon as possible. There is an open park in front of the walls, which are not quite as impressive here. Behind them was the palace of Blachernae, the chief seat of Byzantine government. The water in front of you is the Golden Horn. Take a taxi, if you don't already have one, along the sea walls and back to your starting point at Haghia Sophia. The large round tower on your left, on the other side of the Golden Horn, is the Galata Tower and was built by the Genoese to defy the Byzantines. You can get up in it to a restaurant and viewpoint; there is a small charge.
Other places of interest include: Taksim Square, through which Mehmet the Conqueror dragged his boats in order to occupy the Golden Horn. This event is commemorated every year by a procession in which boats are dragged along the route. (You can see this procession in a short film on NWTV Dolmabace Palace at the foot of the hill on which Taksim Square stands. A modern palace and therefore not, to my mind, terribly interesting. It is far more interesting to stand on the shore outside the palace and watch modern ships going up and down the Bosphorus, the route followed by Jason and the Argonauts. The Military Museum houses huge ancient canon and bandsmen dressed in old-style uniforms recreate the arrogant strut of the conquering Turks entering a subject city.
Of course the real star of Istanbul is the famous Bosphorus which separates Europe from Asia and it is fascinating to sit by the shore and watch ships plying from one continent to the other or travelling between Russia and the Mediterranean. The island with a tower on it is the Maiden's Tower, supposedly built by a sultan to shelter his daughter whose death by snakebite had been foretold. Alas, just as she reached adulthood, a basket of fruit was brought to her in which a snake was hiding ...
On the other side is the suburb of Scutari and the huge building crowning the hill is the barracks which was turned into a hospital during the Crimean War and is where Florence Nightingale, the "Lady with the Lamp", brought comfort and healing to thousands of soldiers and founded modern nursing.