Introduction

The iconic Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is one of my favorite places to visit because of the melding of the Roman, Byzantine/Christian, and Ottomon/Turkish/Islamic cultures, and seeing the sites still standing after all this time is breathtaking. Situated in both Asia and Europe, the city is split into two halves by the Bosphorus River.

The first time I visited Istanbul, I spent 4 days, instead of the 5 that I had planned due to losing a day from the airline (UA) having mechanical failure. This time, I planned for 3 days, but finished in a little less than 2 days because I only went to the main sites and spent the rest of the time trying to recover from being ill. Regardless of the circumstances, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

However, no matter how much time you spend – whether a a few hours or a few days – Istanbul doesn’t disappoint.

General Tips

The best place to stay in Istanbul is in the Sultanahmet section. This is where most of the sites are – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, the Cisterns, and the Grand Bazaar. These sites are within walking distance, and the metro is nearby to go to a few other sites outside of the Sultanahmet area.

My personal recommendation is to stay at the Best Western GLK Premier Regency Suites & Spa not only because of the location (it’s next to the Hagia Sophia) but also because the service was exceptional.
There are several ways of arriving into Istanbul. Visitors enter either via cruise or flying into Attaturk International Airport (IST) if flying in from a non-regional international location, while flights within the region use Sabiha Gokcen International Airport (SAW).
Istanbul has a pretty extensive tram network, which goes to nearly all the points of interest within the city. Cost of using the tram is 3.95 TLY per way for short fares (like around the city). You can purchase the metro card, called IstanbulKart, for 6 TLY to conveniently travel throughout the city. Each trip deducts the cost of the fare from the card, and can be used on other modes of transportation, like the bus and funicular.
There’s a number of restaurants in Istanbul. It’s rather hard to not be able to find a restaurant in most streets in Old Town. There’s so much competition that you’ll find a person from each restaurant waiting outside trying to persuade any and all to come in. And the persistence is impressive. Many of these people know nearly all (if not all) of the languages of the biggest groups of tourists, which is currently English, Spanish, French, German, Chinese, and Hindi. They use their language skills to try to build a rapport and get you to go inside.

It’s easy to deal with it once, but it can get uncomfortable when you see these people every day because you’re walking around the area or you’re staying close by. Don’t worry, they’re harmless. Politely decline, and walk away.

Food can be as inexpensive as USD 6 at local fast food cafes for gigantic wraps or weighed food, like Baran Ottomon Kitchen Restaurant, to USD 12 at sit down restaurants. I would personally recommend Magnaura Cafe and Restaurant for tasty food and for going above and beyond when I was sick.

Lastly, as a final note, since Turkey is an Islamic country, the foods will be halal. This means, no pork-based foods.
Credit card acceptance is moderate, but expect to mostly pay in cash.

The official currency of Turkey is the Turkish Lira (TLY). All of the museums and public transportation require payment in TLY. Shops and private transport, on the other hand, prefer Euros and US Dollars.
Although Istanbul is near the Mediterranean and has mostly temperate weather, it does get cold enough to snow lightly. The best times to go are between April to November. April and November can be a little too cool at times, but I didn’t think it was that bad in mid-November. The temperatures then were around 14C-16C (roughly 57-61F).

I had also gone at the end of May, and found it very hot at 21-24C (roughly 70-75F).
The streets in many historical parts of Istanbul still have cobbled stones, which make for an uneven walking surface. To add to this, the streets are on hills and inclines, which can make it tougher to walk on. I would advise to wear shoes that you can walk in for a long time and on the uneven, inclined surfaces.

If you’re planning on taking a cruise on the Bosphorus, you will likely need a sweater. I don’t think you’ll need one for a day cruise in the summer, but evening cruises even in the middle of the summer can feel chilly if you go out on the deck.

Hookah: Many restaurants and cafes allow customers to order and smoke hookah. Usually, the hookah is smoked outdoors, but I have seen the smoking inside. Be aware of inside smoking if you’re bothered by smoke and/or are concerned about the second-hand effects of hookah smoke.

One other item that I’d like to cover is about walking around the city like a local or going “off the beaten path”. Obviously, this requires common sense and judgment, but I say this due to recent issues in the city. Don’t meander around strange parts of the city at night and also take caution wherever there are large crowds of people such as for a public performance or sports event whether night or day. These places have recently been targets for ill-intentioned people, to put it mildly.

