Essential Guide to Istanbul

Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world. There is a mix of old and new, the traditional and the modern. Istanbul is beyond incredible. It is one of the most inspiring cities I’ve been so far. It is easy to fall in love with the city because of its breathtaking architecture, delicious food and some of the most amazing and hospitable people I’ve ever met. It’s a city I would love to visit over and over again. The city is crowded and busy, it never stops, but when you need a break, there is always a small café, tea house, mosque or park where you can relax and just enjoy.


If you came here, you’re thinking about visiting Istanbul and I’m so glad that you do.

First trip to Istanbul? You don’t have to hesitate, Turkey is a very friendly country. I understand that you may have concerns about your safety, but there is nothing major to worry about. Istanbul is pretty safe, but you still have to be careful just like everywhere else. I felt really safe all the time. I don’t want to exaggerate but sometimes my hometown Maribor doesn’t feel so safe like Istanbul.


There is one thing you should know about Istanbul. You’ll meet a lot of cats. They are literally everywhere. And they love to cuddle. In Istanbul the cat is more than just a cat. They are not strays nor house cats. Istanbul is their city, where they roam free. If you want to find out more about cats in Istanbul, you should watch a documentary Kedi (kedi = cat in Turkish language).

GETTING TO TURKEY

As a Slovenian resident I’m lucky enough and I don’t have to apply for an e-visa to visit Turkey. Even if you have to apply for e-visa, the procedure is not complicated. You can obtain visa 24/7, you only need internet connection. The applicants can obtain their visa after they fill in the necessary information concerning their identity, passport and travel dates and pay the visa fee online.
Please note that e-visa is only valid when the purpose of travel is tourism or commerce. For other purposes, such as work and study, visas are given by Turkish Embassies or Consulates.

TRAVELING TO ISTANBUL

International flights will be arriving at Istanbul New Airport or Sabiha Gökçen Airport (on Asian side of Istanbul). Istanbul Airport is 50km away from the Old city and 65km from Kadikoy. If you are staying in Sultanahmet or Beyoglu/Taksim, where the main attractions are, you can get to the hotel by bus, taxi or by private transfer.
The only available public transport are buses. The metro line is under construction and it is expected to be ready in 2020.

  • BY BUS: If you want to travel by bus, you will need an Istanbulkart, which will cost you 10TL (it comes with 4TL loaded on it). You can buy it from the yellow ticket machine and you can use the same card to use public transport in Istanbul. The ride from the airport will cost you 18TL.
  • BY TAXI: The taxi to Sultanahmet or Taksim will cost you around 30€, but depending on the duration of heavy traffic and the route to be used, these price may double up.
  • PRIVATE TRANSFER: Private transfer will be the most expensive option, but it’s the most comfortable option. My choice was Istanbul Safe Transport and I was really satisfied with them. The one-way price is 50€/vehicle, but if you decide and take a round trip, you will get 10% discount for a ride to the airport.

I’ve used both – Havaist bus and private transfer and I was satisfied in both cases. Private transfer is more convenient but if you’re traveling on a budget, Havaist is a perfectly good choice.

WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL

First of all, you may be asking yourself how many days you should stay in Istanbul? I really loved the city and that’s why I would say at least one week. Yes, you can see all main attractions in 3 or 4 days, but I don’t know if you’re going to experience the true Istanbul. I’m sure that this wouldn’t be enough for me. I’ve had two weeks in Istanbul and it still wasn’t enough for me.

Sultanahmet – The are so many neighborhoods in the city and there is a lot of option to choose from. If you are interested in exploring the Old, the Sultanahmet area will be perfect option for you. Sultanahmet is the no.1 for tourism in Istanbul as it has the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and Hippodrome. Sultanahmet is very close to the Grand Bazaar – 10-15 minutes of walking distance or two tram stations.


Beyoglu – If you are looking for nightlife and the bars, then look for a hotel in Beyoglu or Taksim area. Beyoglu is known for being a trendy area, full of great cafes, pubs and shopping places. Popular areas are Taksim, Galata and Karaköy. You are still close to main attractions in Sultanahmet and you are also close to Galata tower and Istiklal Street.


Further from the attractions, you’ll find Şişli, Beşiktaş or Bebek district. You can also consider about staying in Asian side of Istanbul.

