I just got back from Istanbul, Turkey and wanted to share my take on this city. I feel Istanbul is one of the most underrated destinations but is quickly becoming a must go for travelers. For me what makes Istanbul so great is the character of the city. It’s soulful, honest, and has the personality that tourist crave when they travel. To me the joy of Istanbul is admiring the unique Turkish architecture, smelling the spices and foods, and understanding what this city has been through, throughout its 6,500-year-old existence.
To me Istanbul feels slightly more European yet with some obvious Turkish-Asian flair. I didn’t know what to expect from Istanbul but I was surprised with how modern and clean the city is. The people are mostly welcoming and the city is known for its special setting right on the Bosphorus.
On a beautiful day or night, Istanbul is buzzing with tourists and locals alike. I would have to say that food is the main event for locals and you’ll see food stands throughout all the popular spots. The breeze from the water is perfect and there is nothing better than sitting outside at a restaurant with some alcohol and food.
Most people are friendly yet conservative. Most are inviting towards westerners and of course the shop sellers are always trying to get tourists to buy. You can say no anytime and walk away if you don’t feel like buying. It’s a constant “take a look,” or “where are you from?”
As a gay guy, I didn’t really state anything about my sexuality and it didn’t come up too often. With a society like Turkey, it’s hard to know who is for and against gay people, so I just didn’t say much. There are people accepting and Istanbul even hosts a gay pride parade every year. Although this year the pride parade was down for unknown reasons by the government.
Things to Do
Istanbul is huge and it will take a couple of days just to visit the major sites. During the summer, Istanbul is packed and if you’re like me, hanging with tourists all day can be kind of annoying.
My favorite place was the Basilica Cistern. It’s an old underground water cellar, but today it serves as a museum. The atmosphere is borderline spiritual and the inside is gorgeous. Get here early, the lines were long.
A close second favorite of mine is the Hagia Sophia. This is a museum now but it’s truly spectacular inside. Mixed with Islam and Christianity, the Hagia Sophia is very well-preserved and is hands down the best example of Byzantine architecture. You will love the Hagia Sophia, not only for its history but because it truly the symbol of Constantinople and Istanbul itself.
Okay, this palace is huge and is a UNESCO Heritage Site. It is the best example of Ottoman Architecture and has existed since the 15th century. For me it was a very lovely palace; all designed in wonderful Muslim patterns and textures. One of the biggest diamonds in the world is displayed inside, as well as Muhammed’s cloak and sword, countless Royal Ottoman artifacts, and examples of court life from the Emperor himself to slave life.
Located right next to the New Mosque, it’s actually kind of hidden. It has a lot of the same junk you see all over the city but this market is known more for its spices, tea and coffee. I liked the Spice Market and most shops will even vacuum-seal the spices for you. They also take credit card or cash.
You can almost say it’s like the Spice Market since they sale everything there just bigger. Let’s get one thing straight, this place was absolutely massive. I walked about a quarter of it and it was very overwhelming. However it is a great place to bargain, find some great souvenirs, and cool off when it’s warm.
I actually didn’t go to this palace but passed by it while taking a boat tour on the Bosphorus. From the water, this palace looks gorgeous. From what I know it’s the newer palace and first palace designed in the European style instead of Ottoman.
I also didn’t get to visit this 14th century tower but it can be seen from much of Istanbul. It is said to offer the best view of the entire city from above.
Walking Sultanahmet Neighborhood
The Old City is where most tourists stay and for good reason. It’s a beautiful part of Istanbul and walking around you’ll experience markets, street food, and Istanbul locals. Bring comfortable shoes because there are so many hills in Sultanahmet.
One of the cheapest and most exciting tours is the Bosphorus Boat Tour. There are 2 – 4 hour tours (I took the 2 hour tour), and they leave right on the Bosphorus in front of the New Mosque. The tour was easy and refreshing and gives you great shots of Istanbul from the water.
Eating, Tea, Coffee
There was only a few types of food I really wanted to have in Istanbul! Eating can range from cheap to nearly the same prices I would pay back in Chicago. I researched traditional Turkish restaurants that only had great reviews. Turkish cuisine and drinks are an essential part of your visit to Istanbul, so take time to find that authentic food.
You can find doner almost anywhere in Istanbul and this is the type of food that you shouldn’t be paying a lot of money for. It’s classical street food and it’s delicious. You must have doner at least once. It comes in different forms, a plate and a wrap version; both are equally amazing.
