Bubbly Tourist recently vacationed in Istanbul, Turkey, in mid-September. It was the perfect time of year to go: not too hot or humid and sunny blue skies. What makes this city of almost 16,000,000 people so special? Its rich history is fascinating and its monuments reflect how its history has changed over time. And by the way, it's the largest city to straddle two continents. Find out what you need to know before going, and read on to see the top places we recommend to see and do in Istanbul (not Constantinople). Cue music.
Top Places to See and Things to Do
1. Hagia Sophia
This immense and stunning mosque was built between 532 and 537. Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) represents a brilliant moment in Byzantine architecture and art. It was the principal church of the Byzantine Empire and became a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered the city in 1453. It was the largest building and mosque in the world for centuries. As tradesmen and travelers used to arrive into the old city of Constantinople, the massive gold dome atop this mosque was the first sight they'd see. Still today, once you go inside, the grandeur and beauty is just incredible. Be prepared to be wowed! Do remember to remove shoes and ladies will need to cover their hair and shoulders.
2. Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is like the French Versailles. It was once the main residence of its Sultans and the Administrative Center for the Ottoman Empire. It later became a museum and now is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has several parts that are worth seeing including the Harem, the Treasury of the Topkapi Museum (see the Emerald Topkapi Dagger, Spoonmaker's Diamond) the four courtyards of the Palace, the Imperial Gate, and amazing views of the Bosphorus from the Palace. You will need at least 2 hours to see the palace and courtyards and another hour to walk its grounds. FYI, the grounds inside the palace walls are free to walk. You'll need a ticket, however, to get inside the main gate to see the palace and its courtyards. Bubbly Tip: be at the Imperial Gate before 9:00am when it opens and you'll be able to enjoy an hour or so before the hordes of people come in. Visit the Harem first and then the Treasury before things get too crowded. See an expanded view of the Imperial Hall by clicking the photo below.
3. The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque has been a practicing mosque since 1609. It is unique in that it has six minarets (towers), which is a rare feature in Islamic architecture. Legend has it that the architect misunderstood the sultan's request for "gold" (altin) minarets as "six" (alti) minarets. Bubbly Tourist was struck how not blue it actually is. The blue is supposed to indicate the color of the tile inside (although the roof is blue). However, there is equally as much orange as blue. We overheard a tour guide say it should be called the orange and blue mosque. Nevertheless, it is quite beautiful. It is right next door to Hagia Sophia and the lines to get in move quickly. Be prepared to remove your shoes and ladies will need to cover their hair and shoulders.
4. Basilica Cistern
The cisterns of Istanbul were built by the Roman empire to store water underground. There are several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. Bubbly Tourist visited three and our favorite by far is the Basilica Cistern. Today, it boasts atmospheric lighting and rotating art to give you an exotic feel for these huge underground rooms supported by massive columns. This particular cistern used to have more water and could be travelled by boat. It has since been drained with elevated floors added. Fun fact: you may recognize a scene from the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love, where Sean Connery rows a boat through the cistern.
5. Sultanahmet Park
The Sultanahmet Park which separates Sophia Hagia and The Blue Mosque is a beautiful location to just relax and catch your breath. Watch the world turn, eat some grilled corn on the cob from one of the many vendors, or see the sun set here. We were here at dusk and noticed our walking tour guide sitting and taking it all in. His favorite time to be there was what he called the "golden hour" while the sun set. We couldn't agree with him more. The photos above of Sophia Hagia and The Blue Mosque were taken during the golden hour.
6. Cross the Bosphorus
Take the ferry and cross the Bosphorus Strait and see both continents of Turkey. It's super cheap, convenient and an easy way to travel. And needless to say, it's a great way to take in the sights of Istanbul. From the water you can see Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Maiden's Tower, Galata Bridge, the Imperial Palaces, the Çanakkale Bridge and more. See below for more details on the best way to cross the Bosphorus.
7. The Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar is located right by the Eminonu docks that allow you to cross the Bosphorus. Built in 1664, it is one of the most colorful bazaars of Istanbul and offers numerous spices, Turkish delights, caviar, dried nuts and more. Bubbly Tourist went through both this Bazaar and Grand Bazaar and would recommend the Spice Bazaar if you were only going to choose one. The ceilings are colorful, the bazaar experience is less crowded but still exciting with high energy, and more importantly, less pushy. You don't have merchants trying to hawk you continuously like you do in the Grand Bazaar. Travel from one corner to another and get yourself lost. We just wandered and went where our feet took us. It's not nearly the size of the Grand Bazaar, so have fun exploring and just experience it.
