Istanbul, Turkey – there are few places in the world which boast this type of life and movement – mad swarms of people swirling about one of the oldest centers of civilization. Throughout history, Istanbul has been an immensely important and transcontinental city – linking the East and West as it sits perched between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. During the Roman’s reign, Istanbul was known as Constantinople and served as the headquarters for the Eastern Roman Empire. What this means for a visitor is that you will be offered a glimpse into the past, with eye-catching architecture, museums, and mosques, while all of your senses are continually stunned with a relentless wave of colors, spices and smells, and of course, the intoxicating essence of all things truly foreign.
Put simply, if this destination isn’t on your bucket-list-trip-list, you’re, “oh if I could, I would so go there”…list, well then you must have forgotten to add it.
I’m sure when you imagine Istanbul your head begins to fill with all kinds of crazy ideas: crumbly, burnt-orange colored roads and sidewalks lined with Turbans? Maybe even ideas of the Middle…gulp…East come to mind? That’s not it either and actually, you couldn’t be more wrong. You can’t really get a sense of Istanbul until you step off the tramway and you’re standing smack-dab-in-the-middle and take a look around with the glistening Bosphorus river to one side and the strangely unsettling, yet beautiful mosque towers which pierce the skyline from all directions.
After the immediate shock at seeing Istanbul, trying to take in as much of it as you can, you now must set off to see the sights and experience this city. Keep in mind, you could easily spend four days bumbling about Istanbul – snapping photos and flipping through a hefty guidebook, but you’d probably miss something important or incredibly famous. Instead if you understand the map and layout of Istanbul first, you can break your visit into smaller day trips and set out to see one specific area at a time.
Understanding the Map:
Ok, let’s be honest. These maps are confusing and all the names of places are long, and truly impossible to pronounce. But don’t worry, it all makes sense when you brake it down…
First, Istanbul sits on the dividing line between Europe (to the West) and Asia (to the East) and the Bosphorus River is where you’ll constantly be crossing back and forth, from the European side to the Asian side. Each name on the map serves as a marker for the specific district or segment of the city – so heading from Taksim Square to Karakoy, is like going from the Upper West Side to the Upper East Side in NYC or from the Mission to the Marina in San Francisco. You should try and find a hotel near Taksim Square, which will make the walk South, towards Karakoy, then across the expansive Galata Bridge to Eminonu, rather straightforward.
So then, where do you head first and where should you stay?
On your first full day in Istanbul, wake up and head to Sultanahmet (the area directly above the Sea of Marmara on the map below). This is the most famous “old town” – the part of Istanbul where you will be seeing the famous Mosques and Markets. Depending on time, you can try and see both of the Markets before lunch, then see one or two of the Mosques or Palaces (leaving one or two sites for the next day is not a bad idea, as you’ll probably want to return to this bustling area again for shopping or dining).
From your hotel or hostel, walk across the Galata Bridge and make your way up the hill (just bring your map from the hotel). In this historic and old city-center, you will want to make sure to see the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed), and the Hagia Sophia.
Grand Bazaar – a world-famous indoor market selling almost everything. As you approach the bazaar you’ll begin to see sidewalks lined with shops selling suits, dresses, cologne, and footwear (and you’ll be continually begged to enter and have a look). Whether inside or outside, bartering or haggling is strongly encouraged. Look up the basic Turkish phrases and put them to good use as you try and strike a deal. For example the phrase “ne kadar” means “how much?” and is a good one to start with.
Spice Market – this is an instant hit with any chefs or food-lovers as you can admire, sample, and take home little baggies of almost every spice and type of seasoning. Note: Saffron is one of the obvious favorites and the price is often much lower than what you’ll find back home, just be careful and remember a deal that’s way too good to be true, often is.
Another one to visit is the Topkapi Palace (Enjoy the website with music, courtesy of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture!) Topkapi is a sprawling fort and palace which lays along the water’s edge and presents a lot of great photos and will take at least two hours to see properly.
(2) Galata Bridge and Waterfront
This bridge connects the old town of Sultanahmet and the new, more modern side of Beyoglu and Taksim Square. The bridge offers sweeping views of the Bosphorous and all of the historic mosques and has two levels: the top level is great for watching the locals fishing and chatting while below (stairs are located on both ends and both sides) you can find great bars and restaurants. Be sure to check out the bottom level – which serve up the famous fish sandwiches called “Balik Ekmek” with a cold Efes beer. Best time to visit these restaurants is in the afternoon between 3 and 7pm on the weekends.
(3) Taksim Square
The bustling area known as Taksim Square is located up the hill from Beyoglu, about a 15 minute walk up winding stairs and main streets.
The area in general forms the modern part of the city and gives off the vibrant feel of any major city – fancy shops, Starbucks coffee, and lots of bars, restaurants, and hotels. For the cities best nightlife, head up the hill towards Taksim and turn down side streets jutting to the left or right…there’s just about every type of bar or club available. For a fancy first drink check out Bar 360 which offers a stunning view. Keep in mind the weekdays are pretty tame but Friday or Saturday will be a great time – with the party overflowing into the streets and alleyways.
(4) Street Food
One thing you must be sure to do is sample the local food available throughout Istanbul – it’s one of the most impressive parts of the city and something you’ll be talking about (and craving) soon after you return home. Vendors will undoubtedly be hawking fish sandwiches, kebabs and grilled meats, savory yogurt, nuts, candies, cheese, salty pretzels, doughnuts, and almond cookies. Items to sample: Balik Ekmek (a fish filet sandwich with lime), Tavuk Doner (sliced chicken strips inside a warm pita), and Kefta (char-grilled meatballs).
Where to Stay:
Picking a hotel or hostel in Istanbul is important as ending up on the wrong side of town can mean you’re trapped eating at touristy joints and you’re far far away from the happening nightlife. You don’t want that…so be sure to get a place across the Galata Bridge near Beyoglu or Taksim Square.
For budget travelers there’s really only one spot to stay and it’s the Bada Bing Hostel, run by some of the nicest hostel owners you’ll ever meet. Volcan, the owner is a native of Istanbul and he will point out all of the best places in town and make sure you walk away seriously in love with Istanbul. The hostel is located right next to the tramway line and is a 10 minute walk to the Galata Bridge and a 10 minute walk to the Taksim area (with all the bars and restaurants). Check their website for rates and more info: www.badabinghostel.com
IF YOU GO:
Istanbul in Photos
Comment: If you’ve been to Istanbul or have any other must see items, let’s hear it! Post below as a comment.