Turkish tea is an important part of Turkish life. It’s black and served during a meal or important occasions. If you’re a tea lover, you’ll appreciate it, but even if you’re not you should still give it a taste. They also have herbal tea (not real tea), with many blends including the most popular, apple.
Turkish coffee is rich and comes something comparable to espresso. It’s rich, bitter and heavy. All coffee drinkers will obviously try it but it would be understandable if some coffee drinkers didn’t like it. Most places will also serve it with sugar and cream but you can drink it black too.
There are so many Turkish desserts it’s hard to keep track of them all. But definitely don’t be afraid to try Turkish Delight, rice pudding, baklava, and Turkish yogurt.
Turkish cuisine tends to be a mix of Asian and European influences for a lot of reasons. Istanbul is known for its dates, hummus, olives, nuts, plums, pears, figs, apples and all types of citrus. For breakfast, I had Menemen, which is scramble eggs cooked with tomato, green pepper, and onion.
Istanbul has many types of restaurants but you should try some traditional Turkish food. I recommend to get WiFi, and use TripAdvisor or Yelp to find restaurants that are highly reviewed. If you’re going to spend your money, go somewhere that’s authentic.
The touristy parts tend to be right off the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. I would recommend the cheap food stands that sell traditional doner. They are tasty and most of all cost less than 5 U.S. Dollars. There are sit-down restaurants but make sure you understand the price before you sit down. Turkish Lira is equal to roughly 3 times of the Euro.
Most people are Muslim and it dominates Turkey. Turkey is a secular country but when one religion dominates, it tends to bleed in all parts of society. You will hear the call to prayer often, western women have to cover their heads mosques, everybody has to cover their legs, and people tend to think more conservatively. I just wore jeans and a shirt during my time in Istanbul.
If you’re a gay traveler be careful with how much you share. Turkey is somewhat homophobic and I don’t personally think it’s wise to say too much.
For me, viewing Mosques is one of the musts to do in Istanbul. After all Istanbul is the city of minarets. I saw three and listed them below but there are of course many others. All mosques in Istanbul, or the ones that are running as mosques, require conservative clothing. Beware of the times when prayer is happening as the mosque will be closed to tourists. All mosques are free to get into.
Actually more grey on the outside, the Blue Mosque is named for its blue tile interior. Located right in the middle of the Sultanahmet also known as the Old City, it is a beautiful mosque to visit and one of what I call, the essentials.
Located on the southern part of the Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn, the New Mosque was designed in the 16th century by the Ottomans. Like the other mosques around it, it has a lot of history and a beautiful interior.
This mosque is the best example of the 18th century Ottoman Baroque style and in the Faith neighborhood of the Istanbul. If you’re walking over there I would hit this mosque just to at least take a picture of the outside and then move on to the Grand Bazaar.
Taxis are relatively inexpensive to get around but it’s based on a barter system. Make sure you ask upfront what the price will be as they can and do rip you off. Always pay in Turkish Lira and a taxi ride really shouldn’t be anything over 75 Turkish Lira, even from the airport. Average is around 10 – 30 Turkish Lira for a ride throughout the city.
I would suggest that people take the tram system to get around. Confusing at first because you have to buy little tokens and then put that token into the machine to get on the tram. If taking a cruise, you can take the tram and get off at Tophane Station.
I took a cruise out of Istanbul and the new port is very accessible. You’ll probably end up taking a taxi from the hotel or airport and it shouldn’t be more than 60 Turkish Lira. From the Old City it should be no more than 30 Turkish Lira and make sure you set up a price before you get into the cab.
Check-in was around 12 pm for the cruise, and so it’s best advice to drop off your luggage and explore more of the city. My cruise left late, at around 7, so it was more than enough time to explore more of Istanbul.
This city surprised me, and more positively than negatively. It feels like a city I’ve visited many times yet at the same time completely new. It’s modern, somewhat progressive and welcoming. I never once felt threatened or concerned; in fact the attitude was all positive. Locals go about their daily lives while us tourists look in awe at this fascinating city.
And so much to do, see, eat, smell and hear that it can be a little daunting at first. This city certainly has enough things to do for months, so focus on what really draws to you. I would definitely recommend Istanbul to anybody and I was happy to “discover” this city. The vibe there lies on borderline European to that almost Asian exotic, and that was exciting to experience.
images by: shawnvoyage