Istanbul – A City Linking Two Continents
Located between Asia and Europe with 95% of its land mass located within the Asian continent, Istanbul has a rich history and holds cultural significance. Being occupied by the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires before becoming a part of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Istanbul offers a blend of various cultures.
The weather in Istanbul remains mild during the spring and fall seasons, with the city seeing heavy rainfalls all year round. Hot and humid summers and cold and icy winters are also characteristic of the city.
Sites to See
Built in the early 1600s, Sultanahmet Camii (as the mosque is called in Turkish) is famously known as Blue Mosque. The mosque gets its name from the blue tiles that were used to design its interior.
Entry Cost: Free*
Hours: 24 hours**
*Being a place of worship, visitors will be required to take off their shoes at the entrance. Women will need to cover their head. Plastic bags for shoes and head covering for female visitors is available at the entrance free of cost.
**Mosque is closed for prayers 5 times a day and non-worshippers should avoid visiting it then.
Hagia Sophia Museum
After being used as a church for more than 900 years and as a mosque for nearly 500 years, Aya Sofya Muzesi (Turkish) is now a museum that people from far and wide come to visit. This structure, in spite of being rebuilt and renovated over the years, retains its charm, showcasing a blend of Islam and Christianity within its walls.
Entry Cost: 40 Turkish Lira, child younger than 12 years free (March 2018)
Hours: 9am to 4pm (Winter) – 9am to 7pm (Summer). Closed on Mondays.
Topkapi Palace or Topkapi Sarayi (in Turkish) was built in the mid to late 1400s by Mehmet the Conqueror and served as the Royal Residence of the Ottoman Empire up till the 19th century. Aside from the Harem and the Treasury, the palace also holds many Islamic relics and belongings of the Prophet. Although photography is forbidden in certain areas, the architecture of the palace is a sight to behold. Entry to the Palace grounds is free, while separate tickets are available for the Place and the Harem.
Entry Cost: 40 Turkish Lira, child younger than 12 years free*. (March 2018)
Hours: 9am to 4:45pm (Winter) – 9am to 6:45pm (Summer)**. Closed on Tuesdays.
*Harem Tickets are an additional 25 TL, with child younger than 6 years free.
**Last Entry is 45 minutes before closing time.
Built during Byzantine rule, the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici in Turkish) is one of the most famous tourist attractions in the city. This underground attraction displays Roman style of architecture at its best. Two Medusa heads also form the base of two of its 336 columns.
Entry Cost: 20 Turkish Lira, child younger than 8 years free. (March 2018)
Hours: Everyday between 9am and 5:30pm.
Built in 528 and having undergone several renovations over the years, Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi) offers panoramic views of the Golden Horn and Bosphorus from its viewing deck on the 9th floor. It also offers a restaurant on the same floor. The elevator installed within the tower offers easy access to the upper floors.
Entry Cost: 25 Turkish Lira*. (March 2018)
Hours: Everyday between 9am and 8:30pm.
*Child younger than 12 years – 5 TL.
Local Foods to Try
Döner consists of meat that has been seasoned, skewered and roasted vertically. The meat is then cut in long thin strips from the skewer, and served with bread. One popular version of this is the Iskender Kebap; that is, lamb served with tomato sauce over slices of bread.
Are you a fan of Ravioli? Manti is a Turkish version of the dish, with small dumplings of grounded lamb or beef, served with a creamy sauce of yogurt and garlic.
Most Turkish restaurants serve Meze at the start of a meal. This is usually a small collection of dishes that are served with drinks as appetizers. It could include yoghurt with herbs, kofte or meatballs, warm bread, hummus and more.
Also known as Pottery Kebab, this dish is a stew of meat and vegetables that is slow cooked in an oven in a clay pot. Then the pot is brought to the table and served in style, with the host heating the pot in open flames and then chopping its top off in a single blow with a machete. The stew is either served in the pot or poured into a bowl for easy serving.
Missing pizza in Istanbul? Why not order a Pide? Select restaurants specialize in this meal, where a long boat shaped bread is topped with sauces, as well as a variety of meat and vegetable toppings.
Looking for a snack on the go? Simit is the alternative to a bagel in Istanbul and is available on roadside stalls everywhere. This bread can be eaten for breakfast on its own or with jams and spreads.
Another snack available across the city is of roasted chestnuts. Stalls at all the major tourist spots make it easy to fulfill your hunger cravings as you roam around.
While Turkish Delight is a dessert that has become famous worldwide, you’re missing out if you haven’t tried it in Turkey. A combination of various nuts, herbs and flavors is available for trial and purchase at shops around town.
Baklava has Middle Eastern origins, rooted within the Ottoman Empire. This flaky pastry is gooey, crunchy and delicious.
Want to beat the heat? Dondurma is the Turkish version of ice cream. Sellers around the city will ring bells to attract their customers and the ice cream, being resistant to melting, allows them to put on elaborate shows. They will use large paddles to spin the ice cream in the air and overturn cones without spilling the ice cream to create quite a spectacle.
Best Areas for Tourists to Book a Stay
People traveling to Istanbul can categorize their interests into 3 categories, which can also help them determine which part of the city is best suited for their stay.
For history buffs and those in love with the architectural masterpieces that Istanbul boasts about, the Old Sultanahmet district is the perfect fit.
Love shopping? Want to party all night long? The Galata district is home to Taksim Square where you will find a shopper’s galore. This part of the city is also perfect for those who want to roam around town at night.
Craving a few days of luxury? Most of the 5-star hotel chains have opened their doors in Istanbul in the Western Suburbs. While being at a distance from the major attractions of the city, Turkish taxis and even the city wide tram service are great means of exploring the town.
Local Modes of Transport
While traveling in a taxi over a long distance or with kids, might seems like a great idea, it generally isn’t. Taxis in Istanbul aren’t cheap and they come with their fair share of conmen. Luckily, tourists can easily walk to all of the attractions located in Sultanahmet district and the city wide tram offers a cheaper and safer mode of transport.
If you want a ride into town from the airport, book an airport transfer in advance and if you must use a taxi within the city, ask your hotel’s front desk to call one for you. The resulting ride will be more reliable and cost effective.
Heading back to your hotel? Get a cost estimate for the distance in advance and do not pay more than that, even if your taxi driver insists that they’ve taken the scenic route to bring you back.
Traveling in Istanbul via the public transit system is relatively cost effective and speedy. You might have to change a few modes of transport if you’re going long distances, but the transfer is smooth once you know where to go and how to get there.
If you’re traveling in a group of 5, a single IstanbulKart is all you need. It’s a rechargeable card that works on all modes of transport; the tram, metro, furniculars, ferries and buses. Simply top it up and tag it before each passenger goes through the barrier.
The card costs 10 Turkish Lira (nonrefundable), along with whatever amount you wish to top it up with. Machines marked as biletmatik are present on most stations and can be used for card purchase and top ups. Make sure you have change in hand as the machines only accept up to 20 TL bills.
Wondering how to get around the city? Istanbul Map 360° offers complete downloadable and printable maps of all the major attractions as well as the public transit routes.
Tips for Travelers
While the locals in Istanbul are friendly and eager to help, you might face a language barrier, especially in the less touristy streets near Galata Tower. Ideally, learn at least 2 words in Turkish that surely helped me out in getting directions. The first is “Marhaba” (meaning hello) and the second is “Tesekkurler” (meaning thank you).