I recently visited Turkey for the very first time and the first stop on the itinerary was the largest (though interestingly not the capital) city, Istanbul. Only a 3 hour flight from London, Istanbul feels like a total world away. With a population of over 14 million split between the ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ sides, the transcontinental city made me feel closer to Thailand than anywhere near Europe.
Our first couple of hours in Istanbul were a bit of a shock. I had no idea what to expect and everything seemed so chaotic. It didn’t help that I had next to no sleep the night before as going out after work felt like a good idea at the time (lesson learned).
Though all the right systems are in place and facilities exist in Istanbul, everything is incredibly unorganised and therefore nothing makes any sense. There’s a lot of just going for it and hoping for the best – something that I came to love about the culture of this crazy city!
Tip 1: Buy your Visa online
At the airport we needed to buy a visa so we queued up for half an hour only to find out they only accept Euros, Pounds or USD (not Turkish Lira), they also don’t accept payment by card. We had to find a Euro cash machine then get in the back of the queue again, so it took us over an hour to clear customs. Not quite the relaxing start to the trip that I had in mind but it’s nearly impossible to put me in a bad mood when on holidays so I didn’t mind too much. Lesson learned though – buy your visa online!
Tip 2: Avoid driving in Istanbul
As we wanted to make the most of the day, we jumped in a cab at the airport but soon learned that getting into Istanbul by car is quite the ordeal. The driver was so lovely and friendly, but the traffic in Istanbul was insane! The trip took about two hours even though it’s only 30 mins away. In some central parts where the traffic was at a standstill, young children would come up to our windows begging for money, whilst in other spots old men would walk up and down the highway selling cold water to the cars.
Luckily our driver was amazing and so helpful, giving us lots of tips and advice along the way and pointing out key spots to visit and things to do, which made the time go a little faster. He even called our Airbnb host and organised a place for us all to meet, dropping us off in the right spot, all without me even asking.
Tip 3: Embrace the tea culture
I absolutely loved the tea and coffee culture in Istanbul. Coming from the UK, it was so strange to see how alcohol was just not a part of everyone’s daily life in Istanbul, and it’s scary to realise just how much it has become a part of mine since living in London! Saturday afternoon, sunshine was out, music was playing, people were out all over the streets and sitting at outdoor cafes, only they were drinking tea and coffee, not beer and wine. To be honest, it reminded me a little of living in Melbourne and all the times I used to catch up with friends over coffee, never over booze.
Our first night, first meal, I wasted no time and went straight for the hummus (good call), followed by a falafel wrap (even better call) and a glass of Turkish black tea at Pim Karakoy.
The next day we got up early, headed straight out to find some breakfast and coffee, then were ready to start the day early and make the most of it. One and a half days in Istanbul is not enough to even touch on all the things I wanted to see, but I have no doubt that I’ll be back in this city again. I just had to keep reminding myself that this trip had a bigger focus on exploring the rest of Turkey!
Tip 4: Ditch transport and walk
As usual, we walked everywhere. I say it every time but it really is one of my favourite ways to see a new city. We walked over the bridge filled with men fishing side by side all along the waterfront, watched a big cycling race pass by in a blur and made our way uphill, past the bustling shops and bakeries, towards the Blue Mosque.
We visited Hagia Sophia which was built in 537 as a Greek Orthodox church and was then converted into a mosque in 1453. It’s now a beautiful museum and a ticket costs 20 lire (and about half an hour of queuing time).
The wishing column in Hagia Sophia is said to have supernatural, healing powers. You have to put your thumb into the damp hole (I’m not making this up, promise) and spin your palm around, like so…
Tip 5: Visit the Blue Mosque
We then made our way to the Blue Mosque, a must-see if you’re visiting Istanbul. As we arrived during prayer time, we had some time to kill so we went to a one-hour free talk explaining the 101 basics of Muslim religion and culture. I must say that being brought up as a Catholic and going to Catholic school my whole life, I genuinely had no idea what it was all about so this talk was extremely eye-opening and I learnt so much! It’s well worth attending if you’re interested – the talks start one hour before prayer time finishes, keep an eye out for the signs or just ask one of the lovely Mosque volunteers and they’ll point you in the right direction.
The Blue Mosque itself was completely not what I expected. It was my first time in a mosque and if I’m totally honest, I was a little underwhelmed when I went inside, probably because after visiting La Sagrada Familia last month, no church or mosque will ever compare again! It was stunning from the outside and when the call to prayer started, I felt like I was in another world, it was beautiful and very surreal.
Getting into the mosque was a little more of an ordeal – there were long queues and big crowds, it was raining outside so walking on the semi-damp carpet in socks wasn’t ideal, but it was really interesting to see, especially after the talk we went to beforehand.
Tip 6: Explore the Bazaars
After the Blue Mosque, we headed to the Spice Bazaar, one of Istanbul’s most popular markets (second only after Grand Bazaar). There are 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delights, sweets, jewellery, rugs, dried fruits and tea, creating a total colour and sensory overload…
Despite having a very short day and a half in Istanbul, I think we made the most of it and managed to see the key things that I was desperate to explore – the Spice Bazaar, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and spending time in the area of Karakoy. I managed to squeeze in some shopping too, always a bonus 🙂
Where I stayed: Karakoy – The East London of Istanbul. The area was gorgeous, quirky and had loads of restaurants, cafes, shops, good coffee and museums.
Accommodation: I stayed in an Airbnb flat which was really cute, comfortable, in a perfect location and had an amazing roof terrace. The host was lovely and showed us around the area when we arrived, pointing out the best places to eat, drink and explore.
Dinner: Karakoy is full of fantastic restaurants, though a lot of them serve up trendy burgers rather than authentic Turkish food.
Coffee: There’s no shortage of coffee in Karakoy, though they tend to open quite late. I recommend Coffee Sapiens who are masters of filter coffee and can also whip up a pretty good flat white too
Check out my full Turkey travel itinerary here, and keep an eye out for the next Turkey holiday instalment on Cappadocia, coming next week!