Category Archive for Art + Design

Visiting Hobbiton, New Zealand’s Hobbit set! The Shire location, Lord of the Rings movie tour.

hobbit tour, hobbiton movie set

If I had to pick the highlight of my Contiki New Zealand adventure… it would be my tour of Hobbiton, the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movie set!

LOTR director Peter Jackson personally scouted this spot for his films, and had his team build a Hobbit village from scratch. These Shire scenes are some of his most memorable, and put New Zealand’s idyllic landscapes on the map.

hobbit theme park, lotr

The “Hobbit holes” were too cute to tear down, so Peter Jackson agreed to preserve them as an attraction. Today, fans from around the world come to frolic in the footsteps of Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf.

lord of the rings movie set new zealand

As you can see from these photos, it felt like I had stepped right into Middle Earth!

Read on for the scoop on how to visit Hobbiton, and photos of the famous set locations — including the Green Dragon Pub, Mill, and double-arched bridge.

lord of rings movie tours

First, a primer for those who aren’t familiar with Hobbits. These tiny, furry-footed creatures are a human-like race in the J. R. R. Tolkien fantasy novels: Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit. (These books are cult favorites, and I encourage you to read them all.)

In the 2000s, director Peter Jackson released three Lord of the Rings movies, followed by the Hobbit trilogy. The films were box-office successes and generally loved by fans. All of the outdoor scenes in the Shire (home of the Hobbits) were filmed right where I’m standing.

hobbiton tickets, tours, price

I’ve written before about the ease of travelling with Contiki, a travel company for 18-35 year olds. Our tour manager Monique gave us info on the best activities in the North Island, including Hobbiton. If we wanted to book, she did all the arrangements for us, including drop-offs and passes! Contiki’s prices are also lower than if you reserved the same tour on your own.

(Close-up of my Alex Streeter Gothic rings, and nail art by Glam Nail Studio).

Hinuera, New Zealand

Most visitors come in from Rotorua, the Maori hot springs town about three hours south of Auckland. (We spent time here with Contiki; I’ll show you more in the next post).

The Hobbiton bus picked us up from our Rotorua hotel, and we enjoyed an hour-long drive through bucolic farms and the Kaimai Ranges.

the shire, hobbit holes houses

If you want to drive here on your own, Hobbiton is located in Hinuera, Matamata. Note that you can’t visit the adorable set unless you join the official tour, so book early as the spots fill up quickly.

We met our energetic guide, and she took us on a two-hour tour of the twelve acre site. She told us juicy behind-the-scenes tales, and led us to every area of the Shire with lots of time to take photos. 

Hobbiton Movie Set Tours

I’ve been to some movie sets that feel like cheesy theme parks. Thankfully, Hobbiton is nothing of this sort.

I walked through these gorgeous gardens, basking in the patches of sunlight and scent of flowers.

east west farthing sign, hobbiton

The designers put remarkable thought into every aspect of the village, and never ruin the effect with modern incongruities or cash-grabs. (I’d die if there were a souvenir vendor in front of the Baggins’ home!).

Tolkien fans will appreciate details like this signpost, which shows the “farthings” or subdivisions of the Shire.

hobbiton location Hinuera, New Zealand

Some of the “Hobbit holes” have fences that prevent you from going into the yard, but you’re welcome to play with the props outside. Let me tell you… that wheelbarrow was heavy!

Check out the clothesline hanging above the houseHobbits are about the size of human children, and their garments are adorable.

the shire props, hobbit

Hobbiton gives you a glimpse of daily life in the shire. Next to a pumpkin patch, there was a rack of (fake) dried fish. 

shire new zealand location

How did this paradise come into being? Our guide told us that director Peter Jackson spotted this slice of New Zealand countryside from the air, as he searched the North Island for shooting locations. He immediately knew that Alexander Farm (as it was known) was perfect for Lord of the Rings.

hobbit play houses, homes

Peter Jackson took up temporary residence in a nearby farmhouse, and oversaw the massive set transformation. His team of builders turned the bare Waikato farmland into a real-life version of Tolkien’s Shire. 

hobbiton tour, cosplay, costumes

The houses look outstanding in the films because everything was built at the highest standards. The wood, plants and glass are all the real deal.

