I’ll admit, Istanbul was not really on our radar for places we wanted to visit, but this past spring after we decided to go to a wedding on the Greek island, Paros, we added the city to our itinerary. Let me tell you, Istanbul did not disappoint. In fact, it is now one of my favorite places to which I have traveled. It is a beautiful city with so much to see and do, an incredibly rich — and fascinating — history, delicious food, and friendly people. Plus, once you are there, it is very affordable.
Sam and I spent six days there from the end of August into early September. We had contemplated touring more of Turkey, but as we had heard there was so much to do in Istanbul, we decided to focus our time there so we could both take in everything and relax. This ended up being a fantastic time to go, as it was still hot (low 80s), but not humid. It also wasn’t the peak tourist season, so while there are a lot of people in Istanbul, it wasn’t especially crowded.
This post could end up being incredibly long with what we did with our time, so for now I’m going to just share some of my favorites and top suggestions for things you should definitely see and do when you are in Istanbul.
Go on a cruise along the Bosphorus Straight
The strip of water that separates the European side from the Asian side of Istanbul is a deep, vibrant blue. Along the water there are ferries that will cart you around the city in lieu of land-based modes of public transportation. (As a side note, the public transportation in Istanbul is fantastic! Clean, efficient, and affordable.) There are several small, low-cost “cruise” boats that will take you out along the water for a longer ride. They have food and beverages available for purchase on board so you can eat, drink and relax while you see the city from the water. You can buy tickets right from where they leave, and they come and go frequently.
Visit the Asian side of Istanbul
I had never been to Asia before, so I was quite excited when we took a ferry over there. There is a wonderful market right when you get off at Kadikoy where you can buy fresh fish, olives, and produce along narrow pathways. that leads into shops and stalls where locals buy their books for school. This is also a fantastic area to stop and enjoy something to eat and get a more local experience. While it doesn’t feel like you are on a different continent, it does have a slightly different vibe than the European side, and it is completely worth checking out and wandering around.
Wander down side streets
Speaking of wandering…There are several major roads where you will find pedestrians roaming, particularly Istiklal Street (a major shopping street and also where many of the consulates happen to be). While they are also worth seeing, I recommend getting off the beaten path a little bit and wander down some side streets. Here you will find more local and fewer touristy shops, cafes, and restaurants (and pretty much no large U.S. fast food chains, which are otherwise ubiquitous to the city). What may appear at first glance to be an alleyway may actually open up to be a cute little neighborhood alive with locals. This happened on several occasions, my favorite being while I stumbled upon my favorite shop in all of Istanbul, called Çiçekisleri Ideastore, selling a fantastic selection of products by local artisans. (Of course I went a little crazy here, because you know how much I love all things handmade!)
Take a tour with Circle Istanbul
There is so much to see and do in Istanbul — it is a huge, spread out city. Just going to the historical sites alone can easily make you feel overwhelemed. Sam and I ended up booking two tours with Circle Istanbul — a modern, cultural one that includes sampling a ton of food; and the historical one. We are so glad we did both. Our tour guide, Oz, who we happened to have for both tours, was super knowledgable, and by the end of our first day with him we felt like we were hanging out with an old friend. He made navigating the Old City and the historical sites manageable and interesting, and he knew when to take us to the famous Blue Mosque so that we weren’t waiting in an hour-long line.
Visit the Hagia Sophia
What the Vatican is to the Catholic Church, the Hagia Sophia once was to the Greek Orthodox Church (before the Ottoman Empire took over the city and turned it into a Mosque). Now it is a beautiful museum that pays homage to Istanbul’s rich history and its historical significance for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. It is stunning, both inside and out, and features a massive dome surrounded by four minarets. It is worth really looking around and examining the juxtaposition of two major religions. We went as part of our tour, and I think it’s one of those places that you should do as part of a tour so you get a better understanding of its history and architecture.
Visit the Basilica Cistern
Located under ground, near Hagia Sophia, lies this ancient cistern. When the city was under attack and its waterways were poisoned, the people could still access clean water from here, which the attackers did not know existed. It’s a very cool place to walk around and surprisingly spacious. Sam and I were joking that with the mood lighting down there they should have a restaurant, and of course as we were leaving we saw the little touristy cafe set up down there.
Experience a Turkish bath
Experiencing a Turkish bath may require a bit of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and letting go of control as a stranger washes you literally everywhere, but it is relaxing and transformative and feels like you are stepping back in time.
Eat baklava every day
You know how people joke about eating gelato every day in Italy? In Istanbul, you can easily (and should!) eat baklava every day. Some days I ate three pieces. Considering how much I walked around the city — as much as eight miles in one day! — I felt it was justified. Plus, there are several varieties, so of course you have to try them all. No matter where I got it, it was amazing, and well worth the calories.
Drink a Turkish coffee
I am a coffee drinker, but Turkish coffee is something else. It is strong and intense, and a bit sludgey at the end (you don’t drink the entire cup), but it is part of the experience. We found out, though, that unlike in the U.S., Turks drink tea in the morning (and all day) and coffee later in the day.
Stop to listen to the call to prayer
While Turkey is technically a secular country, it is predominantly Muslim. Every day at least several times of day, depending on where you are, you will hear the call to prayer being broadcasted from the Mosques. Many locals continue on with their day during this time, but as an outsider it was something new and beautiful. It also happened to have a somewhat familiar feel for me, as the chanting reminded me of the man who used to lead prayers at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at my parents’ synagogue. I also recommend going into at least mosque while you are there.
Sample the local food (even if you’re not entirely sure what you’re eating)
The cuisine in Istanbul is some of the best I have ever experienced. It is flavorful and full of delicious, fresh ingredients. We seriously did not have a bad meal. And it is so cheap! One of the best ways to experience the local flavors it is to go to one of the many cafeteria-style restaurants where you go up to the counter and order. You don’t need to worry about reading off a menu because you just point to what you want. Many people do speak English is you’re nervous about eating something that you cannot identify, but if you’re feeling adventurous, just take a little bit of everything.
Interested in reading even more? Sam shared a few posts on our travel blog. You can read about his first impressions of Istanbul, the (over)abundance of selfie sticks, what we did on one of our tours with Circle Istanbul, and his Turkish bath experience.
What is the your favorite place you have traveled?