Istanbul is one of those cities that everyone recommends, that everyone is astonished by and where we lived for a while. But, what do you need to know about the city before going on an adventure between Europe and Asia?
First of all, you’ll need to find out if you need a visa to enter the country. There is an electronic visa, there is also the option of no visa needed for a period of 90, 60 or 30 days for some countries.
The easiest way to get to the Turkish city is by plane, although it is not the only way. On the one hand you have Atatürk airport in the European side, and on the other hand there is Sabiha Gokcen in the Asian side (where most low cost companies work). Either way, the best way to get to the city centre from the airport is by bus, Havatas, it can leave you in different parts of the city and works almost 24/7. The most probable route you take is the one that leaves you in Taksim Square (as it is closer to most tourist areas) and the cost will be between 12 and 15 Turkish Liras (TRY) (cost during September 2017).
Moving around the city
Istanbul is a city of almost 20 million inhabitants, so transportation can vary a lot. You can find buses, metro buses (buses that go further than usual), underground, funiculars, trams and boats (to cross the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn). Whatever you are using you’ll first need to get a transportation card in any kiosk (Istanbulkard which costs approximately 7 TRY) and that you will be able to top up at any metro station, you can also pay each transport with a chip (jeton) for around 4 TRY. Transportation in Istanbul is cheap but every time you use a different type of transportation (or metro line) you’ll have to pay again. Of course there is always the option of a taxi but keep in mind how big the city is, and that traffic can trapped you very easily.
Where to stay
The tourist area is mainly around Sultanahmet area and there you’ll find plenty of B&B, hostels and hotels for every budget and you’ll be closed to most major attractions of the city. But if you are looking for something further away, you can stay closer to Taksim or Sisli which also have good options. AirBnB has become very common in the city too. However our recommendation is not going too far away from the city centre as the city is big and it might take you longer than you expect to move from one side to another.
What to see in Istanbul
Part of the charm of the city lies, amongst other things, in the diversity you can see in its streets, in its population. That’s why one of our recommendations is just to wander around the city and simply observe customs of the locals. Of course, a city with so much history has a few crown jewels that you shouldn’t miss no matter how many days you stay in the city, and other experiences if you have a little more time.
What once was a church and later a mosque became a museum in 1935. You’ll be able to see its history (from Orthodox Christian to Muslim) in its mosaics. It has been renewed several times (it is still being renovated so you won’t be able too see it to its fullest) and it has served as model to other mosques, even if it was a church in its origins, as it was for the Blue Mosque. You’ll find more information here.
Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Built in 1617, it is separated from Hagia Sophia by some beautiful gardens and fountain. It received the name of Blue Mosque for the color of the tiles that used to cover it, today is not as blue. It is an active mosque, so the entrance is restricted while praying and there are a few rules to follow (you can’t enter with shoes, shorts and women have to cover their hair and shoulders) . You can find more information here.
Crossing the street you’ll find the Basilica Cistern, which might not sound attractive. However, it is a master piece that could storage 80000 cubic meters of water to supply the city. It was built in 532 and its structure is one to see, you can also look for the two heads of Medusa in two columns. You can find more information here.
There are two major bazaars in Istanbul city.
For those who love shopping and bargaining, Grand Bazaar is for you, a building with small shops and plenty of merchants looking for buyers, its architecture is perfect to get lost and wander the evening looking for something to take home.
But you can also forget about the compulsive shopping and go to the Egyptian Bazaar, where they sell food; from spices to nuts or typical sweets like baklava or Turkish delights. Here the colours and smells will trap you senses.
Another wonderful mosque, bigger than Sultan Ahmet and less frequent by tourist, but where there is also praying hours and you have to follow the same rules as before (or in any other mosque in the city). The best of the mosque is its gardens with a unique view of Istanbul.
Separated to Sultanahmet area by the Golden Horn is this tower built by the Genoese in Beyoglu neighbourhood. From its terrace you have a 360º view of the city, a perfect place to watch the sunset. Besides what lies around the tower, its streets is something not to miss.
This strait separates the area where most touristic attractions lie with some of the most modern hoods in the “European area” and it goes into some of the most conservative hoods like Eyüp. You can cross the Golden Horn with one of the multiple cruises offered (some include dinner watching the sun set) or going in the Vapur (the public boat transport) that will be making different stops along the strait (this is the cheap option).