But here’s something you might not know… Almost all of the Hobbit holes are only exteriors! There’s nothing behind the round doors, as the indoor scenes were filmed in a Wellington studio.

hobbiton entrance fee, entry tickets

The Hobbiton tour does takes you to one red door, where you can duck your head and pop inside. (Since Hobbits are little, all the structures are sized down to fit them.)

peter jackson new zealand set

Our guide pointed out where key scenes in LOTR were shot. She showed us the pond, and the fence that Frodo Baggins jumped over in The Fellowship of the Ring.

black milk great wave skirt

Outfit details: My “Great Wave” skirt from Black Milk Clothing is currently my favorite item in my wardrobe. The floaty material and Hokusai print are a stand-out.

Everyone in Lord of the Rings seems to wear a cloak, so I paired it with a black cape (similar) and matching blue purse.

shire artificial tree, hobbits

I gained a new appreciation for Peter Jackson’s movies during the Hobbiton set tour. Our guide told us stories of the hard work that went into the making of LOTR. For example, the oak tree overlooking Bag End is actually a stump, which was hand-decorated with thousands of artificial leaves!

hobbit door, houses

The film crew built about 40 Hobbit holes for the Shire scenes. I learned how they used tricks in perspective to make Gandalf (played by Sir Ian McKellen) seem much taller than Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his fellow Hobbits.

alex streeter silver rings

Close-up on my Alex Streeter claw and skull rings, and realistic-looking prop pots of honey.

As I previously mentioned, most of the indoor and special effects scenes were shot in Wellington. If you come to NZ’s capital city, don’t miss out on the Wellington Lord of the Rings Movie tour.

hobbiton new zealand

No special effects needed, to bring out the beauty of New Zealand’s fields. The cows and sheep are also the real deal. 

travel blogger hobbiton girl

Quite a few fans dress up in Lord of the Rings costumes, for the Hobbiton tour. While I didn’t do a full cosplay, I paid tribute to Middle Earth by wearing a dramatic cloak.

inside hobbit homes, door

You can’t take the fake pastries home with you… but there’s a gift shop at the entrance, called the “Shire Store.” Inside, you can purchase a wide range of products like posters, action figures, and Gandalf’s wizard hat.

new zealand butterfly

One of the most charming natural features of Hobbiton: there were butterflies everywhere! I saw white and colored wings fluttering over the flower gardens, and managed to take this photo of one drinking nectar.

hobbiton guided tour review

Tip: bring both sunscreen and a light jacket, since the weather can change quickly. I encourage you to check the weather forecast on the day you’re visiting Hobbiton (and remember, it’s advisable to book your tour slot and bus ride well in advance).

hobbit outfit, great wave skirt

And bring your best camera — you don’t want to miss out on the unbelievable photo ops! (These photos are taken with my favorite travel camera, the light but full framed Sony alpha 7, a mirrorless DSLR.)

green dragon inn hobbiton

I think author JRR Tolkien would be thrilled about how Hobbiton brought his world to life. We crossed the stone bridge and passed the Mill House, on the way to the Green Dragon Inn.

hobbit barrel, carriage

Hobbiton produces their own Southfarthing range of ales, ciders and ginger beers. This giant barrel was near the May Pole and party field.

hobbiton pond, water wheel

At River Churn, we passed The Old Mill that was owned and run by the Sandyman Family, according to the fantasy novels.

hobbit theme house

Hobbiton does a wonderful job at creating an authentic setting for fans. There’s also a limited number of spots per tour, so the set doesn’t feel overly crowded with tourists.

lord of the rings super fans

The homes feel so real that I half expected Hobbits to pop out behind me!

(Photos by Salima Remtulla)

inside green dragon inn

At the end of the tour, we headed inside the The Green Dragon Inn. This is the bar and meeting-place for the locals, as featured in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.

lord of the rings cloak

The scenes inside the inn were actually shot in the Wellington studios, but Hobbiton faithfully recreated the pub for fans to visit.

How charming are these messages left by Hobbits? “Lost, green cloak! If found, please return to the Ivy Bush.”

green dragon inn inside

Everyone got a free Southfarthing beverage (ale, cider or ginger beer) and could order country fare at the counter (cheese scones, meat pies and more). From the dragon decor to the round windows, this is a perfect reproduction.

hobbit font, tolkien memorabilia

I was tempted to apply for the “Cooper Wanted” job, so that I could stay here forever…

the hobbit tours, fan

What more is there to say? Hobbiton captured my imagination, and was one of the best moments on my New Zealand journey.

