Travel: Insider's guide to Istanbul
Updated: Jan 17
Friends who visit in Istanbul know about my secret Google doc -- "so you have no excuse not to come!!" It covers the nuts and bolts of visas and the latest COVID rules, but also rates popular tourist destinations and some of my favorite cafe's. Here's an abridged version, for your viewing pleasure:
Should I get out of Istanbul? What’s there to see?
As in the rest of Europe, domestic flights are cheap cheap cheap. Pegasus, which flies out of Sabiha Gökçen airport on Istanbul’s far east side, offers a flex ticket option for a few extra bucks. As long as you haven’t checked in yet, you can change your flight up to two hours before it takes off. The train system is also decent, and the roads are great if you want to rent a car and drive.
Popular spots for Roman ruins are near the beaches of Antalya, Bodrum and Izmir; or out in the crazy awesome rock formations of inner Anatolia (Cappadocia’s Hittite/Byzantine cave cities). There are mountain tea fields and camping on the Black Sea Coast, and the best food is of course in Hatay and Gaziantep.
What’s the weather like?
Weather in Istanbul is generally pretty mild, though springs are quite rainy. It does snow in the winter but infrequently -- mostly it just rains -- and summers are super hot and humid. If you’re doing a home stay you can check to see if they have air conditioning.
What do I pack?
Istanbul is a ginormous, modern international city, but it’s also very old. Cobblestone streets, hills and stairs are everywhere. It’s best to bring comfortable, flat shoes that you won’t mind walking in. Or sneakers.
Occasionally you’ll see western lady tourists who think they need to wear a hijab around town, but that’s only required if you’re inside a mosque. Turkey’s founders were secularists, and the ability to wear, drink and eat what you want persists today. (They will tax the CRAP out of your beer, though.) You can pack a scarf if you like, but the big famous mosques that tourists visit will provide a cover for you free of charge.
That said, if you're a woman wearing shorts (or even jogging in yoga pants), you'll get some stares. Linen pants are popular here in the summer, because they provide good coverage and are nice and loose. And waterproof eyeliner— you will sweat!!
Should I tip?
Rule is generally to round up your fare in taxis and 10 percent for servers in restaurants. I tend to tip more in cheap restaurants, because the fancy places often pay workers more. In a hamam, the attendants might come “say goodbye” to you and it’s expected to distribute 10-20% of the bill among them. You can tip a tour guide as a group.
Can I drink the water?
Generally, we buy drinking water in giant, 19-liter plastic jugs. Brushing your teeth in tap water is fine.
Make sure you’re up to date on your normal ones, and the CDC recommends Hep A if you’re eating street food, etc. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/turkey
WHAT TO SEE, WHAT YOU CAN SKIP
“Why, the best Greek ruins are in Turkey; didn’t you know?!” -- my grandmother
Le olde standby’s: (these are all in Sultanhamet)
Hagia Sofia: Now a mosque, reclaimed by Turkey’s conservative government. The upside is that it’s open 24/7 and free to the public. Ladies, you’ll want to wear a scarf and long sleeves/pants.
Hagia Irene: Pictured above. Byzantine church from the 4th century, much less foot traffic than the Sophia. One of the last ones that hasn't become a mosque yet. Easy to dip in quickly, it’s very close to Topkapi Palace. Sometimes being alone with the stones is the coolest thing.
Mosaic Museum: This is a quick one you can pop into, hidden in the market behind Sultanhamet Square. Some incredibly well preserved mosaic floors from the Romans.
Basilica Cistern: Underground, Byzantine-era cistern. Going through renovations and might be closed at the moment. Say hi to the Medusas for me.
Grand Bazaar: You can get lost in here. One of the last bazaars worldwide that have been in use since the middle ages (the oldest was destroyed in Syria). Unfortunately, it has since become quite touristy. The coolest shops, in my opinion, are the ones with old Ottoman Empire antiques, and the secondhand book courtyard bazaar near the library. If you’re into photography, go early in the morning before it gets crowded. If you’re into shopping, go in the late afternoon before it closes to get the best edge on haggling. There’s also a book market near the exit by the university, which has sold textbooks to students for at least 500 years.
Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian market): Smaller version of the aforementioned. Mostly selling spices, teas, and sweets. A bit touristic and it gets busy so try to go at odd hours, you don’t need to spend much time. The more interesting spice shops are just outside of the building, where they sell cheese, olives and cured meats.
Topkapi Palace Museum: Massive complex, and home to the Ottoman sultans for centuries. Gorgeous mosaics, gardens and views. Don’t miss the kitchens. You have to pay extra to see the harem but DO IT, it’s fascinating. It’s like, the home and hearth of the palace but also kind of a gilded jail? (If you’re as fascinated about this as I was, The Architect’s Apprentice is a great read)
*NOTE: You can almost always pet the street cats, but be careful with the street dogs.*
If you’re a history buff:
Sultan Ahmed/The Blue Mosque: BEAUTIFUL. Amazing tiles. But it’s under construction and you can’t see much when you go in. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to sit in line, try Süleymaniye, Fatih or even Örtaköy instead.
Chora Church: I’d put this in the “must-see” if this aligns with your faith, a friend’s mom really loved it. It’s a Byzantine-era church with some incredible mosaics with old Bible scenes. Not super big, so you can get really close. It has also been converted into a mosque in recent years, with curtains over depictions of people in one area. Pair with a walk to a cute antique cafe in Balat. (POPS Balat has good teas and a wood burning stove.) Lots of Instagrammable street art and shops in the neighborhood, which is the historical home of Turkey’s Ladino-speaking Jewish community.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums: I NERDED out over this. This was established when the Ottoman Empire was still massive-- so they have artifacts and tombs from Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen, northern Africa, etc. My favorite were the massive Greek/Roman/Hittite burial tombs, there’s also a section on Egyptian artifacts, cuneiform tablets and Byzantine pottery.
