“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you traveled.” – Mohammed
Istanbul quickly became one of my favourite European cities. It is the only city in the world straddling two different continents which probably explains its diversity and character.
Where to stay?
Istanbul has been blessed with fantastic public transport. They have trams, subways, trains, express buses, overground express lanes, underground highways – everything, you name it! This makes it incredibly easy to get around. So ultimately it doesn’t really matter where you stay, however if you want to socialise and be in the midst of the culture, there are 2 popular areas, both on the European side. The first is Taksim. A great hub for bars, nightclubs, shopping and global cuisine. I personally preferred Sultanahmet which hosts more of a culture scene. I would highly recommend the Sultan Hostel. It has the best social vibe in the area and attracts other backpackers in the area each night who come to hang out on the colourful lounges and smoke shisha with fellow travellers. If it is full – stay close by. It’s a fantastic street by night!
A lot of people warned me about booking flights into Istanbul. Many people wanted to ensure I was flying into the “European side” airport called Atatürk International Airport (IST), rather than the “Asian side” Gökçen International Airport (SAW). I did fly through Ataturk and easily caught the train into the city, however after being there I realised it is just as easy to get to the other airport too. Affordable shuttle buses run between the Asian side airport straight into the city and although they do take longer, it is certainly not difficult. So if you are on a budget – and the cheapest flight is to the Asian side – do it! It’s not as hard as people make out.
TIP: As soon as you get to Istanbul, buy an Istambulkart (travel card). Not only will it be your lifesaver to avoid busy ticket queues but it will also save you heaps of money in the long run!
5 TOP ISTANBUL EXPERIENCES
1. F O O D
The best thing about exploring a new city is trying the local food.
Istanbul is a haven for foodies. I know because I am one of them. I spent 3 weeks in Istanbul eating my way around in an effort to try everything. I was not disappointed once. Below are my favourites and they are all traditional Turkish.
Make it a goal to tick off as much as you can from the list below. You wont regret it!
- Turkish Delight – (try nougat, pistachio, marshmallow, cacao, lemon, coconut, almond and fig)
- Turkish tea – mint or apple
- Organic Turkish apricots
- Chicken durum (like a wrap/kebab)
- Gozleme (spinach and cheese pastry dish)
- Pide (minced meat, spinach and tomato pizza)
- Figs and dates stuffed with walnuts
- Grilled aubergine in fresh tomato sauce
- Sticky lollies wrapped on a stick (see image)
- Vegetables stuffed with minced beef
- Turkish bread (offered free at most restaurants)
- Grilled chestnuts from the street cart
- Fresh figs
- Fresh pomegranate or orange juice
- Turkish ice-cream (ask for a show!)
Like everywhere else with street food, be wary where you choose to eat. Try and eat in busy places (look for where the locals are eating) and you should be safe.
2. V I S I T A S I A
Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus River separating Europe and Asia. I would strongly recommend visiting both sides.
One day, my friend Laura and I jumped on a ferry in the late afternoon from Eminonu ferry port. They leave regularly to Kadikoy (Asian side) and take only half an hour. With an Istambulkart it costs only 2.15TL (less than USD$1) or 3TL without it. I recommend getting the slow ferry because it is a great opportunity to take some stunning photos from the sea and you can enjoy the ride. However if you are in a rush, you can take a motor ferry for 4TL which can get you there in probably half the time.
When you get to Kadikoy – don’t expect noodles and fried rice. This is still very much Turkey however the neighbourhood does have a different feel. Wander through the spice bazaar and try the local pide! (I think its different from the other side!) My friend and I were disappointed they were so filling – because there is so much food to try so ask for a half serving or better yet, grab a friend or group to share. Make sure you try the local mussels with rice and lemon. They are in street carts everywhere and are incredible!
When the sun begins to set, go down to the rock esplanade to the left of the ferry terminal. Get a local beer or bring a picnic, pop a scarf down to sit on and enjoy the view. The sun sets behind the beautiful big mosques on the other side and the views are like nothing else. After this – get the ferry back. They don’t run all night and can run into engine issues so don’t get stuck! This was one of my favourite afternoons!
