Is Istanbul one of the greatest cities in the world?
Is Istanbul one of the greatest cities in the world? For us, just the name itself stirs already our imagination! As the capital city of 3 former empires, Istanbul is a city where tradition meets modernity. A city full of energy and with so much history to offer, Istanbul has everything. Home to nearly 15 million citizens, and bordering 2 continents, Istanbul is a true melting pot of sights, sounds, tastes, and cultures.
With my Turkish roots, I have been to Istanbul several times. And, being one of our favorite cities, James and I have traveled here a few times in the past. So, when we decided to travel the world full-time, making Istanbul our very first stop was an easy decision. Let us show you why we love Istanbul so much!
Getting around Istanbul
While Istanbul is a huge city, getting around is easy. One of the easiest ways is the Metro. One of your first purchases after arriving should be the Istanbul Card*. You can buy an Istanbul Card for 6 Turkish Lira at any Istanbul Card machine, and you can load up the card with any amount you chose. Using the card saves on the cost of each metro ride, and you can use the card for the Tram as well as Istanbul’s Funicular line. One card can be used by more than one traveler. There are a few machines located once you exit the airport, or you can also buy a card in many shops in the city. However, if you buy the card in a shop, you will pay an additional tourist surcharge (7-10 Lira).
We arrived in Istanbul in the evening and were staying in Taksim Square, which was no problem because getting from the airport to Taksim Square is super easy. We took the metro directly from the airport to the city center. From Istanbul Atatürk Airport, we took the M1A to Yenikapi Station, where we changed, and then took the M2 Metro to Taksim Station.
UPDATE: Since our last trip to Istanbul, the new Istanbul International Airport (ISA) has opened. We understand that there have been some growing pains and that a new Metro line will connect the airport with the city soon. Until then, however, there are plenty of buses that connect the airport to several destinations.
Arriving in Taksim Square, we were immediately plunged into the hustle and bustle of Istiklal Caddesi (Istiklal Street). Istiklal Street is very well known for its red nostalgic tram, as well as the numerous restaurants, bars, and shopping opportunities. We were staying in a hotel in Taksim Square, and a one-way trip cost us 5 Turkish Lira (in 2018).
A Self-guided Foodie Tour
After checking into our hotel, we were starving, so we explored the many eateries in the back alleys of Istiklal Street. Without having a plan, we delved into everything that looked delicious, savoring the many delicacies of Turkey.
We love to try what comes our way. First up was Midye, or rice-stuffed mussels! This is a specialty that I enjoyed when I was a little kid on the beach with my parents. Midye was sold by vendors that walked up and down the beach carrying a tray on the head. Afiyet olsun!
Sweet delicacies are, of course, a must when you are in Turkey, and after the mussels, we were ready for something sweet. Lining the streets are shop windows touting many different types of tempting desserts, and it would be a miracle if we didn’t eat one! Even though we don’t know the name of the tower that stood before us, we know enough that is a type of baklava. Baklava is a typical Turkish dessert. It consists of a puffy pastry that is dipped in sugar syrup and filled with chopped walnuts, pistachios, or almonds.
We continue to wander our way through the small streets and find that each place is filled with different live music, often with singers or small bands playing. The city that never sleeps. These words can also be said about Istanbul!
Following Bourdain’s Advice
In his series “No Reservations”, Anthony Bourdain recommends the kebabs from a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant named Dürümzade. Heeding his advice, we decide to try to find it. It’s easy to get turned around in these narrow alleys, but suddenly we are standing in front of it. A small modest kebab house on a corner, decorated with pictures of Anthony Bourdain. We order the Adana Kebab Dürüm and do not regret it. Simply put, it’s absolutely delicious!
James and I love traveling and trying new food in unknown places. So, Anthony Bourdain’s travels and his quotes have a special place in our hearts. One of our favorite quotes of his is: “If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.” – Anthony Bourdain
Best Things to do in Istanbul
Touring Istanbul in November comes with certain risks in terms of the weather. We end up not having much luck with the weather at all, and unfortunately, it rains heavily for much of our time. But what can we do? We’re here, and we’re excited to see and do as much as possible. So, we grab an umbrella, and set out to do the best things in Istanbul!
