Istanbul, the gateway between the East and the West, is a city that has attracted tourists in hordes and has become one of the most visited cities in the world. I had been planning a trip to Turkey for quite some time now and Istanbul was the first stop. Some may ask, is 48 hours or even 72 hours enough to see the city? Well, when traveling, there ALWAYS could be more time. Like Rome, there is an incredible amount of history to this city and A LOT to see but I managed to see a good amount of the sights in this time. However, one travesty no traveler should commit when visiting Turkey is not to visit this majestic city.
This guide is part of my perfect two week Turkey Travel Itinerary.
Upon arrival and getting around
Istanbul is generally a safe city. It is an Islamic city but from my time in Turkey, this Islamic country is likely the most liberal of all the ones in the world. Women in Turkey do not wear any sort of coverings from what I saw and both genders are so westernized. Sometimes I’d forgett i was in an Islamic country until I walked by a mosque. In certain instanced, I left my girlfriend to talk to someone and she was quickly approached by guys although I reckon for a blonde American on her own, this would happen in many other countries as well.
English is widely spoken among the younger generation but is mediocre at best for the rest of the population. Don’t expect to start a conversation with anyone off the street. Istanbul has seen a huge surge in its tourism in recent years so the government has made it a priority to make everything as English friendly as possible. As I write this, the Lira is trading around 2.1L per USD which is at all time highs making it amazing vacation value for anyone traveling from first world countries.
There are the standard options for transportation from Istanbul’s airports, Ataturk (main airport) and Sabiha Gokcen (discount airline airport), to the city center. Istanbul’s public transportation is solid, and with the advent of the trams, it is on par with most of its European counterparts.
By far the cheapest option, 3 Liras will get you from the airport to the city but will involve transfers if staying in Taksim or Sultanmahnet. Take the M1 (red line) to Zeytinburnu, get off and transfer to the T1. The T1 line might as well be renamed the Tourist1 line because as far as all the main tourist spots go, this line will take you everywhere like Taksim Square, Galata Tower, Sultamanhet, and the Grand Bazaar. From Sabiha airport, there are no metro options.
This bus takes you straight from the airport to Taksim Square for 10 Liras and takes about 45 minutes. However, traffic in this city is a little crazy so times can vary heavily. For 12 Liras, this bus also goes from Sabiha to Taksim square in 1.5 hours.
Taxi from the airport
This is the best option in my opinion. All taxis are metered in Istanbul so there’s no need to worry about getting ripped off. A taxi ride will cost about 40 Liras to Sultamanhet and 50 Liras to Taksim. From Sabiha, it is about 80L to Taksim. You can also hail taxis with Uber nowadays.
Getting Around the city
Once we arrived in Istanbul city, it was immediately hectic. With a population of 15 million, this city can be quite overwhelming. There are people and cars everywhere. The streets are small and have absolutely no logic to them as if whomever designed the city ages ago had no idea it would be come the sprawling metropolis it is now. For that reason, I’d actually recommend getting a Turkish SIM card (only in Istanbul) just to use Google Maps. The streets are incredibly complicated to navigate with a paper map.
Walking is the best mode of transportation in this city. Most streets are small and filled with street vendors so cars can’t even enter. The areas of the city that are of interest to tourists short on time can all be reached on foot. From where we stayed in Taksim Square to see the big mosques in Sultamanhet took 45 minutes.
The T1, or Tourist1 line as I like to call it, took us to the Sultamanet area in 10 minutes for only 3 Liras a person. Cabs are quite cheap as the distances traveled are usually short. I never spent more than 15 Liras on cab rides and 15L was at least a 20 minute ride.
The food in Istanbul
Ah, my favorite subject, food. Istanbul is like the NYC of Turkey. With over 10,000 restaurants on TripAdvisor, this place rivals the restaurant count of NYC! I can believe that number as there are literally restaurants EVERYWHERE you walk. Cuisines from all around the world are offered in Instabul.
From the cheap doner kebab hole in the walls (which likely makes up half of the tripadvisor list), to 5* dining on a rooftop overlooking the Bosphorus, this place has it all. With no Turkish cuisine of any sort in South Africa, I made sure to load up on all the good stuff while I was here.
I did find eating out to be more expensive than I thought but this is a major international city. Nevertheless, if you’re visiting in 2018 and beyond, it will be cheaper no matter what as the currency has really taken a beating (unless you’re eating at restaurants specifically catered to tourists and they will just peg everything to the euro). We ate at a variety of restaurants and for the most part, the Turkish food here is just as, if not more expensive than the Turkish food I ate in NYC. All I really knew about Turkish cuisine was meat spinning on a stick, aka kebabs. It is much more than this. Middle Eastern, Asian, and European influences have all shaped Turkish cuisine into what it is today.
