The hardest thing about being part-time travellers is not missing out on major sightseeing while at the same time staying true to our love for slow travel. Finding the right balance between sightseeing and leisurely taking in the local feel of the destinations we visit is really important to us. We have come to understand that the best way to achieve this balance and save ourselves loads of valuable time is by leaving most of the sightseeing to the hands of experts. This is why we are happy to have come across the best sightseeing tours in Istanbul during our recent trip to Turkey.
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Istanbul sightseeing with Walks In Istanbul
Planning our 5-day trip to Istanbul was rather tricky for us. This is because there are so many Istanbul must-sees we didn’t want to miss. However, we also wanted to take our time and enjoy the city’s unique charms. So we decided to do the bulk of our sightseeing in a single day. At first we thought we could pull this off on our own. Luckily, we quickly came to our senses. That’s when we started researching on the best guided tours in Istanbul. The name Walks In Istanbul popped up and the rest is history. We joined not one, not two, but three of the best half day tours we have ever experienced.
Fener & Balat Tour
Fener and Balat are two off the beaten path neighbourhoods in Istanbul. We knew we definitely wanted to visit both of them. Therefore, we were so happy to find out that Walks In Istanbul offer walking tours to Fener and Balat twice every day. We decided to join the morning tour and we headed to the Karaköy ferry dock, our meeting point. We were really excited as this tour starts with a ferry ride along the Golden Horn. Yet we got unlucky on this one. As soon as we met our guide Çetin, he told us that there was a disruption on ferry schedules. That was because of a huge pre-elections meeting which was held on that day. The latter caused road closures and somewhat of a traffic chaos in the city. Bummer alert!
So, instead of riding the ferry, we started walking along the iconic Galata Bridge. In the meantime, Çetin shared with us some important moments in the history of this grand city that is Istanbul. Then Çetin and our small group of six took a bus from Eminönü. Soon we were at Ayvansaray, the first stop on our Fener & Balat Tour. While there, we saw part of Istanbul’s old Byzantine Walls and Çetin drew a vivid picture of how the city fell into Ottoman hands.
The next stop on our walking tour was a short visit inside the beautiful Mary Blachernae Church. This is one of the most important Greek Orthodox churches in Istanbul.
Then we resumed our walk and soon we found ourselves in a maze of narrow streets lined with colourful wooden buildings. That was Balat. A former rich Istanbul neighbourhood now bearing evident scars of neglect and oblivion, Balat used to be a unique melting pot of cultures. It was mostly inhabited by Greeks, Armenians and Jews in the past. During our tour, we visited a couple of religious sites that reflect this multicultural character of the area.
As we strolled along Vodina Street, the picture started to change. Yes, there were still beautiful buildings of all colours around us but now the cobblestone streets looked festive and full of life. We were in Fener, the most picturesque Istanbul neighbourhood, in our opinion. We walked up Sancaktar Yokuşu, the most uphill street we have ever seen in our lives. That said, it’s totally worth the climb. The prettiest wooden residences line it and it enjoys breathtaking views from its top end. Spoiler alert: at its junction with Baki Dede Street, Sancaktar Yokuşu is home to an Instagram-perfect spot.
However, the ultimate attraction here is the imposing and super impressive building of the Greek Orthodox College. The latter is the oldest surviving and most important Greek school in Istanbul.
From that point we started our descend towards the final stop on our Fener & Balat Tour. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The latter is an essential stop on this Istanbul walking tour. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is one of the most sacred sites in the world. In a nutshell, it represents for Orthodox Christians what the Vatican means to Catholics. That was the end of our Fener & Balat Tour. Even though I seem to have written quite a lot about it, there was so much more we saw during this 3-hour guided tour and we honestly can’t recommend it enough. Not to mention that Çetin is a real gem of a guide.
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Tour
For our second sightseeing tour of the day, we left one of the most laid-back parts of Istanbul behind us and headed to the city’s most touristy and crowded spot: Sultanahmet Square. The latter is an enormous pedestrianised area which reminds more of a large open-air museum than an actual square. This was the former location of the Hippodrome of Constantinople (Constantinople is one of Istanbul’s older names). Under the shade of a nearby tree, our guide Duygu explained to our small group of four the importance of the Hippodrome as the social centre of Istanbul during Byzantine times.
Our Istanbul Old City tour started with a visit to the Blue Mosque. Its real name is Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Although one of the major attractions in Istanbul, it is still an active mosque. Therefore, there are two things to keep in mind. It is not open to visitors during prayer time and ladies need to cover their heads to enter the mosque. Once at the interior courtyard, Duygu gave us insight into the history of the mosque as well as details about its architecture.
When we got inside the mosque, Duygu brilliantly explained to us the various sacred parts of a mosque as well as the praying ritual of Muslims. Sadly, there were restoration and maintenance works in progress during our visit. As a consequence, we didn’t get to see the magnificent dome of the Blue Mosque. Also, it was so crowded that the magic of an otherwise majestic religious and architectural site was kind of lost.
