Sultanahmet Part I

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When Ann Nevans, the owner of the Empress Zoe Hotel, invited me to stay as her guest and visit Sultanahmet after I wrote about it in my piece for the Guardian, I jumped at the chance. Being a travel writer most people imagine I spend my days wandering around Istanbul playing tourist and journeying to all points of the compass on endless holidays, but the reality is very different.

I love what I do but it involves a lot of work. When I first started this blog back in 2013 my aim was to write about my life and experiences in Istanbul, a city I love for reasons even I can’t explain. I’d released the first edition of Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City, and started to pick up writing assignments for international magazines. Since then I’ve published three more books and my byline has appeared in numerous international media.

In order to do all this I research places before I visit them, make plans of what I’ll see and do on the day, including where to eat, work out walking and transport routes, then once I’ve arrived I ask lots of questions in English and Turkish, take notes and photos. When I get back home I still have to sort all the material I’ve collected, as well as follow up with more research if necessary. That’s even before I sit down to write a new blog post, article or story. Or make time to daydream and imagine.

Naturally, spending two nights in Sultanhamet just because I could, was wonderful. I also enjoyed the fact I only had to hop on the Marmaray ten minutes walk from my home and then catch a tram at Sirkeci up to Sultanhamet to get there. If you’ve been following me for a while you’ll know I’m a strong supporter of public transport and that the Istanbul transport system is fabulous.

On the first day in Sultanahmet we headed for Topkapı Palace straight after breakfast. As thousands of words have already been written about this marvellous palace, I’ll keep my description brief. Construction of the palace started in 1460, a mere seven years after the fall of Istanbul link by Fatih Sultan Mehmet. The initial buildings were built over eighteen years, but the complex as it exists today, spread over four courtyards, was enlarged with supplementary buildings in the 19th century.

I first saw Topkapı Palace in 1996, and still remember the collection of enormous diamonds, emeralds, rubies and other valuable stones in the hazine, the treasury, the incredible collection of ornate weaponry and important religious artefacts from the Muslim world, including parts of the Kisve-i şerif, the cloth that covers the kaaba in Mecca,as well as bits of the Prophet Muhammad, like his fingernails. At the time we were travelling on a tight budget so we couldn’t afford the extra entry fee to get into the hamam. That had to wait until 2007, when I was travelling with my Dad.

Inside the hamam

This time around it was even better. It’s clear a lot of time and money are being spent to bring out the full glory of the palace. There were a lot of tourists around which I quite like. It gives me a sense of what palace life might have felt like yet with all the space and different exhibits it didn’t feel overly crowded.

Unfortunately for us the treasury was closed for renovations, but the famous (Spoonmaker’s Diamond) was on display in the armoury section. Taking photos of it is forbidden so you’ll have to go see it for yourself. However I do have photos from the hamam section of the harem, only recently opened. And of course, there’s the harem itself.

Topkapi Palace interior
The council of the Sublime Porte

The Divan-ı Hümayun (Kubbealtı) in the second courtyard was the official meeting place of the Divan council, the imperial council of the Sublime Porte. The Justice tower as you can see from this photo, is just behind it.

My favourite place to read

The Sultan’s Audience Hall in the third courtyard, also called the Enderup Courtyard was pretty fabulous, but my favourite buildings were the Baghdad and Revan Pavilions in the fourth courtyard.

The Revan Pavilion

Once we’d had our fill of soaking in the atmosphere we went off for a basic lunch then walked along the Sea of Marmara for a while before catching a bus around to Eminonu, just down the hill from Sultanahmet. First we revisited my favourite mosque, Rustem Pasa before having a reviving coffee at Beta Yeni Han. This han, a caravansarai or inn, dates to the Ottoman era and has been known under various names, including Hasırcılar Han (literally the cane makers’ han, which is also the name of the street where it’s located), Emin Han, Tahmis Han (coffee roasting han – the famous Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi is a few doors down)and Yeni Han. Abandoned for many years and filled with refuse, after extensive restorations it reopened under the name of “Beta Yeni Han”. Today the rooms off the inner courtyard house lokum and spice shops, restaurants, sucuk sellers and of course my favourite place to stop, the Beta Tea Shop. They sell dozens of blends of tea in a tranquil space with an historical coffee roasting and grinding room in the basement, but as I’m not a big tea drinker, I go for their coffee. Read more about this han and other other off the beaten track sights in the area in my alternative city guide, Istanbul 50 Unsung Places.

Dinner at Ocak Restaurant

We had a brief rest at the hotel before heading out for dinner at Ocak Restaurant, a short walk down the hill in Sirkeci. The food at Ocak is sublime. Executive chef Omer Bozyap starts with the basics of Turkish cooking – high quality ingredients and honest food – and takes it to a new level by combining different flavour intensities with unexpected textures, accompanied by earthy toned tableware, clever presentation, a sophisticated wine list in an elegant setting with excellent service. I’ve eaten a lot of good food in my life, tasting Chinese, Dutch, Japanese and Fijian cuisines by the time I was nine, then lived in an area of Sydney with over a hundred restaurants on a three kilometre stretch of road so I’m not easily impressed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed visiting Sultanahmet with me. Find out what we did on Day Two here.

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Planning to come to Istanbul or Turkey? Here are my helpful tips for planning your trip.

For FLIGHTS I like to use Kiwi.com.

Don’t pay extra for an E-VISA. Here’s my post on everything to know before you take off.

However E-SIM are the way to go to stay connected with a local phone number and mobile data on the go. Airalo is easy to use and affordable.

Even if I never claim on it, I always take out TRAVEL INSURANCE. I recommend Visitors Coverage.

I’m a big advocate of public transport, but know it’s not suitable for everyone all the time. When I need to be picked up from or get to Istanbul Airport or Sabiha Gokcen Airport, I use one of these GetYourGuide website AIRPORT TRANSFERS.

ACCOMMODATION: When I want to find a place to stay I use Booking.com.

My alternative city guide, Istanbul 50 Unsung Places

CITY TOURS & DAY TRIPS: Let me guide you around Kadikoy with my audio walking tour Stepping back through Chalcedon or venture further afield with my bespoke guidebook Istanbul 50 Unsung Places. I know you’ll love visiting the lesser-known sites I’ve included. It’s based on using public transport as much as possible so you won’t be adding too much to your carbon footprint. Then read about what you’ve seen and experienced in my three essay collections and memoir about moving to Istanbul permanently.

Browse the GetYourGuide website or Viator to find even more ways to experience Istanbul and Turkey with food tours, visits to the old city, evening Bosphorus cruises and more!

However you travel, stay safe and have fun! Iyi yolculuklar.

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6 Comments

    1. Thank you for your appreciation of what I do. I hope you get to have more fun and adventures here in Istanbul.

  1. Our tour group visited the Topkapi Palace recently. I was sad about the treasury, as I had been telling everyone about it, but luckily I had seen it on my previous visit. Topkapi is a beautiful place. We were glad to see the lovely tulips.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed your visit despite the treasury being closed. The Palace is magnificent and the tulips were wonderful this year.

  2. It all sounds a great ‘staycation’! Thanks for the heads up on the harem hamam being open – I’ve never been there and would love to do so soon…

    1. It was fab and you definitely should check out the hamam in the harem when you can. Maybe I should do a staycation your side of town – hint, hint.

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