Everyone has a travel bucket list, and if you don’t you should MAKE ONE! TOP of Caleb’s list has always been visiting the Ayasofya. So this weekend we went on a fun getaway to Istanbul and did just that! And today I have detailed a travel guide of everything you need to know about visiting this beautiful city.
Before you Go
Before taking a trip to Turkey you should know that for U.S. citizens this is highly discouraged. The country is currently under a state of emergency, and some Americans have been detained and restricted from notifying the consulate/embassy. That being said, Istanbul is not a city in the high-warning area and never once did it feel unsafe during our visit!
AND for U.S. citizens you will need a visa to travel to Turkey. You can easily and quickly obtain an e-Visa before your travels. The visa will cost you $20 per person.
Funny Story: I messed up my first visa by leaving off my middle name (which is on my passport). So I felt the need to re-do my application for fear of being turned away (cost me another $20). BUT they didn’t even glance at the paper!!!! We set it up with our passport once reaching the customs counter, and not even a glance! They didn’t even bring it down into the cubicle with our passport, just left it on the outer ledge!! So irritating, waste of $20, since they wouldn’t have noticed my middle name missing.
Where to Stay
The city of Istanbul is split by the Bosphorus River with one side lying in Europe and the other in Asia. The two sides of the city are very different, each containing its own charm and attraction.
The European side houses the Ayasofya and Blue Mosque amongst other old city sites. The area caters towards tourists with cute boutique hotels, Turkish cuisine restaurants, and various shops lining all the streets. We stayed in the old city–Sultanahmet–in a cute boutique hotel called the Romantic Hotel (it was too adorable – see below). While this side of the city can be a bit “touristy” it does give you the ability to walk to the major sites and a fun time shopping Turkish delight, sipping Turkish coffee, and picking out great souvenirs!
The Asian side still houses some great attractions but is a more urban city. This is the major hub that makes up the “new” city of Istanbul. We wandered around this part of the city in the afternoons, coming across great street art, LOTS of shopping, and a fun “hipster” vibe found in most dining choices. This area is harder to navigate, with TONS of stairs and big city traffic. While this city side is less of a tourist attraction (and yet still very charming) it would be a fun place to stay with less hassle of hagglers. BUT you would have more of a commute to any of the old city destinations.
While I thoroughly enjoyed staying in the old city and loved the boutique feel, I would prefer to stay on the Asian side. The “vibe” of this city made the streets exciting to explore. I would have loved to go out each night in search for dinner instead of dealing with the hagglers that line the streets to pull you into their establishments on the European side.
While some sites (mosques) are free, most everything you will do costs a fee. So my advice is to buy the 5 day museum card. It costs 85 TRY (Turkish Lira) and will pay off in the end. With this card we were able to visit the Ayasofya, and TopKapi Palace Complex (along with all its inside museums). An Ayasofya ticket costs 40 TRY alone, as does entrance to the TopKapi Palace. Inside the TopKapi Palace are various museums, that each require their own fee; so within these two destinations we already saved money with this museum card.
The Blue Mosque is free, and the card didn’t work for the Basilica Cistern or the Dolmabahçe Palace. But the card does work for many more places and paid for itself by the end of our second day! I highly recommend purchasing the museum card to cut down costs of ticket/entrance fees.
In the old city getting around is easy…as it can all be done by foot. BUT for farther destinations (like over to the new city) you can take the metro or Uber. Uber is obviously the easier choice, but Istanbul only offers UberXL (as the main option) which makes it a bit pricier. And the city is often bogged with traffic, so I recommend using the metro 100%! The metro costs 4 TRY each way per person and is very easy to navigate. They have various lines; so as long as you know (on a map) the area of your destination, you will be able to find your way no problem! It can also get you across the bridge much faster than sitting in traffic!
The city also obviously has taxis, but with Uber we never felt the need to play chance with a metered drive. It’s also nice with Uber to know the driving directions (path) to your destination to be sure your driver a) knows where you want to go and b) isn’t jerking you around by jacking up the fare.
There is no dress code for Istanbul. But I should warn you that the city’s proximity to the river does make it quite breezy and chilly; so bring a light jacket. There is a dress code for entering the mosques. While the Blue Mosque will lend you a scarf and skirt/shirt, this is not the case for smaller mosques you might want to visit. So I recommend bringing your own scarf (or buying one) to wear for visiting any Mosques.
Places to See
Obviously the main attraction of Istanbul, and totally worth the trip! We spent a few hours touring this amazing building. We paid for the audio guide tour (35 TRY). They were fun but not the best “tour”. If you have the extra cash I say go for it. You’ll learn some fun facts, but if you’re pinching pennies skip it.
But take your time and soak in all that this former basilica/mosque has to offer. The evolution of the church to a mosque is interesting, considering the depictions of Jesus all throughout.
Visiting the mosque is free and right across from the Ayosofya; so take a peek inside. Just be sure not to go during prayer time (when the mosque is closed to visitors). While the entrance courtyard doesn’t seem like much, the inside will take your breath away. Between the stringing lights and various domed mosaic ceilings, the whole building was magical.
