I’d heard a lot of good things about Istanbul, it seems to be a popular city with everyone. After spending a long weekend lapping up the historical sights, shopping in the ancient souks and scoffing as much Turkish food as humanly possible, I can see why everyone loves it!
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, and a great place to visit anytime of year. Summer time is full of tourists and, like in all European cities, there’s an incredible ‘summertime buzz’ about the place. In the evening, locals and tourists can enjoy the amazing views from rooftop restaurants/bars until the early hours of the morning. If you’re not one for the heat or the crowds though, the cooler months from October to April are still extremely atmospheric, and even in November the temperature can reach highs of 24C in the midday sun, and the majority of the city is still very much open for business.
Istanbul, as it’s known today, was originally called Byzantium – an ancient Greek city founded in 660 BC. In 330 AD, when Constantine the Great (Roman Emperor) reigned, it was renamed Constantinople, and from then on served as the capital for four of the largest Empires known today – the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Latin Empire and Ottoman Empire. Up until the Ottomans conquered it was always a Christian City, however in 1453 it transformed into an Islamic stronghold and that is still represented today. The name Istanbul derives from two possible ways, Islambol, which means ‘city of Islam’ or from the Medieval Greek phrase εἰς τὴν Πόλιν” (pronounced is tim bolin) which means “to the city”. Istanbul officially became the city’s name in 1930.
Did you know…..
Istanbul is a transcontinental city, straddling the Bosphorus River. On one side of the bridge you are in Europe, the commercial and historical centre of the city, while on the other side you will find yourself in Asia, where approximately one third of the population lives.
Where to stay?
Like anywhere it depends what you’re after, but if you are planning to visit the sights of the old city like we were, then I would highly recommend staying in Sultanahmet. It is walking distance to all the main attractions and restaurants, and there are plenty of places to stay. It takes approximately 30 minutes by taxi to Sultanahmet from Ataturk airport and will set you back around 40 Euros. Alternatively, you can catch a metro and tram combo for 3 Turkish Lira which takes about an hour and is relatively straightforward.
All the major attractions in the old city are within walking distance, however you can catch the tram all over the city. It is cheap, reliable, regular, and only seems to get really crowded at weekends – a far cry from the London Underground! You need to purchase red tokens from the machines located at each station, at 3 Turkish Lira each, and each token equates to a single journey, regardless of the number of stops.
Must do’s in Istanbul:
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) – An active Mosque built between 1609-1616. One of the most photographed buildings in Istanbul. Known as the ‘Blue Mosque’ because of it’s blue tiles on the inside walls.
Hagia Sophia – Originally a Greek Orthodox Cathedral built in 537 AD, until 1453 when it became an imperial Mosque under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Since 1935 it has been a Museum and no longer a place of worship, however in 2013 the call to pray was introduced and the Muezzin now sings twice a day. In the 1930s plaster was removed from the walls to show the original Christian mosaics and the carpet was removed revealing the incredible marble flooring. Hagia Sophia is an inspiration for many of the other mosques built in the area, and the large domes and minarets can be seen across the city.
Topkapı Palace – A large Palace on the banks of the Bosporus and once home to the Ottoman Sultans from 1465-1856. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. Beautiful banqueting rooms are seen throughout the palace, with tiled mosaics and cushioned seating. It is believed that 4,000 people once lived in the palace; the Royal family and all of their servants.
Süleymaniye Mosque – The largest Mosque in the city, built between 1550-1558. It has a blend of Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements.
Basilica Cistern – Built in the 6th century, it is the largest cistern that lies beneath the streets of Istanbul. Before being built, a great basilica was once in its place during the 3rd and 4th century. The cistern is an underground chamber that provided water for the Roman Emperor Constantine’s palace and, later, for the Ottoman Topkapi Palace. It could store up to 100,000 tons of water, but today is virtually empty, except a foot of water and home to some large Koi carp. Strangely there are two large statues of Medusa’s head – one upside down and one on its side – underneath two pillars. It is still a mystery today how they got there.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar – One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, spanning 61 streets, and boasting over 3,000 shops. Built shortly after the start of the Ottoman reign in 1455, the Bazaar sells everything including traditional Turkish lamps, plates, spices, rugs and all types of jewellery. Unfortunately, like a lot of places in the world, Chinese-manufactured fake goods have now taken up a large part of the Bazaar. Luckily you can still find some traditional souvenirs to take away, but don’t forget to barter as all of the shops will try and charge more simply because of where they are located. Cheaper deals for the same goods can be found elsewhere in the city.
If you have a day to spare then I recommend getting on one of the ferry tours up the Bosphorus River. You can pick up a boat in the morning at 10:35am down by the water at EMİNÖNÜ. The cost is 25 Turkish Lira for a return trip or 15 for one way. It will take about 90 minutes to reach ANADOLU KAVAGI, the last stop before the Black sea. There is a 3 hour wait here before the boat returns back to EMİNÖNÜ at 15:00. Plenty of time to have some lunch in a fish restaurant, if however time is short and you need to get a bus back, then you can. However, be warned that they take about two hours, but come every ten minutes! Along the river you will get a glimpse of the Dolmabahçe palace, one of many Ottoman palaces, and an array of beautiful houses. You can get off here if you don’t fancy going all the way up the river.
While in Turkey you must try a Turkish Hamam (bath). Not only will it leave you feeling super clean, it’s also a really fun experience, especially if you’re with a friend or partner. It takes approximately one hour and a half for the whole experience. For 35 euros visit the Suleymaniye Hamam, near the Mosque, and be scrubbed where the Sultans once were!
There are thousands of restaurants scattered across the city, ranging from cheap Doner Kebab stores to newer, chic restaurants and bars. Check out the list of over 10,000 restaurants on Trip Advisor for recommendations. We tried everything from Mezzes, Doner Kebabs (James, not me as I’m a veggie!), clay pot casseroles, and many Turkish sweets like sütlaç and baklava. Yummy! While in Istanbul you should try a shisha before or after dinner, accompanied by a Turkish tea or coffee – apple flavour was a personal favourite! Don’t forget to sample a piece or two of Turkish Delight. Not to everyone’s taste, but when in Istanbul!
Everywhere we went, the locals were extremely friendly. They gave us directions, useful tips, helped us with our bags, and even gave us free tokens for the tram! As an animal lover, it was also nice to see the restaurants feeding the stray cats and dogs everyday. Although they are strays, the government plays an active role in making sure they are all healthy and happy. Dogs are taken in, neutered, tested for rabies and then put back onto the streets. It’s a nice way to deal with the problem, rather than putting them all down!
The Turkish Lira is the local currency and 1 Euro equates to roughly 2.7 Lira, 1 USD = 2 Lira and 1 GBP = 3.35 Lira.
Liberty’s Tip: For ladies, always carry a scarf around with you, when entering into Mosques and Churches you will be asked to cover your hair. Nice to have your own, rather than borrowing one worn by hundreds of others!
Hopefully this blog will help you if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul anytime soon. I had an amazing time and I’m sure you will too! Whatever the season, don’t forget your camera, you’re going to need it!