My 10 days in Istanbul was such a welcomed break from the dusty heat in Goa. It’s not that I don’t love the Indian beach life, but sometimes that fresh cold European air is very welcome! I need more time in Istanbul, but as most backpackers go for only 2-5 days to each city, I think my 10 days could help you plan, so without further intro here is my little guide to Istanbul!
My Little Guide to Istanbul
The Basics of Istanbul
There are cats everywhere! lol that’s the first thing to know. They are super cute, fluffy, and everyone feeds and play with them!
Getting to and from Istanbul
By air, there are two airports in the city and one is quite far out. Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST), on the European side of the city and Sabiha Gökçen International Airport on the Asian side of the city. The Bosphorus strait separates the two and traffic can be tough. Check out my guide on how to get around in Istanbul and which areas are best to stay in Istanbul (complete with a pinned map).
Most people would agree Ataturk is the best airport to fly in and out of. For airport information all over the world you can download Gate Guru (iPhone and Android) to see what stores and food at at your terminal. The other options are train and even boat!
Transportation In Istanbul
I wrote about this pretty heavily in my guide how to get around Istanbul, but as a recap you should download Uber (iPhone and Android). It was the bomb. It was way cheaper than taxis off the street. I also used a very reliable service called Blacklane twice for a very reliable service which was a little more pricey but I knew they weren’t going to cancel.
The tram and metro were a breeze to get around and the ferries easily take you from European side to Asian side. Water taxis are expensive though so be careful to avoid them!
If you want to get around outside Istanbul, maybe people hire cars to go to Cappadocia.
SIM cards and WiFi in Istanbul
I picked up a SIM at the airport as I was told that it’s very hard to get a SIM card in the city. It was very expensive compared to what I’ve paid even in London at 95 Lira for 2 GB ($32). I went with Turkcell and although it was overpriced in my opinion, it was great coverage and even for an internet obsessed blogger, 2 GB was enough for my time there.
Another blogger Johnny used Alldaywifi and I connected to it occasionally while we were at the World Tourism Forum and out around town. It’s 35 dollars for 7 days but the 3g connection is unlimited! Which is why Johnny didn’t mind having every blogger there connect to his device lol! It connects up to 10 devices.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
I listed all my favorite hotels in Istanbul in this Istanbul accommodation article. I stayed at two, visited two for the spa, and one for lunch. I researched all of these before my trip and had a hard time deciding which ones to stay at. I ended up at the W Hotel and Hotel Ibrahim Pasha (hotel review here coming). I loved them both although they were complete opposites of one another. I cannot wait to go back and stay at the other hotels on the list.
I would say that my next top 3 on my wishlist would be: Sumahan on the Water on the Asian side where I had a fantastic lunch, The House Hotel Galatasaray famous for its views and unique rooms, and the Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah if you really want to splurge out Sultan style.
Spas in Istanbul
Before I go on with this I want to make a side mention, there is a Toni and Guy Salon in Istanbul if you need a good hair cut or color and have been traveling for ages! I tried to make time for it, but alas I was too busy.
Turkish baths are all the rage in Istanbul, and not just for tourism. They date back to the Victorian era and “hammams” were built next to mosques for a variety of reasons. Before you enter a mosque you should clean yourself and another reason was the money brought in from the hammam would help fund the mosque. Turkish women would go for a gossip session.
What makes Turkish baths unique is that they do not have pools or baths in them (like you’ll see in Roman baths or in Budapest). I visited the top hammam in Istanbul, the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami known as being the most luxurious bath in Istanbul that locals will go to so get the real experience. You are brought into a domed room made entirely of marble. There are a few star and moon cut-outs in the ceiling letting in natural light and water drips down, as the whole place was built to mimic a steam room.
You really will get a bath, and yes everyone will be naked. It is not mixed gender! You will take a steam session by laying on a slab of marble in the middle until your bath. The bath is really cool. The lady will scrub you so hard that you can see dark skin coming off (there goes my tan!) and then you are completely covered in a pile of bubbles while you get bathed and have your hair washed.
I recommend bringing your own comb to brush your hair out in the hammam as once it’s wrapped up in a towel and you get to the dressing room, mine was nearly impossible to brush out.
The price at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami is 170 tl ($57 USD) which is a steal considering it’s a luxury hamami. You would be bonkers to not try this while in Istanbul! You cannot take photos inside so I don’t have any to share but you can see them on their website.
