I’ve just returned from a trip to Istanbul and wanted to write down some of the things we did for any of my friends planning on making the same trip. One of the things that surprised me most about Istanbul was how beautiful it is — between the copious amounts of blooming flowers (April is the perfect time to visit Istanbul by the way!), friendly locals, and ancient buildings/monuments you really feel like you’re walking through one of the seven wonders of the world!
Visa and Exchanging Money
You’ll need a visa before going to Turkey. You can buy one at the airport or to save time you can just pay for one online (costs 20$) and print it out. When you go through border control just show your printed visa and passport, super easy! Also it’s better to exchange your money for Turkish Lira once you’re in Istanbul; instead of exchanging the money ahead of time or withdrawing it from an ATM — you’ll get a better exchange rate.
One of the reasons we had such a good time on this trip is because we had a local to help us out. Ramon (spaniards call him Ramon, but his real name is Ramazan) works at his family’s store , El Rincón de Fehmi, where they sell kilims, carpets, and rugs in the old part of the city. Ramon is a godsend for making your trip hassle free; he helped us exchange our money for the best rate, got us tickets to all the attractions so we didn’t have to wait in line, took us to some of the best restaurants and bars in town, helped us reserve our shuttle to the airport, and called to make dinner reservations for us. My boyfriend’s father met Ramon when he went to Istanbul 2 years ago, we contacted Ramon once we got to the city and organized a meet up, we ended up hanging out with him every day while we were there; he’s a lot of fun! If you’re planning on traveling to Istanbul I can give you his contact info. He isn’t a guide so to compensate him for all his help you can buy a rug from his family’s shop and invite him out to dinner (that’s what we did) — my boyfriend’s dad also paid him extra money for all his help too! We ended up going to the shop once a day as well, his family is very welcoming and talkative — they’ll offer you lots of apple tea and give you a nice place to sit (as well as clean bathrooms) if you need a break from exploring! ALSO if you’re looking for high quality knock-off handbags ask Ramón about where to go, don’t waste your time in the Grand Bazaar.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Definitely stay in Sultanahmet, that is the neighborhood where all the attractions are and if you’re aren’t staying in that area you’ll be walking a lot or taking taxis to get there. We stayed at the Ottomans Tugra Hotel which was 2 blocks from the Blue Mosque and Ayasofia – perfect location! The decor was a bit tacky for my taste and the lobby smelled a bit strange but the room was a decent size, clean, recently renovated, breakfast was included, and the hotel staff was very nice and helpful — I would definitely stay there again!
Where to eat in Istanbul
Alcohol is not so easy to come by in the local eateries as the majority of locals are muslim. We were able to find beer in several restaurants but wine and liquor are way over priced so just keep that in mind (and ask to see the menu with prices before ordering drinks!). Most of the touristy restaurants have alcohol if you want to drink beer or wine with your meal. A lot of people drink yogurt there (it’s like liquid greek yogurt), I wasn’t too fond of it but my boyfriend was, you can add sugar to make it sweeter. The most common food is Kebab — I have no idea what the dishes were called because they were in different languages but pretty much everything is good. One place you need to eat at is Sultanhamet Koftecisi; they have about 8 dishes to choose from and 3 dessert options. The menu is simple and good and the place is completely full of locals and some tourists. It’s on the main street next to the Basilica Cistern and Blue Mosque — smack dab in the center! If you can, climb up to the third floor and grab a seat by the window. We ordered the meatballs and lamb plates with a side of rice (perfect order for 2 people to share).
11 Things to do & see in Istanbul
1. Egyptian Spice Market
Make sure to stop in the spice market! My favorite part of it was the fact that you can to sample things before you buy them, I sampled plenty of sweets as we walked past the shops.