I would totally recommend the Doruk Palas Hotel. During your stay you become part of the family. They will welcome you with warmness and they will make your stay perfect. The hotel is located at Beyoglu district, within a walking distance to Galata Tower and Istiklal street. Also, two or three minutes away, there is a metro station Şişhane and you can easily reach other parts of the city.

HOW TO GET AROUND ISTANBUL


You should prepare yourself for traffic jams. Luckily, you can avoid them by using Istanbul public transport. Taking a ferry is the best option to cross the Bosphorus. It also offers you a great landscape view. You don’t have to take the Bosphorus cruise, you can use your Istanbulkart for any ferry. You will have to buy extra tickets only if you decide to go on any of Princess Island – Adalar.


The main ferry stations are Eminönü (get off there if you want to visit the Spice Bazaar + there is also T1 tram station), Karaköy, Kabataş and Beşiktaş.
You will need Istanbulkart to catch any bus, tram, metro or funicular. You can get one at the airport or at any station. One card can be used by more than one person and you can refill it anywhere – by yourself on yellow machine or at the tobacco shop.
As a tourist, you will probably use the M2 metro line from Yenikapi – Haciosman and T1 tram line, which will take you into the old city, where you will find most of the attractions. You can also catch the historic tram along Istiklal Caddesi, which is more about the experience.

Nostalgic tram

Ofcourse one of the best way to explore the city is by foot. By walking around the city, you will see and experience the most of it. You shouldn’t be afraid of getting lost in Istanbul. You’ll be completely safe but you’ll experience something amazing on every step you make.

WHEN TO VISIT


Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate with dry and hot summers and mild and rainy winters. The best time to visit is during Autumn and Spring, since it can get really hot in July and August and you may find it disturbing. But you can’t preddict the weather. I was there in July and in the end of September and the weather was even better in September – there were less rainy days and the degrees were still high, around 25°C – 30°C.
You should consider about visiting during the Ramadan. I would advise you to organise your trip before or after Ramadan.

THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL

1. Visit top attractions


Sultanahmet is home to the city’s most important attractions like Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern. You should visit all of them, because the visit is not the same without seing them. You can visit these attractions in one day, but it is better if you spread them over two days or even more.
You can choose between guided tour or visiting them by yourself. I’ve decided to buy »skip-the-line tickets« with short guide included, but you can leave the group immediately after coming in if you are not interested in listening the guide. There are huge lines in front of the tickets office, so I recommend you to come as soon as possible. The crowds around noon are huge, so be prepared for queing.

Here is a quick rundown of what you can visit:

Hagia Sophia

The former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum. Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building and engineering marvel of its time. It’s considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have changed the history of architecture.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Topkapi Palace

In the 15th century it served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. You shouldn’t miss the harem when you visit the palace. You’ll have to pay extra for visiting the harem but it is totally worth it. In my opinion, the harem is the most interesting part of Topkapi Palace. A visit to the palace gives a glimpse into lives of sultans.

Topkapi Palace Harem
Topkapi Palace

During your Topkapi Palace visit, you should also visit Hagia Irene. It is  located in the outer courtyard of Topkapı Palace. Hagia Irene is the oldest church of Istanbul as it is believed to have been built on the site of a temple to Aphrodite prior to Emperor Constantine’s decision in 330 to move the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. 

Hagia Irene

Blue Mosque

Also called Sultan Ahmet Camii. It is a historic mosque which was constructed between 1609 and 1616. It is one of the most important mosques known by its blueish interior. For me it wasn’t the most amazing mosque in Istanbul. It’s worth visiting it but don’t forget about the Suleymaniye Mosque.

Suleymaniye Mosque

It was built on the order of Sultan Suleiman (Süleyman the Magnificent) and there is also burried Hurrem Sultan. Have you read the book Suleiman the Magnificent? Then you’ll know what I’m talking about. It is one of the most beautiful mosques in Istanbul, so don’t miss it! Definitely my favourite one.

Suleymaniye Mosque

Galata Tower

One of Istanbul’s most iconic visuals and one of the symbols of Istanbul. Originally named the Tower of Christ, the 66.9 meter high tower was the highpoint in the city walls of the Genoese colony called Galata. Galata Tower was used as watching tower to prevent enemy ships from entering the harbor. It was built in 1348. You can go up and you’ll get a nice 360° view of Istanbul.

