As there are currently no direct flights from Los Angeles, California to Prague, Czech Republic, the only way to get to Prague is via a connecting flight from another European airport or Istanbul. As Turkish Airlines has been consistently the most economical option for getting to Prague, they’re the carrier we’ve utilized, and the service aboard Turkish Air has been consistently good.
Three of my four stops to Istanbul have involved layovers of about twelve hours or more. My first time through I elected to stay in the airport, but while traveling with the family, we decided to get a hotel room to freshen up and get a night’s rest. Our layover heading to Prague was just overnight, with our flight taking off at 8:30 in the morning, so we didn’t do much other than have some delicious and inexpensive Turkish food from a local restaurant in Arnavutköy and sleep before heading back to the airport to make our flight. On the route home, however, our flight didn’t leave until the afternoon, so we took advantage of that time to go on a quick tour of Istanbul and see some of the more well-known sights.
We arranged our tour ahead of time with THKme Travel at the Istanbul airport and worked out a plan to pick us up from our hotel at 5:30 am, drive us to Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar before heading back to the airport to catch our flight back to Los Angeles. The pick up and drop off went very smoothly, however the tour itself was not quite what I expected. But this I think worked out even better than what I had imagined.
We were seen off by the hotel dog, a friendly Golden retriever, and packed into the spacious van. Our driver headed east toward the Bosphorus. As it was so early, there were not many places open, but our driver did find a nice cafe in Sarıyer called Meshur Sarıyer Börekçisi. I had baklava and Turkish coffee, which is becoming my go to when traveling through Istanbul. Michael and Sami split a selection of meat rolls and finger fritters, light and fluffy pastries filled with cheese or mince. Even after buying a tea for our driver, breakfast only ended up being about $5 with the conversion from Turkish lira to dollars. It was a good way to start our adventure through Istanbul, a city so grand it cannot be contained in one continent.
Our next stop was to Pierre Loti in Eyüpsultan. This cafe was named for a French naval officer and writer. His travels had taken him to the Middle East and Asia, places that were considered exotic back in the day, setting the scene for many of his writings. The cafe features Loti themed art along with some of his books and mementos, but the main draw to this hilltop area is the view. We watched the sky light up with the dawn while looking down over the Golden Horn, a natural estuary formed by the confluence of the Alibeyköy and Kağıthane rivers and the Bosphorus Strait, the body of water connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The area is considered important to the defense of Constantinople and the development of Istanbul today, something I vaguely remember reading about years ago in middle school history class years ago. It was amazing to be watching the sunrise over the water and the city below; seventh grade me would have been impressed.
After taking photos and learning about the history of the Golden Horn, we took a drive over to and across the Bosphorus Bridge, the famous suspension bridge connecting Ortaköy on the European side of Istanbul and Beylerbeyi in Asia. It was one of those things that we wanted to do if we had time, if only to say that we visited two continents in one day. Typically there would be much more traffic on the bridge in either direction, but because we were going across it so early, traffic was pretty light going from Europe to Asia. It was a bit heavier when we turned around to drive back into Europe to head to the old city after crossing ‘drive over the Bosphorus’ off my bucket list.
We then headed down to Sultanahmet, and specifically the area around Sultanahmet Square. This is where some of the most historic and famous attractions in Istanbul are located. We headed first to the Blue Mosque, an historic mosque that was built in the early 1600s, and is known for the blue tiles that make up the interior design of the building. In addition to being a popular tourist attraction, the mosque is still an active mosque, and so we were respectful of religious customs and those who might be there for prayer. After Sami and I properly covered ourselves with borrowed head scarfs and skirts, we took off our shoes and entered the mosque. Unfortunately we were not able to see the inside in its full glory, as there is currently a huge renovation project going on.
Still it was worth it to be able to go inside and see the intricate detailing in the tile mosaics, and imagine what it would look like without the construction. It was also a good experience for Sami, who learned about the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in seventh grade world history. It was also a different cultural experience, as it was her first time visiting a mosque.
We walked over to the Tombs of the Sultans, a building at the corner of the Hagia Sophia where five sultans and their families have their final resting place. I didn’t take any photos of the tombs themselves because that felt a little intrusive to me, but I did photograph their surroundings to show the intricate designs on the tiles adorning the walls as well as the domed ceiling that makes up their last earthly home.