But before our sightseeing begins, we first must eat. And there is no better way to start the day than with Menemen! Menemen is a Turkish breakfast that consists of eggs, tomatoes, and the most important ingredient, the çarliston biber (a type of pepper or capsicum).
On one of the small side streets of Istiklal Street, we go back to a small restaurant that serves the best Menemen. We first ate there many years ago, and it was so good that we wanted to go again. We fight the roaring weather to get to the family business Lades because we need a full breakfast for our today’s plan. Lades has been offering Menemen in their small restaurant since 1978 and it is the best start to this rainy day.
Our choice is the classic Menemen topped with sucuk, which is a Turkish garlic sausage. Coupled with a few cups of Turkish Çay (tea) and everything is perfect. Try it out when you’re in Istanbul! We’re surrounded by locals who also love Lades restaurant.
Take a Bosphorus Boat Tour
Strengthened by our delicious breakfast, our day starts. Istanbul is surrounded by water, which is also one of the best ways to get a good overview of this historical city. We decide to take a Bosphorus boat tour* from Karaköy. The tours are provided from Karaköy as well as from Eminönü. Many excursion boats are lined up and you are truly spoiled for choice. But we’re not. It is raining hard, and we make a mad dash to the closest ship!
The tour passes the Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace, and Ciragan Palace.
We also pass the Ortaköy Mosque, on our way to the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the continents of Europe and Asia. In the middle of the Bosphorus Strait, we can faintly make out the Leander Tower, which is also called the Maiden’s Tower, through the weather.
Our boat ride takes a total of two hours, but it is pleasantly warm inside, and more importantly dry! While the weather rages, we enjoy Istanbul from the water.
We highly recommended a Bosphorus boat tour. Although the information inside our boat was not very extensive in English, it is a wonderful way to see the city! And at 15 Lira, it is also a real bargain.
Tip: We highly recommend a trip to the Princes’ Islands. These idyllic islands are a short ferry ride from Beşiktaş on the European side and Kadıköy on the Asian side. We’ve been here during a trip to Istanbul during the summer and loved the slow pace.
Culture in Istanbul
We are so in love with this city! Even though we have seen all the historical highlights, we can’t wait to see them again. So instead of sitting in a café and chatting, people-watching, or reading a book, which are all probably smarter ideas in these weather conditions, we head off to the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A visit to the Süleymaniye Mosque* must be earned because the way there is extremely steep! However, it is manageable. We stop at the Museum of Rosaries along the way. The entrance is free, and it provides us with a quick breather from the strenuous climb up to the mosque.
Tip: For a less laborious route to Süleymaniye Mosque, you can take the T1 Tram to Beyazit station, and then walk the short rest of the way up.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is one of the largest mosques in Istanbul and was built within a very short timeframe, from 1550 to 1557. Süleyman the Magnificent commissioned it, and the renowned architect Sinan created something that is out of this world!
We enjoy being around mosques during prayer times because it always gives us goosebumps. Even if you are not allowed to be inside the mosque during prayer time as a tourist, the imposing exterior coupled with the sounds of the prayer is truly capturing. Plus, it provides the perfect opportunity to examine all the intricate details of the mosque
From the outside, the Süleymaniye Mosque offers breathtaking views of Istanbul. The elevated location of the Mosque is simply outstanding!
After prayer, it is possible to go inside the mosque as a tourist. Be sure to honor and respect traditions by wearing a headscarf (women), covering your shoulders, and wearing long trousers that cover below your knees (men and women).
Tip: If you visit a mosque and are not dressed appropriately, you can borrow headscarves and kaftans free of charge at the entrance.
At the entrance, plastic bags for shoes are also provided, but in our opinion, they are totally unnecessary and only serve to increase waste. Simply bring your shoes in and put them on the shelves located inside the mosque. Because prayers take place on the carpet, which the forehead touches, it is not allowed to enter a mosque with shoes.