I hope this post inspires you to watch the Hobbit movies, and read J. R. R. Tolkien’s marvellous books: Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit.

rotorua hobbit movie set

So grateful to Contiki for sending me to Hobbiton. I thoroughly enjoyed travelling with Contiki (on a bus with other millennials) on their Sun and Steam New Zealand trip. Be sure to check them out; they offer tours to destinations around the world.

Are you a LOTR fan? Have you heard of this Hobbit heaven before?

New Zealand local fashion boutiques: Britomart, Auckland! Cassia modern Indian restaurant & cocktails.

new zealand stylish hipster fashion

Kia ora… from Auckland, NZ!

If you’ve been following my social media (@lacarmina), you’ll already know that I’ve been travelling with Contiki — a tour company for 18-35 year olds — in New Zealand. 

I joined about 30 young travellers on their Sun and Steam tour, and it felt like a big road trip with friends. We went all around the North Island, stopping to take in the spectacular nature, nightlife, and a daredevil activity or two.

auckland skyline, sky tower

My Contiki trip started and ended in Auckland, NZ. In this first post, I’ll take you to a hip fashion district, and one of the city’s top restaurants: Cassia

It was my first trip “down under” and I flew 14 hours to get here (direct from Vancouver to Auckland). I was rewarded with the perfect sunny weather and a pristine view of the harbour, with the Sky Tower hovering over the central business district.

contiki bus tour new zealand

Why was I was excited to travel around New Zealand with Contiki? Let me count the ways…

– The tours are for millennial travellers. Everyone was my age, and the itinerary was tailored to our interests.
– There’s lots of “Me Time” and optional events, so you can explore at your own pace. 
– Contiki takes care of all the logistics: transportation, hotels, activity bookings, most of the meals and entrance fees. I could just relax and pose in front of the bus!

blue studded leather jacket, occult dress

I’ll introduce you to my Contiki crew in the next posts — but let’s begin in Auckland, where we had a free day to spend however we wished.

Outfit details:
– I’m wearing a witchy dress and hosiery from Black Milk. They also make this dress in a Game of Thrones map print!
– My bag is from Japan, but you can get this similar blue faux fur purse here. Or this blue handbag, which also looks it has a face on it.
– My jacket is from Hong Kong. It’s very similar to this blue cropped leather jacket, or less expensive Elie Tahari one.

britomart auckland shopping

First stop: Britomart, the best area of Auckland to browse local, indie fashion.

(Nail art by Glam Nail Studio, and silver Ouroboros ring from the legendary Alex Streeter Jewelry.)

auckland fashion district

Britomart, a former industrial area, underwent a transformation in the 1980s and 90s. Today, it’s a hip shopping district that mixes old (heritage buildings, Maori art) and new (mod green spaces). 

karen walker, brito mart store

You can find international clothing brands in Britomart, but I went straight to the local designers. New Zealand’s Karen Walker has been making a splash worldwide, particularly for her fabulous eyewear and bags. (I own a pair of her round sunglasses.)

Below are my favorite Karen Walker designs (click photos for more info.)

taylor boutique, women's fashion

A local friend encouraged me to visit Taylor Boutique. Everything here is 100% designed and made in New Zealand. 

new zealand designers, labels

Taylor uses leading-edge fabrics to make experimental, yet wearable garments. Love their oversized sleeves and peek-a-boo layers.

auckland style blogger outfit

These NZ stores were advertising winter fashions, since the seasons are reversed down under!

(Here’s where to find my Black Milk dress. faux fur purse and studded leather jacket. Hair by Stephanie Hoy in Vancouver.)

Juliette Hogan designer fashion

Local designer Juliette Hogan is another must-visit. Her contemporary fashions are notable for their cut and craftsmanship.

(You’re probably noticing that Britomart is eco-design heaven… gorgeous greenery everywhere.)

posonby auckland furniture shops

For fabulous dressers, World is your destination. I could have spent an hour in this store, a treasure-trove of peacock taxidermy, exotic perfumes, dapper hats and other oddities.

world store, auckland home design

In addition to Britomart, it’s well worth taking a stroll in Auckland’s Posonby district. You’ll find many of the same local designer stores here, as well as shops dedicated to home decor, coffee, raw food and more.

