Without a shadow of a doubt, Istanbul – like London, New York or Paris – is one of the world’s great cities. Superbly situated either side of the blue ribbon of the Bosphorus Strait separating Europe from Asia it is, unlike any other city in the world, split between two continents.
The old quarter, with its oriental-fantasy skyline of domes and minarets, and its narrow cobbled streets lined with quaint old wooden houses, lies on a tapering peninsula pointing gravely across the straits to Asia. To the south, the blue waters of the Sea of Marmara glitter invitingly. North, across the graceful curve of the Golden Horn, flicker the bright lights of the pulsating entertainment quarter of Beyoğlu.
But before you land in Istanbul here’s our list of the top 10 things you should know before visiting Istanbul for the first time.
Getting from Istanbul airport to Taksim Square (city centre)
It’s a simple journey from the airport to Istanbul City Centre- Taksim Square to be exact and you have a few options. You can take the subway which is about 4 Lira per interchange (AU$2.25) but with it comes with a much longer route due to the subway interchanges and extra costs associated. You will hit extra costs as every journey you take on public transport is 4-5 Lira which starts adding up when it’s sometimes only 1 stop you want to make. A better choice is to take the airport bus to Taksim square costing just 5.50 Lira. This takes about an hour and from there, as long as you’re staying on the New European side of the river you can walk to your hotel through the busy boulevard. If you choose to take a taxi the price should be between 50-60 Lira but be aware that you can easily be changed up to 90 Lira. The best way to avoid the higher end of the spectrum is to get your hotel to book a taxi for you so that a price is agreed before you depart.
No matter where we travel in the world – mobile wifi is now incorporated into our travel budget. Pick up a WiFi dongle at the airport for around 6 Euro/day for unlimited internet – the company is called IUGO Internet modem wifi hire and the device can be booked online in advance or just picked up on arrival. You simply drop it off at the airport when you depart – we had no problems and enjoyed excellent connectivity the whole time, plus the battery lasted a long while. The guy running the stall is fantastic, has great english and will be able to help you on your way from the airport to town should you need it.
I include this as the best smartphone app for travellers. If you don’t know what it is – think of it as the easiest way to travel without one of those god awful guidebooks that all the tourists have. Pocket App (Apple/Android) allows you to save masses of web pages offline so that you can view them at any time – and even better if you do have mobile wifi as any links or maps in the pieces you save are then at your fingertips. So now it’s worth taking the time to do some research, contact bloggers for the best food and drink spots and trawl some good travel sites to take you off the beaten track.
I seriously suggest saving some pages from the following blogs that were integral to us finding the best of Istanbul during our trip. Istanbul Eats, Culinary Backstreets and The Cutlery Chronicles (such as her 10 things to Eat in Istanbul post) will all be your best friends. I also suggest Pocket App-ing this page for you to read on the flight and out best Coffee, Food and Booze tips for Istanbul.
Walk Don’t Run
Istanbul is a very easily traversed city and I would go out on a limb to say that if you don’t mind a nice stroll and being able to explore the backstreets of the city, you won’t need to step foot onto the subway. You can navigate your way through the new town, across the bridge to the new town and getting to the Asia side of Istanbul is as easy as jumping on a ferry. We did 7 days in Istanbul and were able to get everywhere by foot. If you do take the subway realise that every leg of the journey will set you back 4 Lira unless you purchase a…
IstanbulKart Public Transport Card
If you do intend to use more public transport then it’s worth picking up an IstanbulKart from the get-go – ideal then from the airport. You can pick them up from any newsagent or similar for 3-4 Lira. The good thing about the IstanbulKart is that you don’t need one per person – one card can be loaded up with a number of journeys which you then just need to scan when you pass through barriers. Why should you invest in an IstanbulKart? The cost per journey is cut in half for almost every single journey which is well worth the effort of getting one. If we did it again I would ensure I had a card from the start of our journey.