3. W A L K A R O U N D T H E N E I G H B O U R H O O D S
I enjoy walking. It is my favourite way to see a city, although doing so in Summer was pretty difficult. Considering its no beach city, I recommend visiting Istanbul in the shoulder seasons of Autumn or Spring. (In Winter they can get up to 18 inches of snow!) So if you enjoy walking, put on your runners, and explore! From Sultanahmet, I followed the tram line to Eminonu and walked through the streets filled with Turkish delight stores and fresh juices (I made sure I didn’t fill up on these – there is better food to come!) When I reached Eminonu, I went into the Spice Bazaar which is worth the visit in itself! They sell amazing condiments and the smells are divine!
From here, I walked along the bridge (and had a friendly conversation with the local fisherman who tried to teach me to hook a line!) Once i got to the other side, there was no signs however I simply went straight up through the alley ways. Warning: Many stairs!!! I finally reached Cherry Blossom Tree Cafe which has the best coffee in all of Istanbul. Coming from Australia – I have involuntarily become a snob with my coffee. If you are the same – it’s worth the hour walk!! They have delicious treats, freshly made cakes and comfy seats to give your legs a break! From here, I turn directly left out of the cafe and followed the winding laneway until I reached Galata Tower. Unfortunately, there is rarely a good time to avoid the queues here. It is often busy. Galata Tower was once used to house Prisoners of War and is now one of the best places to gain a full 360 degree view of Istanbul so make sure your camera is charged and ready! Costs 18TL to enter.
TIP: If you stay in the area late enough you can see the Turkish show on the top floor nightclub within the Galata Tower!
From Galata Tower you can head North for another 15 minutes and wind through the residential area until you reach Taksim. This is where you will probably need to stop for a stronger drink! There are literally thousands of bars to choose from, and after all that walking – you totally deserve it!
TIP: Head to the local university next to the Grand Bazaar and try and spot a student! They love to practice their English as it improves their studies. You get a free tour guide for the day and learn about their culture first hand!
I also wanted to experience a different neighbourhood altogether and considering both my friend and I are beach goers – we had heard about a beautiful Island where we could swim. We managed to work out the ferries online (really easy and they leave every half an hour) and made our way to Princes Island (approximately 1.5 hours away) It was a beautiful ferry ride down the Bosphorus so 1.5 hours flew by. Getting off the ferry was exciting. It felt like a little European island in the Mediterranean sea. There was beautiful little cafes and seafood restaurants along a promenade and endless gelato stores (try the coconut gelato!) however it was extremely hot so we were keen for a swim straight away. There were specific set areas for swimming so we had to walk about 15 minutes away from the main street. When we finally got there – we were incredibly disappointed. It was disgusting. There was no “beach” and nothing looked like the pictures we had seen online. People were swimming off the rocks into brown polluted water with rubbish everywhere and there was no room to sunbathe so people were cramped onto side paths. Some people had even brought their own little chairs and had set them up on the pathways and sidewalks. We both just stared at each other. 1.5 hours of travel and neither of us wanted to swim. Ah well, we had gone to the effort of getting there so we thought we may as well make the most of it. We spotted some room on a deck 100m away right next to the water – great. It actually looked too good to be true. 1 minute later we realised it was. A man came over to inform us we had to pay to lie in that particular spot unless we bought a drink (which was ridiculously overpriced). We bought one. Within 5 minutes of lying in the sun – we couldn’t take it anymore. We HAD to go in. We braved ourselves and dipped our bodies into the water. As well as being a coffee snob, we were also beach snobs. We had both been living next to Sydney beaches before coming away so this was a huge fall from heaven! We stayed in long enough to simply get our bodies wet and then got out again. We were done with swimming pretty quickly! We wandered the streets which was beautiful (and overpriced) and ate everything we felt like. (We tend to use food to cheer us up) We made our way home a couple of hours later. I wouldn’t recommend going to the Princes Islands to swim, however it would be a beautiful day out with a group to sit on the promenade and have a long lunch. Depends on your style. But for the record (to my fellow Australians) – it’s not a beach!
4. D I N E O N A R O O F T O P
Rooftop dining is always my favourite way to dine. In most cities however, it comes with a price tag – but not Istanbul. It is totally affordable and certainly worth it!
The best rooftop bars and restaurants are close to Sultanahmet. You can spot most of them from the street. Otherwise – they will be advertising it.
