Every city claims to be unique, but Istanbul is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no other city in the world that spans two continents, after all!
Ben and I really aren’t big city people most of the time, but there are exceptions. And Istanbul is one of them. One of our favorite US cities is San Francisco, and there are uncanny similarities between the home of the Golden Gate and Istanbul. Perhaps that’s why I was so enchanted by this metropolis.
The city sprawls over 7 hills and is split by the mighty Bosphorus: Europe on one side of the river and Asia on the other. Women wearing full Muslim head coverings walk beside tattooed and pierced hipsters. Sophisticated restaurants share the same zip code as traditional teashops and spice markets. Istanbul is home to fishermen and millionaires, age-old mosques and H&M.
Although nearly 20 million people call this city home, it doesn’t feel too compact, and green spaces frequently break up development. Modern construction backs up to ancient ruins in a tangible marriage of new and old.
Because Istanbul is the meeting place of Asia and Europe, traces of both continents are found here, along with a presence uniquely its own. Influences from Christianity and Islam merge with the grandeur of ancient Roman civilization, and are then mixed with a pinch of Middle Eastern flair.
If you find yourself in this wondrous metropolis, you’ll be at no shortage of things to do and the difficult part will be choosing how to spend your time. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite things we did in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour
Ever since our amazing walking tour in Medellin, one of the first things we do in a new city is take a free walking tour. Usually these excursions are led by young locals who can give you great insight to their city and the life its people lead. You learn about this city’s history, its progression and the important places (including some stellar places to eat and check out on your own)!. The free walking tour in Istanbul is a great introduction to this metropolis and its place in history.
Tip: Take the free walking tour on your first morning in Istanbul. That way, you’ll get a feel for how the city is set up and can decide who to best spend the rest of your time.
How to do it yourself: There’s no need to make reservations in advance. Just show up at the Sultan Ahmet Park (in between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia) at 10:30 a.m. Guides typically have a name tag and flag or umbrella. The tour usually takes 2.5 hours.
2. Visit a Turkish Bathhouse
There are plenty of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to choose from around Istanbul that range from basic to straight up luxurious. If you’re on a budget, look no further than Aga Hamami. This historic hammam is over 560 years old and the basic package costs just 70 Turkish Lyria (TL) ($24 USD) per person. A comparable experience at other, more luxurious bathhouses average around $85 USD. One of the things we enjoyed most about this hammam is that as a couple, we were able to experience it together. Many bathhouses are completely separated by gender, but this hammam features a central room that we could hang out in together.
We arrived around 11 a.m. and were welcomed by a friendly staff member. Our nerves (mores specifically, Ben’s nerves) were calmed as he explained exactly how to use the bath, and led us into our private dressing rooms where we stripped down and wrapped ourselves with Turkish towels.
We liked Aga Hamami hammam because the main area is for both genders, so we were able to enjoy the bathhouse experience together. We alternated splashing ourselves with water and lying on the warm marble slab in the center of the room.
Once my masseuse was ready, I was called into a private room only for women where I dropped the towel and had a nice scrub by a jolly Turkish grandmother wearing nothing but her skivvies. After all my dead skin was thoroughly sloughed away, she slathered me in a cloud of lavender scented bubbles and gave me a massage. In total, this little private session lasted about 20 minutes, and Ben had his right in the center of the mixed-gender area (with his towel in tact as not to give the other patrons a free show).
How to do it yourself: Just show up! Check the hours of the hammam you choose to be sure they are open. (The one we went to is open from everyday 10 a.m to 10 p.m.) The staff should be able to explain the procedure to you in English. Prices range from about $30 USD to $85 USD, and vary in luxury according to cost.
3. Step Back in Time in Istanbul
Being that the city of Istanbul spans two continents, it’s not surprising that it holds an incredible amount of historical significance. There are 3 buildings that should be on every history-lover’s Turkey Bucket List and each has its own allure. Take in the beautiful tile work of the Blue Mosque, see images of Christianity and Islam side by side in the unparalleled Hagia Sophia and walk underground in the eerily captivating Basilica Cistern. All three buildings are on the same block, so it’s possible to explore them all before lunchtime!
How to do it yourself: Located in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, visit these attractions in the same morning. The Blue Mosque is free to enter, but you must cover shoulders and legs and wear a head covering. (There are coverings available to borrow free of charge.) Tickets to the Basilica Cistern can be purchased at the entrance for 20 TL ($7 USD) each. Tickets to Hagia Sophia cost 40 TL ($14 USD) and can be purchased at the entrance.
