Being in Istanbul was a totally immersive experience-- taking in all of the new sites, smells, tastes and sounds. We’ve both been wanting to visit Istanbul for a long time, and despite the protests of our families and their concerns for our safety, we spent three exciting days there over the early May bank holiday.
Saturday 30 April
With the four-hour flight time and two-hour time difference, it’s virtually impossible to avoid spending a good chunk of the day travelling. We took a 7am flight from London and got to our hotel around 3pm. We took a hot and uncomfortable (read: crowded and standing room only) metro ride from the airport to our hotel. We were glad to have our beloved travel backpacks instead of roller bags, since the Old City is full of cobblestone hills.
We got a great price by booking our flight and hotel together through British Airways’ City Break deals. The hotel was in convenient location near the Blue Mosque and a tram stop. It was an older building and the beds weren’t so comfortable. The walls were thin, so we got to enjoy the drama playing out between the couple next door to us (we’re pretty sure he cheated on her). Breakfast was fine, and it was served in a room with an outdoor terrace and beautiful view overlooking the water.
Meshur Eminonu Balikcisi
Yeni Galata Köprüsü D:25, Fatih/İstanbul - Avrupa, Turkey
After checking in, our first stop was lunch. We walked down to the Galata Bridge and found a restaurant that serves fish sandwiches on boats docked on the Old City side of the bridge. The place was packed, so we decided to try it. We were glad for the experience but left in hunt of a more substantial meal.
Egyptian Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar is on the other side of the massive mosque by the water. We found a kabab place to get our fix of shawarma and fresh juice. Refuelled, we were ready to explore the stalls packed with teas, spices, chocolate, baklava and Turkish Delight, a sweet treat made from dried fruit, honey and nuts. Vendors were more aggressive than in other European markets, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle or hadn’t seen before. We chatted with one salesman, and he let us sample sweets from his shop. We also bought some mushroom-shaped chocolates and chocolate-covered pistachios, which were delicious. We liked the Spice Bazaar so much that we came back on our last day to buy some tea and of course, more chocolate.
Galata Bridge connects the old city of Istanbul to Beyoğlu. There’s two levels – the bottom is filled with mostly fish restaurants, and the top is open for traffic and pedestrians. It seemed that fishermen were posted up here anytime we passed by – day or night – but we never saw anyone catch anything. It’s a short walk across with a beautiful view.
Istanbul is built on seven very serious hills. On our way up to Galata Tower, we started to feel our four A.M. wake up and were in need of some caffeine. Cherrybean Coffee did the trick, and then we continued our way up.
This tower supposedly offers the best views of the city, but the line wrapped around the building and didn’t move so we decided to skip it. Go early if this is a must for you!
İstiklal Caddesi and Taksim Square
This is one of Istanbul’s main streets, with beautiful 19th century architecture. Cute arcades and alleys filled with restaurants and cafes jut out from the main pedestrian street. There is a tram that takes you up to the top, but we recommend enjoying a slow meander up the hill to Taksim Square, which is the center of modern Istanbul.
Boterra Terrace Restaurant
Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. No:30, 34110, Turkey
After a quick nap and refresh at the hotel, we went to dinner in the Old City. Boterra Terrace Restaurant is on the top floor of the Istanbul Hotel and was recommended to us by friends. The restaurant has windows on three sides with stunning views of the Golden Horn, Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque. It was still chilly, so the windows were closed, but it looked like the room might open up to become an outdoor space in summer. We ordered the meze sampler, and then shared a kebab. The warm baklava was some of the best we’ve ever had, and we were treated to complimentary apple tea. The service and ambiance were fantastic, making for a perfect first night.
Sunday 1 May
Sultanahmet - Istanbul's Old City
Many of Istanbul’s most popular tourist sites are concentrated in the Old City and within a short walk of one another, so we were able to fit a lot into one day of intense touring.
We were warned that lines at Topkapi Palace are long, so we got there just before it opened and were the second people inside. We purchased two audio guides but wish we had bought one and shared it since the guide was underwhelming. The staff recommended we start at the Harem, since it get busy. The problem with this was that then our guide was out of order, so we ended up doing the rest of the museum backwards. It was interesting to see how different Topkapi’s architecture and decoration were from all of the other palaces we’ve visited. We almost missed the kitchen, but this was one of our favorite parts of the tour. In total we spent about two hours at Topkapi and did basically the whole audio guide.
