Top Activities and Sites in Istanbul, Turkey

After leaving Cappadocia, we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines to spend three full days and four nights in the former capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. Istanbul is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting and is also very easily navigable with both public transportation and Uber. It’s location on the Bosphorus makes it easy to take a ferry ride to different parts of the city. Istanbul is filled with tree-lined avenues and parks with flower gardens and fountains. Remnants of the various cultures that ruled the city throughout history are found around every corner.

Tree-lined streets in Istanbul
Tree-lined streets in Istanbul

As I mentioned in my post about Cappadocia, the Turkish people were very welcoming to us and seemed happy to have tourists visiting their country. And of course I can’t overlook the incredible cuisine. Between Greece and Turkey, I am thinking that I would be in heaven living in that region of the world, if only for the halloumi cheese, tzakiki and pita, and fresh pomegranate juice.

Where to stay

We stayed at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Pera which ended up being a fantastic decision. Although many people had advised us to stay in Sultanahmet because of its proximity to the important sites like the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, we found the area to be a little more touristy than we like and overflowing with carpet and lantern shops. The Pera neighborhood, on the other hand, had fashionable restaurants and young people and was more our style. While it did take us about 15-20 minutes to get to the Sultanahmet area on public transportation, Pera was also much closer to places like the Dolmabahce Palace since it was on the same side of the Bosphorus.

The Radisson Blu Pera had the most comfortable bed of the entire trip, which was a very nice perk for the last four nights of our trip. Our room overlooked the Bosphorus and we could see the sun setting in the distance in the evening. There is a beautiful terrace with a restaurant and bar on the top floor where we had tea one evening.

My favorite perk of staying in the Radisson Blu Pera were the spa and gym facilities. The basement of the hotel features a full gym, beautiful pool, jacuzzi, sauna, steam room, and private hamam. Alex and I were able to reserve the Turkish bath where there were metal bowls for pouring hot and cool water on yourself. On our last night before heading back to the United States, we gave ourselves one last peel and soap treatment for a relaxing evening.

Top Activities and Sights in Istanbul

Being the world’s 8th largest city and one that has a history dating back to the 600s BC, Istanbul has a lot to see. I highly recommend taking a walking tour to get a feel for the city with a local as your guide. We took the 2.5 hour free walking tour with Viaurbis (facebook page here) and had a fantastic guide who showed us the historical center of the city while providing us with information on the history, culture, and architecture.

Here we are on our tour (via Viarbus' facebook page)
Here we are on our tour (via Viarbus’ facebook page)

It happened to be National Sovereignty and Children’s Day in Turkey so many people were out and about on the public holiday, which was created by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk. On the holiday, children are able to participate in ceremonies and legislative meetings and replace all government officials for the day.

Legislative building in Istanbul
Legislative building in Istanbul

We started our walking tour at 10:30 am in Sultanahmet from the park between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, where we took a few moments to hear about the general Byzantine and Ottoman heritage of the region before beginning the tour.

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Egyptian Obelisk

The Hagia Sophia was built in 547 in only 5 years and was one of the 8 wonders of the ancient world. It was first used as a cathedral before being converted to a mosque and is now a museum.

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The Blue Mosque was built during the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century. It bears its name because of the large amount of blue tile inside.

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We took a short break for Turkish coffee and tea in an adorable garden. Interestingly, we learned that the Turkish people typically drink coffee in the evening after dinner to help them digest their food rather than in the morning like we do in the United States. They typically drink tea throughout the day, almost like water!

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After walking down a beautiful tree-lined cobblestone street, we arrived at the Topkapi Gardens of the Topkapi Palace, where sultans and the royal family once lived. From the gardens, you can see the Asian side of Istanbul, where many people live because it is much less expensive than the European part of the city. In Istanbul, 3.5 million people commute to different continents daily!

Asia behind us
Asia behind us
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Entrance to Topkapi Palace

In the rose garden, we saw thousands of tulips that had been planted for a two-day tulip festival that ended just a few days before we arrived. Fortunately, there were still tulips in the Topkapi Palace to admire.

Tulips in the Topkapi Palace
Tulips in the Topkapi Palace

From the palace, we walked past the Archaeological Museum to arrive at the former station of the Orient Express which previously connected Paris and Istanbul.

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Orient Express Station
Orient Express Station

The tour continued past the beautiful New Mosque and ended at the Spice Market near the busy Galata Bridge. The Spice Market features gift items, dried fruit, nuts, tea, Turkish delight, and obviously, spices.

