Claudiaexpat sends us a postcard from Istanbul.
I had visited Istanbul in 2011 for a few days and loved it. This year, I went back for five intense days, and I’m happy to give you some tips and share some information.
Let’s start with the airports. Istanbul has two, Ataturk International Airport and Sabiha Gokcen . I landed in both and I can assure you that traffic is a real problem, and you should always take that into account, no matter where you arrive. This second time I landed in Sabiha, and I reached town with no major problems because my flight arrived at 6 :30 am. To get to Sultanhamet, I took a bus up to Kadikoy (10 Liras), a ferry to Eminonu (5 Liras), and I finished by taxi (20 Liras).
Where to stay
Both times I stayed in Sultanhamet, where the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia are. This area is packed with tourists, but very nice, with a wide choice of hotels at a good price, restaurants and things to do and see. The ones I tried are:
Hotel Ararat: one of the closest to the Blue Mosque, it feels like touching it from the terrace. A simple hotel, fairly clean, some rooms are really nice, a common space for breakfast and a little terrace (all hotels have a terrace), with pc and Internet connection.
Hotel Agora: I preferred this one. Wonderful staff, decent rooms, each one with pc and connections, except the suite. Nice terrace with views on the Bosphorus and the Blue Mosque. Don’t accept a ground floor room beside the reception if you can, because it’s extremely noisy (it’s on a very trafficked street). All other rooms are fine.
In Sultanhamet, there are many hotels and guesthouses, more or less the same standard : little rooms, terrace with a view (in the morning everybody has breaksfast together, you look from one terrace to the other, it’s very nice), very welcoming.
How to move around:
- I found the tram very practical. It runs frequently, on preferential lanes, and connects some of the most interesting points of Istanbul (for instance, it takes you from Sultanhamet to Eminonu, where the Gran Bazaar is, or to Galata). You can board the tram with a token (jeton), that you buy at the machines located at every tram stop. It costs 3 Liras, you can pay with coins (1 Lira, 50 o 25 cents) or with a note (20 o 50); the machine gives change. You then insert the token into the bar to access the passenger area.
- The bus can get stuck in traffic for long stretches, though. If you’re traveling towards the outskirts, it is fine. Again, you buy the ticket at the machines and show it to the driver.
- You can hail a taxi by lifting your arm, and there are a lot. They are, however, fairly expensive, and back to the traffic problem, they often are stuck in traffic, and you move faster on foot. If you take a taxi you can ask they turn on the taximeter, but they usually prefer to agree on a tariff beforehand – ask your hotel the approximate fares for the distance you want to cover.
- Ferries: they are comfortable, cheap, and don’t get stuck in traffic!
You eat well in Istanbul. I had the best experience in the small kebab places out of the tourist circuits: very good meat and delicious soups, must try. Low prices.
In Sultanhamet there are lots of restaurants, and they all seem to be good. Amongst those I tried I can recommend Doy Doy (delicious).
On the seafront in Sultanhamet, there are lots of restaurants. Those in the front, by the sea, are more for tourists. Local people go right behind in those that face the street. I’ve heard those are the best. However, I ate very good fish even in the tourist places!
What to see
The list is long, and I left Istanbul without seeing all I wanted. I’ll talk only about what I managed to do, but there is much more to discover in this charming city.
First of all, the Sultanhamet area, especially in its old part, which is really beautiful. Take your time to visit the Blue Mosque thoroughly (https://www.sultanahmetcami.org/), as it is really charming (free entry). There are many mosques in Istanbul, but this one is of incomparable beauty. Aya Sofia (https://www.hagiasophia.com/) is a deconsacrated church that now hosts a museum. An unsettling place (in my opinion) that retains traces of all religions that passed through it (greek-orthodox, catholic, muslim). Wonderful mosaics. Entrance with ticket. After Aya Sofia don’t miss its cistern (Yerebatan sarnıcı, https://www.yerebatan.com/), one of the places that captured me the most in Istanbul: A huge Byzantine cistern whose roof is supported by 336 marble columns on 12 rows. An absolutely magic place.
The Topkapi Palace (Topkapı saray, https://www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr/) certainly deserves a visit, but be careful if you go during high season: because of the very high number of tourists, you risk not to be able to fully appreciate it, especially in the rooms with exhibits. Anyway, it is also nice to walk in its gardens.
If you go towards the sea, do not miss the little Aya Sofia, a small and much less chaotic mosque than its homonym, where you can peacefully enjoy all the decorations and spaces. Continue towards the sea, crossing the narrow streets with their typical wooden houses, and take a walk observing the real local life. If you go during the weekend, especially starting from mid afternoon, you’ll see how local people enjoy a rest, swimming in a questionable sea, with a barbeque on the lawn, or playing to shoot balloons and bottles to win a prize.
Gran Bazaar and Spice Market
I did not like the first one as much as I thought I would. I love markets, and I expected this one to have a more antique atmosphere, to be more authentic and less touristy. The whole area outside the covered market is interesting, with shops, people and merchandise that mix frantically. The Spice Market is nicer and full of colors (and people! try not to go at rush hour, otherwise walking will be almost impossible!). Prices are high.