(Photography by Salima Remtulla and me.)

cassia top restaurant auckland

All this shopping worked up my appetite. I walked over to Cassia, a modern Indian restaurant that is racking up all the top dining awards in Auckland. (Address: No 5 Fort Lane, Auckland, NZ)

Inside, there’s a mural of the Hindu festival Holi — a perfect summary of how Cassia’s menu mixes creativity and tradition.

modern indian fusion cuisine

Chef Sid Sahrawat (famous for his fine dining establishment SidArt) wanted to break away from the stereotype of an Indian restaurant. At Cassia, he fuses the authentic flavors from his childhood with the seasonal, local produce of New Zealand.

Before we talk about the food… let’s start with a drink! Cassia has an exceptional gin and tonic menu that made me re-think the possibilities of this “basic” cocktail. Mixologist Prateek Arora made me a Tanqueray Tan with grapefruit and East Imperial Burma tonic — fine ingredients that elevated the flavors. On the right, he prepared The Herbalist, a perfect balance of Domaine Canton French ginger liquer, kaffir lime, cucumber, Angostura white rum and Benedictine.

gin tonic, cocktails cassia bartender

I encourage you to chat with the friendly Prateek; I enjoyed hearing him talk about the inspiration for these drinks.

I’m a fan of anything ginger, and adored the Ginger Monkey (an infused whisky sour with egg white foam). The Kashmiri Dragon above is exceptional: a hit of chili powder, vodka, fresh lime, and Six Barrels feijoa syrup.

cassia menu food appetizers

A quick aside… if you’re in New Zealand, you can’t leave without trying feijoa. This green fruit tastes a bit like guava, and is found only in NZ and parts of South America.

creative auckland restaurants, decor

Cassia’s exposed bricks and lightbulbs create a hip dining space. The industrial design once again breaks away from one’s expectations of an Indian eatery.

feijoa green new zealand fruit

Head chef Lesley Chandra prepared a selection of dishes designed for sharing. I recommend the starter of roasted carrot, cashew, leek, cavolo nero (kale) — the rich colors point to the careful choice of ingredients.

cassia restaurant review

Next up: venison tartar, beetroot, cabbage. Once again, he prepared a vivid dish infused with authentic spices. I confess that I scraped up every morsel of the sauce!

pork belly, auckland fine dining

One of the most popular main courses is the free-range pork with vindaloo, apple and ginger. Tender layers, perfectly cooked, in a spectacular balance of sweetness and heat.

cassia desserts, auckland

Dessert was this deconstructed beauty: blackcurrent sorbet, raspberry and hazelnut. I was blown away the intensity of the berry flavors, which unfolded on your tongue. An outstanding, clean finish.

Cassia deserves its reputation as one of the best restaurants in Auckland. I encourage you to come by for an innovative meal and cocktails, which will change your perceptions of Indian cuisine.

Auckland wharf, Wynyard Quarter

I leave you with this night-time scene from Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter, a reclaimed area by the waterfront with over a dozen international restaurants.

sky tower at night, auckland Waterfront

Coming up, I’ll show you more of Auckland and the North Island, on my Contiki journey. Their motto, #NoRegrets, is in line with my approach to travel: challenge yourself, see new places, meet people, and never look back.

On that note… Would you like to go on a Contiki trip to New Zealand, like mine? They’re offering my readers a discount code for 10% off all NZ trips, if you book with Contiki Asia by May 30! All details of the voucher are here; just be sure to reserve your place before it’s too late.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia sunrise & temple tour! Ta Prohm, Tomb Raider tree roots temple.

fashion blogger angkor wat cambodia

Call me Lara Croft, braided hair and all.

One of my favorite travel adventures was exploring the mysterious temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. If you watched the Tomb Raider movie, you’ll recognize this as the site of Angelina Jolie’s adventures.

tomb raider photoshoot, angkor wat

My team and I came here thanks to HK Express, which flies multiple times a week between Hong Kong and Siem Reap, Cambodia (where these ancient ruins are situated). The flight was less than three hours, on a low-cost but comfortable and modern carrier.