2. The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is definitely something to be seen! There are hundreds and hundred of shops there — I wasn’t a big fan of haggling (if you go too low on the price the shopkeeper gets pissy) so I only bought a few items there (scarves and bracelets); you can find the same kinds of items in other shops in Sultanahmet which provide a more tranquil environment (and are usually cheaper). Usually if you’re buying two or more items you can get a decent discount on your purchase; just remember that they raise the prices with the expectation that you’ll negotiate it down so don’t be shy (I’d say things like, “well if I buy this one and this one what kind of discount will I get?” for example). If you’re looking for something in particular then the bazaar is a good place to find it — I was searching for a charm for my charm bracelet and was able to find a great one (made from an old ottoman coin). There are also cute cafes and restaurants in the center of the market, they’re a little pricey but it’s a great spot to sit and people watch, also the food is amazing!
3. Ayasofia – Hagia sofia
Amazing! Definitely need to see it — if you can get your tickets ahead of time do so to skip the gigantic line (Ramon can help with that!), I really liked the gift shop as well.
4. The Blue Mosque
Also amazing — keep in mind there is a dress code to enter the mosque (no shorts, girls must cover their heads). If you don’t have the appropriate attire there are sheets and scarves provided so it’s not a big deal.
5. Lots of Mosques!
There are tons of mosques all over the city — I had never been in a mosque before so it was a really interesting experience for me. Tourists can enter into the mosques at any time expect during prayer time, which I think is 4 times a day…not sure really but you’ll hear the call to prayer from the megaphones above the mosque. Dress codes are applied to all mosques so please keep this in mind if you’re planning on exploring some of them.
6. Topkapi Palace
The palace is breathtaking and very, very, very crowded. Prepare yourselves for swarms of school children and hundreds and hundreds of tourists. You’ll need about 2 – 4 hours to really see everything (we got tired after 2 hours and did a quick run through of the grounds) so wear comfortable walking shoes. We paid extra to see the Harem which was beautiful, and there is also a part of the palace which has items from the Sutltan’s treasury and clothes on display; very interesting and worth the visit! Make sure to get your tickets ahead of time as well (even with tickets the line is crazy long).
7. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern was one of my favorite sights of the trip. It’s so eery and beautiful; I felt like I was in a scene from Lord of the Rings when they’re running through Mount Doom…it’s so dark down there but there is a beautiful orange glow from the lights reflecting off the water and the columns, loved it! There’s also an area where you can take photos dressed up as a sultan and concubine, my boyfriend and I did it — super cheesy but the photos are hilarious!
8. Rooftop Hookah Bar
Ramon took us to an amazing rooftop hookah bar which provided great views of the city. There was another bar nearby as well — I’m afraid I didn’t catch the name of the place and it was very well hidden (there were no other tourists) so you’ll have to ask him where it was!
9. Bosporus Cruise
If it’s not too cold take a cruise on the Bosporus — we went in the evening to see the sunset but I think the best time to go is in the morning when the water is calm or after sunset so you can see the city lights. The cruise we went on was 10 lira (3.50 euros) and lasted an hour and a half. There are a lot of different cruise options that are more expensive and include food but the quick cruise we went on was just fine. You can buy tickets for the cruise next to the Bosporus Bridge, just show up when you want to go and there should be several ships lined up to choose from.
10. Shopping in Taksim-Beyoglu
Taksim (Beyoglu) is the modern part of the city. We crossed the Bosporus Bridge and walked up the hill, passed under the Galata Tower, and continued walking until we reached the main avenue. There were a lot of great souvenir shops on the way (I liked them better than the ones in the old part of town) and cute restaurants. Eventually you’ll reach Istikal Avenue which leads to Taksim Square. The avenue is lined with tons of shops (like H&M, Mango, etc.) and restaurants — it’s a great place to buy clothes and I also bought a silver necklace from a jewelry shop there (I trusted those shopkeepers more than the ones in the Grand Bazaar when it comes to gold/silver products). There are trolleys that run up and down the avenue if you don’t feel like walking and there are interesting buildings and monuments (like a catholic church!) along the way to the square.
11. Galata Tower
Because we had such great views from the hookah bar we didn’t feel it was necessary to pay to climb the tower (and we were super tired). I’ve read it has great views of Sultanahmet so it might have been worth the climb! However we settled for freshly squeezed orange juice and a comfy seat with a view of the tower at Cenviz Cafe instead 🙂