After my initial entry into Turkey through Izmir, I spent the rest of my time based in Istanbul with some overnight trips to other areas. After seeing countless pictures and hearing stories from other travelers, I was really excited to visit this vibrant city and soak up the culture. And I was lucky enough to have a friend that was working in the city to show me around. This was the same friend who showed me around Greece, and so I was able to travel with both of my fellow Greece travelers to Istanbul. We all stayed at our friend’s house and were later joined by two more of our friends. Below is a brief description of things to do, buy, and eat in Istanbul based on my experiences:
What to Do:
Hagia Sophia. This museum was once of the world’s largest and earliest cathedrals and later served as a mosque. It is a great example of Byzantine architecture that is visually stunning and is one of the city’s recognizable and well known buildings. For those visitors who do not have a lot of time in the city, this is the one absolute must see. This building contains lots of history so visitors may want to get a guide. There are plenty of guides nearby the entrance who will come up and offer their services, which is how we found our guide. The cost for our guide was fair, and worked well in our favor as a group of five because the group remained small but the price was still split five ways. The added bonus for our guide was being able to skip the long ticket line and go straight through security and into the building. Our guide also did an excellent job of showing us around and sharing the history and secrets of the building. Although visitors can tour this place on their own, I highly recommend getting a guide. This place is called a museum, but it is more of a preserved cathedral/mosque and does not offer a lot of educational reading inside the building. Whether visitors choose to get a guide or not, they will not be disappointed by their visit here. This museum was definitely a highlight of my time in the city, and I could really feel the history in this building. Plan to spend about an hour here.
Blue Mosque. This mosque is located across from Hagia Sophia, and like Hagia Sophia it is another recognizable and well known building in the city. It still functions as a mosque today so visitors are not allowed in during prayer times. However, non-Muslims are allowed entry into the mosque when it is not being used for religious purposes. Check the prayer times before going to avoid long waits. Although going inside is not a must, it is worth a peek for those who have time since it is unlikely that they will be allowed entry into many other mosques unless they are Muslim. The mosque will check visitors for proper clothing (which includes having shoulders, chest, and legs covered for everyone and hair covered for women) before entry and will provide clothing for free to those who are not properly dressed. They provide shirts and long skirts for men and women that are put on over their clothing. Shoe must be taken off and put in bags before entry. Once inside visitors can look around the main prayer area. They can return any borrowed clothing when they exit. Plan to spend about 20 minutes inside.
Topkapi Palace. This large museum is made up of multiple sections. The main ticket will allow visitors entry into the large halls, pavilions, and kitchens. Visitors will have to buy additional tickets for entry to the church and into the harem. On our visit, we opted to pay extra for the harem and were not disappointed. As can be expected, this section has some beautifully decorated rooms inside that were neat to see. We did not pay extra for the church so I cannot comment on that. The palace as a whole, though, has some interesting decor. The kitchens display china and other kitchen artifacts. And some of the pavilions serve as sort of mini museums. For example, one displays portraits of the past sultans, and one displays holy relics. Visitors should note that in order to enter the room with holy relics they need to be properly dressed (shoulders, chest, and knees covered). The palace also has several pretty courtyards with gardens that are nice to stroll through. There are several gift shops within the palace as well. All-in-all this is a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
Galata Tower. This tower is supposed to be one of the oldest towers and is supposed to offer some amazing views of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus. Coming here at sunset is supposed to be especially beautiful. Unfortunately, when we visited the Galata district, we got here after the tower closed so we were unable to climb to the top. Instead, we had to content ourselves with looking at the tower from the outside and stopping at the cute shops and cafes located in the area, which are definitely worth a visit. If I return to Istanbul, I would definitely try to go up the tower.
Basilica Cistern. This underground cistern is the largest one in Istanbul and is located close to Hagia Sophia. These ruins are supposed to be well preserved and contain some interesting architectural details, including the two Medusa pillars. The cistern was recommend to me by past visitors. Unfortunately, we did not have time to see this site either. It is another site, I would add to my list for my next visit.