Location of Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami: Kemankes Mahallesi, Hamam Sokak 1, Trophane. +90 212 393 80 10.
Other famous hamams include the oldest, Çemberlitaş Hamamı, and the one near the Hagia Sofia, Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, among others.
Modern Spa in Istanbul
Although trying the traditional services was amazing, I also wanted to try out modern spa services in Turkey so when the most prestigious spa in Istanbul, the Raffles Hotel Spa, invited me to try their Heavenly treatment, I was there in a heartbeat. BONUS: get there early, because it is built right next to a really good mall, Zorlu.
My treatment was 2.5 hours long and I never wanted it to end. It started with choosing my oil fragrance, and a dry brush of my skin. It sounds strange, but in Turkey, they are really into getting all the old dead skin off and it’s really meant to keep you looking young. I have to admit it hurts a little; no pain, no gain. Next she rubbed on this warming lotion and I realized I had been laying on a space blanket… she wrapped me up like a burrito in saran wrap then put the heavy heated space blanket around me while I baked and lost some water weight! Next came the hour-long massage… and it ended with a facial! After all the sun and dirt my skin sees in Goa, I felt fresh as a daisy when I walked out of there. If you’re looking to splurge on this vacation, I highly recommend it. I have had so many spa treatments all over the world, and this was one of the best.
The Must Do Tours in Istanbul
Walks of Turkey
Walks of Turkey offers two tours that I think would be of interest to you: the “best of Istanbul” tour and the “Istanbul in a day” tour. I went for the best of tour which was 3 hours instead of 9. If I could do it again, I would go for the 9 hour tour because the additional places in that tour I sadly never ended up seeing.
When I travel Europe, as you’ll see in most of my European city posts, I love to take walking tours. You find out everything about the cities’ history that way that you would otherwise miss out on and it makes the places stick in your memory better. I still remember war stories that were told to me in Berlin in 2009!
This tour was no different. The guy was spectacular and explained everything you’d want to know while visiting the Hagia Sofia, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, and underground Basilica Cistern (which are the biggest tourist attractions in Istanbul). I would say this tour is worth every penny. The meeting place was outside the Blue Mosque, which was all of a 30 second walk from my Hotel, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha.
Istanbul in a Day, 9 hour tour, is $105 USD and includes lunch.
Best of Istanbul, a 3 hour tour, is $52 USD. They both include entrance fees but you should tip.
I have so many incredible photos from this tour which isn’t surprising since these sites are some of the most beautiful in the world, so I am going to share them as a best of Istanbul photo gallery in an additional post soon enough!
I am obsessed with my Istanbulite tour! I met Eda, the young hip owner, at the World Tourism Forum and she asked if I wanted to take a tour. She does “bespoke tours” on top of all the options she has on her website. I knew right away what we should do together- a shopping tour. I told her I had already done a tour of the city with Walks of Turkey and really just wanted to see the trendy local designers. I told her I had a list of them already with locations and Instagrams! She thought it was great and already offered a shopping tour of sorts, so added in the ones I wanted to see and wa-la I had a tour guide take me to see all the places I thought would take me days to see (all in about 6 hours).
The tour was fantastic, she knows everyone in town, and I would take another one of her tours in a heartbeat. This is honestly an incredible opportunity while you are in Turkey. Whenever TV shows film there (like Run-DMC’s show) they call on Eda. She’s the “it girl”! If you want to shop, she knows the places to get all the best things and as a local knows the best prices. You can reach her here: Eda Sokmen, +90 537 346 60 20 email firstname.lastname@example.org. She has tours all over Turkey.
I have so much to share about the shopping tour, that I’m writing another post about it and will show you the shops we went to.
Authentic Turkey Tours
This is a great option if you’re reading this thinking “eh, I’m not really a tour person”. They will actually just take you out for a day on the town which can go in any direction you like- if you want to take photos, they will take you to the secret local spots (no joke, one was a stairwell of a falling apart old building with an old man taking money to let us pass… we ended up on a rooftop with the most beautiful view in the city).
I did a bespoke tour with Authentic Turkey Tours and just explained that I didn’t want to see tourist attractions and I didn’t want to shop because I had those covered, but I wanted to see how the locals lived; what did they do in the evenings, where were the cool pubs… Where did people get a drink after work? Where did they have dinner? And of course I wanted to get great photos to share with you guys! They company is run by expats and they know what other foreigners want to see.
