I love Istanbul. Even though I’ve been going to Istanbul for as long as I can remember, it still strikes me as one of the most exotic, magical cities in the entire world. Even though it’s a city I love, so many people only go to Istanbul when traveling to Turkey, and there is so much more to see and do in this amazing country, but it’s a good start and it certainly has some amazing sights to see. I hope you enjoy our Istanbul Travel Guide.
The Hippodrome is hard to notice..it’s basically the road with a few statues in the middle, but it used to be where they would hold chariot races and receive foreign dignitaries. The Basilica is a little difficult to find. Cross the street and there is a small green hill. It is sort of on the other side of the hill. There are a lot of restaurants and cafes right there.
Note: You can go into the mosques as long as it is not prayer time. Women should wear a scarf to cover their hair. At some mosques they will let you borrow one, and at the Blue Mosque you’ll see people not wearing them. You definitely should bring one and wear it.
The Grand Bazaar is up the hill from Aya Sofya. Especially if you have children, do not walk. Take the tram (see below). Do not go on Sunday, but the best thing would be to go as early as possible on any other day. It can be very tiring! I personally like shopping at the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar better, so you might want to go here first. I would NOT go to both on the same day, because it can be so exhausting fending off some of the vendors. BTW: Usually the Turks will not pressure you into buying outside of these bazaars and the carpet shops. You definitely want to bargain inside the bazaar, but you do not bargain for food or in shops.
Power Tip: If you go into a shop, and you think you will purchase something, make sure you take the seller’s offer of tea. Children will love the apple tea and it’s free, no strings attached. Watch the way they call for the tea. Sometimes they will just yell out the door, sometimes they’ll send one of the workers, and sometimes they will push a bell. The tea vendor will come in with a tray of tea. You might not see them pay for it at all, but sometimes they pay with little colored chips. It’s all very interesting. Definitely do this at least one time!
Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Bazaar) – This is one of my favorite areas in the city. It is located near the Yeni Camii (New Mosque). Don’t bother going into this mosque, but if the old ladies are out in front selling pigeon food, buy some and see the pigeons swarm. Again, the kids will love it. Good photos too. If you are facing the Spice Bazaar, there are two outside markets you must walk through. The one on the left is the animal/pet food market. It is surrounded by cafes. Look for the leeches that a lot of people still buy when they have a wound they need to suck out the blood. Also the animals they sell as pets can be very odd. On the right side is the cheese/fish/produce market. Definitely buy some pomegranates and some tangerines. They are in season and delicious! Here is where you want to stock up on your pistachios as well. Don’t get the ones dyed red.
Inside the Spice market is fun, but you have to do all the sides first, then go out the opposite door you entered. There is even more market, but as soon as you step out you will smell coffee. The small store on the left (across the alley) is very famous. If you like strong, strong coffee you might want to buy some, but I think looking at the line and just smelling it is awesome! Keep walking straight up the hill, and after the equivalent of about two blocks, veer right to go to the
Rustem Paşa Mosque. This is my favorite mosque in Istanbul. It is gorgeous and known for its Iznik tiles, and as a bonus doesn’t usually have a lot of tourists.The area in front of the Spice Bazaar is known as Eminonu and it is a key area. If you look over the Bosphorus, there are a few things for you to try/do.
First you walk under the road and you will see some lit up boats with people selling fish sandwiches from them. If you like fish, definitely try it. The bones will be in it. Maybe just buy one to share for the experience. You will also see red carts selling a juice. It is made from pickled veggies…I would NOT recommend trying that! It’s very bitter.
Second, to the right of the fish boats is the Galata Bridge. Walk across it and see the fisherman, maybe eat at one of the fish restaurants below. You will see the Galata Tower from here. It’s not a far walk, but you can also take the tram.
Topkapı Palace – Especially the Harem and the Treasury
The last two sights on my list are not in Sultan Ahmet area, but well worth seeking out.
Chora Church – Beautiful mosaics. It can get very crowded. Ask your hotel the best way to get there.
Rumeli Hisari (one of my favorite places) – This is one of the two fortresses that are on either side of the Bosphorus. The sultan used to have a chain hooked up between them and boats could not cross to and from the Black Sea unless they paid the taxes. Rumeli Hisari is a lot of fun to climb around for the boys. At the base are some great, great restaurants. I always go to the Blue and white one – I can’t remember the name. The food is great.
