It’s been a while since my last post but I’m back with a very exciting one! This post has taken me about a week to get around to as I got ill the day after I got home, courtesy of the British weather.
Recently I went on holiday to Istanbul for a week, it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. The trip came at such a transitional period for me as I had just graduated a month or so before and I was feeling a little lost. I haven’t been able to travel as much as I have wanted to in recent years so this was a long overdue holiday. I can’t even explain how excited I was in the weeks and days running up to my flight.
Istanbul was a city which I had heard so much about but I don’t think I was prepared for how much I would fall in love with it. From the amazing museums and mosques to simply walking through the quaint little streets, I loved it all.
I wanted to share my favourite places in the city in this post and share some tips for a first timer, hopefully it will encourage you to visit Istanbul and help you out!
Transport + Getting around –
As much as I wanted to use public transport and experience the tram and metro system which goes throughout Istanbul, my family and I used Uber to get around. It was such a lifesaver knowing that you had a guaranteed safe journey and also a set price. I had heard some travel horror stories from other visitors online which involved taxi drivers charging extortionate fares for a simple journey, with Uber there’s more security in that sense and means you get around really fast!
1.) The Blue Mosque – Sultanahmet Cami
Going to Istanbul and missing out the famous Blue Mosque would be a real shame as it is such an impressive building – inside and out. The sheer scale is awe inspiring and it’s beyond beautiful.
I would recommend going as early as possible if you want to beat the crowds and also get some great pictures, however even at peak times, the lines go down fast and as it’s such a huge Mosque there’s no shortage of space to sit and take it all in.
As it’s a functioning Mosque, during the five daily prayers it’s closed to visitors and only open to Muslims who wish to pray. So if you’re visiting, be sure to factor prayer times in to your daily schedule.
2.) Haga Sophia Museum – Aya Sofia Muzesi
One of my favourite museum; the high ceilings, arched windows and shimmering frescoes take you back in time. The Haga Sophia used to be a Church, which was then transformed into a Mosque during Ottoman rule and is now a functioning museum. The Christian and Islamic influences can be seen throughout the building, most notably in the focal point of the great hall where there is a fresco depicting Mary and baby Jesus and to the right, the name of Allah in calligraphy.
Throughout the museum there are artefacts from various points in history from Urns to Mosaics. I think this building is a symbol of religious tolerance and coexistence as it stands now and it’s no wonder that it attracts up to 4 million visitors per year.
The lines for Haga Sophia can get ridiculously long so I would recommend getting there as early as possible and getting an Istanbul Museum card which enables access to a number of different museums and gets you fast track entry too.
3.) Topkapi Palace + Museum / Topkapi Sarayi
Topkapi Palace is another amazing museum which is within walking distance of the Blue Mosque and Haga Sophia. It is such a vast palace and museum, with a number of different courtyards, a multitude of different chambers and a whole host of artefacts from points in Islamic history.
My favourite part of the palace was the Enderun Library, used by Ahmed III. It is such a stunning space, with traditional tile work and gold gilding everywhere. I would love to have seen it when it was still a functioning library and seen the Ottoman royals and rulers.
I feel like you need a solid few hours to really read all the different boards there and take in all the different elements. Each space has such a rich history, from the fountains to the calligraphy, to the artistic choices, everything has a purpose and reason which I found really interesting to learn about.
4.) Bosphorus Boat Tour
One of my top moments of the trip was the many boat rides we took during our stay in Istanbul. There are a lot of different companies and tour guides offering boat tours so I would suggest looking around and seeing which is the best value for money and which one gives you the most. Some tours have food for example as well as tours in different languages etc.
The one we went with was with a great tour company: Grand Boat Line which took us along the entire coast, pointing out all the key landmarks and giving us historic and cultural knowledge.
Once the boat is sailing you can walk around on the upper and lower decks which means you can really experience the beauty of the Bosphorus and take in the fresh air!
5.) K.Maras Ottoman Ice-cream
Located just in front of the Haga Sophia, Ottoman Ice-cream was our go to spot for Maras ice-cream when we were in the area. If you haven’t tasted Maras it’s sort of impossible to explain the taste and texture – but in the best way possible! It’s so stretchy and also doesn’t melt the way regular ice cream does, it has such a refreshing taste, it’s not super heavy or rich either. It’s basically the perfect treat to cool down and enjoy a unique Turkish delight.
6.) Nuruosmaniye Mosque / Nuruosmaniye Cami
One of the many stunning Mosques in Istanbul, Nuruosmaniye Mosque is a stunning sight. The construction was finished in 1755 after which it has been open to worshippers and other visitors alike.
Like so many of the buildings in Istanbul it has a distinct architectural style – Ottoman Baroque and is simply put – utterly beautiful. The name – Nuruosmaniye – translates to ‘the light of Osman’ after the ruler Osman III, notably there are a lot of windows in the Mosque which lets in so much light, again adding to this name.