Hamam. While I did visit a hamam during my trip to Turkey, I did not visit one in Istanbul because of time constraints. However, this is something I would definitely recommend doing in this city. There are lots of hamams at all price ranges so visitors who are staying longer should try a couple of different ones. Visitors should note, however, that hamams are not like Turkish baths in other countries (think Budapest). They do not have thermal pools to soak in. Instead, the only “bath” part is a small fountain that is located in a heated room and that has a scoop to pour water over people. Visitors either pour water on themselves or have an attendant do it as part of spa package. Hamams offer many of the regular spa services, such as massages and facials, as an add-on to the whole experience. Hamams are separated by men and women, and some may only serve one of the sexes at certain times or on certain days so visitors need to plan accordingly. Since I did not visit one in Istanbul, I cannot recommend one over another. Choosing the right hammam will likely depend on how much visitors are willing to spend and what they are looking for (e.g., history, authenticity, luxury, or something else).
Whirling dervish show. This performance dance is based on a form of physical meditation that is still practiced by some religious orders. Although it is a performance viewed by visitors, it still maintains a meditative and religious element. There are several shows offered in the city that are supposed to be popular and this is supposed to be the best place to see a show outside of Konya. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend a show during our stay but this is something else I would do on a return visit. Visitors should look at times and book tickets in advance as they do sell out. Since I did not attend one I cannot recommend one over the other but choosing one might depend on availability and timing.
When travelers think of shopping in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar most likely comes to mind. This giant covered market is definitely worth a visit just for the sights alone. Bargain hunters will likely enjoy shopping here and may be able to find some treasures (or at least some good souvenirs) hidden within all the tchotchkes. However, travelers not used to haggling may find this place to be overwhelming. Luckily, for those travelers, there are smaller and more manageable bazaars spread throughout the city along with lots of independent shops with set prices. Other great areas to shop besides the Grand Bazaar include the Spice Bazaar and the Galata district.
While there are lots of items for sale, some are more unique to Turkey and make better gifts or souvenirs. One item I would definitely buy (and did buy) is Turkish towels. These lightweight towels come in all different colors but still have a distinct style that stands out as Turkish. They make for great beach towels or regular towels for the bathroom back home. They are also very absorbent. My only regret was not buying more. Turkey also has tiles with unique Turkish prints. These tiles can be found everywhere and would make good accent pieces for any home and could be used as decorative wall art, coasters, or warm plates depending on their size and finish. Likewise, Turkish ceramics, including bowls, plates, vases, and other knickknacks, can also be found everywhere. These are beautifully painted ceramics that look similar to what can be found in Greece (their close neighbor) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (and likely any other city or country that has a strong Ottoman Empire influence). These do have a distinct style so they would be worth adding to a collection but only if they will actually be used or displayed. The colors are very tempting, but I ended up not buying any mainly for luggage allowance and because I realized I would not use them as much. Some things I would recommend buying are spices and teas from the spice bazaar. These are lightweight and will not take up a lot of room in luggage. There are a lot to choose from so look around and choose the ones whose smell is most appealing. Another item I did end up buying while there was some great street art. This is something I try to find in every city, but I really liked the calligraphy prints and sketches I saw in Istanbul.