4. Cruise the Bosphorus
Taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus was something we didn’t get to until our very last day in Turkey, but we’re sure glad we squeezed it in! Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents, it is pretty cool to cruise between the two, seeing Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
Tip: While there are several tour companies who operate boat trips along this river, we did this this little cruise the cheapest way possible by taking the government ferry on the short trip, which took 2 hours in total.
How to do it yourself: If you want to cruise on the government ferry, go to the office right next to the bridge (No need to buy a ticket online or at a tour agency. There are a bunch of scams out there so be careful). It leaves at 2:30 p.m. and costs 12 TL ($4 USD).
5. Take a Cooking Class
Taking cooking classes in new countries is one of our favorite things, and Turkey was no exception. If you are in Istanbul, there are a handful of cooking classes to choose from, but the team at Cookistan was exceptional. Learn about the Turkish cuisine and whip up a few of your own dishes that you’ll be able to recreate for friends and family back home.
How to do it yourself: Make a reservation through the contact form on Cookistan’s website.
6. Picnic in the Park
This one may not be in your guidebook, but our picnic at Gulhane Park was once of our favorite afternoons in Istanbul. Pick up some fruit, wine and cheese from a local mart, then buy a Turkish towel (great souvenir alert!) and head to park. The mix of people lazily milling about in green landscaping creates an idyllic backdrop to an afternoon picnic.
How to do it yourself: Wander through Gulhane Park, located next to Topkapi Palace Museum. Find a grassy spot, spread out your blanket and watch the world pass by.
7. Browse the Bazaars
Istanbul is known for its variety of Bazaars, and we’d recommend taking a gander. Breathe in the scents of the Spice Bazaar, but if you want to purchase anything, step outside, where prices are cheaper. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar, and wander through the Little Bazaar, both of which mainly sell souvenirs. We wanted to get a taste of where the locals shop, so we wandered through the farmer’s market in the Tarlabasi Pazari neighborhood. It felt far less touristy than the main bazaars and had unbeatable produce prices, which tempted us into buying more cherries than two people should be able to consume. Oops! But we aren’t most people.
How to do it yourself: Check out this website for a list of farmer’s markets happening each day!
8. Eat and Drink Everything!
After taking a cooking class (see #5), you'll understand why we were surprised by the cuisine! Try the street food, sit down at a local restaurant, and don't forget to try Turkish tea and coffee. Wander the bazaars, sampling local cheese and Turkish delights (yes, sampling is encouraged!). Snack on dried fruits and nuts, and save room for baklava. Be sure to have a few traditional Turkish breakfasts and try kaymak. Just do it and don't check the calories. It is something like clotted cream and is best with a drizzle of honey and fruit or served with a dollop of Nutella. If you're anything like us, you'll leave Turkey wowed by the food!
9. Explore the Neighborhoods
Istanbul is a sprawling city and it can seem overwhelming at times, but think of it as a compilation of many smaller cities. Each neighborhood in this metropolis has a distinctly different feel, and attracts people for different reasons. Spend an afternoon getting lost in narrow cobbled streets of Beyoglu, or window-shopping and people watching in Taksim.
Some central neighborhoods to check out are:
- Taksim: known as the “Time Square” of Istanbul, this shopping area is always crowded with people. This is where you’ll find the best shopping in the city, as well as several restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
- Beyoglu: This up-and-coming neighborhood has a bohemian feel and boasts many small shops and cute restaurants. Be sure to wander past the Galata Tower, and if you want views of the city, head to the top for 25 TL ($8.60 USD).
- Kadiköy: We stayed in this neighborhood for its proximity to both Sultanahment and Taksim. We were impressed by the amount of trendy restaurants and soon discovered why this is often referred to as the “hipster” neighborhood.
- Sultanahmet: This is where many of the main tourist attractions are, so as you may expect, it is very touristy. While it’s definitely a place to visit in Istanbul, we got tired of the restaurants’ inflated prices, the souvenir shops, carpet sellers and the lack of authenticity.
- Ortaköy: Popular with locals and visitors alike, this neighborhood features a picturesque mosque on the Bosphorus and boasts some pretty cute restaurants and bars.
Check out this website for more information on these neighborhoods as well as the rest of Istanbul.
