I arrived in Istanbul this past Sunday and it has been quite the whirlwind of a trip. I’m just going to throw out tips left and right because I definitely learned a lot from my two days here and had I stayed longer I would have put these tips to use. BUT- If you’re travelling to Istanbul any time soon, you can learn from my mistakes!
First things first, Istanbul is HUGE. Turkey as a country is also huge. But just to give you an idea, Istanbul is so large that the city itself technically exists on both the European continent and the Asian continent. It is separated by the Bosphorous Sea, while the main area of Istanbul (and most of the tourist attractions) are separated by the Golden Horn.
Airports: Most budget airlines will fly into Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. Yeah, yeah. It’s Istanbul. But it’s about an hour’s drive to the true center of Istanbul (whether it be Sultanahment Square or Taksim Square). So just be aware and be prepared to pay the equivalent of 15 euros (or 45 Turkish Lira) for a shuttle. The great thing about the shuttle I got is that it dropped me directly in front of the door to my hostel and I arrived at night travelling alone, so that was much appreciated! Definitely take in the views, whether you arrive at night or in the morning. The Bosphorous Bridge is incredible at night and is lit up with blue lights! I’d say it gives a similar impression to the Golden Gate Bridge (but lit up in blue!) at night!
As for hostels, I stayed at the Istanbul Hostel near Sultanahmet Square. You would not believe the proximity of this hostel to the main tourist attractions. It took me less than 5 minutes to walk to the main plaza that separates the Blue Mosque and the Haiga Sophia. Of course Topkapi Palace is just another 5 minutes walk from Haiga Sophia (as well as the Archaeology Museum and the Mosaics Museum). The hostel is clean, and that’s what counts for me. In my past travels, I’ve stayed in many Generator hostels (merely out of convenience and because I know they have a reputation for being clean), but I definitely prefer these smaller, family-owned hostels to the large chains. Definitely more personal and helpful! But of course, at 11 euros a night don’t forget to bring your flip flops for the shower and a lock for your room just in case!
Day 1: Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar
Topkapi Palace was absolutely incredible. It is huge and only one of the palaces in Istanbul. It looks straight out over the Golden Horn and the views of the Galata district are wonderful (when it’s not rainy and overcast as it was for me!). I was able to squeeze past with a student ticket price (always remember your student ID! You never know…) and splurged on a ticket to the Harem area as well (which I believe is an additional 15 TL but these living quarters are so worth the extra money!). As usual, me being my normal nerdy self, I also purchased an audio guide. It was so useful for explaining various parts of the palace. You’ll learn an incredible about of information and so much about the sultans (and their many wives and concubines) that inhabited this grand palace. In total, I spent about 3.5 hours there. But I’m Nina, and I’m a nerd and I live for this stuff.
Blue Mosque: Tips for everyone- men AND women, dress conservatively. That means legs completely covered, long sleeves are best but not necessarily required. Women, be sure to bring along a scarf to cover your head. They are more than obliging to hand you swaths of fabrique to cover your head and legs (especially if you’re wearing tight skinny jeans, ladies), but it’s easier to just avoid that all! When you enter, make sure you enter through the “Visitor” entrance. There is an entrance for visitors and an entrance for Turks (but really people that are there to pray). Also, don’t forget that it’s a working mosque so it is in fact closed to the general public 5 times a day for prayer. When you go in, just be sure to look up at the ceiling. I sat there staring at the ceiling for a good 30 minutes *pictures to follow*. I have to say, that just staring at this ceiling really made me believe in the beauty of religion, the beauty of Allah, of Islam. I’m not a religious person, but I can completely see why someone would be interested in converting just after spending some time in this awe-inspiring building. Be respectful, and be quiet. Remember that there are people in the mosque at all hours of the day praying. It is a place of prayer, of tranquilty and worship so be mindful.
Grand Bazaar: The Grand Bazaar is well, grand. It’s huge and supposedly the largest in-door market in the world. It is entirely possible that you will get lost. In fact, be prepared to get lost. Don’t expect to leave from the same entrance from which you entered because in all likelihood, that will not happen. I have to say that I was personally a bit disappointed with the Grand Bazaar. It seemed like a lot of mass-produced items being hawked for the largest amount possible. Be prepared for vendors to exclaim things to you such as: “Excuse me, sorry! Where are you from?”, “Honey, let me help you spend your money!”, “You’re so beautiful, but you’d be more beautiful in this pashmina!” Also, try not to be alarmed if they actually reach out and physically grab your arm. They’re just trying to get your attention. It is a world of competition after all, and in the Grand Bazaar it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Try to have fun with it, after all it is a game for the vendors. When you’re a girl, they particularly enjoy flirting and flattering. Laugh it off and walk away if you’re uncomfortable, but a little flirting never hurt to bring down the price of a pashmina ;)! If it’s just too much, keep you eyes averted, a simple and polite “No, thank you.” will you suffice. A tip: these vendors pay a steep price to have their stalls in the Grand Bazaar, so prices can be quite marked up. You can always try to haggle, but to be quite frank- the best places to find the best prices on clothes, pashminas, etc are either at the Spice Market (I know, the irony!) or on the many streets that shoot off the main bazaar.
