Istanbul, the “mother of all cities,” is beautiful and full of life, and it deserves a visit from every curious traveler. I have been there several times now, and I want to share my general advice about things worth doing and where to stay, as well as some general tips about the city.
Getting to Istanbul
You can get cheap flights from various cities in Europe with discount airlines, or you can look into getting there with Busabout (the tour company I was with on my last visit to Istanbul). This is a particularly good option if you don’t want to travel alone (they have tours ending and starting there = instant friends).
Istanbul is also a popular layover point, especially for anyone traveling with Turkish Airlines from anywhere in the world. I highly recommend extending a layover in Istanbul and exploring this bustling city with as much time as you can possibly give it.
Tips for Istanbul
1. Getting a Turkish Visa
This is very easy to do and can be done ahead of time online. It costs $20. If you can’t print out your copy, they will accept it on your phone. As of May 2015, you could still get it on arrival as well, but they are phasing that out. It takes 5 minutes — do it online and go prepared.
Save this multiple-entry visa, just in case you go back while it is still valid.
2. Plan to Walk, a LOT
Istanbul can be very overwhelming, because it is HUGE. You can drive for hours in every direction and still be in the city, that is, if you even make it anywhere in the traffic. Traffic is horrendous, which actually makes getting around by foot the faster option sometimes, depending on where you are going.
3. Taxis in Istanbul
Taxis are cheap, so if you’re heading to the airport or somewhere further than walking distance, take a cab. Just make sure you ask for the meter before you go anywhere. (As ALWAYS!)
4. Bazaar Etiquette
Two quick notes: 1) Try things that people give you in the Spice Bazaar (i.e. Turkish Delight). They expect to give out samples to everyone walking by, so don’t be afraid to say yes, you won’t have to pay for it or be expected to buy anything. 2) Don’t be afraid to bargain with the vendors. My bargaining rule of thumb is to try to start at half the asking price and work my way up from there. It’s not disrespectful here, they expect it.
5. Watch Your Pockets
Ladies, I ALWAYS recommend a purse that zips closed, and guys, don’t leave your valuables in loose pockets. Don’t make it easy for pick-pocketers to steal from you. This is true for any city, Istanbul is no different.
Travel Planning Tip: Order a prepaid SIM card before you travel!
10 Things to Do in Istanbul
1. Turkish Bath
Do it. There are several to choose from, and while some are more touristy and more expensive than others, they are all just about the same experience. I’ve been to two, and I actually liked the one that I found tucked into a corner up the street from the Blue Mosque better than the more expensive one at the Hagia Sofia.
Tips for the Turkish Bath: Men and women are separated for the entirety of the experience. Ladies, they will most likely ask you to remove your bikini, even if you wear one, but the choice is yours. Plan to get soaked from head to toe, and try to be comfortable as you let someone else scrub your naked body! Yes, you will be naked with others. It only takes about 30-45 minutes from start to finish and is definitely worth it. The oil massage on the other hand… might want to think twice.
2. Rooftop bars in Beyoğlu area
Istiklal is a popular street in Istanbul in Beyoğlu, which starts at Taksim Square (to make it easy to find). It’s a fun place to go out for the evening. Just don’t forget to look up, the rooftop bars are almost elusive, until you realize they exist, and then you realize they are everywhere. Get up to the roof, cheers with the people across the street from you, and enjoy a sunset with an Efes Dark overlooking the city. Take me back…
3. Ferry across the Bosphorus to Asia
The city of Istanbul crosses both Europe and Asia, and contains the only two intercontinental bridges in the world. A popular way to get to Asia is by ferry. It’s a cheap way to see Istanbul from the water. You can get these ferries at the main bridge in Eminönü.
Tip: You may be asked if you want tea on the boat on the way to Asia, just keep in mind it’s not complimentary, as it may seem.
4. Dinner Cruise on the Bosphorus
Worth it for the sunset over the city and the views of the bridges and mosques at night. This is a unique experience, and we all like a good excuse to be “on a boat.” If you’re looking for a trusted tour operator, try Viator.
5. Blue Mosque
This is a must. No cost for entry. It is the most famous landmark in Istanbul, with its six minarets dominating the skyline from the Bosphorus. Called the “Blue” mosque because of the blue tiles all over the ceiling on the inside.
