Istanbul is one of my favorite cities around the world. I love a city that has changed hands over time so it reflects the many cultures that have passed through while its formed its own identity. “The gateway to Asia”, Istanbul is a modern city built around the Bosphorus inlet with one side in the continent of Europe and the eastern side in Asia. Both have their own flavor but most of the tourist destinations are in the Europe side with some epic harbor home and restaurants on the Asia side. This is your all-you-need-to-know guide to your first trip to Istanbul!
So, let’s get logistics taken care of first:
|Visa||Most western countries need a visa beforehand||https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/||Without a Visa they will not let you into the country. Getting it in the airport is very challenging. I don’t recommend it!|
|There are ATMs in the airport close to the baggage claim but also a bank or ATM by the Blue Mosque if you prefer to wait. Most attractions’ entrance is cash only|
|Airport||Istanbul Ataturk Airport (IST)||http://www.ataturkairport.com/en-EN/Pages/Main.aspx|
|To/From Airport||The cheapest method is the Metro but Taxis are also available via the taxi rank. There are also rental car stations onsite if you pre-book||http://www.metro.istanbul/passenger-services/network-maps.aspx||As with any airport, beware of scams and pickpockets|
|Uber||Yes – Uber is available|
|Getting around||Most of the tourist sites are walkable. There isn’t any reason to rent a car if you are staying within the city. Buses and trams are across the city.|
|Tourist pass||Yes! It’s a great deal!||http://www.muzekart.com/en/museum-pass/about_27.html||If you don’t have time to buy beforehand, the pass is available at most museum entrances|
|When to go:||Shoulder Months (March- May/ Sept – Nov).||It can get hot in the summer and very busy. I went in February 2018, the weather was chilly but fine and there were NO LINES.|
|Where to Stay||I recommend a hotel in the Sultanahmet, Fatih or karakoy districts. I prefer a hotel vs. a rental stay in the city.||Most hotels will have airport shuttle options for your departure. Turkish breakfast is also often included in your stay and that is a great thing!|
Things to know:
Istanbul is a modern city in a predominantly muslim country. Istanbul welcomes tourism so is pretty tolerant but, as always, being a good visitor means respecting local customs. Its recommended and, for some places, required for everyone to wear a shirt that covers the shoulders and upper arms. Men can wear shorts(not too short!) but I would recommend that women wear a long skirt. On my last trip, I was asked to wear a skirt over my jeans at the Blue Mosque because my jeans were too form-fitting. Always carry a scarf to cover your hair if asked. Being drunk is looked down upon although wine or beer with dinner is completely fine! In fact, Turkish white wine is VERY good!
Another thing to note is that Wikipedia, YouTube and some other websites are blocked so it’s good to the map downloaded before you go. Most people in the tourist areas speak english so don’t hesitate to ask for help. You may get asked to stop by a market or shop in return but that is entirely up to you. A polite decline should get you a polite response.
Other than that, please enjoy Turkish hospitality! It’s amazing! I love how there is always an extra flourish or detail when you are in a restaurant or hotel.
My Istanbul Google Map with all itineraries is located HERE
Day 1: History Lesson – Learning about history helps me to have some context to the city. Let’s go back in time by starting in the Sultanahmet and touring some of the most iconic symbols of the city, starting with one of the oldest church in the world.
- Hagia Sophia
- Topkapi Palace & Museum
- Lunch: Tarihi Koftecisi – Specialize in lamb meatballs cooked in tomato sauce
- Basilica Cistern – Look out for Medusa!
- The Blue Mosque – You will have to take off your shoes so bring socks if you are in sandals! Open to all except for prayer times which can be found here
- Watch the sunset by the fountain outside of the the Blue Mosque
- Dinner: End the day with a nice dinner at Matbah restaurant which specializes in dishes from the Topkapi Palace archives. Food fit for a Sultan!
TIP: The is a lovely, modern, clean bathroom in the southeastern corner of a restaurant in the Sultan’s square(plaza between Hagia Sophie and the Blue Mosque) that wraps the Ayasofya Hammam. They also have great turkish coffee so grab a coffee and rest easy.
Day 2: On the Waterfront
This day is dedicated to fish! Ha! After spending the morning at the archeological museum peering at a pretty amazing collection of Egyptian mummies, ancient epitaphs and gravestones, head towards the Eminonu pier at the north side of the Galata bridge. Stroll through the newly redesigned Gahule park, past the train station and New Mosque. Feel free to pop into the Egyptian Bazaar or, depending on your timings, walk to north side of the pier to buy a Balik Ekmek from one of the boats bobbing in the water. Take the 2.5 hour short Bosphorus Tour which leaves at 2PM and sit back and relax. Afterwards, spend some time shopping at any of the Bazaars or shops and, after dropping your bounty at the hotel, head to the amazing Balikci Sabahattin fish restaurant. A top quality restaurant in the touristy part of the sultanahmet. A rare find! Walk off dinner buy headed to the Karakoy and walking uphill to see the Galata Tower and on to the taverns and bars of the Taksim Square. Watch out for the istanbul ice cream vendors. They really put on a show!
