15 REASONS TO VISIT ISTANBUL
Whether you're on a backpacking trip, a weekend getaway or a vacation, Istanbul is an absolute treasure chest of wonders. A mixing pot full to the brim of culture, art, creativity, history, beauty, warm people and amazing food. The only city in the world to cover two continents with the gorgeous Bosphorus separating the Asian and European sides of the city. Napoleon Bonaparte said "If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital." Read on to find out why.
How to get there
From Sabia Gokcen airport - We used 'Havabus' which you'll find just across the road from the arrivals main exit. For 10 TL (£1.20) the bus will take you the 45 mins to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city or, if you're going to Taksim on the European side, it'll cost 15 TL (£1.80)
Yes, Istanbul is big and crazy and can seem a bit daunting but navigating the city is a breeze. The transport links are very frequent especially between and around the main touristic areas and sites. You have a choice of bus, metro, tram and, as you might expect in a city separated by the mighty Bosphorus, ferry.
The first thing you'll need to do is buy an 'Istanbulkart', the city's travel card and 'Oyster' equivalent, for 6 TL (£0.70), top it up and you're good to go. Transport in the city is extremely cheap. A ferry ride between any of Kadikoy, Eminonu, Karakoy and Besiktas costs 3 TL (£0.35) and metro and bus rides cost between 1.85-2.60 TL (£0.20-£0.30). The metro and buses run until around 11pm to midnight and the last ferry crossing is usually around 01:00. As with any major city there are taxis everywhere at all times of day and night and they all run on the meter. There are also minibus taxis known as a 'dolmus' which run along set routes picking up and dropping off people along the way, the most you'd be likely to pay on one of these is 5 TL (£0.60).
#1 - Don't miss out on the Asian side
Istanbul is one of our favourite places on earth and Kadikoy is our favourite place in Istanbul. Kadikoy is the beating heart of the Asian half of the city with a fun-loving, easy going vibe. The streets are full of cafes, bars, clubs, street food vendors, artisanal shops and boutique fashion stalls. Kadikoy's primary inhabitants are students, creative entrepreneurs and young modern families. It's the place to be for a true, non-touristic taste of Istanbul.
#2 - Pack on the kilos
We're sure you don't need us to tell you that Turkish cuisine is up there with the best in the world. Each region of Turkey has its own unique style, flavours and ingredients and results in some truly tantalising dishes. Istanbul is a food lovers paradise because it is here that hundreds, if not thousands, of different dishes from regions all over the country, and the world, are brought together for your enjoyment. Obviously, there is so much on offer that it warrants its own article. Watch this space...
#3 - Go back in time in Fener and Balat
Fener and Balat are the perfect neighbourhoods to get away from the crowds and take a step back in time. These areas were the home of Istanbul's working class Greek and Jewish inhabitants back in the 17th and 18th centuries and many elements of the old communities are still present today. The uneven cobblestone streets are flanked by old, wooden houses connected by washing lines above your head and dotted with modern cafes and museums. These areas are well reserved and offer an unspoilt insight into the Istanbul of old.
#4 - Get your camera ready
The harborside hotbed of activity that is Eminonu is a wonderfully picturesque part of the city. Majestic mosques fill the surrounding skyline, ferry's full of passengers coming and going, the railings lined with scores of fisherman dipping their rods into the Bosphorus and vendors serving up the freshest balik ekmek (fish sanwich) you will ever have the pleasure of tasting. Located right at the foot of the Galata bridge where you'll find a number of fish restaurants, Eminonu is a stones throw away from the Galata Tower and the Egyptian Bazaar (Spice Bazaar).
#5 -Marvel in the wonderful architecture
There are no shortage of beautiful mosques and museums in Istanbul but we feel that the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) and Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) deserve a special mention. These are 2 of the Istanbul's best known landmarks and are located a stones throw away from one another in the Sultan Ahmet area of the city. For those looking for a insight into the diverse, cultural history of both Istanbul and Turkey, the Hagia Sophia museum is the place for you. Admission is 40 TL (£4.75).
#6 - See the Bosphorus from above
The Galata tower is made of medieval stone and is one of the highest points in the city. It is from this tower in the 14th century that Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi donned a set of home made bird wings and jumped out of the window before landing safely in Uskudar, over 4 miles away. Admission to the tower is 25 TL (£3) and from the top you will have a wonderful panoramic view of Istanbul. Outside the tower the cute little streets of Galata are dotted with bakeries, cafes and souvenir shops.
#7 - Take home a permanent souvenir
Istanbul is full of young, creative and unique artists and so naturally is home to an a new generation of up and coming tattoo artists. Whilst back in one of favourite cities, we couldn't pass up the opportunity to add to our own personal collection with one such artist - Erdem Gungor - frappeink. Erdem is a leading figure in Istanbul's fast growing tattoo community and his unconventional style results in some truly wonderful results. Check out Erdem's creations( @frappeink) and be sure to pay him a visit.