How to do it yourself: The metro is very convenient and is the cheapest way to get around. The taxi drivers are known for ripping off tourists (as in many big cities), so this was our preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll need to purchase an Istanbulkart card. Buy this from one of the machines at the metro station for 10 TL and it will come preloaded with 4 TL on it. Even if you are traveling with multiple people, you only need one card. Simply pass it back once the first person has gone through the turnstile.
10. Have a Local Pint
We are big fans of beer. Craft beer, that is. After spending 7 months drinking the light stuff Asia has on tap, we were itching to have something a bit darker, stronger, better. And we found our fix at BBC in Istanbul. BBC, which stands for Bosphorus Brewing Company, serves up a plethora of their own brews as well as a wide selection of imports. The night we visited, Guinness was on tap for under $3 USD, which Ben just couldn’t resist! Sample a flight or have a pint of your favorite style brew in a cute garden setting outside the tourist zone.
Tip: Our favorite BBC beers were the chocolate stout and the IPA. We hadn't heard great things about the food, so we just stuck to one appetizer, but it was actually pretty good!
11. Eat a Fish Sandwich on the Bosphorus
Lining the Galata bridge are crowds of fishermen, and beneath the bridge are an assortment of restaurants that all have one thing in common on their menus: fish sandwiches. According to our Free Walking Tour guide (see #1), they no longer make the restaurants in the traditional way over coals, but instead focus on getting them out as quickly as possible. He said to expect soggy bread and wilted lettuce. No thanks. But we were still determined to eat a fish sandwich on the Bosphorus. And we finally found one that was worthy of our quest. Located right next to the Bosphorus in the Kadiköy neighborhood, on a street not frequented by travelers, there is a small stand where one man cooks up a mean fish sandwich over coals and tops it with roasted peppers and onion, fresh cucumbers and herbs, a squeeze of lemon and Turkey’s famous pomegranate molasses. Mmmmm….
How to do it yourself: Head east on the Galata bridge. Once you reach the end of the bridge, turn left 180 degrees and aim for the water. Walk north close to the water, dodging restaurant owners trying to lure you in, and you should find the man with the charcoal grill making the holy grail of fish sandwiches. Be sure to order one with all the fixings!
12. Catch the Sunset
Istanbul has some killer sunsets, so be sure to catch at least one. Whether you’re on a rooftop or near the water, you’ll be enchanted by the orange sky and flapping seagulls. Our favorite sunset-viewing spot was on the Galata bridge where we could watch the fishermen pack up for the day and see spectacular views of at least three mosques.
Look up the time of sunset, and make it to the Galata bridge (or whatever spot you wish to watch the sky fade to orange and purple) a bit ahead of time. Find a comfortable spot to relax and get ready to be wowed.
Where to Stay
Portus House: This charming guesthouse is located in the up-and-coming hip neighborhood of Karaköy, which is between the hotspots of Taksim and Sultanahmet, and is walking distance to each. Plus, there are numerous restaurants and local watering holes close by. Portus has clean rooms with the most friendly staff. Breakfast is simple and available from 8 a.m. until whenever, so you can always grab a snack. Book a room here.
Metropolis Hotel & Guesthouse: Located a 5-minute walk away from the Blue Mosque, this hotel is right in the action of the city, but off side street so it's quiet and peaceful. Metropolis has simple rooms and helpful staff, but what sold us is the buffet Turkish breakfast! Not only do you get to start your day off with full belly, but you get to have breakfast on their lovely rooftop over looking the bay. Book a room here.
One more thing before you go...
Many people are wondering if Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is safe right now. Here are our thoughts...
While we felt very safe in Istanbul overall, there was one little scam that we fell for. We’ve met a few other travelers who fell victim as well, so we’re sharing this common ploy so you know what to look out for.
Watch out for this scam:
A man carrying shoe shining equipment will walk in front of you and drop something (maybe a brush or some wax). When you pick it up and hand it to him, he will act very grateful and say how he wants to repay your kindness with a free shoeshine. Even if you refuse (like we did), he may just start scrubbing your shoes. Ben was wearing super crappy Vans made with canvas material, and the “shine” just got them wet. The man will then tell you a sad story about his sick child, etc. and will pretty much force you to give him a few lira. While it’s not the worst type of scam we’ve encountered, it is a bit annoying and it happened to us two times while we were in Istanbul (thankfully the second time we didn’t fall for it, and just kept walking). Now that you know what to look for, it might just be interesting to see if happens to you!