As my taxi bobbed and weaved through traffic at alarming speeds, I had wished I brought some motion sickness tablets with me. My first introduction to Istanbul, Turkey had begun. The young guy who I flagged down at Ataturk Airport to bring me to my hostel hardly spoke a word of English. Communication with him consisted of showing him the address on my iPhone that I was heading to, and then proceeding to watch him throw his hands in the air numerous times and shout in Turkish to any cars, motor bikes, or pedestrians that got in his way. As he rocketed through the streets toward the city I thought to myself, I didn’t need to get to my destination THAT badly, but he was seeing to it that it was as fast as he could manage. The only time he slowed down was to beep and shout at an attractive woman on the side of the road, then turned around to give me a thumbs up. Universal language I suppose.
Flying In To Turkey
There are a few airports you can fly into in Istanbul, with Ataturk being the main option. If at all possible I would recommend flying in here as Ataturk is closer to the city than most other options, and a cheap (Appx.$1.50) tram/subway ride to anywhere in Istanbul. Depending on where you are going a taxi from Ataturk into the city will run you between $20-40, but you should always agree on / haggle for a price BEFORE you get in to the taxi. Just a tip inside Ataturk Airport, if you did not purchase your visa online before you entered Turkey you can do it inside the airport. Also, the line for passport control is by far the longest and worst I have ever seen. The man “Passport Control 1” station is always packed with a line that usually extends back to the gates. When I arrived I asked someone towards the front of the line how long they had been waiting to get about 2/3 through the line and she said over an hour and a half. If you want to take a chance (it paid off for me both times I flew into Ataturk) you can keep “Passport Control 1” on your left hand side and continue walking down to the far end of the terminal where you will find “Passport Control 2” and a significantly shorter line.
What Sights To See
In a city packed with sights and sounds, let me share with you what I experienced and give you an idea of how long you would need to see the city and what might interest you. Starting out with one of Istanbul’s most famous tourist attractions, The Blue Mosque aka Sultanahmet Mosque. There is a very strict dress code that needs to be observed heading inside this or any other mosque. For women, your heads and shoulders must be covered as well as your legs, shorts and tank tops will not be allowed. If you have something on with a hood you can use that to cover your head, otherwise if you are in a jam they do have garments you can borrow to go inside. For men, no hats or shorts are allowed, however short sleeve shirts are ok. Shoes must be removed when you enter for both men and women, so it is probably a good idea to wear socks the day you decide to visit this or any other mosque in Istanbul. Taking in the sheer size and beautiful colors inside, I assure you, you won’t be disappointed. pictures and videos are allowed inside, but it’s important to be respectful as it is a place of prayer and there are people actively praying there throughout the day. The mosque does close to visitors during observed prayer times.
Just a 2 minute walk away from the Blue Mosque is another major attraction, Hagia Sophia aka Ayasofya. Now operating as a museum, this building has a very unique and tumultuous history, being converted from a mosque, to a Roman Catholic Church, back to a mosque again. This hybrid of different religions has left a one of a kind influence on the interior of the building, with everything from frescoes of Jesus on the walls to beautiful arabic prayers scrawled along the pillars. There is no dress code to enter since, as I mentioned, it is operating as a museum now but I would recommend getting there as early as possible as the line to enter can get very long. It is also closed on Mondays. *Be aware it is under restoration at the moment, so half of the interior is covered, floor to ceiling, in scaffolding. Little bit of a disappointment when I went in but I understand it needs to be done. Be aware that in the square between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, there is an influx of hustlers and “sales people.” They will say anything to you to make you slow down or start a conversation with you. I intentionally said I was from a different city each time I was approached and they always had a comeback, trying to engage you to keep you talking. They would say anything related to the city or state, like name towns around it, or name sports teams, literally anything to keep you talking and keep their hustle going. Just keep walking and don’t answer them. They will also try to get you to stop to shine your shoes, even if you have sneakers on. Again, just keep walking.
Coming off of the square between those two buildings, walking toward the tram line, you get to The Basilica Cistern. Built in 532, this impressive underground structure was used to hold the water for the palace and the surrounding buildings. After being forgotten for quite some time, it was rediscovered in 1545, and has since been restored on multiple occasions to the state it is in today. Inside is an eerie experience with low lighting illuminating the 336 columns as they stretch the distance of the structures interior. This dim ambiance combined with the shadows of fish swimming under the raised platforms you walk on, and the cold water occasionally dripping down from the ceiling on to you, create a bit of an unsettling feeling. This is a quick visit but worth it as you also get to read about the mystery of the two medusa head columns that found their way down there and the omens that some feel they represent.