There was a bit of a line when we arrived, so our Museum Card allowed us to skip the line and go right to security. We were blown away by the size and magnitude of the building, which was originally built in 537 AD as a church and then later converted into a mosque. It’s now a museum and well worth a visit. We skipped the audio guides and spent about a half hour exploring on our own. Make sure to go upstairs to see the mosaics.
Binbirdirek No:34122, Turkey
We stopped off at the Byzantine Hippodrome, which we probably wouldn’t have realized was a “site” if it wasn’t on our tour, and read some of this history about the places we’d visited. We were following this guide http://www.thetravelmentor.com/2015/05/historic-core-of-istanbul-walking-tour-inspired-by-rick-steves/, which was inspired by our trusty friend Rick Steves. We were ready to visit the Blue Mosque when we heard the call to prayer, so we had to kill an hour before we could go in.
We wandered around in and out of the carpet, textile and jewellery shops in the Arasta Bazaar behind the Blue Mosque and tried on some scarves but decided to wait on any purchase. We then stumbled upon the Mosaic Museum and decided to go in, since it was included on our Museum Card. We spent about 20 minutes taking in the museum’s well-preserved mosaics dating back to 450-550 AD.
The mosque is closed to visitors for 25 minutes after each call to prayer, and for much of the day on Friday.
At Meydanı No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
The Blue Mosque is still a working mosque, so modest dress is required for both men and women and we had to remove our shoes before entering. The mosque gets its name from the blue tiles covering the inside of the dome, but we were more impressed with the exterior.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi
Meşhur Sultanahmet Köftecisi, Divan Yolu Cd. No:12, 34400 Fatih, Turkey
The restaurant was right across from the Blue Mosque, and although the menu was small and simple, the food was tasty. We were exhausted after a long morning of touring, so we were happy to be in and out quickly.
Prior to the trip, we did a lot of research about what to expect on your first visit to a hamam (traditional Turkish bath house), and we specifically chose one of the few ones that allows men and women in together. We booked ahead for the full scrub down and massage, and when we arrived the staff was helpful in explaining what to expect, although we both felt a little confused the whole time. The process basically consists of sitting in a hot room for 30 minutes, then a hamam worker scrubs you down and rinses you off. You then relax with some delicious apple tea, and we added on a massage to our package. The massage wasn’t great, and while we wouldn’t regularly go to a hamam to bathe, the experience certainly makes for a good story.
Krependeki Imroz Restaurant
Hüseyinağa Mh., Nevizade Sk No:16, 34435, Turkey
Fully relaxed and somewhat clean, we walked towards İstiklal Caddesi for dinner. The restaurant off the main street in a lively alley filled with restaurants, and we sat outside to soak up the atmosphere. The waiter came over with a huge tray of 20+ cold mezes, and we chose a few, not knowing how huge the portions would be. We over-did it with our appetizing and weren’t hungry by the time our main course arrived.
We were so full from dinner but heard about a great baklava place nearby, so we got some take-a-way and brought it back to the hotel. The warm baklava from the first night was still our favorite, but this was a close second.
The Bosphorous Strait runs right through the middle of Istanbul and also serves as the divide between Europe and Asia. There are several companies that run cruises down the Bosphorous, and the cheapest option is to take the public ferry that follows the same route. Our guide book recommended we buy our tickets early because the lines get long in peak season. When we arrived at 10am people were already lined up. Our Museum Card got us a discount on the tickets, and we rented one audio guide to share. Again, the guide wasn’t great, but it was nice to learn about the buildings along the way. We weren’t warned that the boat’s toilets are less than enjoyable, so try to avoid going while on board. There are a few outdoor seats in the rear of the boat and some more hidden along the sides.
The two-and-a-half hour journey makes a few stops before docking for 3 hours at Anadolu Kavagi, a small village at the edge of the Bosphorus on the Asian side of Istanbul. The town is clearly a giant tourist trap, with several mediocre-looking restaurants and a few small souvenir shops. We climbed the hill to a fortress and then enjoyed appetizers and the beautiful view over the Bosphorous at the restaurant near the top. The weather wasn’t great, but on a warm summer day, the stop would be idyllic. After our walk back down the hill, we sat at one of the many restaurants lining the water and shared fresh sea-bass.
Take a ferry from either Karaköy or Eminönü.
Last ferry to return to Eminonu is 20:20, last one to return to Karakoy is 23:00. Both run every 20 minutes and take around 20 minutes.