To get to Rumeli Hisari -From bustling Eminonu, or any metro stop near the main tourist sites for that matter, take the metro towards Kabatas. From there you have to cross the street to the buses and take the 22, 22RE, or 25E. These are all very frequent and you won’t have to wait more than five minutes. Tell the bus driver as you get on where you are going and try to sit not too far from him. He’ll take care of you and tell you where to get off if you happen to miss the not-too-tiny fortress. Rumelihisari costs 3 Tl. (I think you can use the tram tokens on the bus, too…not sure). The bus ride is pretty and takes about 20 minutes each way.
Tram – Cheap, fun, and easy. You have to use tokens, and there will be booths set up at the station. Go ahead and buy enough for a number of rides. It’s like having a handful of coins, and if you buy enough you won’t have to keep standing in line.
The very last thing I think is a definite must-do is take one of the ferries up the Bosphorus. You can take the Bosphorus tour, but you have to be at the ferry in plenty of time, and the whole tour is about 3 hours. I’ve never done it, but people rave about it. I just take a ferry to someplace, get off, walk around, and take it back. It’s a good fun, and the ferries are cheap. I would probably take it to Uskidar or Kadikoy, both of these are very short rides but you get to go to the Asian side of Istanbul. It’s pretty cool to be able to do two continents in one day! The food is better on the Asian side because there really aren’t that many tourists that go. Even if you don’t spend much time on the other side, just go to go. The ferry ride is worth it, and kids will love it.
Whirling Dervishes -The shortest one is about 40 minutes long. Hoja Pasha Art and Culture Center in Istanbul. The show is held in a 550 year restored haman (public bath) and costs about 40 Tl. for a one hour show. If you would like to make reservations phone: +90-212-211-4626 or 4636 or email:email@example.com.
Turkish Nargile – Hookah
One of the best things about living in Turkey is the weather, and the way cafe owners have learned how to maximize the abundance of sun to their advantage. Everywhere you go, nargile cafes abound. The proprietors have gratiously provided either umbrellas or canvases along with fans to keep you in the shade and as comfortable as possible. The European tradition of sitting all day at a cafe is alive and well here, and one of the best ways to do this to order a nargile, a hookah, a water pipe.
Nargile tobacco comes in an abundance of flavors from coconut, apple, and pineapple, to the modern taste of cappucino. As with all Turkish services, the waiter will do all the hard work for you preparing the pipe. Nargile is a tradition brought to Asia Minor from India and Persia; even if you don’t smoke, this is one to try. The fruity flavor, along with the warmth of the Anatolia sun and your Turkish hosts, makes this an experience to remember.
Day Trips from Istanbul
Taking the Ferry to the Princes Islands and Visiting Buyukada
Buyukada, the biggest of the Prince’s Islands is an inexpensive way to get outside of the hustle and bustle of sightseeing in Istanbul and just relax. Before coming, Devon had mentioned the one thing she wanted to do while here was to ride a donkey. Thinking back to my childhood, I remembered that we used to take donkeys up to the monastery in Buyukada, and yes, they still do it.
Getting there was half the fun. We found out the ferry leaves from Kabatas, which coincedentally is the last stop of the tram. There are many ferries that leave from this stop, but finding “Adalar” (Islands) was relatively easy; we paid our whopping 3 Tl. and immediately boarded. We found seats outside, but under the shade. This turned out to be a great spot, especially when the girls in the row in front of us were shat upon, not once – but twice, by seagulls!
Buyukada was the fifth stop, so we were able to see the other islands on the way. Many appear to be great future stops. Upon arrival, we headed straight for the center square (clocktower) and turned left. There we found the horse carriages that would take us around the island, and more importantly to the donkey corral. We quickly hired one and were on our way. We saw many people who had rented the bicycles. They were struggling, so we figured the carriage was a great deal. Walking would also work, especially if you plan to stay on the island for awhile.
We hired the donkeys, and up the hill to St. George’s Monastery we flew. Those donkeys had spunk. As we were loaded on them, the others in the corral started up such a fuss. We couldn’t beleive it. They were mad that they didn’t get to go. We didn’t have to worry about our weight or how hard they were going to have to work, they practically ran the entire way. Too, too fun! At the top, we were unceremoniously unloaded, then into the monastery we wandered. As all Greek Orthodox churches, it was richly decorated with icons and gold paint, well worth it, but it doesn’t take long. We walked back down the hill to the waiting carriage and finished our tour.