A day on the water
A tip we received from our Airbnb host was that it is well worth doing a day boat trip on the Bosphorus. I took heed as we come from London and Australia and neither of us would ever recommend to a visitor to our shores that they take a boat trip as we a) know it will be severely overpriced and b) be full of idiot tourists taking selfies at every opportunity. But this trip is well worth the effort – the 6 hour trip by ferry is only 25 Lira (AU$12.50) where the boat will take you out towards the Black Sea and stop at Anadolu Kavağı for 3 hours where you can explore the island, the castle and have a long leisurely lunch on the water. We suggest lunch be taken at Ismail’in Yeri who do some great fried mussels, calamari and mezze including red peppers cooked over coals.
Which Prince’s Islands to visit?
Continuing with the water theme we were also told that we should go and visit the Prince’s Islands. We were told numerous times to just head to the largest island but we decided to head to the second largest island after reading a blog post about it. The islands are about 1 hour 15 minutes away and if you get a really nice day try and score a seat on the outside of the boat on the ground level and be bathed in beautiful sunlight as you get mesmerised by the waves. Heybeliada is a sleepy Island with no cars on the road but some amazingly old buildings and a forested hill worth claiming to get the full view of the Bospohus surrounding the island. Boats leave from Kabatas Port – click here for departure details – we took the 8.40am ferry and was able to pick up some breakfast on the way. The cost is just 5 Lira each way so is well worth the effort!
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Hopefully waring bells are already ringing. If you are coming to Istanbul for a weekend break you need to be aware that much of the Old City shuts up completely on Sundays. We scheduled in a visit to the Grand Bazaar only to find it and every surrounding shop and street to be shut and deserted. We were stunned that one of the most famous landmarks is closed on a day many travellers would be in town intending to visit. This also goes for any restaurants or street food places you might want to seek out – all these will be closed as well. So even though we still had a few days up our sleeve and were able to visit – don’t make the mistake of assuming sites will be open on busy weekend days.
If you do get time to visit the Istanbul Modern then add it to your itinerary. Entry is 20 Lira but is well worth it to see the permanent exhibitions plus any revolving exhibitions that are showing. We were lucky enough to find the photography exhibition Contact Sheet on when we visited – showing the process photographers go through when selecting that one photo to go on the front of newspapers and magazines. Make sure you finish on the top floor where you can grab a drink from the bar and have one of the best views of the Bosphorus and the Old City from the balcony.
Istanbul’s Third Wave Coffee
If you’re looking for Turkish coffee there are a few really old places where you can seek it out but if you’re looking for a top notch flat white or latte then there’s only one neighbourhood you should be checking out – Changir in Istanbul’s New European. The area is a hip neighbourhood that seems to be attracting up and coming artists, shop owners and people wanting coffee the way it’s done in London and Australia. Check out where to find the best coffee in Istanbul Here.
Where is best to stay in Istanbul?
After spending a week traipsing from every side of the Bosphorus I can confidently say that you should look for accommodation on the New European side of Istanbul around Taksim and Istiklal Cadessi. As locals say – you will spend most days on the Old European side of Istanbul exploring the mosques, bazaars and markets over there but once the sun sets everyone moves over to the New European side where the best bars and restaurants are. In my view I wouldn’t want to make the 30-40 minute walk every night back down to the Old European side after eating and drinking myself into oblivion – I would prefer to be able to slink back to my hotel quickly and easily which is why we stayed close to Taksim Square.
Simple scams to avoid in Istanbul
Trust me – this will happen to you multiple times during your visit. Mobile shoe shine vendors (sometimes kids, sometimes older men) move around the city with their kit slung over their shoulder. They will clock when you come into the area and will attempt to walk past you and from the back of their shoe shine kit, they will manage to have their scrubbing brush fall off the back in the hope that you will pick it up and save their livelihood. This is their game and after you quickly hand it back they will continue on – but very soon they will be close behind you saying thank you for returning their kit and offering a ‘free shoe shine’ in return. Obviously don’t accept because nothing is as it seems and you will be fleeced after a story of how poor they are as they shine you up. I didn’t believe this scam at first and was going to accept until I was pulled away – and suddenly it seemed that once a day miraculously a part of a show shiner’s kit would land in front of us as we wandered the city, where I would just stop, smile at the scammer and watch him come over and pick it up himself.
Check out our Istanbul City Guide for our picks of the best Coffee, Food and Booze in town.