Keep in mind, there is a dress code to enter the Blue Mosque. Ladies, you will need to cover your head and shoulders and legs. My advice is to bring a scarf that you can wrap over yourself. If you don’t have one, you can borrow one when you get there, as well as a wrap for your legs.
Men, if you wear shorts, you’ll also need to borrow a wrap for your legs, but you don’t need to cover your head. No bare shoulders. Also no shoes (they give you a bag to put them in), and it smells like stinky feet inside.
6. Hagia Sofia
I think this is also a must. Entry is 30 lira, or about $10. This is now a museum, but it has gone back and forth between being a mosque and a church over the years and holds a lot of history. The inside is beautiful, and a trip to Istanbul simply wouldn’t be complete without going inside.
Plus if you’ve read Inferno by Dan Brown, could be of extra interest.
7. The Underground Cistern
Straight out of a movie (actually several movies, and ahem, the Dan Brown book mentioned above), this place has to be seen to be understood. It is like a small version of the mines of Moria, with water. So. Freaking. Cool. It was built in 532 AD right in the middle of Sultanahmet (the old town), and water was transported here from the Belgrade Forest, 19km away. Entry is 10 lira.
8. Bus from Istanbul to the Black Sea
If you want to see the Black Sea, you can take a bus from Taksim to Sariyer and then switch buses and go to Kilyos. The Taksim bus station is pretty big and you can ask anyone if you are unsure of where to go.
The Black Sea has beach front restaurants open during the high season, otherwise you can bring a picnic and explore, or find a restaurant in one of the small towns nearby before catching a bus back to the city.
9. Visit the Bazaars
My personal favorite is the Spice Bazaar. These are lively places with lots of smells, colors, lights, people, and Turkish Delights. Grand Bazaar is closed Sundays. They are both in the middle of Sultan Ahmet (old town). I mean, you really can’t miss them…
10. Eat Testy Kebab
Bad name, amazing meal. It is meat and veggies (and heavenly spices) cooked together in a clay pot over an open flame that is then broken carefully and poured out onto your plate. Check out this Snapchat story from one of my recent days in Istanbul to see Testy Kebab in action. It is the best meal I’ve had in Turkey. (See hostel rec below for more details).
Bonus Tip. Talk with locals and explore the different neighborhoods/districts of Istanbul.
Sultan Ahmet, Taksim, Kadikoy (Asian side), Ortaköy, Karaköy, the list goes on. There are so many faces of Istanbul, it would be a shame to spend all your time just in one area.
Walk. Walk everywhere, because you will find all sorts of treasures up the many narrow streets and back alleys. Stop for tea and interact with locals whenever possible. They are very friendly to tourists and want to share with you everything they possibly can about their country.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
Budget: Sultan Hostel in Sultanahmet
This hostel really impressed me, and this is coming from the girl who doesn’t normally sleep in dorms. I slept here on the last night of my Ottoman Trek with Busabout, and I happened to get a room on the top floor (do this if you can!). We were literally on the roof, there was a restaurant on the roof next door, and the view of the city from up there was beautiful. It had A/C and an ensuite bathroom with clean beds. You can’t ask for much more in a hostel dorm.
As a huge bonus, this is where I had the Testy Kebab meal that I loved. The restaurant downstairs is comfortable and delicious, complete with hooka, and staff who will teach you how to blow smoke bubbles with it (again, see my Snap).
Related: Why I’m 30 and Still Stay at Hostels
Budget/Mid Range: Cheers Porthouse Istanbul in Karaköy/Beyoğlu
This cozy place in Beyoğlu is right in the heart of Istanbul. It’s a great spot for privacy, comfort, and easy access by foot to the main areas of Istanbul. It has A/C, ensuite bathrooms, and breakfast included. It’s on fairly quiet street near restaurants, grocery stores, and cafes. The guys at the desk are very helpful.
Upper Range: Renaissance Istanbul Polat Bosphorus Hotel in Besiktas
I loved my stay here earlier this summer, and if you are looking for amazing views of the city, the best comfort, and a kickass rooftop bar, pick this one.