Sunset in Istanbul

Enjoying sunset in Istanbul with Turkish tea

Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, spans both Europe and Asia and is a meeting point for Eastern and Western cultures.


Fast facts:

Language: Turkish

Currency: Turkish lira. As of June 2015, the exchange rate is around 1 USD = 2.75 lira.

Getting in: Turkey requires US citizens to print out an electronic visa prior to arrival, which you can easily obtain at the official site here for $20. The visa is good for multiple entries within 6 months.

Getting around: The Istanbulkart is a must have for getting around Istanbul. It is a card which can be loaded with cash and used on all public transportation in the city, including ferries, subways, trams, and buses. It is not valid on minibuses, which usually only accept liras. You can obtain an Istanbulkart for a small fee at either of the major airports in Istanbul and at many other locations, and they can be reloaded as needed at machines located throughout the city. The public transit network in Istanbul is fairly good, very cheap, and very safe, but it does not run between about midnight and 6 AM so you will need to hire a taxi during these times.

When to visit: Summer (June, July, and August) has the nicest weather but is also peak tourist season so all the tourist sites will be packed. The shoulder seasons, spring and fall, are also fairly comfortable and the crowds are smaller.

How to visit: The spring/fall off-peak rate with American Airlines miles (Flying American Airlines or any of their partners) is 40,000 miles roundtrip from North America. If you pursue this route, you will want to avoid using British Airways or Iberia on the transatlantic segments because of the giant fuel surcharges they levy, however you will need to use one of them for the last segment because no other partners fly directly to Istanbul. A second option would be to use 60,000 United miles and combine the trip to Istanbul with some other city in Europe at no additional cost, or combine the trip with a city in east Asia for 10,000 miles more. The availibility will be the better with United miles since they are partnered with Turkish Airlines which has many flights to Istanbul. If you want to pay for a ticket instead, they usually run at least $600-$800 roundtrip from the US. Istanbul has two main airports: Atatürk airport (IST) is located on the European side and is the larger international airport, and Sabiha Gökçen airport (SAW) is located on the Asian side, slightly further out, and handles most flights on low cost carriers.


Highlights of Istanbul:

Istanbul has one of the most interesting histories and cultures out of any city in the world, so a brief historical background is important. It began as a Greek settlement by the name of Byzantium around 660 BC, and changed hands a few times between the Greeks and Persians during the Greco-Persian wars. Later, Byzantium became part of the Roman empire, and was proclaimed capital of the Byzantine empire in the 4th century AD and renamed Constantinople. In 1453 AD, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman empire, renamed to Istanbul, and declared its capital. Then finally, in 1922 after World War 1, the modern day Republic of Turkey declared its independence under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

All around Istanbul, you can see a fusion of eastern and western cultures. Other than the fact that Istanbul is literally half in Europe and half in Asia, split in two by the Bosphorus waterway, Istanbul has gone through periods of history where it was ruled by Muslims, Christians, and secular governments. It has both mosques and churches, Islamic and European architecture, and street merchants alongside western style supermarkets.

Istanbul is a huge, sprawling city full of neighborhoods that are completely different from each other. Sultanahmet is probably the best known neighborhood of Istanbul. It is the “old city” where some of the most famous attractions are located – Sultanahmet Square, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, the Grand Baazar, the Spice Market, the Basilica Cistern, and last but not least, the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia).

Sultanahmet Square, formerly known as the Hippodrome of Constantinople, was the center of life during the Roman and Byzantine times, and the Byzantines conducted chariot races here as well. Walking around you can find artifacts from all over the Mediterranean – the Byzantines made quite the effort to bring relics from other parts of the empire to their capital. The giant Egyptian Obelisk in the middle stands out the most – it must have taken quite a bit of effort to transport that back in the day.

sultanahmet square photo

Sultanahmet Square

The Blue Mosque, officially called the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is just next to Sultanahmet Square. It is a beautiful work of art created during early Ottoman times, and is still actively used as a mosque today. Please be sure to follow mosque etiquette as outlined here if you plan to enter the mosque or its courtyard (this also applies to any other active mosque in Istanbul).

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque

Topkapı Palace is where the sultans lived during the height of the Ottoman Empire. It has now been converted into a museum and their lavish riches are on display, along with a few Muslim relics. I was surprised to find the (claimed) sword of King David of Israel on display at the palace. Probably worth the modest entrance fee if you are in Istanbul for more than a couple days. However, I would suggest avoiding any of the tours as the plaques are descriptive enough as is, and the tours mostly follow the same path around the palace grounds which gets crowded.

Topkapı Palace

Exquisite dome above one of the rooms of Topkapı Palace

The Grand Bazaar is basically an underground mall-like area, with merchants selling tourist trinkets, clothes, and crafts. It is a bit like Berlin’s Mauerpark flea market, with a bit of an Eastern flare. Definitely worth a visit, especially if you are into shopping or people watching. One thing I was impressed with was the immensity of the bazaar; with all the passageways one could easily get lost down there.

The Spice Market is a covered street market where colors abound. It gets its name from the bulk spices that are sold, but there are other popular Turkish foods sold here as well. It reminded me a bit of Pike Place Market in Seattle.

The Spice Market

The Spice Market

Visiting the Basilica Cistern is an awe-inspiring experience and a nice escape from the summer heat. The cistern is an underground water storage area built by the Byzantines, complete with Roman columns, two of which have Medusa heads at the bottom. Modern pathways make it possible to take in the cistern while walking through it.

