It all started with the Argonauts. I read The Jason Voyage by Tim Severin about 20 years ago in high school and was fascinated by the description of the Bosphorus and the grand city that straddled the famous passage — Istanbul! Ever since then Istanbul has been on my list of places to visit. I finally got the chance to turn that wish into reality during a work trip to Europe in September 2012. Took a few days ahead of a meeting in Amsterdam and flew down to Turkey.
Istanbul is one city that you can really appreciate fully if you learn the history before visiting. Otherwise it may seem like a cramped, crumbling, overcrowded city. Jason and the Argonauts’ voyage up the Bosphorus in search of the Golden Fleece, the founding of Byzantium in 660 BC, the rise of Constantinople and the 1,100-year old Byzantine Empire founded by Constantine the Great in 324 AD, the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453 and the subsequent 500-year Ottoman Empire, Kemal Ataturk dragging Ottoman Istanbul (and the rest of Turkey) into the Western world by converting Turkey into a secular country — Istanbul has shaped and was shaped by human history for thousands of years, and knowing some of that history goes a long way to enjoying the city.
I would highly recommend John Freely’s Istanbul: The Imperial City to anyone wishing to visit.
Orientation and neighborhoods
Istanbul is split into roughly three parts. The Bosphorus Strait run south from the Sea of Marmara north to the Black Sea; European Istanbul sits on the western shore and Asian Istanbul on the east. European Istanbul is further split by the Golden Horn. The southern part is the Old City, where most of the historical sites are located. This was the core of the original Byzantium, Constantinople, and Istanbul. Across the Golden Horn on the northern shore are the modern neighborhoods of Galata, Beyoglu, etc.
East across the Bosphorus, Asian Istanbul doesn’t have as many historical monuments, but is still a great place for awesome views of the skyline.
The Old City is the main draw for visitors. It contains the main sights like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It also contains many hotels and restaurants. The core of the Old City, where the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are located is also called Sultanahmet. The Old City is very packed and retains the stereotypical charm of historic Istanbul that you’d imagine. Lots of narrow streets, buildings all jumbled together, heady mix of spices and grilling meat in the air, historic monuments at many turns. Because it is the main tourist area, it also contains a lot of hotels and tourist trap restaurants and shops. If you want to be close to the historical sites, getting a hotel in the Old City can be a good idea. The downside can be that it is very lively even late at night, so if you’re trying to get some sleep, it might be hard depending on your location.
Connected to the Old City by Galata Bridge, the neighborhood of Galata/Karakoy is north of the Golden Horn. This is the more modern part of Istanbul. While there are still old, historical monuments, in general the area feels more like a typical European city. North of Galata, parts of Beyoglu are very cosmopolitan. The skyline is more reminiscent of Hong Kong.
The Asian side is not as slick or shiny — it feels more like a modern/well-off city in central/south America. The waterfront promenade is a fantastic place, especially at sunset. Feels less touristy than the European shores.
In four days I saw maybe about half of all the things I wanted to see. I ended up visiting and revisiting some places more than once (to avoid crowds, for better photography lights, etc.). Here’s what I saw…
Sea of Marmara
One of the first amazing sights when driving into the Old City from Ataturk airport is the Sea of Marmara and the fleet of ships covering the water as far as the eye can see. Due to the narrow width of the Bosphorus Strait, all the cargo ships going to the Black Sea have to wait their turn — the waiting ships make it seem like a naval invasion scene from a movie.
The Hippodrome used to be the old circus ground during the Byzantine Empire. Today it forms a large plaza in front of Sultanahmet Mosque and Hagia Sophia. The main sights at the Hippodrome are the obelisks. At the southern end is the Serpent Column, one of the oldest objects from Greek and Roman antiquity at 2,500 years old. It was an offering to Apollo at Delphi. While the column is pretty beaten up (and the serpents are missing), it is still quite an impressive thing to behold.
