Considered the last outpost of the Roman (Byzantine) empire, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans in the 15th century AD after almost a thousand years under Roman rule. The city today is considered Turkey's cultural capital and is fashionable and progressive. Spanning both Europe and Asia and divided by the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a wonderful mélange of ancient and modern, of conservative and secular. From buildings and monuments that hark back to Roman times to the latest in avant-garde fashion and and culture, the city is a cosmopolitan jewel.
When to visit Istanbul (weather)
Istanbul experiences all four seasons, with summers going as high as 47° C and winters dropping to an average of 3-5 °C with upto 2 weeks of snowfall. While the city has something to offer all-year round, the best time to visit - weather wise - is either in spring or autumn.
We recommend, however, going in April as there tend to be more sunny days and you can also enjoy the blooming flowers all over the city. If you can't visit in April, then September is another option when it's not too hot or too cold, but don't expect bright sunny days as the weather tends to be a bit unpredictable at that time of the year.
What to see in Istanbul
The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul is home to some of the world's oldest and most beautiful buildings. At the top of the list is the Aya Sofya (Church of Divine Wisdom) which was built in 537 AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian. Next is the Topkapi Palace, one of the most opulent royal residences ever built. And third, there's Istanbul's famous Sultan Ahmet mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque). But if you're in town for longer, there are many more old churches, mosques and other beautiful buildings scattered all over the city. Also not to miss is Istanbul's famous Grand Bazaar in the heart of the old city with over 4,000 shops. It is said that the carpet and gold dealers are as persuasive today as they were 500 years ago when the bazaar was created.
Finally if you have some time, it's also worth visiting the Gallipoli peninsula, about 3 hours drive from Istanbul, where one of the major battles of World War I was fought and considered to be one of the defining moments of the founding of the modern Turkish state.
What to eat in Istanbul
One of the greatest things about traveling to Istanbul is the fantastic (and cheap) eating and drinking that awaits you. Its unique melding of Eastern and Western cultures has brought a style of cuisine that very much shapes day to day life in the city.
Like the majority of Istanbul's nightlife, the best dining options are to the north of the Golden Horn in Beyoglu. The streets running off Taksim Square near the fish market of Pazar Sokak ,and on and around Nevizade, are packed with bars and places to eat.
For cheap and easy food on the go, corn on the cob can be picked up from street vendors across the city. Istiklal Street, meanwhile, has a number of doner places, where the kebabs are just a little better than those you get at home!
Lamb and seafood (grilled swordfish kebabs come highly-recommended), served with plenty of fresh salad, dominate Istanbul's menus. Classic Turkish ‘mezes’ like halloumi in vine leaves, roasted chickpeas or salted almonds are also served everywhere.
Snack-wise, Turkish delight and the local ice-cream, ‘dondurmasi’, also both make a nice pick-me-up as you wander round the city. But one of the best things to grab is a 'borek' – a pancake stuffed with cheese and meat or vegetables.
If you fancy putting something together yourself, the ancient Egyptian Bazaar (also known as the ‘Spice Bazaar’) in Eminonu is the place to go for fresh produce. Wednesdays also see the stalls of a street market noisily mass together on Akbiyik Caddesi.
Out to the east, a more relaxed feel prevails in the cafés of Ortakoy, on the shores of the Bosphorus. A nice respite from the unceasing activity of the main city, it’s the perfect place to try a pot of delicious, apple-flavored Turkish tea.
And then it’s almost compulsory to try a glass of ‘Raki’; an aniseed drink usually diluted with water to ensure the cleanest taste. Ultimately, though, this is just one of dozens of distinctive tastes and flavors to be tried in this most sensory of cities.
A steaming cup of Turkish Coffee
For some decent coffee and a great view of the Golden Horn, head over to the Pierre Loti Café, named after the famous French novelist who is said to have frequented the cafe for inspiration. If you're in the mood for some delicious local fare, stop by Asmali Cavit, a traditional Turkish restaurant (called "meyhane"). The food is delicious and we recommend booking in advance.
While there's a lot of hype over Turkish kebaps (local word for kebabs) there's also some surprisingly some good fare for vegetarians. Try out the yummy mezzes in Çiya (in the Kadiköy area of town) and alternatively in Kantin (located in the posh neighborhood of Nişantaşi), which is a bit more upscale and dishes out seasonal vegetarian delicacies.