Although drinking alcohol is prohibited in Islam, it is surprisingly easy to get within most restaurants in the city and of course hotel bars are all licensed. From 2013 however, the Turkish government are longer providing licenses to any establishment within a 100m range from any mosque or school so new businesses might find it difficult in years to come, but for now – its fine! (a beer is approximately 5TL so definitely not as cheap as other cities)
TIP: When you get off the Sultanahmet tram stop, walk in the opposite direction from the mosque and you will see a laneway lit with fairy lights. Go through the big carpet shop on the corner and go up the lift to the top floor. The restaurant is fabulous and has the best views!
5. D O T H E S I T E S
I attempted to visit the Blue mosque on 3 different occasions and kept picking the worst time! It was either prayer time, or closing time or the line was too long! The mosque closes during prayer time which occurs at 5 times throughout the day for 90 minutes each. It is also closed on Fridays (holy day). My recommendation – go early in the morning. The lighting is beautiful and lines are short. Before you enter you will need to remove your shoes and put it into plastic bags at the entrance. There is no cover charge and you are required to cover up as a sign of respect. Head coverings are most important. Place the fabric cover on top of your head with equal portions hanging on both sides. Take one side and wrap it around your neck, tossing it behind your back with covering your shoulders. Don’t cover your face, the covering is meant to hide your hair only.
TIP: Before entering (at the main entrance) there is a brick building on the left with a set of stairs. Go inside and take part in the free Islam sessions that run 3 times a day. Learn about the tradition and take part in an interesting Q&A with locals to find out more about how Islam is evolving with modern times. Really fascinating!
I was reluctant to visit the Hagia Sofia. I had heard good things but I had also had enough of mosques and it was a steep 25TL to enter. However, it poured rain one day and we figured – why not! At the entrance, we had so many locals approach us to offer a guided tour for only 10TL. I didn’t think I needed it so declined. You can also purchase audio sets for the same price and do it at your own pace. All I can say was that it was totally worth it. It is truly a stunning place and the architecture is extremely detailed. I would highly recommend coming in and taking a look for yourself. Photos just never do those places justice! (Opens 9am-7pm in summer and 9am-5pm in Winter – closed on Mondays)
Don’t bother with the Topkapi Palace – I only heard negative things from everyone who visited. It was apparently “a waste of money and time” and “really boring”. I took this advice and didn’t go, but if you have plenty of time – I guess you can make up your own mind!
7. D R I N K A P P L E T E A A N D S M O K E S H I S H A
During lunchtime hours at home in Sydney, the CBD is buzzing with people in suits rushing from coffee shop to sandwich shop whilst chatting on the phone and running between traffic. Despite Istanbul having 13 million people, it never feels like rush hour. At lunchtime, you tend to see men in business suits wandering into the nearest tea and shisha house. They sit generally by themselves, drink, smoke and leave. It is a time for people to get themselves together, unwind and prepare for the afternoon. Our western culture should adopt a slice of this!
There are dozens of places scattered all over the city so they wont be hard to find. Plus, most restaurants offer it too. However if you are after a real tea drinking experience, head to the Grand Bazaar. On the South side, on Yenicerlier Cadessi, you will find overgrown vines covering a steel gate. This is a traditional tea house and definitely worth a visit. It is full of locals and has an intoxicatingly delicious smell of mixed fruits from the shisha and large pots of boiling water for mint tea. Sitting in here and engaging in some ‘people watching time’ can be very entertaining! Order a shisha and tea and watch the world go by!
TIP: If you order a shisha, they will generally bring you apple (standard flavour) but you can also mix flavours so be sure to ask what they have available! (Cherry is amazing!)
8. S E E G A L L I P O L I
Obviously this trip is something more significant for Australian and NZ travellers. I noticed many other backpackers had never even heard of Gallipoli before which shocked me at the time. Although, in hindsight, there is plenty of history I don’t know about from other countries so not too unusual I guess. For those who are not familiar, the “Gallipoli Campaign” was an unsuccessful attempt by the Allied Powers to control the sea route from Europe to Russia during World War I. The Gallipoli Peninsula hosts ANZAC Cove – which is the landing site of Australian and New Zealand troops on 25 April 1915 (now known as ANZAC Day) where they were horribly defeated. Don’t even consider going near Gallipoli around April 25th. It will be packed and the experience just wont be the same. This year (2015) will be an anniversary year and tickets are already sold out. You can read more about the significance of Gallipoli by clicking here.