As soon as our boat docked, we made a quick pit stop for street doughnuts and the bathroom and then immediately boarded another boat for Kadiköy, a neighbourhood on the Asian side of the city (we’re fairly certain that if we had stayed on the first boat, that it was changing routes and would have taken us to Kadiköy). We were able to use our subway card to pay for the ferry, and when we got off we followed the people inland. We really enjoyed getting away from the tourist places and seeing an area where locals actually live. It’s a cute neighbourhood with a fresh food market, and tons of cafes, bars, and restaurants. After wandering around, we sat at a one of the many tea rooms.
It’s safe to say this was the best meal of the trip, and possibly of all of our travels so far. The understated décor had us worried, and the list of 20+ kebabs left us wondering if we ordered correctly. We also panicked once we realized we didn’t order anything from the delicious looking salad bar. Our server saved the day though and brought us complimentary, freshly baked pita with hummus while we waited for our mains. We then enjoyed lamb kebabs and a rice dish baked in pastry. To top it off, our server brought us complimentary thyme tea and sherbet, both apparently traditional drinks that were interesting but not our favorites. Our desserts weren’t like anything we’d eaten before, and we left completely satisfied.
Tuesday 3 May
Van Kahvalti Evi
Kılıçali paşa mah, Defretdar yokuşu 52/A, İstanbul, Turkey
For our last morning, we decided to venture out of our hotel in search of a traditional Turkish breakfast. Van Kahvatli Evi is at the top of a long, steep hill, so we’d earned our meal by the time we arrived. We ordered one of the big breakfasts that includes all the spreads, cheeses and breads and added one egg dish and one pancake. The food was delicious, and it was a great way to try everything.
9am-7pm, closed Sundays
Beyazıt Mh., İstanbul, Turkey
We had been looking forward to visiting the Grand Bazaar all trip, but were a little disappointed in the lack of variety. We had expected more hand-crafted goods, rather than the repetitive jewellery, pashmina, bag and clothing shops. We still enjoyed wandering up and down every aisle. Before heading to the airport, we made our way back down to the Spice Bazaar to buy some tea and chocolate to take home.
On every trip we share our rose (highlight), thorn (lowlight), and bud (what we're looking forward to).
Rose- Spice Bazaar (Becca), dinner the last night (Josh)
Thorn- cloudy weather (Becca), feeling sick after too much baklava (Josh)
Bud- sunshine (Becca), summer (Josh)
If you go... things to know
Getting around. Istanbul is massive, but many of the tourist attractions are concentrated in the Old City and are within walking distance of one another. When we did use the tram, it was mostly the T1 line. We bought Istanbulkarts (a reusable metro card) at the airport, which we topped up a few times throughout our trip). We were also able to use the card to pay for the ferry to the Asian side of the city.
Where to stay? Again, since Istanbul is so large, it’s hard to decide where to stay. Our hotel’s location in the Old City near the Blue Mosque was convenient for our big day of touring, however we often found ourselves taking the tram across the Golden Horn to the newer part of town. There are lots of restaurants, bars and cafes in the area around Galata Tower, which would also be a convenient place to stay.
How much time? We had three full days and felt like we got to everything we wanted to do. Of course Istanbul is a huge city with so much going on that you could easily spend several days and not run out of things to do.
What else is there to do? There were a few popular attractions that we skipped, such a Dolmabahçe Palace, the more opulent of the Ottoman palaces, and Theodosian's Land Walls, whch date back to the fifth century A.D. In the summer, day trips to Princes Islands are also a popular activity.
Is the Museum Card worth it? We thought so! You can buy it for 85L and it allows you to pass the ticket lines at any attractions include. If you’re planning to visit Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofia anyway, for an extra 5 lira you can bypass the line and gain entry into some other less known attractions. The lines weren’t too bad when we were there, but I imagine in summer and peak tourist season that this would be a huge time saver. It also gave us a discount on our Bosphorus cruise. The ticket machines outside Topkapi and Aya Sofia have machines to buy them, but many hotels sell them as well. You can read more about the museum card here.
Safety. We felt totally safe, and every tourist attraction (including the markets) has security and metal detectors As an extra precaution we registered with the US State Department so we received security updates throughout our trip.
*Opening times and meeting points are subject to change -- double check before you go!
Have you been to Istanbul? We would love to hear about your impressions of the city in the space below.