Althought, Turkish cuisine is very rich in desserts. The diversity comes from the fact that Turkish cuisine is the successor of the Ottoman culture.
Another factor is the geographic scene. The country spreads over a land of 783.562 km² with different regions and variations on vegetation within its borders and also the Mediterranean and Persian neighbors had their influence.
Lokum (Turkish Delight) - The original date for the invention of lokum is not clear. However, it is certain that Ali Muhittin Hacı Bekir’s lokums introduced the taste to the world. He opened his confectionery shop in Istanbul in 1776. An English explorer got lokum from his shop and took them to England. Turkish delight’s fame spread since then. Originally, there were three colors meaning three flavors: red – rosewater, yellow – lemon peel and green – bitter orange. With today’s rich variety of ingredients and nuts there currently are several flavors such as rose, pistachio, hazelnut, walnut, almond, coconut and almond, cream, cream with cinnamon, mint, mastic, cinnamon, ginger, clove and coffee, and fruit flavors like sour cherry, strawberry, orange, apricot, and lemon.
Baklava - When you ask a Turk what to eat as a Turkish dessert, baklava is the most common answer. Turks love sweets and baklava is a fine example of this. The description of baklava is simple: chopped nuts are spread in between the phyllo (yufka) layers, dressed with butter, baked and sweetened with syrup or honey. However, this is not a simple dessert to make. We have a whole page dedicated to this famous Turkish dessert.
Recommend in Istanbul
Relaxing in the Çemberlitas Bath, built by the famed architect Sinan in the 1500s, No trip to Istanbul is complete without indulging yourself with a Hamam (Turkish bath) experience. We recommend getting one at the Çemberlitas Hamami, situated in a building which dates back to 1584. If you've never been to a Hamam before, it's useful to read up a bit about the process online so that you're well prepared for what to expect.
Getting to istanbul
Most western tourists fly into Ataturk International Airport, a regional hub for flights between Europe and Asia. Istanbul is also the operations base for Turkish Airlines, which has pretty good service and flies directly to most major destinations around the world. Certain nationalities (including Americans and many Europeans) are offered a visa-on-arrival facility, but it's always best to check before going. If you are coming from Belgrade, Sofia, Bucharest or Tehran, you can also take a train or bus. Finally, if you're driving into Istanbul, it's highly recommended to park your car and then use local public transport (which is reasonably good) rather than risk driving through the narrow and often overcrowded streets.
In recent years, bars and clubs in Istanbul have brought themselves in line with a more ‘European’ model. Despite such an overhaul, however, the city’s nightlife has still managed to retain a character that’s as distinctive as its ancient markets and bazaars.
- The best way to start an evening is over a ‘narghile’ (hookah pipe). There are various places on Yeniceriler Caddesi and, especially during the summer, they make an excellent place to watch as the city gets going again after the heat of the day.
- From there, Akbiyik Caddesi is one of the livelier streets of the Old Town of Sultanahmet. Down between the Blue Mosque and the walls of Topkapi Palace, there are a number of bars where an international travelers’ set congregates from the early evening.
- Although the streets surrounding the basilica of Yerebatan Saray can also get quite lively, most of the best nightlife in Istanbul is to be found elsewhere. As the evening gets going, much of the action is transferred to the other side of the Golden Horn in Beyoglu.
- It’s here, spreading out from Taksim Square at the heart of Beyoglu, that the city really begins to buzz. Although the area is also hugely popular with young people during the day for to its fashionable stores and cafés, it's after dark that it comes into its own.
- Istiklal Caddesi has a number of small, studiously hip clubs and live music venues that are full to bursting most nights. Running just off Istiklal Caddesi is Imam Adnan Sokak, where several more quality bars are clustered together.
- Not far away, the area of Nisantasi has an altogether smarter scene and a couple of the city’s swankier places. Abdi Ipekci Caddesi boasts a couple of excellent restaurants that turn into bars later on and cater for a slightly more mature crowd.
- Whether it’s gazing out across the Bosphorus as the sun sets red and gold on its waters, or watching it rise again outside one of the clubs of Beyoglu, Istanbul has a range of nightlife that manages to surprise and delight in equal measures.