For years, I’ve wanted to see this “lost world” for myself. Did it live up to my expectations? This photo diary says it all, from smiling Buddhas to Khmer pyramids.

sunrise silhouette angkor wat

Our dream-hotel, Le Meridien Angkor, arranged a private day-tour for us. We had an air-conditioned van with a driver and guide, who spoke about Khmer culture and allowed us to avoid the tourist-saturated sites. (Check out my full review and photoshoot at this Le Meridien hotel.)

It was an early start: 5am wakeup call! But it was worth it, to see the legendary sunrise over the towers of Angkor Wat. Our guide took us through the less-crowded east gate, and we walked to the best location for photos of the temple: the second (further out) reflective pool on the west side. While there will be a lot of tourists around, you can find and unblocked view and capture this iconic silhouette.

reflecting pool pond angkor wat

We sat in silence over this bank, observing the clouds and lotus flowers, and listening to the crickets. The sky gradually lightened and a burst of sun appeared over the rooftops. I felt at peace here, taking in the constantly changing view.

khmer cambodian temples

We were glad we were staying at Le Meridien Angkor, since it was less than a 10 minute drive from the main temple. It was easy to return to our hotel after the sunrise, to enjoy a big breakfast spread including Cambodian dishes and tropical fruits.

angkor wat passes, tickets

Tickets and admission info: You’ll need to buy a ticket in order to enter Angkor Wat and see all the temples (as you can see above, they take your photo). There are various checkpoints at different sites, and the papers get crumbled easily, so I recommend keeping them in a plastic bag or ticket pouch.

We got the 1-day pass for $20 US (bring American cash in Cambodia, instead of changing it to the local currency). However, you can also get 3-day or week long passes. If possible, go to the ticket booth at 5pm the day before you want to visit the temples. That way, there’s no lineup and you can go in to see the sunset for no extra charge.

angkor wat cambodia travel blog

We quickly realized how important it was to have an Angkor Wat guide: the archaeological park has over a thousand temples, within 1.5 million square meters!

Some people rent bicycles or hire a tuk tuk to go between locations. However, if you come all the way here and have limited time, it’s better to have someone to take care of these logistics. We were able to enjoy the sights and listen to the guide talk about Khmer history. And I admit l liked having an air conditioned car to go back to, between the sites.

tomb raider hair braids, pylo dress

For the fashion-travelers out there, let me warn you… it’s not easy being Lara Croft. Be prepared to trek for hours, over uneven jungle terrain in high humidity. Wearing good shoes, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must.

Outfit Details: I’m wearing new Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses, which are actually prescription glasses that I outfitted with Transition lenses (so they turn dark under sunlight).

My long, floral skirt is by Pylo; I love the 1990s Goth-bohemian feel of this design. Here is a shorter version of this 90s-style skirt.

angkor wat buddha gates

Angkor Wat was the passion project of Khmer king, Suryavarman II. It originally was built to be his mausoleum and religious complex for the Hindu god Vishnu. However, by the 12th century, it had become a Buddhist temple. 

We walked through these “elephant gates,” which are large enough to let these gentle pachyderms pass through.

smiling buddha face angkor wat

The gates are topped with smiling Buddha heads. You can’t help but smile back when you see this gentle face, merging into the moss and stones.

oliver goldsmith grace glasses red cat-eye

A closer look at my red Oliver Goldsmith cat-eye glasses. I have a hard time finding glasses I like, and tried on quite a few before finding this London designer. He makes luxury eyewear based on vintage icons: these ones are the Grace Kelly frames.

Oliver Goldsmith also has retro-styled eyewear inspired by Audrey Hepburn. Shop his designs below:

angkor wat guided tour, driver

We wanted to see the most famous temples in Angkor Wat, but also avoid the crowds whenever possible. Our guide delivered. He took us to hidden jungle pathways and lesser-known structures.

angkor wat pyramid

This pyramid-like temple was a perfect example. It’s as impressive as anything else in this UNESCO heritage site — and yet, there was nobody around. We got to climb the steep stairs and shoot images without anyone photo-bombing us.

retro traveler outfit, fashion style

There’s a feeling of energy, in the towering trees and snaking roots found all over the park.

cambodia temple doors ruins

I was fascinated by the ancient Khmer spiritual architecture. These temples are made primarily from sandstone bricks, and harmonize beautifully with the surrounding nature.

angkor wat temple travel guide

Although some parts had crumbled, the structures still stood. The intricate carvings looked even more mysterious in the moss and ruins.

exploring angkor wat bayon

Most of Angkor Wat’s temples give you full access, meaning you can explore to your heart’s content without running into a “do not cross this rope” sign. We ducked into tunnels and climbed through the windows. Just look out for the tall, steep stairs!