Galata Tower

Dolmabahçe Palace

In 1856, administrative center of the Ottoman Empire was moved from Topkapi Palace to Dolmabahçe Palace and it also became the private residence of Abdulmecid I and his family. Abdulmecit I had lived here 5 years. This palace served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and 1909 to 1922 and it was used as final residence of the Ottoman Sultan.
Photos inside the Dolmbahçe Palace are NOT allowed. However, I believe that the palace is 100% worth to be visited.

Basilica Cistern

The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. It was built in 532 and was used to supply water to the Great Palace of Constantinople as well as other buildings on the First Hill.

2. Go shopping at the Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Spice Bazaar


The Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars are Istanbul’s most popular bazaars. The Grand Bazaar is the largest and one of the oldest covered market in the world, with 61 streets and over 4,000 shops. You should dedicate an enitre day to shopping at the Grand Bazaar. You should go there in the morning, take a break for a lunch, rest a little bit and come back late afternoon. If you will visit the Grand Bazaar on Friday, you should know that many shops will be closed during the pray at 1 o’clock.


During your stay, you should also visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, which is full of colors and fragrances. They offer any spice you can think of and I suggest you to look out for typical Turkish spices. Even if you are not a spice lover, you will find dried fruits, teas, Turkish delight in many different flavors, Turkish coffee, soaps, etc.

You shouldn’t miss the shopping experience at Bazaar, but if you are looking for a better price, you should only take a look and experience an atmosphere, because you will find much cheaper products outside the Bazaar.

When visiting the Egyptian Spice Bazaar don’t be afraid to go out and get lost in the streets all around the Bazaar, because it offers you a totally different experience.

3. Crossing the Bosphorus by boat


I can highly recommend you to take a Bosphorus tour. I promise you that you will get a stunning view over the Istanbul. The city already looks amazing, but if you take a look over the city from the sea, you will be amazed. There are many providers offering short and long tours, you can choose the night tour also. But there is no need to choose the Bosphorus tour, you can go with the cheapest option and you will experience the same. The best way to do it is to commute between European and Asian side.

Bosphorus

4. Get to Asian side of Istanbul


A trip to the Asian side is a must when you are in Istanbul. To be honest, how many times you are in the city, which is located on two continents? The city is the same, but the atmosphere on the Asian side is completely different from what you will see and experience on the European side.
A good starting point is Kadiköy, where you can also take the historic Kadikoy – Moda tram. Later you can visit the Kadiköy Bazaar and eat a delicious fish sandwich, called balik ekmek. You must give it a try.
If you decide to take a trip to the Asian side, you should also visit Üsküdar, take a stroll by the sea and take a cup of tea in the near of the Maiden’s Tower. You will find people sitting on the stairs, drinking a cup of tea, while there are passing people, selling anything you can imagine. They will offer you sweets, jewerly, roses, nuts and a lot of things.
So, just take a cup of tea and enjoy.

Turkish tea

5. Find yourself a perfect view

If you want to see one of the best city views, go to the Kubbe. I guarantee you the best view. And it is for free! At first, you will probably think “Where the f* am I going? Am I in the right place? Is it really worth it?” , but the views are just amazing, so do not hesitate and find this place.

Instanbul off the beaten path

Although the place is pretty hard to find, you will meet a lot of people here and probably you will have to wait for a long time to take a photo there. You can avoid waiting in the line and take a photo in the shadow, instead the one in the sun. I love taking pictures, but I don’t want to spend my time, waiting for “the perfect shot”. If you want to see the part of Istanbul which is not crowded with tourist, you should go visit the next place on my to – do list.

6. Go off the beaten path – Fener & Balat

Although Istanbul has many tourist places to visit, you may want to explore places off the beaten path. You can’t do much better than spend a day exploring the streets of Fener and Balat. They are the richest in history of city and they have a personality. They have been included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. But only 1% of tourist visit these places. Go there and lose yourself wandering around.

Fener has been the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and one of the most important Greek neighborhoods in Istanbul.

Bolgarian Orthodox Church
Fener

Neighboring Balat was home of Jews. Balat is one of the most colorful neighborhoods in Istanbul. There are clothes hanging above your head, kids are playing on the street and the atmosphere is really unique.

Do not miss the Greek High School, the Orthodox Church of St. Mary of the Mongols and the Bulgarian Church. Go in one of the small street cafes and drink a tea while enjoying the view.