Taxi in Istanbul
Taxis are numerous in Istanbul and they are one of the most common transportation vehicles for locals and tourists as well. They are much cheaper in Turkey than in many European countries, however, it’s important to be aware of a few tips before embarking on a taxi ride in Istanbul. Though generally a safe form of transport, it’s not uncommon to be overcharged or for the drivers to behave dishonestly.
Taxis are yellow and they have the word ‘Taksi’ on top of their car. The use of the taxi meter is mandatory in Turkey. The fare shown on the meter reads according to distance travelled. For journeys between Asia and Europe, the crossing fee is subject to be paid by the passenger.
Visitors sometimes complain of having negative experiences with taxi drivers in Istanbul, so we recommend that you keep in mind the following:
- Try to use your hotel service to call a taxi or ask a nearby hotel to call for you. In this way, you at least have someone to complain to.
- Check that the taxi meter is started by the taxi driver when the journey begins. If the driver refuses or claims that the meter is off, get out of the taxi.
- Watch when paying the driver at the end of the journey. Try to have small cash on hand and give the full amount or something close to it to the driver. Be careful when handing over big banknotes, as it is a common trick of taxi drivers to replace the bigger banknote with a smaller one and request more from you.
- Since Sultanahmet is a highly touristic area, taxi drivers are more inclined to be dishonest. Walk or take the tram to another neighbourhood (Eminönü, Sirkeci) and take a taxi from there.
- For airport transfers, try to use private transfer services if you can afford the extra cost. Although it can cost around 40% more than a taxi, your journey will be secure, reliable and comfortable.
Keep in mind that there are also many respectable taxi drivers in Istanbul. Tipping taxi drivers is not common for locals, but if you want to you can give some small change.
Akbil: (Smart ticket for Istanbul Transportation) - If you’re planning to stay in Istanbul for longer than a few days then investing in an Akbil could go a long way in making travel in the city easier, cheaper and less time consuming.
What is an Akbil? - The Akbil is a pre-paid Automatic Fare Collection System is in the form of a small round button attached to plastic tag with a keychain. The Akbil can be touched on entry to various public transport options in Istanbul, removing the need to buy tokens. Akbils can be used for ferries, sea buses, metro and tram
Where can you top-up/recharge the Akbil? - As it is a pre-paid transport system, you must charge your Akbil with the required amount before travelling. Akbils can be recharged at blue and white IETT (Istanbul Public Transportation) booths reading ‘Akbil Satis Gisesi’ or on automatic machines, although be aware that payment at machines can only be made in Turkish Lira notes (not coins), and machines do not give change. There are multiple language options on the machines including English.
To charge Akbils on a machine, press the button onto the socket and wait for instructions before paying. Make sure to check that the money has loaded before taking it off the socket. A receipt can be requested.
Akbil will soon be replaced by IstanbulKart, a new contactless smart card designed to be used in Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality services as well as paying for mass transportation. However, it is still in its implementation process.
Medical & Safety Information for Istanbul
- Typhoid vaccine is recommended for longer stays. There is a minimal risk of malaria in the south eastern region of Turkey.
- Tap water, though chlorinated in larger centers such as Istanbul, is not recommended for drinking. Although the tap water itself is clean, many local water tanks are not maintained properly, and one should try to avoid tap water if possible. Locals widely prefer bottled water and the same applies for the restaurants. However, bottled water is cheap and readily available. Expect to pay for water in restaurants (around 2TL). Stay healthy!
- Private health insurance is recommended for travel to Turkey.
- Pharmacies in Istanbul are usually open until around 7pm and there are duty stores available on Sundays and public holidays.
- Pharmacies in Turkey can easily be recognized by the neon red ‘E’ (for the Turkish word ‘eczane’ ) sign outside shops. Istanbul has a plethora of pharmacies stocking a wide range of medicines, equipment and aids as well as toiletry items such as dental floss, band aids and bandages. Most medicines in Turkey do not require a prescription. Prices are controlled by the government and are generally low.
- Dentists are usually of a high standard in Istanbul, and the city has become a popular ‘medical tourism’ destination due to the relatively low costs of elective procedures.
- Despite this, make sure to agree to the fee you’ll pay in advance for dental work in Turkey as there are no fixed fees.
- Public/state hospitals are generally of a lower sanitary condition and care than in private hospitals, with patients often suffering long queues and lack of attending staff.
