Istanbul ~ Must-Sees, Must-Do's and Need-to-Know's
Istanbul was never really on my travel list. Being a travel blogger - Cappadocia was my reason for wanting to go to Turkey. However, you can’t go to Turkey and not go to Istanbul. I’m glad I did.
I spent three full days and four nights in Istanbul. On the three full days, I booked some tours/activities with Locally Istanbul. I cannot say enough about this company. I would book with them 10 times over.
Ümit, one of the founders of Locally Istanbul, showed us around the Bohemian Side. The local historian they work with, Ibrahim, gave us our history lessons and showed us the Old City. What was great about Locally Istanbul is that the tours were private. So, they were willing to change and add anything to the itinerary that we wanted. Thanks so much to Ümit, Erk (the other founder) and Ibrahim for making my time in Istanbul so awesome. With that being said, let's get into my Istanbul recommendations.
Istanbul Must-Sees and Must-Do's
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
If you didn’t go to Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia - did you really go to Istanbul? I think not. You have to see these two major monuments of the city. They sit right across from each other. So, plan to see them on the same day.
Sultan Ahmed is still a working mosque. So, for women this means you need to wear something more modest, and take a scarf with you as you will need to cover your head. The floors are carpeted. You will see many people praying inside. It’s called the Blue Mosque because of the light blue color on the walls inside.
Hagia Sophia - once a church, once a mosque and now a museum. Istanbul was once very Christian. Formerly known as Constantinople, it was once Roman Emperor Constantine’s new capital - therefore heavily Christian at the time. People would come from far and wide to visit the capital. Hagia Sophia is very important to Turkish people. The way that Ibrahim described it was… Imagine traveling from far away - back before cameras, the internet, technology of any kind - and seeing the beautiful Hagia Sophia perched up high on a hill. When these people would return home, they would speak of its beauty. Then more people would come to see it with their own eyes.
And it really is beautiful. There are elaborate chandeliers hanging throughout. Golds, yellows and shades of blue, grey and black fill the walls. You can also see these big circular Arabic murals hanging in each corner.
Explore The Streets with a Local
We had a really fun day exploring the streets of Istanbul with Ümit. He took us to some fun, chic shops - including an awesome antique shop. We visited a local painter. Even found a street full of colorful umbrellas (which I was too excited about). We got really lucky because it was an unusually quiet day in the city. At times there was no one except for us in sight on the street. Ümit said it may have been due to a festival.
Everywhere you turn in Turkey there is a Turkish flag. It's pretty awesome to see the pride and the love the Turkish people have for their country. The world cup was also happening while we were there. We would see everyone watching the games as we passed by any bar or restaurant where there was outdoor seating. Everyone was so into it! My friend, Earthia, and I found ourselves laying in bed at night watching game highlights.
Book a Bosphorus Cruise for Sunset
See Istanbul glow in style. Locally Istanbul hooked this amazing night up for us. We got a whole yacht to ourselves. Cruising down the Bosphorus with wine, local fruits, meats and cheeses. Watching the sun set on the water and over the city was truly magic. If you didn’t know, Rome isn’t the only city that sits on 7 hills - so does Istanbul. You can see it from the water because important mosques or structures sit on top of each hill.
The crew dropped us off in the Ortaköy neighborhood for dinner. We got to see the stunning Ortaköy Mosque and enjoy dinner and drinks at The House Cafe Ortaköy (highly recommend).
Take a Ferry to the Asian Side
A lot of locals live on the Asian Side of the city. We didn’t really get to explore much of it because of timing, but I did have an amazing ice cream there!
Find a Rooftop to View the City from
Have you seen Skyfall? Well, the movie inspired many people to visit the rooftops of Istanbul. Which are full of domes. There was a very popular, yet secret (I don’t know how that works) spot atop Buyuk Valide Han. However, due to damages and safety - we were sad to find out that this rooftop is no longer accessible. BUT… Ümit to save the day - he took us to Kubbe Istanbul where we were able to still get a really great view from above.
