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Tips for timing of Istanbul sites?


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I'll be in Istanbul next year on a Celebrity cruise - the ship docs at 11 am Saturday and departs at 1 pm Sunday.  This will be my first time in Istanbul, so I want to see the "must-see" sites - Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, maybe Topkapi palace.  I've read many threads on here suggesting this should be easy to do on my own, without a tour.  But I'm looking for advice around timing.  Which places would be best to cover early in the morning - putting them on the second day's itinerary?  On day 1 if I'm starting mid-day, is everything going to be super crowded (relative to early morning or late afternoon)?  I'd like to get the most out of my time there, and don't mind paying for a tour if that will help me do that.


Thanks in advance!!




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4 hours ago, AndyB said:

I'll be in Istanbul next year on a Celebrity cruise - the ship docs at 11 am Saturday and departs at 1 pm Sunday.  This will be my first time in Istanbul, so I want to see the "must-see" sites - Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, maybe Topkapi palace.  I've read many threads on here suggesting this should be easy to do on my own, without a tour.  But I'm looking for advice around timing.  Which places would be best to cover early in the morning - putting them on the second day's itinerary?  On day 1 if I'm starting mid-day, is everything going to be super crowded (relative to early morning or late afternoon)?  I'd like to get the most out of my time there, and don't mind paying for a tour if that will help me do that.


Thanks in advance!!




I may be able to offer some helpful guidance.  First, I think your desired places can fit into your schedule.  I did similar on my own when I visited.  I too was solo, but I am male.  I did this about 10 years ago.  Part of me wants to caution you about being a solo female doing this, but part of me thinks there shouldn’t be any issues.  When I did this 10 years ago, I was approached many times by men wanting me to go with them to their various stores to look at their wares.  As aggressive as they were, I can’t help but wonder how a solo female might be treated.  And, politically, the times are not the same now in Turkey as when I was there.  Anyway, perhaps my thoughts are not valid.   But it did occur to me.  Nonetheless, my thoughts…


You will need to decide how you plan to get from the ship to where these sites are located.  I took the tram.  It runs along the first Main Street you get to as you leave the nearest port exit to your ship. I first stopped at an ATM and got the local currency.  Then I used that to purchase tram tokens (called a jeton) for my trip to the sites.  I rode the tram across the bridge and up the hill into the Sultanahmet area. 

In my case we arrived in the early morning.  I went straight to Hagia Sofia, as it was my highest priority.  I was able to get there a few minutes before they opened and was about 20th in line.  Once they opened, I had a good 30 minutes of very few people in the place.  It was wonderful.  I would suggest maybe doing the same thing on your second day.   I spent about 90 minutes there.  Of course, when I was there, it was still a museum and not a mosque.  I explored the upstairs area and checked out the Christian artwork.  I’m not sure if this is still accessible or not now that it is a mosque again. 

From there, I walked next door to the Blue Mosque.   It’s an easy walk thru a park.  But this is an area where I kept getting offered assistance with my shopping and site seeing.  I had to politely say NO many times. I believe I visited the Hippodrome area and the Egyptian obelisk while waiting for a prayer session to finish at the mosque.  In the mosques I visited, I only spent about 15-20 in each.  They are generally on big open space, so you can absorb the views pretty quickly.  I recall a line to get in, but no major wait.  The place was busy, but not overflowing. 

Next, I went to the Basilica Cistern.  I found this amazing. Be sure to walk all the way to the back to see the Medusa head!  I don’t recall much of a line and no significant crowding, as it’s a large area.  Larger than I expected, for sure.  I think I spent at least an hour here. 

I wasn’t interested in either of the bazaars so I can’t comment on their timing.  Instead, I walked to another mosque which actually is located near the Grand Bazaar.   The walk to this area is further away from the other sites you have been to, but still walkable.  

After this second mosque, I decided to walk back over past Hagia Sofia to check what things were like at Tokapki Palace.  It was now about 3:00 or a little later.  I had not stopped to eat anywhere.  The line to get tickets for Tokapki was pretty long so I decided to skip it and just settle for some outside pictures.  But there’s not much to see from the outside.  At least on that side of the palace.  

I decided to skip the tram and walk back to the ship while looking for food along the way.  It was a nice walk, but took a little longer than I thought.  Part of that was because I stopped and ate at Burger King.  Haha.  I’m not always an adventurous eater when traveling.  I would suggest you don’t walk it like I did.  Take the tram. 


I was on my ship before sundown and chose to not try to explore on my own after dark. 

So, other than the bazaars, I did all your sites in a 9 to 5 day for the most part.  