Protests: It is not uncommon for there to be protests in Istanbul. Although the protests occur in various parts of Istanbul and tend to occur around the City Center (around the Sisli area), I have seen protests congregate around Old Town. If there is a protest, DO NOT walk towards it and do NOT participate in these protests. These protests may be peaceful, but they can take a turn for the worse and active police involvement may ensue. This is not a place where misunderstandings are taken lightly.
Carpet shopping: One of the things that Istanbul is known for is carpets. There are several carpet shops around the city, and they aggressively seek out customers. It's quite an experience, and can become intense. Feel free to politely decline (by walking away).

If you do want to see the carpets, you will be pampered at first, with coffee, tea, or water, and perhaps snacks like Turkish Delights. Then, you'll be shown a bunch of carpets. Some of the carpets will be cotton or silk, but you'll likely be vaguely told that they are showing you silk carpets (even though they'll show you both). You'll have to confirm the carpet material, which I've been told one can do by asking the merchant point-blank if the carpet is 100% silk, and sticking to asking this until you get a straight-forward answer.

If you decide to buy the carpet, begin negotiations. You can further bring down the price by letting the merchant know what you're willing to pay in cash, in either Euros or US Dollars.

Places to Visit

Cost: Free.

Hours: It’s open 24 hours to visitors and prayers, though visitors aren’t allowed during scheduled prayers. The prayer times are listed out front.

Time to spend: 20+ min

Description:

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, is one of the most iconic buildings in Istanbul. It’s called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles in the mosque.

There’s a separate entrance for tourists and for the visitors who come for prayer. The tourist entrance has scarves for women to borrow and drop off after the visit.

Photography Tips: It took me about 20 minutes to see the interior. I was lucky though – it wasn’t that crowded in November, even somewhat later in the day (I took my pictures around 10AM). When I had gone in May about 5 years ago, the inside of the mosque was packed, and it was difficult for me to get pictures.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: 40 TLY. Must be purchased in cash and in Turkish Lira.

There is a museum pass called the Museum Pass Istanbul that covers a few museums for 85 TLY. The museum pass covers mostly museums and sites that I personally don’t have any interest in seeing (like the carpet museum). However, it does cover Hagia Sophia and Topkapi though. The cost of the two museums individually is more than the pass. The pass can be purchased at the ticket window of the Hagia Sophia (and the Topkapi) or at ticket machines. Some of the ticket machines take credit cards, but be prepared with cash in case the ticket machines don’t work.

Hours: Closed on Mondays.

Summer hours: 9AM – 7PM, with last admission allowed at 6PM. Winter hours: 9AM – 5PM, with last admission allowed at 4PM.

Time to spend: 1-2 hours.

The museum took me about 2 hours, though much of it was me taking pictures. To be fair though, about half of the interior was under construction, so it may have taken me two hours without the photography (I think that’s how long it took me last time I went, and I wasn’t a serious photographer then). I think “blitzers” – those who blitz through – it might take 30 minutes to 1 hour, while those who take the time to see the parts of the site or those who use an audio guide, it may take 2 to 3 hours.

Description:

Hagia Sophia, which is across the street from the Blue Mosque, is just as iconic as its neighbor. It was first built as an Orthodox church in 537 AD, but was later converted to a mosque in 1453 until 1935, when it was secularized and became a museum. Although it was primarily Orthodox church before 1453, it was a briefly a Catholic church in the 1200s.

Amazingly enough, there’s evidence of all the cultures in the museum. There are a number of paintings, painted directly on the wall, and also tile mosaics, some of which you may recognize.

There’s also a hole on a column towards the side that’s said to grant a person luck if s/he sticks his or her right thumb in and twists it around. I had done it the first time, but there were too many sick people (myself included) for me to want to stick my thumb in.

Other Information:

Please note that tripods are not allowed, and security will hold onto them until the end of your visit, so don’t forget to collect your tripod.

For more information, visit the Hagia Sophia site.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost:

The cost for the museum is 40 TLY. The museum tickets must be purchased in cash and in Turkish Lira. Their site says that the admissions booth accepts credit card, but the credit card machine is usually down.

There is a museum pass called the Museum Pass Istanbul that covers a few museums for 85 TLY. The museum pass covers mostly museums and sites that I personally don’t have any interest in seeing (like the carpet museum). However, it does cover Hagia Sophia and Topkapi though. The cost of the two museums individually is more than the pass. The pass can be purchased at the ticket window of the Hagia Sophia (and the Topkapi) or at ticket machines. Some of the ticket machines take credit cards, but be prepared with cash in case the ticket machines don’t work.

