After a super early (5 am!) arrival in Istanbul, we spend the day around the old city. This is one crazy place and you can feel the energy wherever you go.
At the airport, we managed to buy a Turkcell SIM card with enough data to last us for the week. It's definitely cheaper (and quicker) to buy it from shops away from the airport but it's super handy to be able to navigate and access the Internet straight away.
We also purchased a public transportation card (Istanbul Kart) which gives you easy access to all public transportation options around Istanbul. You load credit at kiosks and the card can be shared between multiple users. Istanbul is really congested and during peak hours it's best to make use of the trams and metro trains to get around.
We were way too early to check in but after we dropped off our bags at our guesthouse in the Galata area we took a walk across the Galata bridge to explore parts of Sultanahmet. First up is the Egyptian Spice Bazaar which houses mostly herbalist and spice shops - from there you enter Istanbul's Grand Bazaar with an estimated 4400 shops lined along covered walkways. It is said to be the world's oldest shopping mall, covers several blocks and features a labyrinth of side streets to keep you lost for the better part of a day. Parts of the Bazaar are now rather touristy but it's still great entertainment to browse around!
From the Bazaar it was a quick stroll to the Hippodrome which is adjacent to the Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The Hippodrome was the centre of Roman and Byzantine Constantinople and is a great place to watch people. The building no longer stands, but the obelisks and sculptures that have been collected here since the 4th century remains. Unfortunately, we timed it poorly and the Blue Mosque was closed for prayers so we opted instead to check out the nearby Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici). It turned out to be a truly impressive underground cistern built-in 532 to provide water to the city in cases of siege. Wooden walkways winds between the pillars and lights and music add to the eerie atmosphere.
It was finally approaching our official checking-in time and we were desperate for a shower so we jumped on a tram back to Galata. Sadly there was a 'situation' with the unit we booked and it took a while to resolve and relocate us. We ended up staying in a lovely self-catering apartment near the Shashane metro station in the Beyoglu district. We found it to be an extremely convenient location close to great restaurants and shops.