We take our time inside, enjoying the experience, and let the beautiful red carpet and large light dome have their effect on us. Sulemaniye is one of the most beautiful mosques we’ve ever been to, and we could spend hours here.
Ending the day at Eminönü
We let the evening comfortably end down at the waterfront area of Eminönü, watching the hustle and bustle that surrounds us. In Eminönü there are many fish restaurants and large boats at the dock where fish sandwiches are directly sold (Balik Ekmek).
I must admit that I’ve never tasted one. But if any of you have had one, please let us know how you liked it.
Walking under the famous Galata Bridge, there are hundreds of fish restaurants strung together. Sitting at the restaurant tables, you can see fishing lines from the fishermen on the bridge above you. The fish then practically land directly on your plate. It doesn’t get much fresher than that!
Despite the constant rain we decided the next day to go to Chora Church. James had read about this former Byzantine church in many of his history books.
Although the exact construction date of the Church is unknown, Emperor Justinian had the church rebuilt during his reign (527-75). And much of what we see now is from the 14th century.
The Chora Church* is located just outside the city, so you must drive a bit to get there. (The ancient Greek word Chora translates to ‘outside the city ‘.) So, we take the M2 Metro to Yenikapi, change there to the M1, and get out at Topkapı-Ulubatli.
Exiting the station, we end up walking down the narrow streets of a small village. We realize how great it is to have time to look at other things!
Meeting prying eyes, we stop in a small mom-and-pop shop to buy some water and notice how quiet it can be in other parts of Istanbul. Finally, we arrive at the church.
Unfortunately, we did not do any research in advance of our trip and were disappointed to arrive to see the outside of the church completely enclosed in restoration scaffolding. Nevertheless, we buy a ticket but can see only a small fraction of the museum inside. Although the few frescoes and mosaics that we can see are extremely impressive, we are disappointed. Despite the fact that the church is under construction and offers very little to see, a full-price admission is required (45 Lira).
We will come back when the work is finished to study Istanbul’s most magnificent Byzantine church!
Save money with the Istanbul Museum Pass
Istanbul is rich in history. If you are interested in seeing many of the museums and archaeological sites, buy yourself a Museum Pass Istanbul.
The 5-day pass costs 700 Turkish Lira and is well worth it if you want to see the important historical treasures of the city. If you are staying longer in Istanbul or traveling throughout Turkey, get a 15-day Museum Pass Türkiye for 1000 lira.
The fast lane for the museum entrance is also included with the purchase of the card. This is worth it because Istanbul is a well-visited city, which means the queues are always very long.
Even though we did not fully exploit the card, we still saved both money and time with the Museum Pass*!
After visiting the Chora Church, we went back to the main sightseeing area of Sultanahmet. We had been to Cisterna Basilica (Yere Batan) years ago and really enjoyed it. And because the rain was not getting any better, and we had our museum pass now, we thought it deserves another look. Southwest of Hagia Sophia, located in the Sultanahmet district, the Cisterna Basilica is easy to get to and is close to the main attractions.
The Basilica Cisterna* was built in the 6th century and covers 9800 sqm. There is space for 100,000 tons of water. The cistern consists of 12 rows, each with 28 columns. With the subdued light and the silence underground, it feels almost mystical. There are two main highlights in the cistern. The first is the “Crying Column,” which is named because it is wet, unlike the other columns.
And the other is the two Medusa heads. Most likely simply used as a support for the columns, there are many legends surrounding these heads.
According to legend, the heads were placed there and used for protection. Arising in Greek mythology, Medusa is one of the three Gorgon figures. She had snakes as hair and turned anyone that looked at her to stone.
The cistern is not included in the Museum Pass, but it is a good value at 20 Lira. After admiring the cistern, we walked to the nearby Grand Bazar (kapalı çarşı). We were very surprised because it was nearly empty! After browsing a little, we decided to go back to the hotel to be rested for the next day.
