Istanbul, Turkey Travel Guide: Top Things to Do and See in Istanbul
Wow. Where do I start with this gorgeous, historical city? Istanbul is the most populous European city, straddling the border of Europe and Asia (literally- there is a bridge that connects the European side to the Asian side), home to over 20 million people. There is abundant food, shopping and culture in this huge city. The history of the city lies in its structures, having started as the Roman Empire, then the Byzantine Empire and finally the Ottoman Empire, which is what we see of the city today. If you were to drill underground, you would see evidence of the previous empires.
What to do and see
There are over 3000 mosques in Istanbul and the best part about them is that beside most of them is an information pillar that contains information about the structure, its history and its current use. This is super informative as you walk through the streets and see SEVERAL historical sights that could be mosques, but are now converted into something else.
Blue Mosque aka the Sultanahmet Mosque is a stunning blue-walled mosque, built in the Ottoman empire in the 17th century and can be seen from miles away, with minarets standing high on all sides. Note: if you want to enter the mosque and are a female, you must cover your hair, shoulders and legs. They provide scarves and skirts on-site; however, I bought my own because of all the pretty colours and soft material. Even if you are wearing a long skirt, but it has a slit, they will give you another long skirt to cover up. Shoes must be taken off as well (they have bags on-site). They take this very seriously as they have many checkpoints for seeing how you are dressed before entering the mosque. There is also a separate area for locals to pray v.s. where tourists can take pictures. It can get very crowded in there. Admission is free!
Hagia Sophia is a red and blue domed structure, originally built as a Christian cathedral and is now a both a mosque & museum. Standing tall, this beautiful structure can also be seen from afar, you can go inside and explore the two floors. The architecture inside is stunning and the high domed ceilings make it perfect for pictures! It truly is a must see.
Grand and Spice Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the largest bazaar in the world, with so many little shops and vendors. If you are looking to buy souvenirs, this can be the place to go, however, the Spice Bazaar has better prices at the cost of being busier, with more foot traffic.
At the Spice Bazaar, you can buy souvenirs, clothing, spices, teas, scarves, designer clothing, bedsheets, pretty much everything for very cheap prices. The Turkish prices are very reasonable for what you are getting, and you can absolutely bargain with the shop owners! Beware: The outside flea market section can get very crowded, as the alleyways are extremely narrow. There are also lots of food places to stop at here as well (in case you get hungry)!
Hammam Spa - Turkish Bathhouses date back to centuries ago, where women and men go for head-to-toe scrubbing and polishing prior to celebrations. Currently, these bathhouses still exist and there are different packages to choose from that include a sauna experience (to make you sweat out the toxins), a full body scrub, head shampoo and bath, all performed by another person of the same gender. The Turkish are very respectful and accommodating, so let them know if you have any personal preferences for your bath. Afterwards, you can get a full body massage, where they also lotion/oil you, again head to toe, so you come out feeling super smooth and clean. Note: take off makeup beforehand and you can wear your bathing suit if you prefer, but you get complete privacy throughout the experience. They serve tea and refreshments as well. Definitely worth it, inexpensive and I came out feeling super fresh. There are many bathhouses throughout the city with packages for low prices.
If you are an extreme foodie like me, then you will LOVE Istanbul. The food is cheap, tasty and fresh. I can recall trying a ton of different things, ranging from street food to Turkish tea (chai). A full meal, consisting of rice, kebab, salad and pita with yoghurt costs around $5-6 CAD! And this could definitely be shared with two people.
In the main square, where the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are, there are several street vendors, as there is a large walking space for tourists. Grilled corn on the cob was $0.50, street ice cream was about $1 and the Starbucks drink cost $2 each, with the coolest flavours. I tried an Oreo Cheesecake Latte (delicious!). After dinner, you can share a shisha pipe with friends at a local café, which is also inexpensive, and those cafes stay open until very late.
Airport: Getting out of the Istanbul airport can be a little hectic. I did experience a little bit of a culture shock as the process to exit the airport is intense and there is extreme crowding in the Ataturk airport. Travellers from abroad MUST obtain a visa stamp in their passport to check out, which costs 50 Euro. There are multiple signs for this throughout the airport, so make sure you do this, otherwise you will have to line up for the Check-Out process again (like I did). Also, upon arrival to the airport, there are multiple security guards at the entrance and there is a checkpoint for the entire luggage, which is different from any country I’ve ever been to. Istanbul had a terrorist attack during 2017, so there are many different levels of security throughout the city. You will find that some women dress modestly, covering their shoulders and knees, however, the tourism makes it acceptable to dress comfortably, as Istanbul can be very hot in the summer months.
Where to stay: I stayed a three-minute walk from the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and it did not disappoint. Everything in Istanbul is inexpensive and the prices are much less compared to other European countries I have been to. Accommodations for a three-person ensuite was around $60 U.S. per night and it was gorgeous. This area is a hub to for getting to Taksim Square, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar and other points of interest. Not to mention, you are within the heart of the city. At different points during the day, you will hear the chanting of the prayers from the mosques. For around a half an hour, the mosques are closed to tourists during this time.
Overall, Turkey has a wealth of sights, culture, food and shopping. Your eyes will thank you for visiting this gem on the European-Asian border.