Our next stop was Hagia Sophia, the ultimate Istanbul highlight. We can’t stress the importance of visiting Hagia Sophia with a guide enough. First of all, we skipped the long lines. Secondly, we were given access to a wealth of information only a knowledgeable local would be able to provide. Visiting the Hagia Sophia Museum for the first time is an utter shock. But in a good way. It was Katerina’s second time inside this marvel of a building and still she was impressed and filled with awe all over again. So I can’t even begin to tell you how I felt stepping inside Hagia Sophia for the first time in my life.
First of all, if you think that Hagia Sophia looks impressive in photos, wait until you get to actually stand inside it. It is a building of such remarkable size and splendor that it is hard to believe that it was once an Orthodox church. Yet it was and there are traces of its Orthodox past everywhere. Secondly, being inside Hagia Sophia was one of the most emotional and surreal moments we’ve had in our travels and, actually, our lives. The image of Virgin Mary sitting in the midst of huge panels bearing the names of Allah and Muhammad is not something you get to see every day.
The minute I laid eyes on this surreal spectacle coincides with the moment something clicked inside me and made me fall in love with Istanbul. Katerina later told me that the same happened to her the first time she visited Hagia Sophia. Nowhere have we seen a symbol of unity and love more powerful than this. At least that’s how we interpreted it at those fleeting moments and that’s how we’ll keep it in our memories for the rest of our lives. The story of a church turned into a mosque may evoke feelings and images of hatred and conflict. Yet Hagia Sophia could and should be living proof that all people are welcome under the same roof. No matter their beliefs or backgrounds. Love conquers all.
Suleymaniye Mosque Tour
After saying our goodbyes with the rest of our group, Duygu stayed with us for our third and last walking tour for the day. This would be a private tour of the Suleymaniye Mosque. Therefore, we had the liberty to customise it a bit by adding a visit to the Basilica Cistern first. The latter is the largest of many ancient cisterns that stay hidden beneath the city of Istanbul. Its low lighting adds to the cistern’s charm. We enjoyed walking around its corridors while Duygu explained how the water system used to function in Constantinople.
Afterwards, we took the tram for a short ride to Beyazit Square. Then we enjoyed a super pleasant leisurely walk all the way to the Suleymaniye Mosque with Duygu. Did I mention that she is one of the sweetest people we have met during our travels? If not, my bad. Duygu is amazing and for the entire duration of this 2-hour private tour with her we completely forgot that she was our tour guide. It honestly felt as though we were strolling around the city in the company of a good friend.
Now, let’s go back to the tour itself. To cut a long story short, if you have time for just one mosque in Istanbul, make it count by visiting the Suleymaniye Mosque. It is utterly beautiful and, although an active mosque as well, it is way less crowded than the Blue Mosque.
Duygu made sure we got all the juicy details in the fascinating life of Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife. Later, we wandered around the mosque’s mausoleums and tranquil cemetery. Last but not least, the Syleymaniye Mosque offers breathtaking views to the Golden Horn from its garden.
Why we are happy we chose Walks In Istanbul for our sightseeing tours in Istanbul
It’s no secret that we join guided tours almost everywhere we travel. Nor is it a secret that we have immensely enjoyed all of them so far. However, the tours offered by Walks In Istanbul really stood out for us in terms of quality. Most importantly though, we loved the people behind the brand itself. Arzu is the founder of Walks In Istanbul. Yet she is the one who responds to all enquiries while she still gives tours herself when in Istanbul. As for the two guides we met, Çetin and Duygu, we can’t say enough for their professionalism but, most of all, for their shining personalities which rendered those walking tours even more memorable.
We genuinely liked those specific sightseeing tours in Istanbul. First of all, we are very fond of the small group tours concept. Moreover, the option of customised private tours is also a brilliant idea especially for those who are visiting Istanbul on a very short trip. Furthermore, queuing for tickets or figuring out opening times for mosques on our own would be a terrible waste of time, so we avoided all of this. Being shown around a city of such great importance by friendly, knowledgeable guides is simply priceless.
Last but not least, in terms of customer service Walks In Istanbul are second to none. For instance, both Arzu and Çetin kept us updated on WhatsApp regarding the traffic issues caused on that specific day. Çetin went so far as to jump on a bus with us so as to make sure that the driver would help us and the other girls from our group get off at the right stop. At the end of the day, it is those little details that make a huge difference when it comes to feeling welcome in a foreign country.
So, although it was a super full day for us since we joined three walking tours in a row, we felt neither tired nor bored. Squeezing all this sightseeing in a single day sounds like a super crazy plan. And it is. We now know that we wouldn’t have done it without Walks In Istanbul. Moreover, if we had more time to spare on sightseeing, we would have joined more of their Istanbul tours. Not on that same day obviously. We kind of left some top places to visit in Istanbul (Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, Chora Church) for next time on purpose. When the time comes for us to visit this miracle of a city again, we know that our friends from Walks In Istanbul will be there to show us around.
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Disclosure: Walks In Istanbul offered us three complimentary sightseeing tours. However, as always, we share nothing but our very own and honest opinion about the experience we had. In fact, writing an entire blog post about those tours wasn’t even part of the deal. We did so because we genuinely loved Walks In Istanbul and we always want to show our readers the very best a destination has to offer.