Me and my wife have just came back from a week long trip in Istanbul. Despite the tension in the region, we decided to go ahead in visiting - and boy was it a great decision.
I’m simply going to go over what we done and things we’d recommend potential newbies to Istanbul do. When we go on holidays, we don’t stay in your regular 4-5 star hotels, rather, we stay locally so we can experience how the local people live . On this trip, we walked to most places and cycled so we could discover places through our own eyes rather than paying a tour guide or relying on taxi drivers to take us. It’s all about adventure for us and it’s the best way to do it, in our experience.
So basically, there’s two sides to Istanbul. The Western side and European side. We decided to stay in the later simply due to the fact that it had the most tourist attractions. We stayed in a local hotel, round the corner from the Blue Mosque - literally a 3-4 minute walk at the most. Crossing over to the Western Side isn’t difficult and literally a walk over a bridge. You could also get a tram, taxi or cycle (as we did).
Speaking of trams, this is the best possible way to get around the city. We used it manyatimes when we got tired or simply wanted to experience the other side of Istanbul. It costs 4 lira per person for any given stop, so whether your getting of at the following stop or at the very end, you only pay 4 lira. Each tram station has 2 types of ticket machines, token or prepaid card, and you can choose between 2 languages - Turkish or English. Needless to say its quite cheap getting around and safe. It is quite busy at peak times so getting a seat is a mission, however, the stops are quite close to each other so you won’t be standing for ever. For example, from Sultanahmed (blue mosque) to Eminonu (the stop before crossing over to the Asian side) is approx 5 minutes by tram. Theres huge ambition and the construction sites around Istanbul reflect this, they are expanding the tram system from the airport into the city which hopefully will help once its up and running.
We had a nasty experience with taxis so didn’t use it after our initial encounter. Despite agreeing a price before we got onto the taxi, the driver all of a sudden decided to change the price to triple the amount which he quoted after the journey. Needless to say we didn’t budge, even despite his threats to take us to the police station (which we said we would happy to - and he drove around the block a few times) and then we agreed to pay him just a little more than what he had quoted in the first place. Make sure, you agree on price in local currency before you set off. Don’t just say 15 or 20, as they may assume you were referring to Euros or Dollars (we made sure we quoted in Liras but looks like we just got unlucky with the driver). Having travelled the world, it’s a hit and miss with taxis so it shouldn’t be seen as a huge downer but just beware and cautious. It’s not a city you’ll be needing taxis as the infrastructure is quite decent compared to other parts of the world, the tram is a perfect example.
So your in Istanbul for a few days or an overnighter and you want to experience the must-do things, heres our recommendation based on us being there for 7 days. This is in order of our favourites:
Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) - we laid eyes on this mosque every day and it was breath taking. Day or night, it’s absolutely gorgeous and has it’s own unique character in both settings. There is no cost to enter the mosque, it’s free. You do not need to be a Muslim to enter either. Anyone can enter out-with the prayer times which are clearly stated on the entrance to the halls of the mosque. There are a lot of tourists so it’s well signposted. In the court yard of the mosque is a whole timeline and history behind the mosque so its worth reading this before you go inside - and boy does it not disappoint.
Suleymaniye Mosque - similar to the Blue mosque above however this has gorgeous views looking onto the city.You get amazing panoramic views of both the Asian and Western side that you will drool over. Photographers will love this. It was hard decision placing this in position two, it almost certainly is on-par with being on top.
Dolmabahce Palace - if theres any one palace your looking to visit, make sure it’s this one. It costs 40 lira only and an English or Turkish guide is included in the price. Theres a tram that takes you near the palace (Kabatas, 5 minute walk from the station. Stunning views in the gardens and onto the pier where the last Ottoman empire stayed, and then the then president Atatürk. It’s amazing how well they have preserved the palace including the very bed and furniture of where president Atatürk died in 1938.
- Eminonu - you have to visit this and experience the hustle and bustle of this area. Fisherman are lined up against the bank whist kiosk sellers are frying the fish as it comes in from the sea and putting them between finely cut rolls. It’s a surreal place to visit during both day and night when you can see ships go past and buildings on the opposite end. The famous spice market is across the road and you can also cross over on the bridge to the Western side by foot whilst seeing the fisherman lined up on the bridge catching fish. Again, make sure you pack your camera for this one.
- Grand Bazaar - you’ve got a stopover or your there for a few days and you want to shop, this is your place. Great variety of shops from rugs to baklava to turkish delight to clothing to ornaments and gifts (as well as knock offs). Don’t be shy in negotiating, some vendors will come across as rude but the best policy is not to react or get heated - simply move onto someone else who will negotiate. If you like something, ask for the price and move on. If its something the vendor is keen on discounting, they will ask you how much you are willing to pay - quote them something really cheap and work your way from there. Most of the stuff in the bazaar is repetitive any way so shop around and get a feel for the pricing before you set your heart on it.
- Topkapi Palace - another great palace to visit. Set aside at least half a day for this, it’s huge. Remember to wear your comfortable trainers for this one, your feet will thank you later. In the quarters you will get to experience how the sultans lived, the kitchen utensils as well as their private quarters. Also within this palace is the Prophet Muhammads PBUH tooth, footstep and beard on display. Your not allowed to take pictures inside this part of the palace so beware. These items are also on display at the Islamic Arts museum (next to Blue Mosque) and it’s relatively quiet compared to Topkapi so you can experience it in a smoother atmosphere.
- Experience the Western side - take a tram to the Karaköy and walk up to Tünel. From there, you can get a traditional tram to Taksim square. It’s an extremely memorable journey, one which you will not forget. You can simply hang on the back of the tram (free) or sit inside using a prepaid travel card. The journey is no longer than 7-10 minutes and it goes through a busy high street leading up to Taksim Square. Whilst you are on the Western side, you may wish to go to Galata tower to get a 360 view of the city, we never went due to us experiencing it at Suleymaniye Mosque, plus we weren’t confident enough having read some of the tripadvisor reviews.
- Science & Technology in Islam Museum - beautiful site, shame we made it in the later part of the evening where it was closing. You get to appreciate what Islam has given the world and every detail of Islamic invention, whether its clocks or science. It’s situated near Gülhane tram station or inside Gülhane park. Grab a cycle and explore.
- Hagia Sophia - gorgeous. You will be in awe. Situated opposite the Blue Mosque, this is one place you ought to have on your list. This is in the last section of this list simply due to the restoration work going on in and around the building which was a bit of an eye sore. We visited in October 2016 so it may not apply to you. This used to be a church and then turned into a mosque, it has great history inside it which is fascinating.
Tip: get yourself a Museum card for 85 lira per person, available readily (we got ours from the ticket desk at Hagia Sophia). It gives you access to the top tourist sites in Istanbul for free for 5 days (Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Science & Technology museum, Arts museum and loads more). Your saving on a really decent amount.
Tip 2: get yourself an AyeGear garment to carry all your items safely and securely during your trip. With dedicated pockets for your camera, SD cards, bottle of water, iPad - stay connected on to go with fingertip access to all your essentials. The new AyeGear V26 is available in Khaki, perfect for the climate in Istanbul.
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