Let me start out by saying that four days in Istanbul is NOT enough. Though each day was packed pretty tightly with activities, I easily could’ve spent double that. Let’s be real, any city that spans two continents (Europe and Asia) is probably not something you should rush.
But despite wanting more time at the end, I thoroughly loved and took advantage of every day in Istanbul. Here are some of the highlights:
Walking up Istiklal Caddesi to Taksim Square – Running from Taksim Square to the Galata Tower, Istiklal is one of the most famous streets in Istanbul. It’s filled with bakeries, food stalls, shops, and art galleries by day, which give way to hip bars, restaurants, and clubs by night. It’s a street that never really sleeps, as crowds of people constantly stroll along the bustling street, occasionally making way for the iconic old red tram that still runs through.
Exploring Old City Sultanahmet – This area will take you back in time, as it is so rich in history, diverse culture, and ancient architecture, representing both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires (and even some lasting traces of the Romans). Most notable of the sites I saw are the Topkapi Palace, the beautiful Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), Süleymaniye Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and of course the heavenly Hagia Sofia (Ayasofia), which was initially a Byzantine church, converted to an Ottoman mosque, and is now a museum. Old City even has some traces of the Roman-era Hippodrome, and though the remnants are nearly gone, by using some imagination (or by watching the short film in the Basilica Cistern), you can picture the chariot races that were once held there.
The Bosphorous Boat Cruise – A must for anyone visiting Istanbul, the Bosphorous boat cruise shows a lot of the city in a short amount of time. Along the Bosphorous River, which divides the two continents, this cruise shows off the beautiful seaside houses and architecture on both the European and Asian sides, including many main attractions such as the Rumeli Ruins, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Maiden’s Tower. But sights aside, I’d do this cruise purely for a relaxing couple of hours floating along a beautiful river. Plus, for the two-hour journey, it’s only 12 Lira (about $4.50 USD). What a bargain!
Getting lost in the Beyoğlu alleys – Exploring Beyoğlu, specifically the Karaköy and Galata neighborhoods was a fun way to discover many hidden gems. Turning down some rather sketchy-looking alleyways, we’d end up discovering chic cafes, bohemian shops, beautiful street art, old book stores, and way too many music stores (if you’re in the market for a unique guitar, this is the place!) At night, the streets really come alive, and you’ll find everything from chill underground bars to swanky rooftop bars, oftentimes with live music. I like to call Beyoğlu the “Melbourne” of Istanbul, as it’s the hip place to be with so many secret destinations you’ll never actually discover them all.
The (Actually) Free City Tour – You know those tours in some cities that are advertised as “free” but actually the guide is just working for tips? This is NOT one of those. In fact, this tour is not even advertised anywhere. When we misread the Bosphorous boat trip schedule and showed up 4 hours early, one of the boys in the blue “ask me” shirts told us that he and a friend (also in a blue “ask me” shirt) would show us around the city to pass the time. They were both 17-year-old rising seniors in high school and volunteering their time off during summer break to help tourists. They ended up taking us all around Eminönü, explaining Istanbul’s culture & history, and showing us all the best sites, including lots of local places that we’d never have seen as just tourists (who knew the Turkish Delight shop we’d been walking past everyday was actually the oldest one in the city?!) They even bought us snacks along the way and refused to let us pay for them. A bit confused about this free tour, we asked why they did it. Their response? “Life is better when you share.”
The Delicious Food – Fish sandwiches, bakery pastries, freshly made juice, and cheap but delicious street food to fit every palate (and budget)…. the options are limitless. My favorite street foot was çiğ köfte, which technically means “raw meatball” but is actually Vegan and is made up primarily of peppered walnuts ground up with spices to actually taste like a spiced minced meat. This is put into a wrap with lettuce and sauces, and usually countered with a salted yogurt drink called Ayran, and this entire meal is under $3! Oh, and don’t forget your daily dose of Limonata and (way too many) glasses of Turkish tea…
Princes’ Islands – The Princes’ Islands offer a nice getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. Because motorized vehicles are banned, the only transport options are horse carriages, push bikes, and by foot, making the islands a peaceful place to relax. We spent a couple of hours exploring Heybeliada by foot, discovering stunning sea views and hidden beaches. Ferries are only 6 Lira each way, and the views from the boat aren’t bad either, especially if you catch the sunset on your return to the city.
Cheap Shopping – Unfortunately I couldn’t partake in this activity as much as I’d have liked, as Turkey was only my first stop on my 3-month long Europe trip (and my backpack is already full)! But I still enjoyed window shopping and strolling along the Spice Market and Grand Bazaar, which feature alleys and alleys of spices, dried fruits, nuts, tea, clothes, jewelry, ceramics, shoes, carpets, bags, and a whole lot more. Fortunately the budget backpacker side of me took over and kept my purchases under control =]
The Sunset from Kadiköy – Relaxing in Moda Park watching the sunset over the mosques of Istanbul’s Old City is the perfect end to a hectic day in the city. Kadiköy is on the Asian side of Istanbul, so it’s a cool concept to think that you’re sitting in Asia looking across the river to Europe. We only had a couple hours to spend on the way to the airport, but Kadiköy is a place I’d have loved to explore more (even spend the whole day), as it seemed less touristy, more modern, and had a nice variety of bars and cafes along the streets.
Overall, Istanbul is one of a kind, and between the ancient architecture, rich culture, delicious food, hipster shops, and variety of nightlife, there’s enough to keep you occupied for weeks! My biggest tip: pack comfortable walking shoes and a hearty appetite.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