No trip to Istanbul would be complete without at least a full day spent in Sultanahmet. The Sultanahmet District is home to Istanbul’s most famous attractions: the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. All these sites are so beautiful and incredible and are an absolute must-visit.
Even though it is still raining, we do not plan too much, so that we have time to admire everything in peace. This is the luxury of slow travel!
If you are in Istanbul, there is really no way around it, you MUST see the Hagia Sophia.
A UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most impressive sites we have ever seen. There are no words that justly describe its beauty.
The site where the Hagia Sophia stands today was first constructed back in 360. At that time, she was called Megale Ekklesia, or Great Church, because it was much larger than other churches at the time.
After two different fires destroyed the Great Church, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was built under Emperor Justinian I in 532 and was completed in five years. Justinian ordered the church to be built with only the best materials so that it would be bigger and grander than before. The finest materials were brought from all over Turkey, North Africa, and Syria. Even the columns from the Artemis Temple of Ephesus (UNESCO) were used to build the church.
The Hagia Sophia was a church for nearly 1000 years until Fatih Sultan Mehmed II ordered it to be converted into a mosque in 1453. It served as a mosque until 1935 when it was converted into a museum by order of Atatürk.
To enumerate the history and all the architectural features here would be beyond our scope. But it is unbelievable what greatness and glory could be built so long ago. Everything about the Hagia Sophia seems so perfect and built for eternity. We soak in history and could stay here forever.
UPDATE: Since our last visit, the Hagia Sophia has been converted back into a mosque. It remains open to the public, but visits can only be made outside of prayer times.
Leaving the Hagia Sophia, we decide to check out another cistern. The Şerefiye Cistern was discovered relatively recently and is now opened as a museum. Admission is free, works of art are regularly exhibited, and the atmosphere in the cistern itself is awesome. AND, there are hardly any tourists! The restoration took eight years in total and the result can be seen. This gem flies under the radar.
The cistern was built between 428-443, during the reign of Theodosius II, which is why it is also known as Theodosius Cistern.
It is smaller than the Basilica Cistern but is a hundred years older. Together with the Philoxenius Cistern, these three underground reservoirs form a 250 km long system that provided fresh water for the city.
The Blue Mosque
Not only does it shape Istanbul’s skyline, but the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Cami) is also one of the major works of Ottoman architecture.
The master architect Sinan, who also designed the Süleymaniye Mosque (as well as the magnificent Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, which is INCREDIBLE, go see it if you can!!!) has created an absolute masterpiece here.
We stand in front of the magnificent building and listen to the prayer that comes from the minarets through the loudspeakers.
Aside from its magnificence, what distinguishes the Blue Mosque from the others are the six minarets (usually you will find four minarets or less). Legend has it that Sultan Ahmet I wanted golden minarets to be built. But instead of four golden minarets, the architect Sinan built six non-golden minarets. To this day, it is unclear whether he deliberately misunderstood the similarly sounding words “altın” which means gold, and “altı” which means “six” because he believed that gold was too expensive.
Only after the prayer is complete are we allowed to visit the mosque as tourists. I tie my headscarf, which I always have with me, and look forward to experiencing a piece of history again.
Meters upon meters of precious silk carpets, oil lamps from abroad, and thousands of blue Iznik tiles were used in the construction of the interior. It is the use of blue Iznik tiles that adorn the walls of its interior that give the mosque its name.
We sit down on the red prayer rug and watch all the commotion going on around us.
On the walls, you’ll see prayers from the Koran and the words of the Prophet Muhammed.
We find ourselves humbled by everything around us.
Back to Ortaköy
After so much sightseeing we needed a big (and late) lunch and so we took the bus back to Ortaköy. When we were in Paris for the Ryder Cup, we were having burgers one night when we heard Turkish from the three people who were sitting next to us. We introduced ourselves, chatted for a while, and they recommended Biber Burger to us as the best burger place in Istanbul. So, we decided to try it out and had a fantastic burger! Afterward, we went on a little walk along the Bosphorus and found a nice coffee place where we ended up having coffee and a Red Velvet cake.