Experience the Tram
Thanks to Ümit, we tried this out with a local first. Earthia and I used it on our own a few times though, and we were pretty proud of how we did! It is really easy to understand. If you’re staying in any of the main areas - you can easily get to the tram. We were staying near the Sultanahmet stop. We used it to get to the Ortaköy and Karaköy (near Galata Tower) neighborhoods. Word of advice is to watch your bag on the tram and be aware of suspicious characters. We had a guy follow us at one point. We stopped so he would walk ahead of us. Only to find out he was waiting and watching for us to pass. He came up to us, asked us if we needed help, we said no and he left us alone after that.
Above: Having wine on the top floor of Sensus Sarap & Peynir.
Visit the Grand Bazaar & Spice Bazaar
You absolutely have to check out the Grand Bazaar. You don’t really need to spend a lot of time there unless you’re looking to shop for things. I just wanted to check it out. Ümit helped set up a little tea break in the middle of the bazaar. One of the merchants gave us tea and some Turkish Delights! Make sure you take a peek at the beautiful lanterns and jewelry shops too. The Spice Bazaar is about a 7 minute walk from the Grand Bazaar. It is small, but worth taking a quick stroll through.
Eat the Döner
The best döner is in TURKEY - not Germany (lol). And there happens to be a really great place inside the Grand Bazaar called Gül Ebru Kantin. Wash it down with the popular Turkish drink called Ayran. Ayran consists of yogurt, water and salt. I will admit - I only tasted it. I couldn't drink the whole glass!
Take a Tea Break in a Han
A Han, as Ibrahim described it, used to be like a rest stop for traveling merchants (like a truck stop). They still serve as a little manufacturing ring for things you may find in the bazaar. We stopped in for some tea. Ibrahim picked me a mulberry from the tree. It was my first time trying it. It wasn’t bad.
While we were sitting in the han, a man came around with a black bag and a pack of cigarettes. He also had these strips with numbers on them. Like skinny bingo cards. There were number pieces inside of the bag. Now, the game goes… if you draw a number from the bag that is on the strip - the cigarettes are yours. If you don’t - you have to pay for them. Ibrahim picked one of the strips. He drew one of his numbers and got his pack! It was pretty cool getting to see this. FYI - I don’t smoke, but smoking is pretty popular in Turkey.
I wish that I would have had time to try out a Hamam - aka Turkish Bath. I did go into one, but I didn’t have time to spend there. I would love to experience that. I also did not have time to visit the Prince Islands - I will next time as Ümit recommended it.
Some Things to Note About Istanbul
- The tram is quick and easy to use.
- The city is safe, but be alert and smart.
- Hold your index finger up to cars if you want to cross the street.
- They love cats in Istanbul. They feed and make homes for all the stray cats. As a cat lover, I am a huge fan of this.
- If you’re a light sleeper - take earplugs. The call to prayer starts early in the morning. I think it was slightly different everyday, but I remember it around 4:30AM one morning. I don’t mind it, so this wasn’t a big deal for me.
- Turkey is known for their amazing towels. Yes, towels. If you’re in Istanbul - visit Jennifer at Jennifer’s Hamam. I bought and shipped back some beautiful, good quality towels. I am regretting not getting more (she said I would lol). You can only get them there - so stock up! Not only are they all authentic and organic, but they also last for up to 20 years! Read more about Jennifer’s Hamam here.
Where to Stay
Not at Sura Design Hotel & Suites. I was really disappointed about this one. The location is great. Right in the middle of the Old City. However, as we know, things are not always as great as they appear online. When we arrived we were supposed to have a room with two beds. The room didn’t have two beds. So, they put us in another room that smelled like mildew because the carpet flooring was soaked. When we brought it up, they said that happens sometimes. They were going to move us to a room on the first floor, but the bathroom was weird with no separation between the floor for the shower and the floor for the rest of the bathroom. So on our last night there, we finally got switched to another room that was of equal value to what we booked. It still wasn’t what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t smelly. The food at the hotel was also bland. The breakfast was very disappointing. I had watermelon and hardboiled eggs every day. One day there were roasted potatoes. Those were good.
If I return, I would probably stay across the bridge in the Karaköy neighborhood.
What I really liked about Istanbul was that it is so diverse. I couldn’t tell who was a local and who was a tourist. Turkish people are all different shapes, sizes, colors, everything. I thought that was pretty interesting and something I had no idea about before traveling there.
All in all, I really enjoyed the beautiful city of Istanbul, and I would most definitely visit again.
To see more follow me @elsfaye on Instagram.