What to Eat:
Turkey has several prominent dishes that can be found in restaurants throughout Istanbul. One of the dishes is Kebap, which is a grilled meat usually served with pide bread and maybe grilled vegetables. These come in many variations (I liked the spicy kind) and are reminiscent of a deconstructed sandwich that can be put back together. A second popular dish is Manti, which is their version of a stuffed pasta. These dumplings are filled with meat and tossed in a yogurt sauce. This is a tasty dish but one I had to eat in smaller quantities because the sauce for me was on the tangy side. Turkish breakfast is also a must try dish, especially for travelers who enjoy a good brunch. This meal is a large spread and is meant to be split with someone. While it does come in different varieties, it will likely include eggs, bread, jams, cheese, vegetables, and some type of meat. Pide, which is their version of a pizza, is another widespread dish. This is a flat bread that comes with various toppings, but unlike Western pizza does not have a sauce and may not have cheese unless that is ordered as a topping. While lamb is not a dish per se, it is something that should be eaten in Turkey. Find a restaurant that specializes in lamb and eat it kind of like a kebab. Finally, a drink that should be ordered in Turkey is raki. This is an alcoholic drink often served with water and ice. This drink is strong so the general practice is to dilute it with water (choosing how strong or weak to make it based on the ratio), which turns this clear liquid into a milky looking color that tastes good and can be sipped on.
Where to Stay:
I stayed with a friend who was living in the Kadakoy area, which is across the Bosphorus from most of the tourist sites. This area was nice area with a lot of young locals and with lots of restaurants. It was a safe area in walking distance of the metro, buses, and ferry. I would recommend staying here to get a different view of the city, but I would also recommend staying on the other side of the Bosphorus closer to the tourist sites.
We arrived to Istanbul from Izmir by bus, which takes 8-9 hours. Once in Izmir, the public transportation is easy to use. Metro cards can be purchased and reloaded at metro and ferry stations. They can be used for the metro, bus, and ferry. And the metro and bus are linked to google maps. I found the bus to be a little more confusing, which is typical, but that was partly due to the bus stop closest to the place I was staying. It happened to be a large stop with many different buses and multiple places for buses to stop next to each other and in front of each other that were difficult to navigate. For the most part, however, the metro and ferry is all I needed to use. The metro is like a typical metro so not hard to figure out that map. And the ferry basically just goes back and forth across the Bosphorus so there are not multiple stops. Just get on and ride across the river. When coming back across the river at night after the ferries stopped, we took the minibuses. Again, these are harder to navigate because they are not linked up to Google maps so visitors have to know where to go to get them and what stop to tell the driver. Luckily, I had a local with me anytime we used these that took care of all of that. But this would be good to know for visitors who are not with locals. Try to find out this information from the hotel or Airbnb. When I departed Istanbul, I took a plane. There are airport buses that go between the airport and different parts of the city. Again, ask the hotel or Airbnb the best route and use the airport buses to get to the airport. Remember there are two major airports in Istanbul so be sure to get on the right bus.
Istanbul is a very interesting city with a rich historical past and rich culture. It is also known to be a more liberal city in a more conservative country. During my recent visit here, however, many of the expats and locals that I interacted with noted that the city is actually becoming more conservative. Future visitors should be aware of this changing dynamic. Travelers should also be aware of the more conservative parts of the city and dress appropriately when entering any religious sites. I visited here in September. The weather was still warm, and the crowds were not too bad (although many people living there noted that tourism has dropped significantly in the past year so crowds may be less of an issue overall). During my trip to Turkey, I tried to pack in as much as possible so I only ended up staying in Istanbul a few days and some of that time was spent trying to catch up on sleep from constant travel. As can be seen in my recommendations above, there were several things I was not able to do because of these time constraints. Consequently, I would recommend spending a minimum of four days here. This city is for travelers who are interested in seeing and learning about a different culture (assuming they are Western and/or non-Muslim travelers).
Sometimes when choosing a book to read about the places I visit, I look for books by prominent authors from that country. For Turkey, I decide to read Honor by Elif Shafak, who is considered one of Turkey’s more prominent female writers. This novel follows the story of two sisters and takes place in Turkey and London with a lot of the scenes occurring in London. Despite the location, the voices (this story is told through several different narrators) and themes of love, honor, and immigration really tell a lot about the Turkish culture, albeit a more conservative and older culture that is not as prevalent in today’s Istanbul. The novel is well written and a quick read that keeps readers engaged. It offered me a glimpse of an older Turkish culture and served as a peek of what a more conservative culture looks like.