They took me to Karaköy, which I guess I would describe as an area in Galata, or right outside it. It’s the new up and coming trendy place and all the 20 and 30 somethings were hanging out here. There was graffiti on the walls, amazing little boutique shops, and loads of pubs! They showed me the infamous (on Instagram) umbrella alley and we had a quick bite a few locals beers at Pim Karakoy. We went for a few more drinks at the exclusive Soho House (check that off the list!) where you can’t even take photos, because you know celebs could be there! The place used to be the American Embassy and it was just stunning. Then we had a late dinner at their favorite Turkish restaurant, Zubeyir Ocakbasi & Restaurant. Thank god for Uber, because after a few brews I cannot be asked to sort myself through public transportation! lol
Things to See in Istanbul (tourist attractions in Istanbul)
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, Sunken Cistern, Hippodrome, and Topkapı Palace are all right next to each other in Sultanahmet. You get off the tram at Sultanahmet stop and you cannot miss these places. If you want information, I recommend the tour I took but you can alternatively just wander around Them. You need to cover your head and pay entrance fees at most.
For great views you’ll want to take a ferry ride at some point on the Bosphorus which takes you from Europe to Asia when you cross. You can also go up the Galata Tower and take photos of the city from an incredible view.
For shopping, most people make sure to hit up the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Personally, I hit up all the places listed except the Topkapi palace and the Spice Bazaar. It’s always good to leave a reason to go back! Of course there is much more to see and do, but these are the “don’t miss” attractions in Istanbul.
Food in Istanbul
I was pretty bad about remembering the names of places I ate! Turkish food is delicious and unless you are right next to a tourist attraction, you can expect great quality food at really fair prices. I do remember a couple:
- Pano (Hamalbasi Caddesi No: 12/B (Ingliliz Konsoloslugu Karsisi), Galatasaray-Beyoglu) which us bloggers went to as a group for a goodbye dinner with the team at Blogger Casting. It’s in an old Greek house with a wine cellar in the basement. It was very cool and the food was amazing. The meat was served on swords!
- Rumeli Cafe (Sultanahmet. +90 212 512 00 08) was recommended by my hotel as the best food in Sultanahmet, which is an area known for terrible food at high prices. It was pricey but everything in this area is pricey.
- Tapasuma, the restaurant at the famous hotel Sumahan on the Water, was SO EFFING GOOD!!
- Kempenski Hotel we ate dinner here for our “Gala night” which I think was fancy Turkish food. I have to say, I prefer street food more!
- Populist a brand new brewery with the BEST burgers and pub snacks ever… I dream of this food (chicken fingers, sliders, chips and salsa, spinach cheese dip, etc).
Other famous restaurants I meant to check out but never had time are: Changa, Mikla, Kiyi, Park Samdan, and Ulus 29 views. I found these online before I went and they were on my list!
I ate a lot on this trip and had photos on my phone of foods I wanted to try. I’m happy to say I checked most of them off my list and there was only one that I found questionable. Some famous Turkish dishes I tried are: menemen which I had for breakfast only once, and it reminds me of shakshuka, doner kebabs of course, iskender kebab which is similar but unwrapped on a plate with rice and sauce on top, pida (pide) which is kind of like a pizza, kofte which are their version of meatballs… amazeballs, especially icli kofte.
I had a huge dish of manti which is their version of ravioli covered in yogurt. It was good but the yogurt was really cold and made the dish a little cold? Borek is fried cheese filled filo pastries… I am a big fan of all things fried, especially cheese. Meze is something everyone will like: dishes of dips like baba ganoush, hummus, olives, bread, and other bits which is served before a meal.
Baklalı Enginar is artichoke and I have to say, I had it twice and didn’t like it any better the second time. I picked up Dürüm for lunch a couple times which is a meat wrap with lots of veggies added inside.
I sort of skipped dessert, sorry to say! No turkish delight or Baklava for me. I also missed out on Balık Ekmek which are the famous fish sandwiches you pick up on the street. I get so much fish in Goa, I always went for the juicy lamb instead! I did try their raw fish Bonito which like most raw fish, I didn’t like.
You also can’t go there without trying their coffee and tea!
Shopping in Istanbul
If you’ve read this blog for a while, I’m sure you are not surprised that I did a lot of shopping. I researched ahead of time all the brands I wanted to see made my local designers as well as traditional Turkish shops and promptly followed them all on Instagram. I have an entire post coming dedicated to shopping in Istanbul!
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