8. The Kadikoy Markets
These markets are really fun to explore because of the variety of things to see in a non stress environment. Since it's really just the locals buying product here, you can wonder around without anyone even thinking about hawking you into their stall like you will at the Grand Bazaar. From the countless old books off of Akmar Pasajı, to the fish stalls and fresh produce, to the restaurants, coffee shops and pubs, there is something for everyone. We stopped in an iconic candy store, Cafer Erol, to purchase some beautifully wrapped turkish delights for our friends back home. Trust us when we say this an excellent spot to buy a gift for your loved ones. Highly Recommended! Bubbly Tip: Ask them to put a bow on your gift if one doesn't already exist. You can also buy amazing pastries, coffee or chocolates upstairs or outside or just peruse their incredibly beautiful selection of goods.
9. Off the Beaten Track: The secret Nakilbent Cistern
Cisterns are pretty cool to begin with, but to have an entrance below a carpet shop? Crazy cool hidden gem. When we walked up, there was a sign on the door indicating we needed to make reservations to see the cistern, so I walked to the front desk and clarified that a reservation was not needed. Off to the right, you'll find some stairs that descend into this cistern turned museum of the Hippodrome. The Hippodrome is the area just out front of the Blue Mosque where the Byzantines used to race their chariots. Check out this cistern and learn more about hippodromes than you ever would have thought below a carpet shop.
10. The Grand Bazaar
We hesitate to put this on the list, but it is one of the oldest (1461) and largest bazaars in the world with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops. It's crowded, way over-priced and the hawkers are out trying to convince you to come into their stalls. We were told by a local that the stall owners need to sell only one product to make their rent for the month. However, if you care to see the spectacle, there's a lot to take in and there are some hidden courtyards where the merchants aren't pushy. Find Cebeci Han where there are several small shops doing carpet repair, serving food or tea. Note there are 22 entrance gates to get into the Grand Bazaar that are protected by security and metal detectors. See the photo below of Mahmut Pasa Gate.
In Search of Bubbly
In an ongoing segment by Bubbly Tourist, we always search for a location - if not the best location - to have some champagne wherever we go.
With the 200% tax on alcohol on the European side, it is without a doubt an expensive pleasure in European Istanbul. We did find a beautiful spot right in Sultanahmet where we indulged in some bubbly. Bubbly Tourist found a beautiful roof-top restaurant with a retracting roof conveniently located by our hotel called Olive that we'd highly recommend. We didn't want to break the bank by buying an ordinary bottle of champagne for $200 USD so we opted instead to drink the local sparkling wine, the Vinkara Yasasin, for $75 which was excellent. Dry, florally, light green golden color, and fresh bread in the nose and palate.
What to know before going to Istanbul
A Visa is Required
Entrance into Turkey requires a visa. You can buy these online in advance like Bubbly Tourist did. Or you can buy it in the airport. Buy your Visa online in advance. It is SUPER easy and can be done in 3 simple steps. Here are some FAQ's on the subject.
Inflation is real so prices may not be as cheap as you hoped
Turkey suffers from massive inflation. Last year it was officially 83% but in reality it was between 150% - 200%. It's a way of life for the Turks as long as it doesn't affect their tobacco or tea prices. And although Turkey lives in a state of constant inflation, prices don't increase gradually. The price will suddenly increase substantially overnight like on the order of 50%. For example, Topkapi Palace tickets went from 500 to 700 TL overnight about two weeks before our arrival. So, if you see something at a decent price, don't delay in your purchase.
Where to Stay
The Bosphorus river divides Istanbul into two parts: Europe and Asia. The neighborhood of Sultanahmet in Europe is the oldest part of Istanbul where all the oldest monuments are, so our recommendation is to stay there as it is convenient walking distance to the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and other attractions previously discussed. Hotel prices are relatively affordable here so we stayed at a TripAdvisor's Traveler's Choice, Sultania Hotel, where the location is perfect, the service is excellent and the rooms are plenty comfortable.
But where is Istanbul cheaper?
Cross over to the Asian side to Uskudar or Kadikoy by taking one of the many convenient ferries and experience a much more affordable Istanbul. First of all, it doesn't have a 200% alcohol tax like the European side of Istanbul. Secondly, there are less tourists and more locals so normal cost-of-living expenses are not so marked up. Arguably, one should take their lodging here, but as we explained above you won't be as conveniently located near the historic sights. Bubbly Tip: we had a few of our meals on the Asian side to save on expenses and were able to dine at outrageously affordable rates. As an example of this, there were seven of us who had countless appetizers, various dishes, bottles of wine, beer and digestifs over a couple of hours for the equivalent of $30 USD per person! Our local guide also told us that you can get a $10 hamman at Sifa Hamami. Now that's also a deal!
And where is dining at its cheapest?