- It’s recommended that you take out private health insurance prior to a visit to Istanbul as the private hospitals in Istanbul are generally of a higher standard and staff can usually speak English or other foreign languages.
Safety Issues in Istanbul
Most travellers comment on the exceptional friendliness and hospitality of the Turkish people. Turkey is not only welcoming, it's also as safe as Europe and North America and in particular violent crime against foreigners is rare.
Even though Turkey is relatively safe there are a few things to watch out for:
Like in any crowded place, beware of pickpockets who may attempt to take your belongings when you are distracted.
- Keep a close eye on your bag or wallet, and try to keep it in front of you, especially in crowded places such as busy streets, metro or buses as bag snatching and bag slashing does occur.
- Muggings, though not common, are on the rise in Istanbul, so be aware of where you are, at what time of day, and what you’re carrying on you.
Scams in Istanbul
Although not frequent, there are a few scams in Istanbul aimed at westerners, as outlined below:
- There is a common scam in Istanbul aimed at single young foreign men. While walking on the street, a man is approached by other young, seemingly friendly locals, who offer to show him some ‘real’ Istanbul nightlife. When he arrives at the bar, young, attractive ladies are there and order drinks, which happen to total hundreds of dollars. The poor young man is landed with a whopping bill at the end of the night and forced to pay it. The moral of the story: ask for prices before you order, wherever you are.
- Another scam is carried out by shoe shiners. As you walk past, they ‘accidently’ drop their brush in front of you. As you bend down to pick it up, they look very grateful and start to polish your shoes in gratitude. When you go to leave, however, they start demanding that you pay for the shine. Moral of the story: don’t pick up the brush!
Many travellers are surprised at the large number of policemen in Istanbul, especially in the Taksim/Beyoglu area. There are also CCTV cameras in many places in the city.
Should you experience trouble while in Istanbul, don’t hesitate to contact the Tourist Police or regular police force- though the latter’s English skills tend to be limited.
Istanbul’s Tourism Police Department has an office in Sultanahmet across from the Basilica Cistern entrance, where travellers can go to report a stolen/lost passport or any other crime. They claim to be able to speak French, German and Arabic as well as English.
Tourism Police (Turizm Polisi)
Address: Yerebatan Caddesi 6, Sultanahmet
Tel: +90 212 527 45 03
Fax: +90 212 512 76 76
Accommodation in Instanbul
In general, it is possible to find some kind of accommodation in any district of Istanbul. Here is a quick list of the districts where they are concentrated most:
Harbiye is a popular place to stay, as in the main center of the new city on the European side, and contains a variety of international standard apartments, hotels, and moderate hotels for budget travelers. Nişantaşı and Taksim are 5 minutes from Harbiye so you can stay in Harbiye and benefit from all activities in Nişantaşı and Taksim.
Taksim is the main center of the new city on the European side. Locals and tourists go to Taksim for shopping and entertainment, as well as moderate hotels for budget travelers. There are also two hostels in this area.
Sultanahmet the main center for the old city on the European side. It has a selection of quality, reasonably priced hotels, many with terraces overlooking the Golden Horn, or with views of the Marmara Sea and the Blue Mosque. Most hostel-type accommodation frequented by independent travellers are located in this district, although it is possible to find a few upmarket hotels.
Quite pricey hotels can be found in western suburbs, especially around the airport, as well as on/overlooking the banks of Bosphorus.
With the closure of relatively central Ataköy caravan park, the place where you can tow your caravan nearest to the city is now located in Selimpaşa, a far outer western suburb of the city, though it is still a good 40 km away from central parts of the city.
Shopping in Istanbul
The currency used in Istanbul is the Turkish Lira (TL) though the euro and US dollar are also accepted at places frequented by tourists (although certain tourist attractions such as the Hagia Sophia only accept liras). Currency exchanges (döviz bürosu) and banks are plentiful in Istanbul and offer extremely competitive exchange rates with no commission charged. If you are planning to visit Istanbul, bring hard foreign currency and exchange them after you arrive, preferably at a bank or a currency exchange. Exchange only what you need as you will find difficulty exchanging your leftover TL back to foreign currency after you leave the country. Alternatively, withdraw money from ATMs whenever you need cash.
Shops may be closed on Sundays. Most major shopping malls have security checkpoints you usually see in airports and museums prior to entry.