Spice Bazaar: The Spice Bazaar, located just next to the New Mosque and facing the Galata Bridge, is beautiful. The colours of the spices are enticing and the samples of dried fruits and Turkish Delight are to die for. But just as before, these vendors spend quite a bit on location , so their prices are also quite marked up. My suggestion: exit the actual roofed market and proceed to the side streets. It can make the difference between 78 TL for a kilo of Turkish Delight and 30 TL for the same thing. If you have never had Turkish Delight, I highly recommend it. My personal favourite flavours are rose and extra honey with pistachio! Have fun and take in all the scents and colours! And as I said previously, you can get some great pashminas for half (if not a third) of the price of those at the Grand Bazaar.
Day 2: Istanbul Modern Art Musuem, Rainbow Steps, Haiga Sophia
Istanbul Modern Art Musuem: I am personally a huge lover of museums and art. I know, I know- I’m so worldly. But, even if you don’t enjoy art, I would totally check out this museum. I spent closer to 4 hours at this museum, once again with a student discount (BRING YOUR ID!) and with an audio guide. I swear if I had stopped to read every caption and listen to every audio clip, I would have been there all day. Have a quick look at each room and then really spend time on the ones that catch your eye. The stories that these pieces try to convey are quite powerful and often extremely well-executed. The view of the Golden Horn and Bosphorous Sea are also really magnificent and worth a peek! I have always been a huge fan of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and can say that only the Guggenheim, the British Tate Modern, and this museum truly begin to give the SFMOMA a run for its money!
Rainbow Steps: These steps are not really such a tourist attraction, but they’re definitely worth a visit. They’re in between the tram stations of Tophane and Findliki (on the left side of the street if you’re approaching from the Tophane station). Rumour has it, that a local man painted the steps one day just to put a smile on peoples’ faces. However, other accounts claim that these rainbow steps (and many others like it around Istanbul and other parts of Turkey) were painted as a symbol of rebellion and revolution— essentially, a political art statement. Take a picture, crack a smile, and be on your way 🙂
Haiga Sophia: Disclaimer- I have wanted to visit the Haiga Sophia since I was 12 years old. All I can say is that Byzantine and Ottoman Empire history really stuck with me. I do have to admit that I found it a bit ridiculous that the entrance fee is 25 TL especially since it was a place of worship for centuries, but I guess it’s a museum now so… whatever. Once again, went for the audio guide. A quick tip for everyone. The last entrance into the museum is at 4:00pm and the museum closes at 5:00pm. That being said, PLEASE note that the last entrance to the Gallery is at 4:15pm and the Gallery closes at 4:45pm. This is especially important because they don’t really display this on signs (quite as I would have liked). They do have signs, but they’re quite small, on a standard printed sheet and don’t exactly inform you of much. So be aware, because I was gipped of seeing The Gallery and the early Christian relics that are up there. Suffice to say, I was bummed. However, I will say that the place is just… incredible. I’m honestly running out of descriptive words to describe Istanbul! To put everything in context, Haiga Sophia, meaning Holy Wisdom, was once the largest Roman Catholic Church in theworld. Do we understand that? Just, like, let that seep in. Let that be a testament to the immense grandeur and power of the Holy Roman Empire. Now just think about the fact that during the times of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, this building was a mosque. This one building has seen worshippers over all the years it has stood of two major religions. Of course, because it was more presently a mosque, you can see more of an Islamic influence including the six great pendants which spell out the names of Allah, Muhammed, and the four Caliphs. The mosaic of Jesus sitting on Mary’s lap is definitely worth a good look as well as well as the mosaic of Jesus of Nazareth as you exit the building. All in all, a wonderful experience even though I was quite upset to have missed the early Christian relics upstairs in the Gallery. But I guess it’s a trade off because I did get to see a lot of relics regarding Muhammed the Prophet (at Topkapi Palace). Also, enjoy the stray cats that are at their leisure to stroll about the building. They’re so great and quite sassy!
Last thoughts? Well, I totally freaking understand why they call Istanbul the “Cradle of Civilizations.” This city has seen so much, historically, socially, and politically. If I had had the chance and the weather had been better, I would have also visited The Galata Tower (no use when all you can see is fog) as well as the Mosaics Museum, the Archaeology Museum, and the Cistern Basilica (beneath Haiga Sophia). Of course, I only had two full days so I have to say I’m quite happy with the trip that I had but just keep in mind that my advice would be 4 days to really see it all and truly appreciate it. Istanbul has been so good to me, but I’m looking forward to hitting Athens in the morning!
Size Istanbul’u tesekkur ve iyi geceler!
[Originally published February 25, 2014]
Photos posted are my own: @finding_nimo Instagram