Maiden Tower or Kiz Kulesi
Crossing to the Asian side you’ll find the Maiden Tower, trapped in the Bosphorus this tower has a restaurant and one of the best views of Istanbul at sunset. You will always have the option of walking around the islet where the tower is located if you don’t want to go to the restaurant.
Sunset in Üsküdar
It is always a pleasure to just wander around Üsküdar in the Asian side but it is definitely the best place to see Istanbul at sunset, with the mosques at the end, the Galata Tower and the Dolmabahçe Palace, you can just seat in front of the Bosphorus, have some tea and spend the evening.
This residential neighbourhood is located by the shores of the Bosphorus and has a different architecture from what you can see around the city. Once, like it happens todya in many other cities, was a low-middle class hood not well taken care of, by the shores probably the smell, and the guilds of professions working around was not what high society was looking for. However, today, those houses have been rebuilt and have a privileged view and location, easy to see by the shops and restaurants around it.
In the European side, hidden behind the first streets by the Bosphorus there is this modern and chick neighbourhood. You’ll find shops with original designs, all sorts of restaurants for all type of budget and style.
This palace by the Bosphorus has a privileged location. It was home of the last 6 sultans and the first president of the Turkish Republic (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) and it still holds the furniture of the time. You can’t do a free tour but with the cost of the entrance few it includes a guide. You can look for more information here.
A bit further away from the tourist area is Ortaköy mosque, also by the Bosphorus. It is a small mosque surrounded by plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops.
As it happened with Hagia Sophia, this was once a church, then a mosque and today a museum (under renovation). It is pretty small, but it has some beautiful mosaics. Unfortunately when it changed from church to mosque many of them (those representing human figures) were damaged.
One of the most recommended activities is a visit to a hamam or traditional Turkish bath. If you go to a real traditional one, where locals go, men and women will be separated from the beginning; however, there are some for tourist where you can go together without a problem.
Another curious activity is to watch the Derviche dancing. It is not really a dance but a meditation technique. There are plenty of options, although usually it goes with a dinner offer.
What to eat
A list of dishes that everyone should try if you go to the city (or the country):
- Menemen, scrambled eggs with tomato, mushrooms, sausages or anything you want (it is eaten for breakfast).
- Börek, it’s a salty pastry usually filled with meat and cheese or spinach and cheese.
- Lahmacun, it looks like a flat pizza and it is filled with meat, some green leaf vegetables and lemon juice.
- Balik ekmek, a fish sandwich with onion and lettuce.
- Dolma, although it is refereed to “something filled” it is usually a filled vine leaf with rice and vegetables or meat.
- Çorba, any kind of soup cold or warm, but you shouldn’t miss the red lentils one.
- Köfte, balls of spiced ground meat.
- Manti, pasta filled with meat either boiled or deep fried with spices and yogurt sauce.
- Pide, this is the “Turkish pizza” although it has an eye shape, it can be filled with anything you want.
- Sis kebab, some sort of meat (lamb, chicken or beef) or fish stuck on a wood or metal stick, spiced and roasted.
- Iskender kebab, the mother of kebabs, the meat is prepared with butter, and it is put on top of some bread previously bathed in tomato, it is accompanied with yogurt, tomato and peppers (if they want to serve you the butter on top then it is not the real Iskender).
- Testi kebab, spiced meat cooked in a mud vessel that will be broken on your plate ready to eat.
- Baklava, the mother of sweets, puff pastries filled with nuts and bathed in syrup (be ware if you are diabetic!).
- Künefe, cheese covered in pistachios and syrup then baked.
- Lokum or Turkish delights, it is a jelly and bright dessert covered in nut chips or powdered sugar.
- Mozaik pasta, chocolate cake with cookies pieces.
- Meze, they are basically tapas, perfect to try a bit of everything.
Dónde comer y beber
Si hay algo que puedes hacer en Estambul es comer, y es que hay restaurantes en todas las calles, unos al lado de otros. A continuación dejamos nuestra selección.
Where to eat and drink
If there is something you can do in Istanbul is eating, as there are restaurants in every streets, one besides the other. Here is our selection.