Make sure to try everything here even if it looks strange. From stuffed eggplants, to Yogurt and red pepper dips, to Gozleme pancakes, to adana kebabs, there is something anyone and everyone will like. I haven’t even begun to talk about the seemingly endless amounts of Turkish delights and Baklava. Some of the locals told us that food in Turkey is much different when cooked at home than when eating out at a restaurant. What difference this is I will never know, but I did enjoyed the hell out of eating out.
Alcohol is expensive in Istanbul and throughout Turkey. Perhaps it is because Turkey is a Muslim country and Muslims don’t drink. Turkey, however, produces its own Beer, Efes, and has its own liquor drink, Raki, similar to Greek Ouzo. I can’t think of any other Islamic states that produce its own alcohol which further shows how different Turkey is from its Islamic peers. A regular beer at a restaurant is anywhere between 8-12L (~4-6$) with wine being a little more.
Ah, meat on a stick. The ultimate food for 4am partygoers and stoners alike. Without a doubt, there must be thousands of places that have layers of beef, lamb, and chicken roasting on a spit. I couldn’t walk two blocks without smelling these things. I absolutely love this smell, perhaps too much, and mostly caved at my desire. Go up to any of these places and they will shave off some meat, add some special sauces, and wrap it up for you within a minute. For 5-10L, the ultimate quick bite can be yours. In the span of 3 days, I must have eaten 10 of these and that was in addition to my regular meals!
Located near Taksim square, this was by far the best kebabs in a wrap we had in Istanbul. They were on Anthony Bourdain’s no reservation, and their adana kebab (make sure to get double) for 10L is the best deal in the city.
We found this grill house (of the kebab variety) on some online articles and it did not disappoint. Located near Taksim Square where we stayed, this place did kebabs right. There’s a old school grill in the middle of the restaurant with the grillmaster cooking up your meats on the spot. If there’s space, be sure to sit right next to the grill to see the man perform his craft and inhale all that deliciousness. This place had a solid mix of foreigners and locals.
From what I observed, it seems Turkish people enjoy a good helping of the Mezes (think Turkish Tapas) with their bread before the main course. Personally, I’m all about the meat so we got one red pepper and yogurt dip for our bread, and proceeded to gorge ourselves on adana and lamb shish.
Seven Hills Hotel Rooftop
After a long day sightseeing in Sultamanhet, this place is an absolute MUST. There are numerous rooftop bars/restaurants in Istanbul offering likely mediocre food and expensive drinks, but this is the best. With views of the Blue Mosque, the Ayasofia, AND the Bosphorus strait, this place is perfect to have a few sundowners.
The food is expensive and the drinks even more so as we paid 80L for a double raki, a beer, and 2 glasses of wine. Nevertheless, you’re not here to eat or seriously drink, but just to soak in the sun and admire the architectural masterpieces of the city.
Sightseeing in Istanbul
Istanbul is an incredibly fascinating city. Before arrival, I had pictured Istanbul to be a somewhat modernized version of Marrakech, but oh how I was wrong. Istanbul is a city that’s a mix of everything. It is a city that was first Christian during the Byzantines, and later Muslim under the Ottoman Turks. The architecture is a plethora of both.
On one street corner, there are mosques and hamams, and down the street will be Italian style apartments. The juxtaposition of these two styles really makes the city stand out and likely the only city in the world featuring such strong influences from so many different cultures. Nevertheless, there is endless amounts of things to see and do in this city. For the time strapped traveler, this is how we did things.
Sultanmahet is the main historical area of Istanbul; the old part of the city. All the famous mosques and churches are congregated in this area and all walking distance from one another. The main points of interest here are the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern. The Ayasofia is closed on Sundays, and Topkapi Palace is closed Tuesdays. When visiting the inside of any mosque in Istanbul, it is required to take off your shoes and women must cover their heads (any scarf will suffice).
Built in 1616, the Blue Mosque’s name comes from the blue tiles in its interior and is one of the most visited and photographed sights of Istanbul. The Blue Mosque is an active mosque and closes 30 minutes before and after the five daily prayer sessions. Safe to say the Blue Mosque was my favorite attraction in Istanbul as the view from outside its gates are just spectacular and allows for some quality selfies to be taken. It does draw massive crowds of tourists however so it’s best to get there early in the morning.