Hours: Closed on Tuesdays.

Summer hours: 9AM – 6:45PM, with last admission allowed at 6PM. Winter hours: 9AM – 4:45PM, with last admission allowed at 4PM.

Time to spend: It depends on which exhibits are open, but it typically takes 1.5 – 2 hours. If you go to every exhibit and take breaks, it will take about 3 hours.

Description:

This is the palace that the Ottoman Turks used until they moved to the Dolmabahçe Palace. It’s a rather large estate, so much so that it was basically a city within a city, and the royal family seldom left the grounds.

The Palace has different exhibits with royal relics, including but not limited to weapons, clothes, cookware and china, clocks. They also have religious relics, both Islamic and Christian. For example, they have Mohammed’s sword, cloak, and I believe his Quran. They also have many of Jesus’s apostle’s belongings too.

Other Information:

Please note that tripods are not allowed, and security will hold onto them until the end of your visit, so don’t forget to collect your tripod.

For more information, visit the Topkapi site.

Photography in the exhibits is prohibited.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: There are 2 sections that visitors can buy tickets for – the main section 40 TLY and the main + harem section 65 TLY.

Hours: Closed on Mondays.

Summer hours: 9AM – 7PM, with last admission allowed at 6PM. Winter hours: 9AM – 5PM, with last admission allowed at 4PM.

Time to spend: Depends on how many tours you take, but the main tour is [###]

Description:

This is a more European style palace on the Bosphorus that the Ottoman Turk Royal family moved into in the early 20th century. It’s not as big as Topkapi but what it lacks in size, it makes up in opulence. Nearly every room in the palace has an elaborate crystal chandelier and detailed ornamental ceilings with actual gold, and all of the floors are original wood or marble.

There’s a guided English tour that starts in regular intervals, and pictures are not allowed, not that it stopped most people from snapping away selfies and other pictures with their cell phones. Warnings were still ample and you can get kicked out for violating the “no photography” rule, but they’re not as hard-nosed as some places that I’ve visited.

Other Information:

Like Hagia Sophia and Topkapi, you’re not allowed to take in your tripod, and it will remain with security until the end of your visit. You have to go back to security to collect your tripod.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: The cost of the cistern is 20 TLY. They charge extra for pictures – 10 TLY, and an outrageously higher amount for using a tripod (I think it was like 500 TLY).

Hours: Open everyday.

Summer hours: 9AM – 6:30PM Winter hours: 9AM – 5:30PM

Time to spend: 30 min

Description:

The Cisterns is an underwater aqueduct that the Romans built. It features a hen’s column and two Medusa heads. If you’ve seen the James Bond movie From Russia with Love, this cistern might look familiar.

Other Information: It’s very dark, so a tripod might have been useful, but a flash would have been good too, if I had had one with me.

Verdict: Overprice; skip it.
Cost: N/A

Hours: N/A

Time to spend: 15+ min

Description:

There are two obelisks in Sultanahmet Square – the Obelisk of Theodosius and the Walled Obelisk. The Obelisk of Theodosius was built in the 4th AD by the Roman emperor, Theodosius and have Egyptian hieroglyphics and Roman inscription.

The Serpent Column was moved from Delphi to Istanbul in 324 AD, when the city was known as Constantinople.

The Walled Obelisk was built in the 10th century by Constantine VII.

Verdict: Worth it, if you have time.
Cost: N/A

Hours: Closed on Sundays. Hours: 8:30 – 7PM, summer and winter.

Time to spend: 20+ min

Description:

The Grand Bazaar is the world’s oldest and largest covered market. It has several different types of shops that sell everything: trinkets and souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, teas, lanterns, hookahs, etc.

Verdict: Worth it to look around.
Cost: N/A

Hours: Open every day.

Summer hours: 8AM – 7:30PM Winter Hours: 8AM – 7PM

Time to spend: 20+ min

Description:

Separate from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Market. The spice market only sells a variety of spices, though I’ve been told by locals that the spices there are massively overpriced.

Verdict: Nice to visit, but skippable.
Most of this list will be stuff I did the first time I went to Istanbul in 2012, but I will start the list with the places I haven't been first.

  • Chora Church
  • Maiden's Tower
  • Bosphorus Day Cruise (2012)
  • Bosphorus Night Cruise with Dinner and Belly Dancing (2012)
  • Turkish Bath (2012)
  • Carpet Buying (2012)

Gallery

(Trip made in May 2012 and November 2016)

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