This Easter, Mike and I decided to spend the holiday visiting Istanbul, Turkey. We didn’t know precisely what to expect in Istanbul, and the adventure was one of the most memorable trips we’ve ever had together. Istanbul packs a lot, which is makes sense because it is the economic, cultural and historical center of Turkey and connects Europe to Asia. From dazzling sights to delicious tastes and a stunningly unique culture – we went through it all! Visiting Istanbul is tremendous, and here are some ideas of what to expect, surprises we encountered along the way and a breakdown of our must-see attractions and how to do them right.
What to Expect
We prepped for this trip our normal way, with travel books and blog surfing, and here is a list of take-aways that we found most important and some that were most surprising.
Istanbul is huge and dense – I wasn’t 100% prepared for this. It’s the 4th largest city in the world with almost 15 million residents packed in a dense, sprawling and modern city. Istanbul has roughly as many people as New York City, LA and Chicago combined, and almost twice as many inhabitants as London. Plus it’s growing, there is construction everywhere and a significant amount of foreign investment.
The public transit system is equal to that of any European city (therefore superior to all American cities). It was easy to get around in clean, timely, efficient and mixed forms of public transit from buses and ferries to trams and funiculars.
TIP: purchase an Istanbullkart (similar to a MetroCard in NYC or an Oyster card in London). This rechargeable card will make your trips up to 50% cheaper, can be shared between multiple people. If purchased at a transit stop it will come with ride credit.
Riding around or walking around, the crowds were large and even the pedestrian streets overflowed with people most hours of the day.
While the transportation was top-notch, the neighborhoods were peppered with abandoned houses and the streets were teaming with stray cats. Many of them were squatting (pun intended) in these shuttered homes because the smell of cat urine was pungent and unavoidable in many areas.
Where we stayed
We picked an area that was close to transportation, dining and night life with easy access to the sights of Istanbul. This was the Taksim Square area in the “new city,” considered the heart of modern Istanbul. Taksim features rooftops bars and fine dining options with gorgeous views of the Bosporous as well as local flavors and fantastic shopping along Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian street at the center of action in Taksim. We were very happy with this area because there was always something to do nearby and the attractions we visited each day could be reached easily by public transit in about 20 minutes. We learned in preparing that the Asian side of the city offered little for tourists and the Old City is beautiful during the day, but most of the dining and nightlife closes early.
Yes, it’s a Muslim Nation
While secular, Turkey is a Muslim-majority nation and the culture reflects this with beautiful mosques and influences of Islam all over. While in Istanbul you will hear the Muslim call to prayer 5 times throughout the day as they echo around the city from each mosque. At mosques, you will see ablution, the ritual cleansing of certain body parts before prayer. There are fountains and water taps outside of these holy buildings for washing of hands, arms, feet, lower legs etc. You do not have to participate in ablution, but when you step into a mosque you will have to obey the dress protocol, just as you would visiting a Christian Church or other house of worship. For men and women this means covering knees and shoulders and removing shoes. Women also cover their hair out of respect, and cloths are provided for anyone who needs to borrow them. Otherwise, Islam advises modesty for both men and women, so you will see some men and women dressing in coverings that reflect their own interpretation of modest attire. Head scarves and head-to-toe coverings may be seen, but in Turkey, most men and women take a more liberal interpretation of modesty and it is an individuals’ choice.
Part of the beauty of Istanbul is the gorgeous waterfront views you can find from many parts of the city. We took in these picturesque scenes wherever and whenever we could including doing a Bosporous cruise, eating dinner and grabbing drinks on a rooftop with a balcony and walking the Galata Bridge – one of many iconic bridges in the city. Even attractions like Topkapi Palace and Süleymaniye Mosque were built to provide breathtaking views of the water.
Not all the Water is Wonderful
I was particularly surprised to learn that the public water is not potable. I thought that only happened in Michigan, but the public water is not safe to drink and we had to purchase large bottles of water to bring to our hotel.
In many places we have visited, there is an aggressive selling culture (at least to us two Americans) and Istanbul was very much one of those places. The selling culture is pervasive, which is pretty cool in some instances like visiting the Grand Bazaar. Other times, we just wanted to wander the streets and find an after dinner drink but we were solicited to enter every restaurant we passed. Occasionally it bordered on uncomfortable because the people “selling” us were over-persistent, ignored our refusals or followed us. While much of this is cultural, and we were respectful, we sometimes felt on edge or wondered if we were sought out for being American. It wasn’t a matter of safety, it just left us with a feeling of always being on edge.
We were a little worried about the changes we may see since government reforms have impacted Turkey. Political unrest, a coup attempt and a subsequent power grab by President Erdogan have resulted in restricted freedoms. We have no comparison, but friends who have visited before mentioned differences they have noticed as they have made more recent trips. We noticed that we could not access Wikipedia (problem with open-sourced information I assume) and some apps were repressed. For irony’s sake, here is Erogan’s Wikipedia page where you can read more.
What to Do
We took our four full days and laid out an agenda which took us to the main sites, provided leisure time for exploring our own adventure and we even had some relaxation. Here is how we split our time, further detail coming soon:
- Day One: Topkapi Palace & Harem and Hippodrome
- Day Two: Grand Bazaar, Süleymaniye Mosque, Galata Bridge
- Day Three: Bosphorus Tour and Yoros Castle
- Day Four: Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Hamam