On day 2 we left port at 3:00, if I recall.  I didn’t go back to the  Sultanahmet Area.  I stayed in the more modern part of the city closer to the ship and went up in a tower and rode a funicular up to the Taksim Square area.  I was back on the ship by 1:00 probably. 

So, I’d probably suggest you do the mosques and bazaars on day one.  The start with Hagia Sofia on day two and also visit the cistern that day (unless it fit into day 1).  I’d keep Tokapki for another trip or do it if time permits on day 1. 

Hope this helps. 

Edited by MeHeartCruising
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My first suggestion is to buy (or borrow) a copy of Rick Steves' guides on Istanbul. He provides a lot of good information on what to see, how to get around (the tram is great -- and it now takes credit cards so no need to have Turkish lira at the outset of your day) and about how long it will take to see each attraction.


I am of two minds about your schedule. Part of me wants to suggest that you front load the things that are most important to you, even if it involves a short wait to get in. Unless you are traveling at the height of summer, lines probably won't be terrible. The other part of me suggests using the afternoon of your first day to visit the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar, as well as perhaps the mosque near the Spice Bazaar mentioned above (Yeni Camii).  You can take the tram to the Grand Bazaar (it is so big that it straddles two different tram stops), and then walk to the Spice Bazaar, then get back on the tram to return to the area near the port.


The next day, visit Haghia Sofia first (and do go upstairs to see the mosaics). Then walk through the Hippodrome, noticing the two ancient monuments there. Then visit the Blue Mosque and end with the Basilica cistern. I would skip Topkapi Palace unless you have a particular reason to be interested in the site or their collections (such as the Topkapi dagger....)


You could probably fit one more thing in on your first day, depending on what you're interested in. If it is shopping, the bazaar alongside the Blue Mosque actually has nicer (and more traditional) things than in many stalls at the Grand Mosque -- but the Grand Mosque does have some authentic things if you are patient and get well inside and away from the touristy entrances.  Or you could go to the Archaeological Museum (alongside Topkapi), or the Mosaic Museum (in the middle of the bazaar I mentioned just above -- the only place where you can see remnants of the ancient Byzantine imperial palace), or the museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.  OR stop and enjoy some traditional Turkish food, which is absolutely delicious.


Re: being a woman in Istanbul. I am a woman who travels alone and twice I have visited Istanbul -- not just from a cruise ship but for several days walking around on my own. I've also visited it on a land tour and again MOST recently was with another (female) traveling companion. The shills for the carpet stores that you'll meet are easily managed with a firm "no" and a refusal to engage in conversation, no matter what they ask. By my second visit, I realized that it's all a big game -- they mean you no harm, they just want to get you into their uncle's or father's or brother's rug store, because that's their job (and they are very good at it).


Other than that small annoyance, I had no problems from anyone and in fact found people extremely friendly and polite. I ate dinners in restaurants solo and even took the tram back to the ship fairly late in the evening with zero problems -- in fact I chatted with elderly man who insisted on giving me his seat, wanted to practice his english with me, and told me all about his son who was going to "tourism school" in Izmir to become a guide.


Istanbul remains very cosmopolitan, whatever may be going on elsewhere in Turkey. The only times I would have been a bit concerned about visiting were during some of the internal upheavals (e.g., demonstrations against Erdogan), or a brief period a few years ago when tourists were being targeted to make a point to the "powers that be".



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Another note or two about Istanbul. 


Haghia Sofia and the Blue Mosque are both (now) working mosques and they will close for about a half hour several times each day to accommodate the daily prayer timings -- these timings vary based on the calendar, so you will just have to be either patient and wait or quickly pivot and do something else first if you are faced with this.


Also, right between Haghia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, on the main road where the tram runs, is a long-time traditional eatery -- nothing much to look at but a great place to try the kofte or traditional grilled meatballs. I love the white bean and lettuce salad served with them, I think it's called piyazi or something similar...  The name of the place is Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi, and the front looks like this:



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We've visited Istanbul a few times, but you've had excellent advice already so I'll just reinforce it .................


Yes, the TRAM is the way to get from the ship across the Galata Bridge & up to Sultanahmet, where a lot of sights are clustered and easily-walkable. Trams have their own dedicated lanes and whiz past the choc-a-bloc traffic.


From there you can walk across to the top of the Grand Bazaar and down through it to the Spice Bazaar or Yeni Camii.

But the Spice Bazar is no longer that special - there are plenty of excellent spice stalls in the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Bazaar has a lot of general wares, so if I led you blindfold into the Spice Bazaar you probably wouldn't know it was the "Spice Bazaar".