Galata and Istiklal Caddesi
Before climbing up to the Galata Tower (https://www.galatatower.net/english/), I suggest you enjoy the atmosphere of the Galata Bridge, with fishermen very close to each other and all the restaurants at the bottom, where it seems to go back to the ’70s. Then go towards the tower, you can climb on foot or take the tram into the tunnel, which brings you at the beginning of Istiklal Caddesi, and from where you can descend to visit the Galata district (very cute, with quirky shops) and to get to the square with the tower, the undisputed landmark of the city.
I recommend you do not miss a walk along the Istiklal Caddesi, because it is a real experience. This pedestrian street in the Beyoglu district is a different world. You find buildings ranging from the Ottoman period until the beginning of the Turkish Republic, and many art deco, vintage bakeries, shops of all kinds, music and street entertainment, intimate alleyways with old restaurants, little areas that take you literally to another world, churches of all religions and taste, and several consulates and embassies. If you go up to the bottom, you arrive at Taksim Square.
Balat, Fener and Fatih neighborhoods
These have been an absolute surprise for me, and I beg you not to leave Istanbul without visiting at least one. We did Balat and Fener in half a day, and devoted an afternoon to Fatih. All of them are undoubtedly the most characteristic neighborhoods of Istanbul, with their stunning mixture of history, cultures and traditions.
Balat is the one I appreciated the most – maybe because it bears a strong resemblance to some areas of Naples. It is a maze of narrow streets where the neighborhood life is visible in a thousand things, from the clothes hanging to dry from one house to another, to the children that play in the streets, to the shopkeepers that show their merchandise.
Some of the houses are of stunning beauty – some partly renovated, some completely run down, but all very unique, witnessing the succession of people and times. In the most conservative part of Balat (dress properly), right after the huge red complex of the Patriarcate School, you find the main Mosque, near the Mosque of the Roses, with an amazing view on the Galata bridge.
Fener is very similar, even though more modern, and hosts the wonderful Fetyihe Camii, a church built in 1292, an absolute must if you love frescos, a true jewel. To get to Balat take the bus nr 99 at Eminonu and get off at the Balat stop (it’s indicated on the screen on the bus). Close to the bus stop, there’s a nice bar, Afilli Cezve, where you can stop for a coffee and ask directions to the synagogue, which is a pretty central point. The problem in these neighborhood, indeed, is that you can get easily lost, and it is impossible to count on people’s indications to get to places, since no one speaks English (unless, of course, you speak Turkish!).
Fatih is another charming neighborhood that developed around the big Fatih Mosque (also very beautiful). Before visiting it, I suggest you take a tour at the Malta Carsi (market), a very typical street with every kind of shop, and happily out of the tourist circuit, where you can observe authentic local life.
After visiting the Mosque, you can continue towards Molla Zeyrek Camii. This Byzantine mosque is presently (June 2013) under renovation, but the walk is worthwhile because it takes you in the most typical streets, with the absolutely most run down houses you can imagine (and rather interesting scenes of local life). Once you reach the mosque, search on the right the entrance to the Zeyerkhane restaurant. It is like getting into a private club where you expect to see a mature man with a golf club coming up. A luxurious restaurant with manicured lawns and waiters in uniform, in deep contrasts with the surrounding area, but which deserves a visit for a simple reasona: Its breathtaking view on Galata and the Sultanhamet Mosque. You don’t necessarily have to eat, you can just drink a glass of wine or a cup of tea.
An interesting blog on a workshop in Balat : https://fenerbalatworkshop.wordpress.com/
A website with some indications on Balat: https://www.theguideistanbul.com/news/detail/854
This is a very nice one-day tour. Take a ferry in Eminonu (5 liras, you buy the token at the machines, same as for the tram), that goes to the five islands. We got off at the fifth one, Büyükada, which is the most trafficked, but on our way back we stopped at the previous one. Beaches were closed, but in high season, it seems possible to spend a bit of time at the sea. We found a very nice corner in the penultimate island, with a spectacular view of Istanbul, and seagulls and cormorans that came as close as one meter from us. The last island, Büyükada, is interesting for the architecture of its old wood houses, and it is very nice to walk in its quiet streets, with a buggy passing by from time to time (there are no cars on the island, apart from some local vans). It is also interesting to do the ferry trip, because tourists are completely swallowed by the huge mass of locals, that move with their stuff from one island to the other.
Maybe Istanbul today is not the ideal place for a visit to the hammam, everything is very tourist-oriented and expensive, but I could not leave the city without trying the experience. In Istanbul, there are lots of hammams, and after reading tens of travellers’ suggestions, that said and contradicted everything, I decided to start from Cagaloglu, classified as the most spectacular hammam in Istanbul, and one of the 100 places to visit before you die. And it probably is, if you don’t mind paying a disproportionate amount of money for a ten minute massage. I did, and I moved on to Cemberlitas (www.cemberlitashamami.com/), more affordable (37 euro), very evocative, and offering a really good treatment, albeit a bit rushed.
Do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions not covered by this article.
Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)