Walks of Turkey: historical guided tour of Istanbul! Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Cistern, spice market.
Dark angel over Byzantium! If a single image could sum up my feeling about Istanbul, it would be this one.
It was my first time here, and I wanted an in-depth look at the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and other ancient wonders.
As you’ll recall, I came to Turkey as a guest of the World Tourism Forum. After the travel conference, I stayed a few extra days to explore.
I met my Walks of Turkey guide in the Sultanahmet area, where these cultural landmarks are located within easy walking distance of each other. The city may be now be called Istanbul, but you still feel the grandeur of Constantinople (as it was known during its heyday).
From the start, we knew we were in good hands. Our guide, Kamil, understood our photography goals — and used his personal connections to bring us to the best viewpoints, like this one. He also customized the tour to suit our interests and pace. The entire time, it felt like we were on a walk with a friend.
(Hair by Stephanie Hoy of Stratosphere Salon, Vancouver BC).
As you can see from this video, Walks of Turkey delivered the ideal, customized tour! The company has a five-star rating because of its expert guides and small private tours. You can just relax and enjoy the personal experience, and there are never surprises such as hidden costs along the way.
Kamil started his tour at the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which is marked by two obelisks and a Serpentine Column. He brought the ancient scene to life, describing the spirited sporting events that took place here, and pointing out the tracks of horse chariots.
Above is a close-up of the obelisk that Theodosius the Great brought from Egypt in the 4th century. I couldn’t believe how well the hieroglyphs stood the test of time. The owl looks like he was carved yesterday.
Right next to the Hippodrome is the glorious Blue Mosque. Our Walks of Turkey guide explained that this is a nickname, and that locals call it the Sultan Ahmet. This blue-tiled, six-minaret achievement was built in the early 17th century, during the rule of Ahmed I.
We admired the peaceful courtyard, with a hexagon fountain for ablutions in the middle (which is now dry).
Before entering the mosque, everyone must remove their shoes (they provide a plastic bag, so you can carry them with you). The women must cover their heads with scarves, and put on a blue skirt (even if you’re wearing leggings, you’ll be asked to wear one). This is out of respect to the Muslims that attend the mosque for prayers and services.
I was prepared: I had my arms covered, and brought my own scarf.
Walk into the Blue Mosque, and look up. You can’t help but be captivated by the heavenly domes, which are made with over 20,000 Iznik ceramic tiles.
These intricate designs merge into floral patterns, diffused by the light from over 200 stained glass windows and glowing chandeliers.
The tablets on the walls are inscribed with the names of caliphs, and verses from the Koran. The Blue Mosque is a brilliant example of how Islamic architecture uses delicate touches to create a magnificent effect.
I saluted the Blue Mosque’s six minarets, or towers. Before electronic microphones were invented, the muezzin had to climb a narrow spiral staircase five times a day to do the call to prayer!
Our Walks of Turkey tour guide then took us to the Basilica Cistern, and used his special pass to skip the line.
Photos alone can’t convey the mysterious mood of the ancient water supply, known aptly as the Sunken Palace. I heard the drip-drip of the water as we walked through the paths, and noticed fish swimming in the pools (an old-fashioned way to test for poisons).
Built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Basilica is the largest of several hundred cisterns that supplied Istanbul with water. Two columns have bases shaped like the heads of Medusa; these stones were re-used from Roman sculptures.
What could possibly top this? The Hagia Sophia, a 6th century Christian church that became an imperial mosque. Today, it’s a museum — so you don’t need to abide by a dress code in order to enter.
We were in Istanbul in February, which is the off-season for travelers. On the plus side, you won’t encounter as many tourists. However, the weather is still quite chilly during this time of year.
Once again, we were grateful to be with Walks of Turkey, as we could skip lines and breeze right in.
The Hagia Sophia is considered the height Byzantine architecture. Every detail was so tremendously executed that Emperor Justinian reportedly exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”
I would have to agree — I was mesmerized by the feeling of the Hagia Sophia. Our guide gave us insight into the Arabic symbols, which mixed with Christian references — such as paintings of seraphim.
As we walked through the two floors, Kamil pointed out details we would never have known. He showed us the Hagia Sophia’s “official cat,” who greeted President Obama and roams the museum freely. He also showed us the “Face of Satan,” a marble panel that happens to look like the devil.
Looking up, the Hagia Sophia’s dome appears to be levitating, thanks to the light from from 40 windows surround its base. An incredible architectural achievement, especially considering that it was built in the 6th century.
As I mentioned before, our guide made sure we had access to the best scenic locations. He took us to a rooftop by the Grand Bazaar, which only locals know about. I climbed up on the dome for this epic shot.
(Find my dress and morebelow):
The last stop was the Istanbul Spice Market, a hall of sensory delights. At one of the stalls, we tasted apple and pomegranate tea, and samples of Turkish Delight.
I usually don’t like Turkish Delight, but it’s made fresh here, with the highest quality fruit and nuts. After trying the real deal, I get why the confectionery has its delightful name!
Our Walks of Turkey guide made sure we never felt pressured to buy anything. We could take our time to shop, and ask all the questions we liked.
I wanted to take home all of the teas, made from fresh flowers and herbs, and served in a tulip-shaped glass.
There’s so much to see in the Sultanahmed district. We walked through the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest covered markets in the world.
Again, it was named Grand for a reason. I was dazzled by the labyrinthine of shops. Fine jewelry, magic carpets, pottery, handicrafts, leatherworks — you name it.
These glowing rainbow lanterns made me feel like I had gone back in time, and was wandering the Grand Bazaar of the 15th century.
Topkapı Palace is a short walk away. It was the sprawling home of the Ottoman sultans, between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Today, it’s a museum that holds Muslim holy relics like Muhammed’s sword, and more bizarre items like his wooden stick and bits of beard. The rooms also have displays of Ottoman furniture, Islamic calligraphy and other art.
We’re so happy we spent the day with Walks of Turkey: the expert guides put their hearts into making your tour special. With Kamil’s help, we got an in-depth look at Byzantine culture, and were able to access photography locations known only by insiders.
Walks of Turkey offers a variety of tours, including food excursions and Bosphorus cruises. They’re a team to be trusted, and I hope you’ll let them be your guides when you visit.
I leave you with a ceiling shot from a small mosque. Long live Constantinople.
All the photo and video credit goes to the uber-talented Joey Wong. Please take a moment to watch our Istanbul video here — we hope it gives you a taste of our travels.
And if this post gave you wanderlust, we’d appreciate if you could share it on Facebook or your social media. Teşekkür ederim, or thank you in Turkish!