Turkish breakfast is abundant:
- Malta Pavilion. Hidden in Yildiz Oark is this beautiful building that guarantees perfect views. In this case, there is a breakfast buffet where you can have scramble eggs, sausages, tomatoes, various vegetables, a selection of cheese, spiced breads, a selection of olives, cold meat, fruit, sweets, helva (traditional sweet based in a seed paste), and of course, Turkish tea.
- Van Kavalti. Located in Cihangir, it is usual to wait at its doors until a table becomes available. In our opinion it is recommended to order a full breakfast for two and some sort of scrambled eggs (menemen) with mushrooms, sausages, or any other option. Tea will come non stop, it is also recommended to order some of its natural juices.
- Limonlu Bahçe. An ideal place to forget about the big city. This place is a must stop even if its only to discover one of those places in Istanbul that will make you forget where you are (believe us when you live in the city for a while you need it).
Lunch and dinner
- Bilice Kebap. This not-so-great-looking restaurant is hidden in one of the streets behind the pedestrian Istiklal. But forget about its looks, our recommendation is to order a tray for the number of people that accompany you. The tray consist in various types of kebab (chicken or lamb), bread (that will keep coming) and its garnish (onion, eggplant, parsley, pepper, tomato…). This is one of those places where technically they don’t sell alcohol (but if you ask for a beer they’ll give you one), it is also common to try ayran.
- Balikçi Lokantasi. If you are looking for some fish there are two recommended places, around Besiktas and this also not-so-great-looking restaurant in the Kadiköy area. It is fresh and good fish, but the close early (around 9 pm) so if you are planning your dinner there you should keep this in mind.
- Adana Ocakbasi. You’ll be able to try the best Adana Kebab of Istanbul in this small restaurant in Kurtulus usually visited by locals. If you don’t like hot food then you can order Urfa Kebab as it is also delicious. This unusual place has a bbq in the middle of the restaurant where they prepare the delicious meat and bread that will keep coming to your table.
- Baltazar. Located in Karaköy it is highly recommended for its meat, and its biggest hit are its hamburgers. Our recommendation is to visit it at night as the street vibe is perfect.
- Nusr-Et. Another meat restaurant, and in this case it has high quality goods, it also has a very eccentric and famous owner that has gotten famous by its Instagram.
- Ciya. There are three types of this restaurants in the same street. Traditional and homemade food is what it sells and what you get.
- Cezayir. This beautiful hidden garden also hides a delicious cuisine that you shouldn’t miss.
- Hamdi. With a few locations we highly recommend you to go to the one in Eminonü and that you try the pistachio kebab, and also its sweets.
- 360. A bit more expensive than the once mentioned above, this has a 360º view of the city and it’s located in the pedestrian street of Istiklal, so it is a good place to end your day.
- Asitane. Closed to the Chora Museum is this delicious restaurant characterised by its Ottoman cuisine. Each dish has the date when it was created for the first time.
- Kap Cup. This small coffee shop in the Asian side has delicious homemade sweets (try the cheesecake) and an unusual decoration.
- Karaköy Güllüoglu. This is where you have to go if you want to try a good baklava, and it is just next to the Bosphorus!
- Nest. This rooftop opens at 7 pm and, as it tends to happened, it is hidden near the Bosphorus. It is not a big place but it is worth the visit just for its views.
- Bomontiada. You’ll find more than a place where to have a drink, dinner or watch a concert, that is how the former Bomonti brewery rolls now.
You’ll see plenty of options to go away of Istanbul and get to other marvellous places that Turkey holds, but many of them would mean many tortuous hours on the road, but there are a few that are worth the trip not very far from the city.
This small archipelago is an hour away from the city. It doesn’t hold wonderful beaches but it has an unusual architecture and it is a perfect place to spend a different day. Now you only have to decide which island will you go.
Two hours away from Istanbul is this city, perfect for some tourism but also a place to enjoy the mountain, where many people from Istanbul go to practice winter sports and that during the spring is also something to see. And a great stop to try the original Iskender Kebab.
Sile or Agva
If you go towards the Black Sea you’ll find these two places around two hours away from the city, here there are some good beaches and good seafood.
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