I came to Istanbul from a trip in the Balkans. Being in Bulgaria, I met an Argentinian heading there and we decided to take a train to the border and then a bus to Istanbul. Turkey does require visas for US citizens (thing I didn’t know at the time), so make sure to get one at a point of entry or at an embassy, and do your research if you’re coming from another country. I was lucky to be helped by some officers who kindly gave me a ride at 2am to get one, but that’s something I’ll make sure doesn’t happen again!
Once in the city, I couldn’t help but be awed by the amazing architecture, beautiful craftsmanship, and warmthness of the people, and I’m sure you will be too! So, here are my top recommendations for your next trip to this fabulous city!
1. Hagia Sophia
This is one of most breathtaking places I’ve ever been in my life. It is incredibly well preserved especially considering it was built in 537 AD and it’s a notorious example of Byzantine architecture. It’s deemed light and candles give it an extra magi
cal effect and make you feel as if you’re in a fantasy movie. As an icon of multiculturalism, art and architecture, you will be able to see Islamic calligraphic designs as well as orthodox images all around it.
2. The Blue Mosque
Mirroring Hagia Sophia in its magnitude and proportions is the Blue Mosque. It is a true architectural gem with an incredible amount of detail and symmetry. I recommend however, planning ahead of time to visit it and try to go early as it is closed during praying hours (as it is an active mosque) and it can get crowded during later hours especially during the summer.
3. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar also known as Kapalı Çarşı is one of the oldest markets in the world, and offers an experience you will never forget. It is truly an immense labyrinth of colors and shapes for which time and a good GPS on your phone will be key here, but also enjoy getting lost and exploring all what it has to offer. There’s very fine and precious craftsmanship, so ask around and don’t be afraid of bargaining. There’s also a few ATM’s located there, but I recommend taking some cash ahead of time with you to avoid lines and fees.
4. Basilica Cistern
This place made me feel in a Hercules movie. It’s both mystic and enchanting, and provides a very sharp contrast to the busy streets just right above it. This underground cistern has a couple of Medusa’s heads that won’t disappoint your mythological and aesthetic cravings. Even though the Medusa’s heads are one of the biggest attractions, and you can easily sprint there and seeing I recommend taking your time to walk through those water channels and immerse yourself in the experience.
5. Galata Tower
This was a place that was high on my list but because of the limited time I had I wasn’t able to explore more of. However, it’s still high on my list, and every friend that has visited Istanbul has recommended it. It is a very notorious landmark of the city and even at night is very visible thanks to the colorful and bright lighting that it has. As it is still one of the tallest buildings in the city going to the top should provide you with an extensive and panoramic view of Istanbul and all the Bosphorus Strait.
6. Shopping in Üsküdar (Asian Side)
While the European side of Turkey has most of the touristy attractions, the Asian side has a very proud culture of its own and offers great food and shopping experiences. It’s the perfect place to escape some of the tourist crowds and hang out with more of the local crowds. I ventured with a local friend and had a very interesting dessert called Tavuk göğsü, that consisted of sweet shredded chicken breasts and we accompanied it with some ice-cream. It has a thick pudding like texture and it’s something definitely different and worth trying. It can get a little crazy and hectic especially at night because stores stay open until later, so I recommend visiting earlier in the afternoon. Also if you’re flying out from the Asian side, the buses that take you to the airport are right in front of the port, and are the cheapest way to get there.
7. The Ferry
Have you heard the quote “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey?” I think it was written by someone on this ferry. It is an experience on its own that you won’t want to forget, full of incredible and unique views you will only be able to get if you’re on it. Getting on it is very accessible as it is considered as public transportation and used by thousands daily. The fairy schedules are available online and are listed on the ports, so keep them in mind as they stop relatively early. We were lucky to catch the last one back around 8:30 pm on a Thursday and had an amazing and colorful welcoming view. I recommend taking the ride at either sunrise or sunset and at night to get the best magical light effects.
In short, I had a wonderful time in Istanbul and I highly recommend to first-time and more experienced travelers. It definitely has something for every taste, and it will not disappoint. Everyone we met was very welcoming and helpful in giving us recommendations and helping us get around. Since it’s a very international city English will get you pretty much everywhere. We stayed in the Cankurtaran area very close to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque so it was very convenient for us to walk everywhere and beat crowds in the morning. We also took public transit a couple times. There’s many hostels, Airbnb, and reasonably priced hotels in that area. Many also have rooftops that offer a nice view to the Bosphorus Strait connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
Thanks for reading 🙂