(Photography by Sniper Chau and Ken Yuen)

angkor wat hindu buddhist carvings

I couldn’t believe how well the bas relief carvings stood the test of time. Our guide took us to a wall of meditating figures with beatific expressions.

siem reap hindu gods statues

Other carvings showed Buddhas and demons, and apsaras and devatas (Khmer nymphs, celestial dancing girls).

tomb raider temple cambodia cosplay

Our guide took us to Ta Prohm, where Tomb Raider was filmed. This mesmerizing temple has trees growing right out of the ruins.

white tree roots ta prohm

The thick roots have wrapped themselves around the doorways and sculptures. Nature has become part of the architecture, and in this case, rendered it even more mystifying. One trail of root covers an entire wall, except it parts around a carved deity’s face.

Our guide took us to a small space in Ta Prohm where if you stood in the right place and thumped your heart, you could hear it resonate throughout the room.

angkor wat doorways, architecture

In a single picture, you can see how high Khmer civilization rose in the 12th century. Not long after, the Thai invasion changed the course of history…

hindu demons wall carving

For anyone fascinated with ancient civilizations, Angkor Wat will not disappoint. To get the most out of this adventure, I encourage you to hire a guide and driver, get the 5pm ticket, and prepare for the humidity and hiking.

angkor wat sunrise sky water

This is not your last glimpse of Angkor Wat: I still have a travel video for you, and a tour of the main temple. Also check out my guide to Pub Street in Siem Reap, and fashion shoot at Le Meridien Angkor.

Are you familiar with this temple, maybe from seeing it in Tomb Raider? Is it on your list of destinations to see?

(Find glasses like mine below):


Walks of Turkey: historical guided tour of Istanbul! Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Cistern, spice market.

istanbul skyline best viewpoint

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.

I had heard rave reviews of Walks of Turkey, a local company, so I joined them for a tour of Istanbul’s historical district. Keep reading, and I’ll take you to all the famous cultural sites.

(Outfit Details: I’m wearing a Killstar devil-wings dress. The same black dress also comes with red fringe on the sleeves, or pink fringe.)

blue mosque istanbul

As you’ll recall, I came to Turkey as a guest of the World Tourism ForumAfter 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).

fashion blogger istanbul turkey

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.

istanbul egyptian obelisk

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.

sultan ahmed mosque exterior

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.

blue mosque courtyard

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.

istanbul blue mosque entrance

I was prepared: I had my arms covered, and brought my own scarf.

My dress is this one by Killstar, which also comes in red or pink fringe versions. Shop similar styles below:

interior ceiling blue mosque

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.

women cover head headscarves istanbul

 These intricate designs merge into floral patterns, diffused by the light from over 200 stained glass windows and glowing chandeliers. 

Sultan Ahmet Mosque inside

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.

purple blue pastel haircolor

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!

basilica cistern istanbul

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).

walks of turkey tour

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.

hagia sophia turkey view

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.

entrance tickets hagia sofia

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.

chandeliers lights hagia sophia

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!”

art domes hagia sophia museum

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.

woman lavender hair color

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.

turkey private guided walking tour

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.

grand bazaar rooftop roof

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):

spice market istanbul

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! 

turkish delight spice market

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.

rose tea, spices, istanbul

I wanted to take home all of the teas, made from fresh flowers and herbs, and served in a tulip-shaped glass.

grand bazaar istanbul

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. 

vendors jewelry grand bazaar

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.

istanbul lanterns stores

These glowing rainbow lanterns made me feel like I had gone back in time, and was wandering the Grand Bazaar of the 15th century.

topkapi palace museum

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.

sultanahmet scenery istanbul

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.

istanbul local mosque

I leave you with a ceiling shot from a small mosque. Long live Constantinople.

blue mosque at night

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!