I did a day trip. It was long. Very long. But we preferred this to staying overnight. You have the option to stay in a nearby student town called Canakkalle and spread the tour over 2 days.
TIP: If you do choose to stay in Canakkalle for a night, don’t stay at Anzac hostel. I have heard it gets crazy and not in a good way.
We took a 6 hour bus ride which left Istanbul at 5am and arrived at 11am. Buses were comfortable and air conditioned. There are numerous tour companies that do these full day tours, and from feedback, they are all the same. Prices differ between travel agencies. We paid 70 euros which was the average. They even provided breakfast for us! We stopped at a cafe at about 8am and they provided a full hot breakfast. Upon arrival, we also got seated for lunch (also provided) which was a fantastic serving of traditional Turkish salads and BBQ meats. By 1pm, we were all back on the bus, and were taken around to all the main sites. We went in September and it was absolutely FREEZING here! The scarfs and jackets were not enough so we were continually running back to the bus to warm up our blue hands! The sites were incredibly moving and look very much untouched despite the flock of tourists here each year.
The tour guide gives you a brief rundown at each spot and explains the history and significance which was appreciated. With 20 minutes at each site, we were done by about 5.30pm and started to head back to Istanbul arriving at about 11pm. They do stop for dinner at around 7.30pm but this is at your own expense. I recommend reading up about it before going. Despite learning about it at school, a lot of it has been forgotten and sometimes it was difficult to hear the guide during his talks. It helps if you briefly understand what happened at each site. Overall it was a really moving day for all of us and certainly worth the visit if you have time.
9. V I S I T A T U R K I S H B A T H
After visiting Morocco, I was well prepared for what a Turkish Bath might entail. I was ready to see and bare all. As expected, it was unbelievable. I loved it. Slightly different from a Moroccan Hammam, it includes a swim in a cool pool first and the rooms are much larger. We shared with another 4 women but no one seemed to care.
You can find Turkish baths all over the city however I was warned by my hostel owner not to pay less than 30 euros as they can be very dirty and unhygienic. We paid 35 euros and although the service was pathetic (don’t think the women smiled once) it was still enjoyable and relaxing.
We were scrubbed down head to toe whilst lying on a warm marble bench. Hair washed, feet scrubbed, back massaged, arms stretched and then watered down. It was fabulous. We left like new women!
TIP: If you want a longer massage, just tip the women 5 euros at the start and she will go stronger and longer.
10. S H O P A T T H E G R A N D B A Z A A R
The Grand Bazaar is the biggest undercover bazaar in the world. I was told before going not to get too excited because everything is ‘super expensive’. One thing I have learnt on this trip is that the term ‘expensive’ is very much personal. Everyone I met travelling has a different budget and comes from different parts of the world, so what does expensive really mean? Coming from Australia, EVERYTHING is cheaper. For someone coming from Thailand – not so much. So i went into the bazaar with an open mind and was pleasantly surprised. It is not as ‘expensive’ as people make out – at least not for Australians. I actually bought a few things. I bought a stunning blue opal necklace on a rose gold chain. It cost me the equivalent of AUD$30. For me – it was a good price to pay for a unique piece of jewellery. They had numerous beautiful pieces and unlike other markets – I didn’t find anything else quite like it. The shop was called KOC (and was situated at Feraceciler Cadessi No.6 Kapali Carsi)
TIP: You don’t need a guide for the Grand Bazaar – getting lost is the whole idea!
So the Grand Bazaar is huge! There are no maps to get around so you simply wander down the lanes that look interesting to you. Eventually you will come out, at probably the opposite entrance, however a local will likely approach you (reading your lost face) and come to your rescue. Bargaining is a lot more difficult in here than the outside markets simply because they don’t need to reduce prices with the amount of traffic that comes through. I met a local university student (as mentioned above) who wanted to walk me around the bazaar and help me out. Great! He wanted to practice his English and I had a million questions about how much things should cost. He was as thrilled as I was! He also advised not to buy anything in the bazaar simply because you could get it cheaper outside. However when we passed a few shops he would point out what was unique and what was not. He was so helpful I ended up spending the rest of the day with him and he took me all over the city as a personal tour guide!
So be sure to allocate a day to wander the Grand Bazaar and get completely lost – there is no place in the world quite like it!