For entrance you will have to cover your head with a scarf and full length pants (no rips). If your outfit doesn’t fit their dress code they will lend you a scarf, top, or skirt to wear overtop….so no worries!
Between these two historical sites is a beautiful park! Our visit was at the beginning of Spring and already the green grass and blooming flowers were amazing. I can only imagine later with the full, luscious trees. We took time in our day to sit by the beautiful fountain and drink a coffee and tea!
Next to this park are monuments “gifted” to the old empire from other countries. There was an obelisk from Karnak Temple in Luxor! It was so exciting to see something from another country that we had visited, something recognizable. So interesting!!
This old palace lining the river is magnificent! Its rooms are full of artifacts from the kingdom. The original bath house is now full of religious artifacts. Wander through the palace courtyards enjoying all the mosaic and tile work! But most of all enjoy the views over looking the Bosphorus River! We even stoped at the cafe to enjoy a pastry while taking in the views.
This cluster of buildings lies within the outermost wall of the TopKapi Palace. While not the most impressive collection of artifacts, it’s a fun stop while touring the palace. It does cost an extra entrance fee, so not a must do, but fun if end up buying the museum card!
Down the street from the Ayasofya is the Basilica Cistern. This venue does not accept the museum card and costs 20 TRY per person. While not the most exciting site, it is quite interesting and worth the small fare. The underground area once was used as a reservoir for water during the Byzantine Empire.
At the very end of the space are two pillars supported by Medusa Head bases. The bases were brought from another site during construction, but their origins are unknown.
The grand bazaar is a must do just for the experience and atmosphere of this bustling “mall”. I should warn you that the Grand Bazaar (indoor) is not an inexpensive market. Instead it is a compilation of various knock-off shops. The knock-offs are good and still expensive but still less than the name brand merchandise.
While I refuse to shop knock-offs, even these were very tempting for me! From Gucci Slides to Fendi bags. What made them especially great was that they weren’t exact replicas but designs inspired by the each brand’s current collections. There are some other original shops and great Turkish Style vintage clothing! So spend the time to wander through and find hidden treasures. I was able to get some awesome Espadrilles from a shop called Ottowoman!
This newer palace is located on the Asian side of the city. The palace contains two different areas that are available to tour. And the tickets vary for different inclusions, but the all inclusive tour costs 40 TRY per person. All the tours are guided and offered in Turkish and English. This palace was far grander than the TopKapi palace with French architectural and design influences!
I’m sure any wanderluster on Instagram has seen a picture of someone standing in front of a rainbow of stairs, and it looks AMAZING! Well these stairs are found on the Asian side of Istanbul. While I encourage you to find these stairs and take a pic, I should warn you, they have been redone. The stairs barely resemble what they once were. They have been redone to colored tile instead of paint, and landscaping has been done on both side. All this has taken away from the beauty and vibrant color of the stairs, but they are still a fun attraction.
Our trip was a short weekend adventure and didn’t allow us the time to visit every site. One destination we were unable to get to was this fortress. This was Caleb’s vacation; so we did everything on his list. I was surprised these ancient towers and fortress were not on top of his list. From photos these decaying stone walls and hike from tower to tower seem full of history and amazing!
This wall played a role in the fall of Constantinople and a great sight of ruin! I was able to catch a glimpse of the leftover stone walls lining the border of the river on our cab ride to the airport. The sight was amazing and led my imagination to run wild, thinking of a city under attack from visitors of the sea.
While not a major attraction, and usually just viewed from afar, I would’ve loved to go visit this site and enjoy the history with the beautiful views!
Foods to Try
Turkish Coffee: While the coffee in Istanbul was a little less intense than other places we’ve had Turkish coffee, it is a must have while visiting the country.
Ice Cream: While Turkish ice cream is not the greatest (in my opinion) it is a fun show when you get a cone! In order to work for their “tricks” the ice cream is very gooey and a weird consistency. The texture is why I didn’t like the ice cream: you have to chew it.
Nutella Bagel: All over the city there are street vendors selling what looks like bagels. But these puff pastries lie somewhere between a bagel and a croissant…and they are so good with Nutella! Try one. You won’t regret it.
Sesame Bagel: These street carts also carry smaller pretzel like bagels covered in sesame seeds. While you could also enjoy this with Nutella, try the cheese and olive spread instead. It’s a sesame bread with cream cheese and mashed up black olive paste! So good!!!
Chestnuts: Street vendors also sell an interesting roasted nut, which we found out were Chestnuts. I didn’t enjoy these fun snacks, but they are something everyone should try…and Caleb LOVED them.
In our two days we weren’t even able to accomplish our to-do list, and still there is so much more to see within this historic city!I highly recommend putting Istanbul on your Bucket List. It is a beautiful city full of history and charm.
Would you want to visit Istanbul? Let me know in the comments!