Istanbul Balat

7. A day trip to Princes Island

If you want to escape from chaotic city, full of people, a day trip to Princes’ Island, officialy known as Adalar, is a perfect choice. Cars are forbidden here, so you will be able to enjoy in peace. They are like a small piece of heaven and they are a perfect place to relax. There are four islands – Büyukada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kinaliada. The biggest one is Büyükada, but I prefer a smaller and less crowded one – Kinaliada. If you are lucky with the weather, you can also swim there.
To get there, take ferry to Adalar and get off on any island.

Princess Island Istanbul

8. Have a Turkish breakfast – kahvalti

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and Turks certainly know how to enjoy it. A well prepared tea is a must. Although Turkey is well known by its Turkish coffee, Turks serve turkish tea when it comes to breakfast. Turkish breakfast is made of bread, simit, cheese, jams, spreads, eggs, green and black olives and vegetables (tomatoes and cucumbers).

Breakfast in Istanbul

WHAT TO EAT IN ISTANBUL

Forget about the international fast food chains and experience the real Turkish food. Turkish cuisine is very diverse, because of all the influences of different cultures. So, where to start?

With Turkish breakfast, ofcoure. No doubt.

You can enjoy a Turkish breakfast almost everywhere in Istanbul. Most of the cafes and restaurant serve breakfast. The Turkish word is kahvalti and it can be translated as kahve-alti, meaning under-coffee, so this is the food you eat before drinking coffee.

Kuru fasulye

Kuru fasulye is a stewed bean dish, primarily made with white beans, olive oil, onion and tomato paste. Kuru fasuly is often served with rice or bulgur. The best place to eat one is around the Süleymaniye Mosque.

Balik Ekmek

Balik ekmek is a common street food in Istanbul. It is a sandwich of grilled fish, served with vegetables inside a bun of Turkish bread. Another variation of fish sandwich is fish wrap – balik durum. You can get balik ekmek under the Galata Bridge, in Karaköy or in Eminönü, but if you want to eat the authentic balik ekmek, you should go to Beykoz and Yeniköy, as they serve fresh fish.

Kofte

The are different varieties, some are long and thin, some are balls, they can be made from beef, lamb or combination. In Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Selim Usta serve one of the best koftas. They managed to remain very authentic and true to recipe, which hasn’t changed since 1920.

Pide

Pide is a flat bread baked with toppings in a stone oven and there are many varieties of pide.

Manti – Turkish Ravioli

Manti is a hot dish served with cold yoghurt and garlic. Manti is some kind of dumplings, filled with grounded lamb or beef.

Baklava

The nuts are spread in between the layers of phyllo dough. Then the pile of dough is dressed with butter, baked and soaked in syrup.

Welcome to the paradise of food and sweets. Try everything or as much as you can. Food in Istanbul is not expensive, so you can really try different dishesh. Turkish delight is also a must!

WHAT TO AVOID IN ISTANBUL?

Istanbul is quite safe for a city like this. Close to the Taksim Square, there is an area called Tarlabasi, that is known for being a danger place because of drugs and prostitutes. Avoid going there, especially during night time.
As a solo female traveler, I can say that people are not gonna bother you or cause you any harm. Ofcourse, there is always a safety concern, but you don’t have to worry about your safety as a female, because Turks respect woman. When you are strolling aroung the city, you don’t have to cover or be worried about your clothes. But as a foreigner in a Muslim country, you should respect their culture. When you visit the mosques remember to cover and please wear a long skirt or trousers.
You should be careful with your money. There is always an option that you can become a victim of a pickpocket, so be careful and take care of your stuff.
When you want to withdraw money on ATM, always choose an ATM connected directly to the bank in case of any troubles with your card.

Now it’s time to buy your tickets and fall in love with the city just like I did.

USEFUL TURKISH WORDS AND PHRASES:

  • Good morning : Günaydin
  • Good afternoon/good evening: Iyi akşamlar
  • Good night: Iyi geceler
  • Hello: Merhaba
  • See you: Görüşürüz!
  • Enjoy your meal: Afiyet olsun! (they also use the same phrase when they serve drinks – tea or coffee)
  • Welcome: Hoşgeldin/hoşgeldiniz
  • Thank you: Teşekkürler, teşekkür ederim,
  • Please: Lütfen
  • How much?: Ne kadar?
  • I’m sorry: Özür dilerim
  • Excuse me: Afedersiniz
  • OK: Tamam
  • Yes: Evet
  • No: Hayir

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.