After visiting the sultans, whose stories of drama and sometimes even fratricide are told in the history books, we walked to the Hagia Sophia. Our tour guide called it the Sancta Sophia, its Latin name that also translates to mean ‘holy wisdom.’ Today this historic structure is the Holy Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. But it wasn’t always that. Built in 537 on the site of Constantine’s Megale Ekklesia, the Hagia Sophia was once a Christian cathedral in what was the city of Constantinople. It was a center of Byzantine culture for centuries after, until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. It was then converted into a mosque, and remained so until 1934 when it was secularized by the Turkish government. It was then turned into a museum, however just last year, the decision was made to convert it back into a mosque, creating some controversy with the Turkish government, as it was done without much prior discussion. So today, the Hagia Sophia is an active place of worship, and fortunately it remains open to visitors as Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction. Sami and I were not able go in, as we did not have head coverings, and the line to purchase disposable scarfs at the nearby vending machine were too long. Michael was able to enter the mosque and take photos of the interior, while we walked around outside. The Hagia Sophia, like the Blue Mosque, is part of UNESCO’s Historic Areas of Istanbul, and even from the outside, it is a magnificent structure.
There were many other points of interest in and around the Square. There were two obelisks, the Obelisk of Theodosius, a re-erected Egyptian obelisk, and the Walled Obelisk, a Roman obelisk. There were also other buildings of historic and architectural value, but whose stories I am less familiar with. We did not have time to go to the Topkapi Palace Museum, but we walked by it while Sami and I lamented being ‘on the outside looking in.’
There was one last stop we made before heading back to the airport. Our tour guide brought us to the top of a storefront building to check out the view of the Bosphorus where it met the Marmara Sea. We were offered some tea- which by the way, apple tea is absolutely delicious, and was totally worth sitting through a rug sale. Yes, like many tourists making their way through Istanbul, we were taken to the Turkish version of the timeshare spiel. As we sipped our apple teas and Ottoman coffees, the friend of our guide, who was also a rug dealer, gave us the presentation. I will say that the rugs are beautiful, but they are indeed expensive. We did give our tour guide a well-deserved tip; he was friendly and knowledgeable, but we politely declined purchasing a rug. That didn’t mean that we didn’t spend any lira.
After heading back downstairs to the ground level, the shopkeeper offered up many samples of Turkish delight, Sami’s favorite. And this was no pre-packaged World Market Turkish delight either. These were the logs of Turkish delight in a multitude of different flavors, made with honey, and super delicious. That’s where they got us. We bought several logs to take home, as well as some Ottoman coffee for home and for our families, a perfect gift for the upcoming Christmas holiday. While we were not able to get to the Grand Bazaar with our limited time, we still had a bit of a shopping adventure. We’ll have to make the Grand Bazaar a priority on out next trek through Istanbul.
The 40-minute drive back to the airport was quiet. After our whirlwind adventure, Sami was pretty tired and was out before we left Fatih. Even Michael started to doze off. I stayed up, and watched the scenery of Istanbul change as we went through the different neighborhoods back up to Arnavutköy and to Istanbul Airport. I was glad that we were able to see at least some of the old city and learn more about its rich and varied history. And not just for Sami, who I am sure will learn more about the empires that rose and fell in present-day Turkey when she takes World History next year. Seventh grade me had often dreamed about traveling the world and seeing those places that were written about in the pages of the old California social studies textbook. It was truly wonderful to have history come alive so many years later and share that adventure with my family.
Some things to consider:
We did need a transit visa in order to leave the airport. The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an e-visa that is easy to apply for and is good for 180 days from the time of approval. The cost is $50 USD, with a $1.50 fee. I thought it was well worth it to be able to leave the airport for a more comfortable rest and to be able to go on our quick tour. Please note that there are travel sites that look official but are travel agencies that charge significantly more for the e-visa application. The official Turkish government website is mfa.gov.tr and you can apply for the transit visa here. If you get to the payment tab and your fee equates to more than that $51.50 (or close to that), then you might not be on the actual government website.
Here’s to safe and happy trails!
In addition to our tour guide, who had the scoop on many of the legends of the historic sites we visited, I also utilized the following sites:
“Hagia Sophia: Turkey Turns Iconic Istanbul Museum into Mosque.” BBC News, BBC, 10 July 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53366307.
Ugc. “Tombs of the Sultans.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 7 Mar. 2016, https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/tombs-of-the-sultans.
“Techniques and Materials.” Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Camii, http://www.sultanahmetcamii.org/techniques-and-materials/.