Ayasofya (Hagia Sofia)
Once a Basilica during the Byzantine era, it was converted into an imperial Mosque during Ottoman Rule and has been a museum since 1935. This is the most visited tourist site in Istanbul and is right across the way from the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Blue mosque, this museum has an entrance fee of 25L but is a no brainer, must pay, fee to see this place. The inside is nothing short of incredible.
This spacious Byzantine era masterpiece turned Mosque turned museum is something words can’t describe. While the outside looks similar to its Blue Mosque neighbor, the inside is completely different. The architecture still feels somewhat Basilica-like but there are Arabic inscriptions everywhere making it likely the only building in the world with so much Christian and Islamic influences.
Built in the Byzantine times, this underground basilica, yes underground, is one of several of its kind in Istanbul. I wasn’t sure that this was at first but was instructed that we had to go. The entrance is unassuming as it is just a small house but as you descend the steps to the basilica, wow what an amazing sight.
The columns and overall structure of the basilica are still very intact. The basilica was used as a water filtration system in the old days and provided water to the Topkapi palace and even into modern times. The entire sight is covered in water with fish swimming in it but there are plenty of walking paths. Lights have been added in modern times to beautifully illuminate this place allowing for some amazing pictures and views. Entrance is 15L.
Located right next to the Ayasofia, this was once the living quarters of the Ottoman sultans. It’s still very much intact and is a must see when visiting Istanbul. I’d recommend getting here as early as possible and finding a guide (there are plenty outside the entrance) to show you around because there’s so much to see. Entrance is 40L (with the Harem viewing) and is closed on Tuesdays.
Located just a 20 minute walk from the Sultanmanhet area, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world with over 3000 shops and hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. As soon as you walk into this place, you are immediately overwhelmed as the endless amounts of shop and people engulf you. Anything souvenir and Turkish related can be bought here. Make sure to always bargain the original price (at least 30%) as the shop owners specifically cater their prices to expect this.
This experience was similar to the Souks in Morroco. Personally, I preferred the experience of the Souk. It had a more old school feeling and I really felt like I was in another world, getting lost at every turn. The Grand Bazaar is grand no doubt, but it just feels so modern and commercialized.
Other Mosques to Visit:
The Suleymaniye Mosque, The New Mosque, and Rustem Pasha mosques are all worth a visit and are all located close to the Grand Bazaar.
Bosphorus Day Cruise
Often overlooked, a cruise around the Bosphorus strait is something everyone should do if time allows. Inevitably, everyone will encounter the individuals throughout the city selling ferry boat tours along the Bosphorus Strait but it’s better to stay away from these as the boats used for these tours are questionable at best. Sehir Hatlari, the official ferry company of Istanbul, operates daily Bosphorus tours starting at the Eminonu dock to Anadolu Kavagi. Round trip tickets cost 25L and the ferry leaves the dock at 10:35am and picks up from Anadolu Kavagi at 3pm. The ferry ride is 1.5 hours both ways, leaving us 3 hours to spend in Anadolu Kavagi.
The main draws for this six hour trip are panoramic views of Istanbul from the sea, and Yoros Castle in Anadolu Kavagi, a sleepy town which sits at the edge of the Black sea offering stunning views of the whole region. It’s a nice reprieve from the chaos of Istanbul.
The ferry ride will make multiple stops before arriving at Anadolu Kavagi, where restaurants with its hecklers await the droves of tourists that come for lunch everyday. There are dozens of seafood restaurants selling overpriced fare. I ended up just grabbing some delicious grilled fish sandwiches for 6L before making the 20 minute hike up to Yoros Castle (taxis are also available). If you must sit down for lunch, eat at one of the restaurants near the Castle as they offer some incredible views of the sea. Three hours was plenty of time to walk up to the top, soak in the views, eat lunch, and return to the ferry with time to spare.
Come to the Galata Tower if panoramic views high above all other buildings is of interest. Located just south of Taksim Square, this place is a must. The views are beautiful and all the Mosques in the old town are clearly visible allowing for some great pictures. However, similar to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the actual viewing area is incredibly cramped so if it’s crowded, it may be less enjoyable. Nevertheless, try getting here early in the morning or for sunset to avoid the large crowds. Entrance is 15L.
72 Hour Itinerary Day by Day Itinerary
Day 1: Sultanahmet District and all its attractions, Grand Bazaar, Egyptian Market
Day 2: Bosphorus full day Tour, Sundowner at Seven Hills
Day 3: Taksim Square, Istikbal Street, Galata Tower, Turkish Baths