New Mosque
New Mosque
Spice Market
Spice Market

At this point, we grabbed a quick lunch of doner kebap at a stand behind the Spice Market. I forgot to get the name, but it was very good and different from any doner I have previously had. The meat was served with jalapeno and coleslaw. My only recommendation would be to make sure you tell them how much meat you want. We didn’t see that on the menu and we were given (and charged for) a large amount of meat, making it one of our more expensive meals of the trip. Lesson learned! There is also a great shop near the Spice Market that sells fresh ground coffee. We picked up several bags to bring home to our friends and family.

For the afternoon, we decided to continue on with a different guide from Viaurbus on the Bosphorus. The tour began at 2:30 and was about $15. You can get on any ferry at the Bosphorus for very cheap, but you won’t have the narration (at least not in English), so we felt that it was $15 well-spent. We appreciated having royal palaces, mosques, universities, and other important buildings along the river pointed out by our guide. We learned that there are only 740 meters between the two continents of Europe and Asia at the part where they are closest together and were able to jump off of the ferry for about 30 seconds to say that we stood in Asia.

View from the Bosphorus Ferry
View from the Bosphorus Ferry
Tea being served on the ferry
Tea being served on the ferry
Asian side of Istanbul
Asian side of Istanbul
Jumping off in Asia for 30 seconds!
Jumping off in Asia for 30 seconds!

If you are more interested in a full day Bosphorus tour, where you will cruise for 90 minutes each way and a few hours in Anadolu Kavago (the last harbor before the Black Sea), you should take the full Bosphorus cruise with Sehir Hatlari from the Eminonu Halic Iskelesi dock. Arrive about an hour early to secure your choice of seat.

After about an hour and a half on the ferry, we departed and walked over the Galata Bridge to the Galata Tower. We had a drink at a restaurant called Anemon, which had a fantastic view, and talked about the current political situation. It was fascinating to get a local’s perspective on everything going on in the country.

Galata Tower
Galata Tower
View from Galata Tower
View from Galata Tower

The walking tour ended at Taksim Square, which has been the site of many protests in Istanbul and is home to the famous statue of the Turkish republic depicting the forefathers led by Mustafa Ataturk.

Taksim Square
Taksim Square

On our second full day in Istanbul, we decided to see some of the sites more in depth (actually entering them). We began with the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or as it is more commonly known, the Blue Mosque. When you arrive, if you don’t have the proper headwear and aren’t covered with long pants and long sleeves, you may borrow a skirt and headwear to use to enter the mosque. The mosque is closed during and half an hour before prayer times. Non-Muslims must use the south entrance, which is clearly marked.

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The Blue Mosque was built in the early 17th century in only 7.5 years. The mosque is enormous and creates an immediate impression both when viewing the outside and upon entering and seeing the more than 21,000 blue tiles. It has six minarets where originally, 16 people made the call to prayer simultaneously from all different directions. Now, only one person stands at the base and makes the call to prayer using voice projection. The main prayer hall can hold up to 10,000 worshipers at a time and the main dome is over 140 feet high.

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Next, we visited the Basilica Cistern, which you may remember from the book, The Inferno, if you’re a fan of Dan Brown. It is equally as creepy as it sounds in the book, but is a nice place to escape the heat for an hour. Entrance was only 10 tl (or $3) each which was well worth it to visit this unique site. Just southwest of the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern was built during the Byzantine Empire in 527 AD. It has 336 columns in differing styles including the Corinthian and Doric styles and features two Medusa heads used as bases for two columns. Don’t worry though, the heads are upside down and sideways, so you won’t turn into stone! The cistern has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water and did when it was used by the imperial palace and residents during the Byzantine Empire. Later, during the Ottoman Empire, it held water used to water the gardens of the Topkapi Palace. It was forgotten about for centuries until it was discovered by a researcher and opened in the 1980s for tourism.

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We walked again through the gardens to the Topkapi Palace, which we entered for 40 tl each (not including the harem which is an additional cost). The palace is open daily, except for Tuesday. It was used between the 15th and 19th centuries as the court of the Ottoman Empire.  The grounds and gardens of the palace are stunning. The treasury is filled with sparkling jewels including the spoonmaker’s diamond, an 86-carat teardrop diamond surrounded by dozens of smaller stones. Legend has it that a poor fisherman found the stone and not knowing what it was, traded it to a jeweler for three spoons, claiming that it was only a piece of glass. Later, it was purchased for the sultan.

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Some of my other favorite places in the palace were the tulip garden (self-explanatory!) and the circumcision room, which is filled with beautiful tiles.