Situated just behind Hagia Sofia is a large and beautifully groomed landscape around Topkapi Palace. The palace was the home of the sultans during the Ottoman Empire and now is one of Istanbul’s most cherished historical areas. Inside the palace museum you can find incredible historical relics relating to the Muslim history within Turkey, such as Mohammed’s sword and cloak, as well as historical remnants of the Ottoman Empire and the sultans who resided here. While in the grounds of the palace you also have the option to visit Harem (which you have to take a guided tour through), and Hagia Irene, both of which have separate entrance fees.
One of the most widely known places I would urge you to go see is the Istanbul Grand Bazaar. The largest indoor bazaar in the world, this literal labyrinth of pathways all begin to look the exact same very quickly. With many vendors selling similar products, it is tough to retrace your steps to leave, but lucky for you it has over 30 exits for this reason. Entrance is free, and if you do decide to purchase anything inside, make sure to haggle your way to a fair price. Keep in mind if you do not like your personal space invaded, this may not be the best place to visit as it is always packed full of people and some of the vendors will follow behind you for a few steps coaxing you (or shouting at you) to come back to their shop to buy something. Anyone traveling through here should also be wary of pickpockets in such a confined and crowded space. Keep in mind, the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.
Taksim Square, another popular place to visit, is located on the other side of the river from the attractions I have mentioned so far. Beginning at the top of the square, is the Monument of the Republic (Cumhuriyet Anıtı) which commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. Following the flow of people you come down to Independence Avenue (İstiklal Caddesi), the main shopping street you can meander your way down that has everything from bars and restaurants to designer shops and thrift stores. There is a pretty unique old-fashioned trolley that runs up and down the center of the road as well, which is a stark contrast from the otherwise modern luxuries the city has. About half way down Independence Avenue you will find the Church of St. Anthony of Padua. A beautiful Catholic Church located on the left hand side of the road, it has deep ties to Pope John Paul II as he preached there for over a decade while he was The Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey. It is a quick visit that can yield some great photos for you as the inside is sometimes decorated with beautiful sheer cloths that hang from the center of the ceiling and draw the eye down to the four corner pillars that they are attached to.
Just before you reach the end of the road that leads down from Taksim Square, on your right hand side, you will find yourself at Galata Tower. Known for being a great look out point over the entire city, I would highly recommend going up if you have a nice clear sunny day. Alas if you don’t you will still get a decent view but I personally wouldn’t recommend it without the sun. The lines to get into the tower can be pretty long, but there are some great restaurants all around the base for you to sit down and relax while you wait for the line to shorten. Istanbul is a city rich in religion and history. Its cherished traditions go back countless years and I am thankful to have experienced a small part of that during my visit, you definitely should too.
Breakdown Of Prices
(USD prices are approximate based on exchange rates) Accommodation in Istanbul can be pretty cheap. Hostels run between $15-25 for shared dorms, and private rooms go for between $30-50. Hotel prices vary depending on the area of town you are staying in, they range between $75-150 a night. A great way to save money in Turkey is the Istanbul Museum Pass. The two options you have to purchase it are the 3 day pass for $40 or the 5 day pass for $55. Each of the passes includes entrance to multiple attractions below as well as other museums not mentioned. If you are spending a few days in the city it could be a great way to save money on multiple sites that you want to visit.
- Blue Mosque – FREE
- Istanbul Grand Bazaar – FREE *Closed on Sundays*
- Taksim Square – FREE
- Church of St. Anthony of Padua – FREE
- Hagia Sophia – $10 *Closed on Mondays*
- Topkapi Palace Museum – $15
- Harem – $8
- Hagia Irene – $10
- Galata Tower – $5
- Basilica Cistern – $5
Quick Tips For Istanbul:
- It is almost certain you will need a visa to enter Turkey, which you can purchase online or in the airport
- If you fly into Ataturk Airport try going to Passport Control 2 for a shorter line to exit.
- Go to a local restaurant to watch a whirling dervish perform & sip traditional Turkish Tea
- Don’t go to visit any of the mosques during prayer times, they will be closed.
- Plan to visit Hagia Sophia as soon as they open, you will avoid the very long lines that form during the day
- In the square between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, there is an influx of hustlers and “sales people,” just keep walking, don’t engage them.
- If you have a fear of dogs, they are all over the city. There is a huge stray dog and cat population in Istanbul. Locals donate to have them captured and vaccinated (you can tell those by the tags on their ear) so they are friendly for the most part but just something to be aware of.
- Be aware of your surroundings as pickpocketing is a common occurrence.
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