We end the day in Ortaköy. Ortaköy is famous for its Kumpir, which is what we originally wanted to have for dinner. Kumpir is a baked potato that can be filled with as many various ingredients as desired. Several Kumpir stalls line the streets, and the vendors really smell a customer when they see James. Everyone waves and calls and does their best to sell us a Kumpir. Unfortunately, we disappoint them all, as we are still so full after the burger and cake.
Ortaköy is such a lovely area of Istanbul. There is a large cobblestoned square where you can often find artists and street musicians.
The path leads to the Ortaköy Mosque, which is beautifully lit at night. From here you have a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus Bridge. We could spend hours in the summer, but it starts to rain again, so we start heading back, ending a wonderful day.
From Paris to Istanbul
Our plan for today is a very special one! We have two invitations that we have been looking forward to for a very long time.
Our first invitation was to the Istanbul Golf Club, where we receive a warm welcome from Mr. Bekir Şerbetçioğlu, the Club Secretary-General. We learn all about the club, and the club’s extensive history. We chip and putt a little bit and are invited to a delicious lunch. After lunch, we joined Mr. Şerbetçioğlu to play a round of golf together at the Ataşehir Golf Club. What a wonderful experience!
Our second invitation is from Ayça and Efe, the Turkish couple whom we had met in Paris. And, as lucky as we are, Ayça and Efe live exactly opposite the Golf Club. In one of the biggest cities in the world! What a coincidence!
Unfortunately, the third person that we met in Paris, Oytun, is not in town. But Ayça and Efe are already waiting for us, and it is great when we meet again. Turkish hospitality at its very best! The two of them prepared several appetizers called mezze, and we are spoiled from the start to the finish. Everything is so delicious, and it feels like we’ve known each other forever. A fun and sociable evening that we hope to repeat with them somewhere in the world again. We spend the evening talking about travel and getting some Istanbul restaurant tips. The evening flies by and so it is time to say goodbye. As if they don’t spoil us enough, they drive us to the ferry, to make sure we comfortably and safely get back to our hotel.
Thank you Ayça and Efe for this unforgettable evening!
Istanbul Archaeological Museum
It’s our last day. But before we have to say goodbye to Istanbul and hello to Akbük, we have a few hours before our late afternoon flight and use our time to go to two more must-see spots. First up is the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
The Archaeological Museum is one of our favorite museums in the world! And, because of the weather, it is the perfect place for us! We have been here before, and we’re excited to return because the range of artifacts here is absolutely extensive. Among the most impressive pieces in the collection is the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great!
Also found in the museum are many tiles from the Ishtar Gate. The Ishtar Gate was one of the gates into the ancient city of Babylon and was built in 575 BCE. We have been to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where there is the restored Ishtar Gate is on display, and we are in awe to stand before such significant historical pieces. We want to stay, but unfortunately, it’s time for us to go.
Just a few steps from the Archaeological Museum is the Topkapı Palace. Now a museum, the Topkapı Palace was the main residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire during the 15th and 16th centuries.
You enter the Palace through the Imperial Gate. The rain is coming down so hard now that the streets are a river! The last time we were here in the summer, the entry into the Palace was full of period-costumed soldiers and horsemen. Today the streets are empty, other than the huge puddles that rival the size of the Bosphorus!
By the time we reach the Gate of Felicity, we decide that it’s just too wet to continue. The Topkapı Palace is a must while in Istanbul, but we’re feeling pretty miserable at this point. Luckily, we’ve been here before, so we collect our backpacks at the entry, and make our way to the airport.
Istanbul – We will be back
Because of the bad weather, we were not able to do everything that we would have liked to do if the weather would have been better. But it didn’t matter because we still found this city to be amazing!
The mix of classical traditions with modern life, the cultural and historical sites, the delicious food … this all makes Istanbul unique and, in our eyes, always worth a visit. Each time we return, we experience and learn something new. And every time we are greeted with open arms.
For us, Istanbul is one of the greatest cities in the world, and not even the weather can detract us from its magic. Istanbul, we will be back!
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