My good friend Tali met me in Istanbul for a week and a half of traveling throughout Turkey. That may sound like a lot of time, but I already know it will barely scratch the surface of what Turkey has to offer. On our first day in Istanbul, we checked out some of the main attractions including the Blue Mosque, Aga Sofya (or Hagia Sophia), the Grand Bazaar / Spice Market, and Galata Tower area. After spending some time in the city, I have some highlights, tips and recommendations to share!
Sightseeing in Istanbul
- The main sites in Istanbul are on the European side of the city, in the old city called Sultanahmet. I stayed in Taksim (which I recommend) and from there you can walk over the bridge or take a tram to the sites. Taxis are available but not preferred because there is a lot of traffic in the city from all the car-less pedestrian streets.
- The Blue Mosque (officially the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is probably the most famous site in Istanbul. It is completely free to enter and still functions as a place of prayer. Make sure you check the hours before you go as they limit entry to specified times in order to preserve the holy place and hold prayers.
- Hagia Sophia (Aga Sofya in Turkish) is right across from the Blue Mosque - they actually stand facing one another. This site used to be a church and then a mosque, but is now solely a museum. It is interesting to see imagery from both Christianity and Islam still intact. When you walk in, make a left and you'll find a large column with a hole in it. It is called the Wishing Column and if you rub your thumb in the hole, if it comes out moist your wish will come true. Gross, but kind of cool.
- The Galata Tower is across the water from Sultanahmet that offers views of the city. But we didn't walk to the top, instead we walked around the neighborhood which is filled with cafes, restaurants and shops. As you'll read below, there is another view of the city that I recommend - cocktails at the rooftop bar Mikla.
Shopping in Istanbul
- You will definitely want to check out the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, but the better prices are actually found in the markets outside the main bazaars. These shops are outdoors and some appear to be wholesale shops that sell to shop owners in the main markets (but they are all happy to take your money). For evil eye and hand of Fatima souvenirs, you will definitely want to go to (I will fill this in when I find the business card!) which was a gem in terms of variety and prices. Also, if you leave the market area, cross over the river to the area around the Galata tower, you will find many shops (and cute cafes) with better prices
- Unlike other places I've traveled (such as Morocco), haggling is not always an option. Many of the stalls within the Grand Bazaar have fixed prices and the shop owners aren't interested in negotiating. So be prepared to walk away without being followed and offered a lower price.
- The main souvenirs you will find include Turkish Delight candies, tea, spices, hookahs, just about everything with the evil eye and/or hand of Fatima, wooden backgammon boards, cushions, carpets, and ceramic plates.
Eating in Istanbul
- Local food includes kabobs, pide (their version of pizza) and fresh fish. Meze is the Turkish version of tapas or small plates, and they can become a meal of their own! Often times a waiter will bring over a tray of small plates that you can choose from as appetizers. Common items include eggplant dishes, beans and yogurt dishes.
- There are many restaurants that look more like cafeterias with plates of different types of prepared food that you can take. These places are generally busy with locals and are quite good.
- Some of my favorite restaurants in Istanbul are Eleos (fresh fish with a beautiful view of the water, and a whole lot of freebies at the table), Cafe Privado, which is geared more for tourists but it is a cute cafe with a full Turkish breakfast (lots of little plates of jams, pancakes, eggs, and salad) and Akin Balik (a low-key outdoor restaurant just beside the fish market where there is no menu, you just go look at the daily catch!).
- Local drinks include tea (in cute hourglass-shaped glasses), raki which is a licorice-flavored liquor that can be mixed with water or lemonade in a shot glass, and Turkish coffee which is way too strong and thick for me, but worth trying! Also, their local beers are Efes (a light lager, yum!) and Bomonti (a 100% malt beer, not my favorite).
Nightlife in Istanbul
- For a fancy rooftop cocktail, you must visit Mikla on top of the Marmara Pera hotel. Make sure you go at sunset for the full effect. The panoramic city views are incredible and the service is great, but be warned: there is no cocktail menu and we were shocked when our bill came showing about $20 per drink. You may want to inquire ahead of time before you order.
- There is an abundance of bars in the city, especially in the Taksim / Beyoglu area, and every night seems to be a party. Many places are geared more for tourists, but my favorite local spot is Vosvos It is a low-key bar with great Turkish rock music playing. Every time we tried to get up and leave, we heard another good song and stayed longer and longer!
- We didn't do much dancing, but we did pop into a bar-turned-dance party that was recommended to us called Eskici
- Live music is extremely popular not just at bars, but at restaurants as well. When you sit outside, you can often hear music coming from different restaurants and bars which helps you pick your next spot.