Back in town, the restaurant touts do everything they can to get you into their restaurant. We chose one on the seaside and had a great lunch of calamari and sea bass. We saw the ferry pull in and out we went. What a fun day.
Fish sandwiches – Near the Galata Bridge in Istanbul
For a true Istanbul’lu snack, head down to the ferry port in Eminonu. All year long, there are four or five boats docked there with huge grills on them, and on those grills are the tastiest fish to be found in Turkey. For 4 Tl. you can get a balik (fish) sandwich from the merrily costumed men that are moving too quickly to get a good photo of them. It’s a little discombobulating to order your fish, because they are moving at lightning speed in order to keep up with the demand, but they will help you…albeit quickly.
All types of people are seated at the short table and stools, and all of them are interested in watching the yabanci (foreigner) try this delicacy. They will make sure that you put on the right amount of lemon juice and salt, and look on fondly as you enjoy it.
You can just sit there and have the other vendors round out your meal. There is the great lemonade, or the pickled turnip juice, or the honeyed warm donuts. You are welcome to try them all, but I can personally vouch for everything except the turnips. I still will have to work up some nerve for that one. At any rate, you can have more than a decent lunch for a mere 6 Tl. per person, and it’s well worth it.
Turkish food is delicious! I don’t think better chicken exists anywhere in the world…seriously. Have any dish with chicken, like a chicken sis (shish), and you will see.
Turkish breakfast is a smorgasbord of bread, tomatoes, cheese, olives, cucumbers, honey, and whatever else they have on hand.
Börek – different types. The cheese is usually sharp, so be careful about that, but the meat or potato ones are delicious.
The good thing about mezes is that they are usually on display so you can choose whatever looks good.
Note: If you go to the Hamdi Et Lokantasi (very close to the produce market outside of the Spice Market), try the meze here. BTW: Go at night…and go out on the balcony to take photos of the Bosphorus!
For a special treat you must try Lokum! … or Turkish Delight – Lots of different kinds. Clear has no cream, but the opaque is made with cream. I like the cream ones best, but they are all good. Watch out for the nuts. There are whole shops/cafes that serve Lokum. There is one on the road behind the Yeni Camii, heading up to Sultan Ahmet that I love going to. You can sit there and have tea and candy.
There are plenty of other things to do in Istanbul, plenty! But this will keep you busy for a couple of days, and really help you enjoy the wonder of Istanbul.
Getting to Istanbul from Ankara
We’ve heard numerous people tell us about the night train and what a great deal it was, 60 TL. each way; getting into the city in the morning, so you don’t have to pay for another night’s hotel or waste your daytime getting there. We decided to do it and booked tickets direct from the train station about a week before we were to leave. We were a little shocked that the cost was only 30 Tl., but figured that our mid-week tickets were making up the difference.
When we arrived at the station, we realized there were actually two options. One is the Anadolu Express, which we had booked, and the other the Ankara Express. The Anadolu costs half as much because you share your cabin with three other people, instead of just one. Also the Ankara has a small refrigerator that offers free snacks for the ride as well as your own sink for freshening up. I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet the Ankara train has much cleaner bathrooms on it, too.
Our train was supposed to go out of track 2, according to the electronic signs, but actually went out of track 3. Good ol’ Turkish directions…However, it did leave on time. We found our cabin and waited for the train to pull out so the car captain could give us our bedding, and we could call it a night.
This all transpired within the first half hour and we were blissfully sleeping by 10:30. We were woken up a few times in the night, once by a cat…who knows what that meant, but for the most part we slept until the morning when we had to pack up our things and get off. I definitely would recommend this mode of transport at least one way if traveling between Istanbul and Ankara. For a family, or if you are traveling with a group, the Anadolu is just fine, but if you want a few more amenities and fewer traveling companions, go with the Ankara.
How to get to the train stations:
In Ankara, the train leaves from the main station or “Gar”. Very easy to get to, and of course every taxi driver knows the way. If you are downtown, say in Kizilay, it will cost about 10 tl. to get there.
In Istanbul, the train leaves from Haydirpasa. This is a bit trickier. If you are starting your trip here, you need to take the ferry (1.50 tl) from Eminonu to Haydirpasa (Kadakoy). The train station does have wi-fi and a restaurant for your waiting pleasure. The great thing is the ferry docks at the train station so either way, you are very close to your end destination, which is actually much easier than taking a bus.
Have you been to Istanbul? What were your favorite sights?