  • Basilica Cistern
    The Basilica Cistern and its Roman columns

The Ayasofya, better known in English as the Hagia Sophia, is perhaps the best known landmark in Istanbul. It reflects the history of Istanbul: built originally as a Orthodox Christian cathedral under the Byzantines, it was converted to a mosque during the years of the Ottoman Empire. In the modern day Republic of Turkey, it was designated as a museum by Atatürk and has remained that way ever since. Going inside today, you can see some of the best Byzantine architecture around, with both Christian and Muslim vestiges side by side.

The Interior of the Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)

The Interior of the Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)

Many of the hostels in Istanbul are located in the Sultanahmet area, and many have nice views of the Bosphorous.

Moving north from Sultanhmet across the Golden Horn waterway, Karaköy is a neighborhood known for its waterfront and its hidden bars and restaurants popular with locals. The Galata Tower is perhaps the most striking bulding in Karaköy – an old tower built in the 1300s which offers great views of the city skyline. 

galata tower photo

Galata Tower

North of Karaköy, on top of a hill, lies the district of Taksim. Taksim is one of the more European-looking places in Istanbul, and its streets are lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, and shopping. In the center of Taksim is Taksim Square, where a monument stands honoring Atatürk, the founder of modern day Turkey. In recent years there have been a number of protests in Taksim square and the adjoining park, and it has become the center of activism for the country.

İstiklal Avenue

İstiklal Avenue in Taksim, one of its main thoroughfares.

There are also some areas of Taksim which overlook the city and make for a great place to enjoy Turkish coffee, as pictured below.

Turkish Coffee

Turkish coffee in Taksim

Moving northeast from Taksim and along the European side of the Bosphorous are the neighborhoods of Beşiktaş and OrtaköyBeşiktaş has a nice shopping district and Ortaköy is home to the best views of the better known bridge spanning the Bosphorous (there is also another one further north). In between the two neighborhoods lie a couple of Ottoman-era palaces as well as a giant park spanning the former Yıldız Palace grounds. 

Yildiz Park

Yıldız Park

Kadıköy is the heart of the Asian side of the city and one of the more liberal neighborhoods of Istanbul. The center of Kadıköy is where many of the locals go out in the evenings to enjoy good food and nightlife. Buddha bar has live rock music with singing and dancing many nights. 

If you just want to go and relax by the sea on a warm day, Caddebostan in southeast Kadıköy is a great place to either take a walk or bring a blanket and chill on the grass. If you want to see a more residential part of Istanbul, I would recommend Kozyatağı on the east side of Kadıköy. Kozyatağı has its own local bazaar on Fridays which is smaller and much less touristy than the Grand Bazaar in Sulatanahmet, and also features a nice park and lots of tall apartment buildings.

Caddebostan at night

Caddebostan at night

Uskudar, just north of Kadıköy on the Asian side, has a bustling maritime industry, along with great restaurants with views of the Bosphorous and historic Ottoman mosques. 

Along with the neighborhoods mentioned above, there are plenty of others worth visiting, and I would encourage any visitor to Istanbul to take time to visit as many different areas as possible, since the ambiance in each place is so different.

In any neighborhood, you will be able to find Turkish baths (hamams), and a trip to Istanbul is not complete unless you visit one! There are two types of hamams in Istanbul: the very expensive ones which cater to tourists and may be considered “luxurious” by Western standards, and the less expensive but more “real” hamams which the locals go to. Often times it is hard to find a completely “real” hamam because the guidebooks only talk about the touristy ones, and many of the more authentic hamams are in neighborhoods less popular with tourists. Although the layout of each hamam varies, they usually have separate areas for men and women. Near the entrance there are changing rooms, and then the main baths exist of a large stone area in the middle for massages and being scrubbed down with a brush (which surprisingly feels really good) and connecting rooms which may have saunas, steam rooms, or pools. Note that some hamams are clothing optional and others are not, so do your research based on whether you plan to strip down or not!

Domed ceiling of the hamam

Domed ceiling of a hamam

Food in Istanbul consists of traditional Turkish food that you can find all over Turkey, but as Istanbul is a very international city you can also find foods from all over the rest of the world as well. The most popular food, and probably the Turkish equivalent of fast food, is the döner kebab. It consists of middle eastern style meat (usually lamb), cut off a rotisserie, and put into a pita or bread pouch. Aryan is a popular beverage which tastes a bit like yogurt. Pide is the Turkish equivalent of pizza, and is bread with cheese and other toppings on it. Simits are bagel-like rings of bread covered in sesame seeds sold at just about every street corner, and they are used alongside various fruits, veggies, cheeses, and other items to make a traditional Turkish breakfast. Rakı is the national alcohol of Turkey, and has a unique flavor that tastes a bit like black liquorice. Turkish tea (çay) and Turkish coffee can be found all over Istanbul as well, and they are delicious.

  • Turkish Breakfast
    A typical Turkish breakfast, prepared by my Couchsurfing hosts

If you are a bit more adventurous, you may want to try işkembe, which is soup made from cow’s stomach. Foods from specific regions of Turkey are also available in restaurants around Istanbul, and are much different than traditional Turkish foods found throughout the country.

Turkish people are very friendly, so if you have any questions feel free to try and ask anyone on the street. If you get a chance, I would also recommend Couchsurfing in Istanbul if possible to get more of a real sense of the city. Altogether, Istanbul is a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.


Photo by Erik Cleves Kristensen

Photo by laszlo-photo

Posted in Destinations, Europe, Middle East & Central Asia.

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