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Next, we visited the Hagia Sofia. The museum is open daily from 9am to 7pm, though the last admission is at 6pm. Entrance is 40 tl each. Shortly after entry, there is a fantastic video that shows how the Hagia Sophia was built and shares much of the history of the structure. I was particularly fascinated by this site because it has been used as both a cathedral and mosque.

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Upstairs, you can see several Byzantine mosaics depicting Christ that were covered with plaster when it was used as a mosque. Now that the Hagia Sophia is a museum, efforts are being made to restore the mosaics and highlight the use by both religions.

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We ended our day with a walk through the Grand Bazaar, which is like no place I have ever been, except perhaps the markets in Hong Kong. The Grand Bazaar is open daily, except for Sunday, and includes anything you would ever want to buy (the crowds are free). There are streets just for luggage, streets just for pajamas, streets just for leather goods…you get the idea.

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You will definitely want to experience a Turkish bath while in Turkey and there are a few to choose from in Istanbul. The Cagaloglu Hamam was built in 1741 as a public city hamam and was the last hamam built during the Ottoman Empire. Men’s and  women’s sections are separate and you can choose any service you’d like. The Cagaloglu Hamam is on the “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” list and has been visited by celebrities like Kate Moss, Steve Irwin, and Cameron Diaz.

Another option for a Turkish bath is the Ayasofya Hamam near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque which was built in the mid-1500s where an ancient public bath from the Byzantine Empire previously stood. It was used actively until 1910 and was restored in 2008 to include a cold, warm, and hot room. Don’t forget to tip about 15% on your service.

On our final day in Istanbul, we walked to the Dolmabahçe Palace. The palace is open daily, except for Monday and Thursday. The total ticket price for both the official part of the palace and the harem was 40 tl; both can be visited only by guided tours, which are offered in Turkish and English. While you are waiting between tours, the snack shop has decent food, particularly the desserts.

View of the palace from the Bosphorus
View of the palace from the Bosphorus

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The Dolmabahçe Palace was commissioned by the Sultan Abdulmecid in the mid-1800s and was used through much of the 1900s as an office of the Presidency and temporary home of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey. It has been open as a museum since 1984. The Dolmabahçe Palace is nearly 500,000 square feet and has 285 rooms, 44 halls, and 6 hamams. The decor of the palace was modeled after European palaces and is ornate and over-the-top. My favorite features were the Crystal Staircase and the 4.5-ton, 750 bulb chandelier in the Muayede Hall.

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Other tips

Safety: As I mentioned in my Cappadocia post, we felt quite safe while in Turkey. There was security at every major site. At the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, you actually have to go through security immediately upon entering the airport and then go through security again later to get to your gate. There is a high police presence throughout the city, especially at major sites. We never felt unsafe or threatened, but I understand that recent events might dissuade you from traveling to the country. All I can say is that your safety and comfort are a personal decision, so travel wherever you feel safe. And of course, check the Department of State for travel warnings and information.

Uber v. taxi: A lot of people had warned us about Turkish taxi drivers ripping tourists off and taking them for rides around town before we got to Turkey so in full disclosure, we never actually got into a taxi. Istanbul has Uber which worked great for us and we never experienced any issues. It was always inexpensive, the drivers had nice cars, and we felt safe.

Public transportation: Public transportation in Istanbul is fantastic. It is easy to navigate and very economical. The only time we ever experienced any issues was when the Istanbul marathon and an international bike race were both occurring and several routes were affected. The Istanbulkart covers public transit on buses, metrobuses, subway trains, suburban trains, trams, funiculars, cablecars, ferries, fast ferries, seabuses, and seataxis.

Istanbul Marathon
Istanbul Marathon

The Istanbulkart is sold at ticket booths near major transportation hubs like Eminönü, Taksim, and Beşiktaş as well as at newspaper stands  near major transit stops. The card requires a refundable deposit of 10 tl and you’ll load as much credit as you want onto the card. Having the Istanbulkart gives you discounted fares.

For example, the cost of one jeton (or token) is 4 tl, but with the Istanbulkart, it is only 2.15 tl. So to travel from Ataturk Airport to Pera was 8 tl, or two jetons, while it was only 3.60 tl with the Istanbulkart. If you don’t want to deal with the Istanbulkart, jetons are available at the stations. Just look for a sign for the Jetonmatik.

I love this statue of men making Turkish bagels (which by the way are delicious!)
I love this statue of men making Turkish bagels (which by the way are delicious!)

Have you ever been to Istanbul? Did we miss any sites? I’ll be talking about the top restaurants in Istanbul in my next post along with what to eat while you are in Turkey. Thanks for reading!

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