Istanbul's historical bazaars with an oriental ambience, once sitting firmly on the western terminii of the Silk Road and spice routes, all dating back to Ottoman era, are all located in the the peninsula of Old City. However, expect extreme price rises in the Grand Bazaar as it's become a mere tourist attraction. Just moving by few meters outside of it you can see prices drop quickly. If you plan on shopping a lot, a flight to Gaziantep (which can be quite cheap) may be worth it.
On the other hand, modern shopping malls (alışveriş merkezi, usually shortened to AVM), popping all around the city in the last three decades, are mostly to be found in New Istanbul and western suburbs, though they are by no means exclusively located in these districts.
If you are after top quality upmarket garments, then you may better head for Nişantaşı in European Side and Bağdat Avenue in Asian Side. Here are some of what are popular to buy while in the city:
- Turkish Delight, or Lokum (as the locals call it). A good buy since you're in Turkey. It is advisable to buy it fresh rather than in pre-packed boxes and to get a variety of flavours rather than the stereotypical rose-water or lemon flavors available abroad. Pistachio in particular is very good. The best place to buy lokum in Istanbul is from a store. Istiklal Caddesi in particular features a number of stores that sell Turkish sweets by the kilogram including lokum and helvah. There are quite a few shops selling Turkish Delight in the Grand Bazaar, although unless you are very good at haggling better prices can be found elsewhere. Highly recommended for Lokum is the Malatya Pazari stall in the Spice Market. The Turkish delight there was fresh, had great flavours including some offbeat ones and the prices were fair.
- Turkish Tea (çay, CHAI). The national drink of Turkey, brewed from leaves grown on the steep, verdant mountain slopes of Turkey's eastern Black Sea coast. Traditionally, Turkish tea is brewed samovar-style, with a small pot of very strong tea sitting on a larger vessel of boiling water. Pour a small amount of strong tea into a little tulip-shaped glass and cut it to the desired strength with hot water. Turks usually add cube sugar (never milk, although you can often get milk if you ask.) Having fresh, hot tea always available everywhere is one of life's splendid little luxuries in Turkey. Elma Çay: apple tea, like hot apple juice (EHL-mah chah-yee) is the flavour of preference, although it's more for tourists; Turks prefer Siyah Çay (black tea).
- Rugs and kilims can be a good buy while in the city. Most rug-specialized stores in the city, though, are aimed at tourist trade, so pick up basics of haggling to avoid being ripped off at these stores. They are mostly located around Sultanahmet.
Places that offer the best at what they do but are not on any of the traditional tourist paths are:
- ArkeoPera, Yenicarsi Caddesi, 16/A Petek Han, Galatasaray, +90 212 2930378 . Best antiquarian bookshop in Turkey, owner knows every Turkish excavation site first hand.
- Gonul Paksoy, 6/A Atiye Sokak, Tesvikiye, +90 212 2360209. Peerless one-of-a-kind dresses made for royalty from refined, antique Ottoman-era cloth.
- Iznik Foundation, 7 Oksuz Cocuk Sokak, Kurucesme, +90 212 2873243. Offers neo-Iznik pottery after recreating original formulas from original Iznik kilns, which functioned between 1450 and 1650.
- Sedef Mum, 50 Irmak Caddesi, Dolapdere, +90 212 2535793. Artisans of the time honoured art of candle making, intricately sculpted and aromatic wares make very portable gifts.
Ramadan in Istanbul - Muslim Holy Month
Ramadan (or Ramazan in Turkish), which is the holy month for Muslims, can be an enjoyable time for a visit but it can also serve some annoyance. During Ramadan, Muslim people fast, starting from the first light of day till dusk, during which time they are prohibited from eating, drinking and smoking.
Ramadan evenings in Sultanahmet (the old city center) mean street fairs, festivals and specially planned events. While it’s no doubt atmospheric, it can be difficult to move freely around Sultanahmet after dark. Also be aware that there can be a slowdown in the way some places operate. Some restaurants which are normally open can be closed during Ramadan. Holy places and mosques will be crowded. Traffic jams before the evening meal are common as millions of hungry residents rush to their homes or restaurants to break their fasts. Ramadan is expected to begin on or around June 28, 2014 and will finish on or around July 27, 2014.
Video of Istanbul
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