And by that time you'll probably be mosqued-out, so it takes a degree of enthusiasm to visit another.

Anyway, you'll probably be dead on your feet by then 🙃

But now you're on level ground at Eminonu, by the Galata Bridge over The Golden Horn & the ferries which ply up the Golden Horn, up the Bosphorus, out to little islands in the Sea of Marmaris, and across to the Asian side. Consider a short ferry ride (though that's likely to be at a busy time of day), or relaxing in one of the cafes & restaurants on the lower level of the Galata Bridge, or take a tram back over the Galata Bridge to your ship.

Because Sultanahmet is at the top of a hill (not too steep but quite long) I strongly recommend you work that way round, so that your walking is on level and downhill ground.


Taksim is tolerably close to your ship, & the little funicular a fun way to get there. But it's a more-modern part of the city and not somewhere I'd consider worthy for your short time in Istanbul.


We've not visited Topkapi Palace, so can't comment other than it doesn't fit well into a route unless you skip the Grand Bazaar and it probably needs a half-day or more.


A ship's tour or any tour involving transport would waste a lot of time fighting the traffic, many ships' tours waste a lot of valuable time visiting selected carpet shops & such, and (though unlikely with your hours in port) waste more time with a lunch stop.

But a private tour using the tram would be relatively inexpensive (especially if you got together a group of six or eight like-mindeds via your cruise's RollCall) would provide you with background info and avoid some lost time. 


I'm a great fan of ho-ho buses in appropriate cities - but Istanbul isn't one of them.


I appreciate that I've not answered your main question about splitting between your two half-days, but I suggest you do the bucket stuff first and mebbe the bazaars or Yeni Camii next day.

And if you're in sociable company, extend day one into the evening - dining out, or just snacking & return to the ship in time for the crumbs left-over from the buffet.


JB 🙂

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Ooooops, forgot an important rider.......

Since this is a weekend, do check which days & times the various places are open. 

But at least your time is split over two days, so you should be able to adjust to visit all your must-sees.


JB 🙂


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Thank you all for the suggestions - this is great information!  I will be looking to our roll call to see if others are interested in joining, and I do remember seeing some mention on these boards about tour guides who use the tram to get to Sultanahmet - I definitely don't want to spend my time waiting in traffic.  And absolutely not interested in carpet shops or obligatory lunch as part of a tour.


@cruisemom42, you had me at kofte!  I'll definitely consider that place.  I was thinking my dining on those days would be street food, but getting off my feet in a cafe is probably a good idea.


Well, you all have given me plenty to think about over the next year, LOL.  I'm so looking forward to this trip!  Thanks again!

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We have been fortunate.  Three or four visit over the past 15 years or so.  Some for two days pre cruise, others longer.


We never have never experienced an issue with crowds or with waiting periods.  Could be our good fortune.  Last trip we walked right into Sofia, and then the Cistern with no waiting whatsoever. 


It is such an incredible city.  For us, much like Venice inasmuch as any time we go back we tend to see things that missed on our last visit.

Edited by iancal
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  • 1 month later...

Lots of great info here.  I'm going in May and probably spending a day pre-cruise in Istanbul (Allilass Hotel).  I'm not sure what we'll do, other than take a little boat out to Kiz Kulesi, a small islet with tower -- and a story!  When we were there before (spouse and I) we visited the Cistern, did a Bosphorus cruise, went into Rustem Pasa Mosque, walked a little around the water around Eminonu area at dusk (awesome), and walked around the Blue Mosque & Topkapi but didn't go in.  We didn't go to the Grand Bazaar; may have to go there for my spouse this time.  I walked up by myself early morning from the Allilass to see a lighthouse; otherwise was with my spouse.  Hawkers were extremely persistent in tourist areas but I didn't feel uneasy around them.  We also went to (I think) Taksim, or whatever the popular tourist area on the Asian side is. 


We took the tram around from the hotel for everything other than the airport and port.  Took a taxi for those.  Tram was crowded in places, but I was quickly offered a seat on one tram, which was appreciated.  I believe you still need Turkish lira for a tram token ("jeton"), though, which makes things a bit challenging for tourists on a day trip or cruise.  But maybe there's an app or ATM or Istanbulkart ticket on line that could help.  I haven't figured that out yet.


Make sure all your desired spots are open on the weekend.  Most tourist attractions close at least once a week, though they apparently rotate so that a lot is closed on any day. 


I have pictures on my photo site. If you'd like to look at them, I can post a link.

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