#8 - Istanbul's hidden gem
The European side's sunset hotspot. This little gem can be found at the foot of the spectacular Bosphorus Bridge right next to the beautiful Ortakoy mosque alongside the sea. Be sure to have your camera because this is one of the most photogenic spots. You can spend your evening here browsing the little street markets followed by a few beers on the river. Before you leave Ortakoy you have to try a Kumpir, its a jacket potato as big as a baby's head piled high with at least a dozen different toppings - you'll sleep well tonight.
#9 - Gallipoli and Troy tours
Those with an interest in history won't want to miss out on a tour of the most significant sites from the Gallipoli Campaign between 1915-16. We partnered with Crowded House Tours for the opportunity to visit Brighton Beach, ANZAC Cove and a number of the cemeteries and memorial sites to honour 100,000+ soldiers who lost their lives.
Crowded House offer a door to door service from and back to Istanbul for the Gallipoli tour and also the Troy tour where you can see a life-size replica of the Trojan Horse take a guided tour through the city walls of the ancient city which dates back to 3,000 B.C.
#10 - Shop like the Ottomans
It's one of the world's most visited tourist attractions with up to 400,000 visitors daily. The bazaar is the largest and oldest covered market in the world with nearly 5,000 shops spanning nearly 60 streets. The sheer size alone makes it worth visiting and the smells, colours and sounds are a full on assault on the senses. Strolling around and getting lost in the maze like streets is all part of the fun but, in our opinion, the Bazaar, as amazing as it is, is little more than a tourist attraction. Everything you'll find here can be found much cheaper elsewhere in Istanbul. Still, absolutely worth checking out for the experience.
#11 - Get cultural
Museums, mosques and palaces. Istanbul has them all. The truth is you could probably spend a week doing nothing else, and still barely scratch the surface. Some of the places we recommend you visit are Topkapi Palace, Dolmabache Palace, Chora Church, Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Great Palace Mosaic Musuem and Istanbul Archaeology Museum to name but a few. Unless you have no time limit, you're just going to have to pick a few. The good news is they're all amazing.
#12 - Romantic island getaway
Istanbul can be pretty hectic and for some foreigners it can be a little overwhelming. Luckily, the magnificent little island of Cunda is only a few hours away. You would be forgiven for mistaking Cunda for a heavenly dream. From the moment you step off the boat you're immersed in its charm - olive trees, dusty little cobblestone streets and stone houses. The Greek influence from the 1920's is still felt across much of the island. Even if you can't make it from Istanbul, you'll want to come back another time, and when you do, be sure to stay at Gule Otel for the most wonderful experience.
#13 -Cruise the Bosphorus at night
The Bosphorus is one of the most important straits in the world and a nighttime cruise along its banks offers up some of the most beautiful sights Istanbul has to offer. We joined Ottoman Nights for their evening cruise which included an all you can eat Turkish style buffet. They also put on a traditional Turkish show with many different acts such as belly dancing and mevlana. Following the show you have some time on top of the boat to enjoy the sights as you cruise along into the night. Be sure to check out Ottoman Nights for an unforgettable night.
#14 -Underground palace of mystery
Yerebatan Sarayi (Sunken Palace) is one of the largest underground water cisterns in the city and was the major water reservoir for the Ottomans. This magnificent site was built in the 4th century and was in use until 1545. The structure is supported by 336 giant columns and has a hauntingly beautiful, almost gothic feel to it. You can visit the cistern for 20 TL (£2.40) up until 18:30 everyday. Some evenings, due to the incredible acoustics down there, there will be concerts or musical performances.
#15 -Watch out for snakes
So you're on the Asian side, you've had a lovely day and now you're looking a relaxing and romantic spot to watch the sunset. Kiz Kulesi (Girl's/Maiden's Tower) is a few stops away from Kadikoy on the metro and is a small islet a short way out into the Bosphorus. Legend has it that a Byzantine emperor heard a prophecy telling of the death of his daughter before her 18th birthday by snake bite. To protect her he built the tower on an islet in the middle of the sea so that no harm could come to her. She lived here for years until one day, before she was even 18, she was bitten and killed by a snake which was hidden in a fruit basket brought to her from the city. These days couples and families gather on the banks of the Bosphorus to sip tea and watch the sunset.
Where to stay
The European side is where you'll find 90% of the tourists but, if you're like us, and you want the most authentic local experience possible, you'll want to base yourself in Kadikoy on the Asian side. We were hosted at the awesome Hush Hostel Lounge right in the middle of Kadikoy. The hostel has space for up to 70 fellow travellers across dorms and private rooms. This a super friendly hostel with lots of social activities so you'll meet loads of new people and have a great time. What more do we need to say? Great location, vibes, facilities, WiFi and, if that isn't enough, free breakfast!
"Life can't be all that bad, I'd think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a long walk along the Bosphorus"