- Istanbul Archaeological Museum
- Eminonu Pier
- Lunch: Balik Ekmek
- 2pm: Short Bosphorus Boat Tour
- Grand Bazaar or Egyptian Bazaar shopping
- Dinner: Balikci Sabahattin
- Walk across the Galata Bridge to the Karakoy
- View Galata Tower
- Taksim Square
All fish sandwiches are 10TL and should be doused in lemon juice and salt available on each table. A side of pickles is optional. You can bring food on the boat and there are small snack cafes on the boat also. The short Bosphorus tour is a cheap, no frills loop around the inlet. Beware that lots of people take this ferry just to feed the seagulls so the first 30 minutes of the trip can be difficult to see the sites! If shopping isn’t your bag then skip the bazaar and walk across the Galata bridge and up to the Galata Tower. You can climb the tower to an amazing view of the Sultanahmet and Fahit districts from there. Also, if a seafood restaurant isn’t your thing, the Beyoglu district, which is where Taksim square in located, has loads of casual taverns and restaurants. I’ve highlighted a few in my map. This is a great place to try Turkish pide, kebabs and stuffed mussels.
Day 3: Where the locals go
A recommendations for a Turkish Breakfast point to the northern neighborhood of Bebek. It’s a waterfront suburb nestled into the side of the hills 8 miles north of the sultanahmet. Take in the treats of the Turkish Breakfast at the Rumeli Kale Cafe although there are loads of waterfront cafe options. You can also burn off breakfast/ brunch with a walk to the Rumeli Castle & Fortress.
The Asia side is the place to go for dinner and drinks. There isn’t much to see as a tourist but the coastline of the Bosphorus is packed with waterfront houses and restaurants. Quirky restaurants and coffee shops abound. Its a quick ferry ride from the pier to Uskudar.
Other stuff: A website recommended to me by a Turkish friend is Yabangee. It appears to be a “Time out” magazine style website for Turkey. Good Stuff! Istanbul Insider is also a great resource. I do not recommend Tripadvisor as a resource because the recommendations are mostly for ultra touristy places in the sultanahmet packed with European tourists. Seeing the “top” restaurants with my own eyes, they are the equivalent to eating in Piccadilly circus of time square and you deserve better!
There are food tours and in-home dining experiences but I have not done them myself. Most tourist are full day or half- day events including a ferry ride to the Asia-side and, frankly, we didn’t have the time to dedicate. Lastly, a trip to hammam or Turkish bath is also a treat. The newly restored that everyone is talking about is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam. Built in the 16th century and open to the public after a 7 million dollar renovation, it is a sight to behold! Baths tend to be divided by gender so, if you need a break from your partner, this is a great excuse 😉
It’s always nice to learn a few phrases to be able to show appreciation! People love good manners no matter where you go!
|Phrase||Turkish phrase + Phonetic Spelling|
If they are Muslim then you can say “Salam” but, unless you are also Muslim, they will respond with Merhaba
|Goodbye||Güle güle (Gooley goolay)|
|Thank you||Teşekkür ederim (Tesh-ek-ur ed-er-im)|
|I’m sorry||Üzgünüm (uz-goo-noom)|
|Yes, please||Evet, lütfen (ev-ett luff-ine)|
|No, thank you||Hayır, teşekkürler (Hi-Yer tesh-ek-ur-lash)|
|Pardon me||Affedersiniz (Off-a-die-er-sin-iss)|
You can also translate text with google goggles, which can sometimes be helpful. Here are the details.
You probably have an idea of Turkish food: Kebabs, grilled meats on skewers, mezze dips like hummus or eggplant but there is a cornucopia of tastes that are distinctly Turkish. Here are a few of my favorites. The cuisine is not fancy but its fresh and packed with flavor! If you see these on the menu, order it!
|Food||Baklava/ Turkish pastries||Efezade restaurant
22 Alemdar Cd. in the Sultanahmet. It has a blue awning with white stripes
|SO MANY kinds of pastries, turkish delight and goodies. Easy to take away to enjoy in the plaza as the sun sets|
|Kofti||Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi Selim Usta
(Step C for lunch on Day One)
|Turkish meatballs. Often cooked in a tomato sauce|
|Pide||Ismail Usta Kebap & Pide Salonu||Pronounced “Pida” it is also known as Turkish Pizza. Tomato and other ingredients are baked in a oblong crust. A taste you know you love!|
|Salep||The best that I had was in the cafe in the Archaeological Museum. Seriously!||A warm, milk beverage with rosewater, vanilla, sugar and cinnamon|
|Manti||Dostan Manti Evi||Turkish meat filled dumplings|
|Ezme||Spicy Tomato dip that is part of the standard mezze dips|
|Shopping||Ceramics||Iznik Classics||2 stores in the same block. One is dedicated to quartz iznik ceramics and one dedicated to ottoman ceramics which are more colorful|
|Turkish Towels||Abdulla Natural Products https://abdulla.com/
|Soaps, shawls, towels|
|Hamam||Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı
|Hammam and turkish bath gift shop in the Karakoy district|
Located on the way up to the Galata Tower
|Loads and cool, useful leather goods at fair prices (or the location)|
Want to the see for yourself? The Guide Shop brings it all together!