Galata Tower: Super pretty, in Beyoğlu. Built by Italian traders in the 1300’s to keep watch for potential attacks from the Ottomans in Sultanahmet. Recently remodeled. Always a crazy long line so try to go when it opens.
Dolmabahçe Palace: The more modern iteration of Topkapi, which remained in use until Ataturk died here in 1938. It’s particularly pretty to see from the Bosphorus.
NOTE: *Turkey has so much history bandying about you really have ancient stuff that’s sometimes just -- there. There are also a couple of unmarked underground cisterns that were discovered when people were digging basements. Let me know if you want to go, and I’ll send you the coordinates.
Best outdoor adventures (Summer):
Black Sea daytrip: There are some excellent swimmable beaches just an hour or two from Istanbul proper, if you’re able to rent a car. (Mass transit lengthens the trip to 2 hours) My favorites are the beaches near Kiliyos and Agva. Waves rival the Atlantic, it’s a little colder than the south -- but if you drive around the villages you can find tiny sand beaches that are in the middle of nature and fairly undiscovered. LOVE.
Prince’s Islands: Accessible by an hourly ferry-- these are the islands they used to banish people too. But they were also a summer destination for the Greeks. Lots of really beautiful wooden houses. Beaches are so-so. Büyükada has a surprisingly arduous cycling trail around the whole island. You can check out an old Greek monastic church in the middle and stop for a quick bite at a hilltop cafe halfway through.
Zeytinbağı: This is my favorite thing to do in the summer. Rent some bikes and take the 90 minute ferry across to Mudanya, then ride through the olive farms and tiny towns along the coast. Some of the best olive oil is made here, the little town squares are adorable, and you can eat a fish dinner by the water before making your way back to the city. (Could also be done as an overnight, there are some super cute hotels)
Kadıköy: There’s rocky outcropping near an old lighthouse on the Asian side-- you can get there on the ferry. On Friday evenings, there will be music and grilled corn and good vibes. We bring beers out there all the time.
Belgrad Forest: Big ol’ forest and the site of some battles of yore. Some old Ottoman dams and ruins that you can find if you know where to look -- the easy one is near a picnic area and on Google Maps: “The Ruins of St. George’s Anglican Church.” (Pictured below, in spring.) Lots of jogging trails and camping/grilling facilities. You can drop by a collection of mezze and charcuterie shops on the way in and pick up picnic supplies.
Make your own photo walk:
In no particular order, and by no means complete. In fact, remind me to update this.
Fotoğrafı çekebilir miyim? “May I take a photograph?”
Early morning, Karakoy to the Grand Bazaar. (Like, 7:30-8a on a summer weekday). Start at the Karakoy
Ferry, walk across Galata Bridge, pass through Hasircilar Caddesi next to the Hatice Sultan Cemesi, continue on to the Grand Bazaar. You’ll see fishermen, and shopkeepers opening for the day in some really beautiful morning light, the same way they have for hundreds of years. It’s magic.
Balat and Fener: the old, gentrifying neighborhoods that used to be the center of the city’s Greek and Jewish communities. Beautiful wooden homes, adorable coffee shops and antique stores. At the top of the hill you’ll find the Chora Church and it’s incredible mosaics -- now a mosque.
The mom and pop shops around the Taksim fish market are always fun to see. Start at the address below and get lost! If you find Durumzade, you can get a cheap and tasty dürüm sandwich (kebab wrapped in flatbread) that was featured on Anthony Bourdain. And say hi to my friend who sits outside the meat shop and busts open roasted lamb skulls all day. (The brain and eyeballs are a delicacy) Hüseyinağa Mahallesi, Dudu Odalar Sok. 17/D, 34435 Beyoğlu/İstanbul - Avrupa
There are a million fresh fruit and vegetable bazaars all over town -- my particular favorite is right near Bogazici University on Saturdays.
Karaköy cafes, boutiques and graffiti on a weekend, for the people watching. Start at the Karaköy Çorba Evi -- Karakoy House of Soup -- and wander. Keep walking and you'll reach Galataport, the controversial cruise ship port / swanky outdoor mall. Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Mumhane Cd. No:35, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul
This article just came out about a local taxi driver who’s also a black-and-white photographer.
For art history and archeology nerds:
Check the Facebook page of the “Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey.” They often post walking tours, site visits and lectures that are open to the public. (Costs involved for some events)
Take a cooking class:
Cookistan // This one seems to be the best one in Istanbul, as far as ratings go. Includes a shopping tour that’s off the tourist circuit.
Turkish Flavors // In-home cooking class in Kadikoy with a Spice Market tour.
See the Whirling Dervishes:
There are shows all over the country, and they’re definitely best in Konya, the final resting place of Rumi. But the main spot to see the 'sema' in Istanbul is at the Galata Museum. It’s not flashy or exciting -- the best thing is to go with the expectation that you’re watching a religious service.
You can only buy tickets on location, Saturday at noon. The shows are Sundays at 5pm.
Other options for other days of the week are listed here: https://theistanbulinsider.com/where-to-see-the-whirling-dervishes-in-istanbul/
Want to understand the context behind it? Read Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love, a short novel.
Go on a boat!
Definitely in the summer, it’s probably too cold to be comfortable in the winter. But people LOVE them some Bosphorus cruises. You can arrange to have dinner or breakfast on one, or just buy a ticket to go up and down the channel and stop off at the sights. You can also rent a boat for a group of people (party boat!) and cook up some fish on deck -- if it’s warm enough, they’ll take you to the northern part of the strait where the water is cleaner and good for swimming. You might see dolphins!