Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city and has an abundance of important historic buildings, galleries and museums and markets to keep you wandering about all day. It’s on both sides of the Bosphorus ( the strait between the Black and the Marmara Sea) that separates Europe and Asia – so a mish-mash of cultures might be noticeable as you explore the city, and makes for an interesting stay. Although there’s lots to do in Istanbul, here are 10 things you should try to experience while you’re there.
1. Bosphorus cruise
There are tons of companies offering cruises on this strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and separates Europe from the Anatolian peninsula of western Asia. It’s a great way to see the beautiful mosques and palaces of Istanbul from a different angle. TIP: instead of paying about R500 for the typical cruises that include meals and stops, why not opt for the cheapie boat trip (about and hour) that’s about R50. Take your guide book with you for this one so that you can identify buildings. All I did was head to Eminönü and at the water’s edge you’ll see people announcing the trips. You’ll just pay the captain as you board.
2. Blue Mosque
Most of the mosques in Istanbul are beautiful, but if you’re going to choose one to visit, make it the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) simply because it’s the only mosque in the world with six minarets. Apart from having fascinating history, it’s also close to many other tourist attractions so it’ll make your touring simpler. TIP: Make sure you know the Muslim prayer times as the mosque is closed to visitors during these times. Bear in mind Friday afternoon prayers (from about 12h30) are a bit longer so you can only enter after 14h00.
3. Topkapi Palace
It’s the largest palace in Istanbul and there’s loads to see, so dedicate at least half a day to exploring it. It was home to the Ottoman sultans from 1465 to 1856 and houses jewellery, weaponry and other holy Islamic relics including the prophet Muhammed’s cloak and sword. You could easily while away time strolling around the courtyards and browsing in awe the jewel-encrusted artefacts Tickets to the Harem are sold separately and are available at the ticket box outside the Harem itself. It consists of a series of buildings and structures, connected through hallways and courtyards and was the private apartments of the sultan, his mother, concubines, wives, servants and the rest of his family.
4. Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia was a Byzantine church and later became an Ottoman mosque and today it’s a museum. It’s fascinating to see remnants of Christian mosaic artworks contrasting the Islamic calligraphy that later covered the walls. Don’t forget that there is an upstairs section and you can get a closer look at the mosaics from here. If you have time to wait in the queue, remember to make a wish when you stick your thumb in the wishing stone.
5. The Grand Bazaar
With over 3000 shops in 61 covered streets, it’s easy to see how you could get lost and spend an entire day browsing. Although it is a major attraction and you should make time to see it, I’d advise you to keep the money-spending for the little stalls that surround the bazaar. The curios and mementos inside tend to be more expensive. One or two souvenirs won’t hurt but clothing and major items cost a bit more.
6. Turkish Hamam
The bathhouse has a heated room with a marble platform in the centre, all under a domed ceiling and surrounded by sinks with running warm water. An attendant will give you a full body scrub and bubble wash for about fifteen minutes and then you can relax or take a dip in the pool (facilities may vary). Depending on the baths you visit and the options you choose, you could get a clay mask, massage and some tea afterwards. It’s really worth the visit but choose wisely as some may be very pricey. They start from around R150 and could go up to over R700 (like the Ayasofya hamam).
Hamams in Istanbul
Acemoglu Hamam www.acemogluhamami.com
Süleymaniye Hamam www.suleymaniyehamami.com.tr
Galatasaray Hamam www.galatasarayhamami.com
Ca?alo?lu Hamam www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr
Aziziye Hamam www.aziziyehamam.com
Çemberlita? Hamam www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam www.ayasofyahurremsultanhamami.com
7. Egyptian Bazaar (or Spice Bazaar)
You can consider buying some gifts here as the prices are a bit better than at the Grand Bazaar, but this market specialises in spices, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, lokum (Turkish delight), tea and other edibles. The vendors have mostly the same fare and are not too aggressive with their persuasion. Try out various flavours (my favourite is the pistachio Turkish delight) and buy them by the gram or in pre-packed boxes. With the packed variety, check out supermarkets as well if you’re near one, as theirs might be cheaper.
8. Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe served as the main administrative center and was the residence of the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The inside is huge and lavish with 285 rooms and a 4000-kilogram Bohemian glass chandelier (the world’s largest). It’s the grandest of Ottoman imperial palaces and unfortunately no photography is allowed inside. Queues at the ticket office can be very long (waits of up to two hours) and there is no shade, so wear sunscreen and come prepared with refreshments and water and remember that entry is limited to 3000 visitors a day. Closed Mondays and Thursdays.
9. Taksim Square
Cross the Galata Bridge to visit Taksim Square on the European side of Istanbul. You’ll notice this part of the city is more modern and Westernised than the Old City. There are many high-end fashion stores, restaurants and hotels and you may even feel like even the locals are very different compared to those in the Old City districts. It’s a great way to get a feel for the different parts of Istanbul, while shopping and perhaps having non-traditional Turkish meals like Burger King.
10. Basilica Cistern
This is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. From the entrance (near the Hagia Sophia) you descend 52 steps to reach the underground reservoir and forest of columns. Walk to the back of the Cistern to see the upside-down Medusa head supporting one of the columns and a few metres from that, the sideways Medusa head.
Istanbul travel tips
Have the Turkish or even apple tea. Many store assistants (especially at the markets) will offer you a cuppa. Some may expect a sale from their generosity so choose your tea break wisely.
Try out the Turkish food like the doner. It’s a similar idea to the schwarma and it tastes really good. You can get ones for about R12 if you choose the right place but many places have them for about R25.
Baklava is quite popular in Turkey so give it a try. It’s very sweet so try not to buy too big a piece.
Smoke narghile (hookah or water pipe). They come in various flavours (I liked the apple and mint).
When going sightseeing, take lots of water with you and buy this before you get there as it’s generally more expensive around the tourist spots.