Bubbly Tip: As we learned from a local on our walking tour, there are dining establishments in Istanbul on both sides that are government subsidized called "Beltur". Look for this word on the menu board and you'll get quality food at the lowest prices possible. See the photo below for "Beltur" in the bottom right hand corner. We got the double discount bonus of eating at a Beltur restaurant, Nevmekan Sahil, on the Asian side in Uskudar. This location served good food in a library with a stunning domed roof but no alcohol. There are only a couple of workers who speak english so ordering can be a challenge, but there is an english menu and we walked away with a light lunch and drinks for 2 for only $13 USD!
Best way to cross the Bosphorus
Cross by ferry. It's convenient, cheap and you'll get amazing views of the land and the strait around you. Access points are along the Eminonu Pier at the base of the Galata Pier in these small brown wooden buildings as seen in the photo below. Look for the number 4 to go to Kadikoy or 3 to go to Uskudar. You can also cross by metro under the water but not on foot. Many tourists think they can cross over into Asia or Europe on foot by taking the Galata Bridge to Karakoy (not Kadikoy), but it's still Europe on both sides. Bubbly Tip: There are plenty of hawkers or tours trying to sell you rides across the Bosphorus, but there's absolutely no need when you can purchase the ticket yourself. Simply tap your credit card or smart device on the turn stalls and walk right in. It's only a little over $1 USD each way.
Best Way to get from the Airport to your Hotel
You can take the train line from IST into Sultanahmet but it will require three changes and will still take you over an hour. Or, you can hire a private van service for $45 USD and get door to door service. It's comfortable and relaxing and offers Netflix for your 1 hour and 15 minute drive from the airport during most times of the day. After a long day of traveling, this cost is well worth it. Bubbly Tourist also hired them on our return trip to IST which only took 40 minutes at 5:30am. Note: you can also hire this service through SAW airport. We booked this service, Istanbul Shuttle Port, in advance via our phone and it's safe and highly rated by travelers and TrustPilot. We highly recommend. Directions: From the absolutely beautiful and stunning IST airport, exit outside using gate 14 and look for the Red 55 on the placard as shown in the photo below. The person standing there will take your name and will direct you to stand to the side for a few minutes until there are enough travelers to take you all downstairs together. It may seem a bit chaotic but it's very well organized and eventually they'll call your name and away you'll go. FYI, no tip required, but if you feel compelled you can arrange this as part of your upfront charge while booking. Bubbly Tip: Don't take a taxi. They're corrupt. If you want to use a local app service, use inDrive. It's like Uber.
What to Pack
To step inside a mosque, you'll need to remove your shoes as a sign of respect. Ladies will need to cover their hair and shoulders. So, pack a light scarf with you on your travels to Turkey, and carry it around with you as you'll undoubtedly need it when you least expect it. Also pack a European voltage adaptor (two single poles) and your credit card. Most everywhere takes credit cards, so you'll need very little if any cash.
Don't drink the tap water
We read that you shouldn't drink any tap water or let it run into your mouth while showering. So we took the proper precautions and even brushed our teeth with bottled water. Having said all this, our Bubbly Tourist friends didn't heed our advice and one was fine and the other got a stomach ache. We determined that at the nicer places you may be able to tolerate some tap water but not a lot. We didn't test it and were just fine. Better safe than sorry.
How to deal with Hawkers
The Hawkers are those guys that stand outside their restaurant or shop and ask every person that walks by to come step into their shop. If you care to say anything at all, just say a brisk "no thank you" and walk on. However, they prey upon the polite Westerner so we found the easiest thing to do was keep walking and ignore them like they're not even there. It may seem rude, but it truly is the best way to go.
Beware of Pickpockets
Yes, unfortunately, pickpockets are real. And we were warned by our local tour guide to beware in Istanbul, especially on the T1 tram. So, always keep valuables back in your hotel safe. Bring a zippered purse and travel with it and your packpack in front of you in crowded places. Place your hands over your zipper. Put cash in your front pockets. We have had multiple experiences (not in Turkey) of pickpockets, both successful and unsuccessful, so please take the necessary precautions.
A Call to Prayer
In case this is your first trip to a Muslim country, recognize that there is prayer five times a day: at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset and evening. The call to prayer summons participants to attend a group worship or to begin a required set of prayers and you'll hear it everywhere you go. The minarets (towers) of a mosque were designed so that the person singing the call, the muezzin, could have their voice amplified. Thus the towers with multiple minarets (the Blue Mosque has six) could project in multiple directions simultaneously with multiple muezzins. Today, of course, they use speakers. Listen to this beautiful call to prayer at the Shemsi Ahmet Pasha Mosque in the photo below.
Bubbly Tourist Bon Voyage!