7.) The Grand Bazaar
You know when you go somewhere and it doesn’t live up to the hype? yeah, well that was definitely NOT the case when it comes to the Grand Bazaar. Located in the Fatih district of Istanbul, it is the largest indoor market in the world, with an estimated 4000 shops. From the moment you enter the bazaar you’re bombarded with all kinds of goods, from hand made ceramics, lanterns and clothing to Turkish delight and chocolate.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed inside the bazaar as there are so many sellers trying to get your attention and sell you things as well as trying to navigate huge crowds within the bazaar. I don’t think I’ve ever been approached by so many people in my life, if you’re not down to buy anything you have to be firm and say no thank you as some of the sellers can be really persistent and it feels a little pressurising at times!
I did manage to find some really great little bits like some cute handmade pots as well as a pretty handmade mug. It’s a good place to find unique goods but haggling is necessary as you can easily get ripped off if you accept the first price that is given.
8.) Basilica Cistern / Yerebatan Sarnıcı
The Basilica Cistern which was built in the 6th century, is the largest underground cistern in the city. It was used as a water storage and filtration system during Byzantine times through to Ottoman rule. In popular culture the cistern has featured in various movies and novels such as the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love
When you enter the cistern you can feel and smell that you’re underground, there is a dampness in the air and the walkways are suspended over where the water was stored. Notably there are two columns featuring the head of Medusa. However the heads are sideways and inverted, which legend says is meant to take away the power of Medusas gaze. Well I don’t know about all that but it’s certainly very interesting to see these mythological elements in such an ancient space.
9.) Suleymaniye Mosque / Suleymaniye Cami
Much like the other Mosque; Nuruosmaniye Mosque, Suleymaniye is also an Ottoman mosque which is located on one of the highest hills in Istanbul. The view from the grounds is amazing – you can see the other side of the city where the Galata Tower is located as well as the brilliant blue of the Bosphorus stretching as far as the eye can see.
The interior is stunning, with Ivory and pearl inlay, and an amazing hanging chandelier like many of the Mosques in Istanbul. There was a very knowledgable volunteer, whose name was Ibrahim – who told us many more interesting facts about the Mosque. Such as that the Ottomans used Ostrich eggs in the chandeliers in order to deter insects and other pests.
He also pointed out an upper section of the mosque from which there were fire pits, and the ash from those were turned into ink and used for writing. Ibrahim was a great representative for the Mosque and taught us a lot so while I doubt he’ll ever see this, I still wanted to give him a little shoutout here.
10.) Taksim Square
Taksim Square is a district known for it’s many shops, restaurants and cafes. We went at night and it was still so busy that we were amazed. Although I’m from London and I’m used to seeing busy streets, nothing quite compares to the busy nightlife in Istanbul. You’ll see young travellers, entire families with prams in tow as well as street vendors, selling their range of wares. Interweaved through it all is the hustle and bustle of a city which is so alive and has such a positive energy.
We came to Taksim Square to eat at Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrasi which I had picked on a whim after a quick google search. Little did we know that it’s one of the busiest and most popular restaurants in Istanbul – we waited around 20 minutes for a table, as there was a waiting list to get in the door!
However it was definitely worth it as the food was AMAZING. It’s definitely on the pricier side, however the quality and service is so good, you can see why. We ordered the Chicken Shish, Grilled Chicken dish as well as the Mixed Veg Salad and the Spicy salad. Each dish tasted delicious and we had no complaints!
11.) Büyükada – The Princes Islands
The island of Büyükada, is the largest of the group of Islands named The Princes Islands. The name translates to ‘Big Island’ or in Greek means ‘prince’ or ‘foremost’. To get to the Island, you can take a direct ferry from Besiktas port, it takes about an hour and a half so definitely sit back and enjoy the ride! Maybe pack some snacks and relax.
Like on the other islands, there are no cars, so the forms of transport are bikes, horse drawn carriages and vespas. You can rent a bike for an hourly rate and explore Büyükada that way or like me, go by foot. I think walking around was really cool as we saw the little side streets and stumbled upon the cutest spots. We did also take a ride on the horse drawn carriage – and the driver we had told us the horses names were Madonna and Shakira. The horses were beautiful and well taken care of, although some of the others didn’t look super healthy which made me sad.
For lunch we went to Büyükada Bistro Candy Garden – which I had picked beforehand, during my online research.
The menu was extensive and offers lovely freshly made dishes, ranging from salads to noodles and wraps. We ordered the chicken noodles, the chicken wrap, a tuna salad and fresh strawberry lemonade.
All of the dishes came fresh and hot, and in excellent time and service was great. We really enjoyed our lunch here and would definitely come back if we got the chance, would definitely recommend it.
All in all, Istanbul was one of the best cities I’ve been to, the history was so rich and interesting that I was taken away by all the different places I was blessed enough to visit. From the grand palaces and awe inspiring Mosques to the amazing food, down to simply walking around and soaking in the laid back atmosphere in the streets, I fell in love with it all. I hope one day I’m able to go back. I think Istanbul is a city in which you can return and always see something new, and have a unique experience each time.
Have you been to Istanbul? If so what was your trip like? If not, do you want to? Feel free to let me know in the comments, would love to talk!
Until next time,