Also known as the Blue Mosque, Sultanahmet is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks (and lends its name to the surrounding area). Built in 1616, the mosque is gorgeous — it was the architectural culmination of Byzantine and Ottoman designs. It is a beautiful building from the outside. The only problem is that the grandeur of the building is visible best from a high vantage point outside. And that’s not necessarily easy to attain. From ground level you can only get little glimpses of the whole structure. For the best views, try to get to the roof of one of the nearby hotels. The view from above is just spectacular.
Sunrise is an especially magical time in Istanbul, especially from a high vantage point.
Sultanahmet is a functioning mosque, but open to visitors. The courtyard is spacious and clean. The visitor line to enter the mosque (beyond the courtyard) can be quite long in the mornings, less so in the afternoon. The interior is very intricate, with over 20,000 hand-made tiles. I must admit though that Sultanahmet is way more impressive from the outside than the inside. The numerous domes and minarets on the outside are grand. And while the inside has a ton of intricate designs and patterns, it didn’t do much for me.
Across from Sultanahmet Mosque is the other landmark, the Hagia Sophia (pronounced “Aya Sofia”). It started life as a church in 537 AD, became a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, and finally Ataturk turned it into a museum in 1923. I went around lunchtime, so it wasn’t very crowded. While Hagia Sophia isn’t as grand looking on the outside as the Blue Mosque, the interior is way more impressive in my opinion. Part of it may be because you can explore more of it. Lots of intricate details and mosaics; you can go upstairs to get a view of the whole interior. For a structure that is almost 1,500 years old it is in remarkably good shape. Standing in the huge space you can almost imagine standing with the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI, praying for safety on the night of May 28, 1453, as the Ottomans hammered and blasted the city walls outside.
Situated just north of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace makes up the other major site in the Sultanahmet area. Even in late September, the lines were long (lots of tour groups). The first line is to buy tickets. Then there’s a line to enter the palace grounds. Once inside, there are lines to enter many/most of the buildings/rooms. The harem requires a separate fee so I didn’t go in. In general it’s an interesting place with some cool artifacts to see, but not sure if it’s worth the lines. Best would be to visit when the crowds are low. I think if I had more time to spend without the crowds I would have enjoyed it more (hard to do so when you’re shuffling along from one exhibit to another in a long line).
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
Next to Topkapi Palace are the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. While I did not have time to go on this trip, I did visit it on a return trip later and if you are a history buff, it is an absolute must-do (look for more on that in a later trip report).
Close to the Hippodrome is Yerebatan Cistern, an underground reservoir 500 feet below the city, built in 532 AD. There’s a line to buy tickets and enter, but once inside the cistern, the crowds spread out pretty well. The cistern is a must-see — very atmospheric.
The Spice Bazaar has been the center of the spice trade in Istanbul since the 17th century. Also known as the Egyptian Market, it is packed with stores selling all kind of spices, nuts, and other delicacies. A delightful sensory overload.
The Grand Bazaar is the other historical market in the Old City (built in 1460). The intricate designs on the inside are warrant a trip here. Yes it is stocked with shops selling tourist kitsch, Turkish rugs, t-shirts, and souvenirs, but it is still worth a visit, especially if you’ve never experienced an Asian market. The rugs are great.
Other Old City sights
The best part of the Old City was wandering around with some specific sites in mind. There are historical artifacts at almost every turn.
The main connection between Old Istanbul and modern Istanbul across the Golden Horn is Galata Bridge. Very busy with motor and pedestrian traffic as well as fishermen and street vendors on the top and fish restaurants on the bottom.
Just over Galata Bridge, lies the very prominent Galata Tower. The tower can be reached by taking an underground funicular tram or walking the steep streets/steps. It was built in 1348 by the Genoese as part of the fortifications of their citadel in Galata. Today there’s an open-air observation platform, a restaurant, and a nightclub at the top.
You take an elevator to the top to come out onto the viewing balcony. The balcony is VERY narrow. Barely wide enough for one person to walk. As indicated on the signs, walking in one direction is pretty much the only way to go. Unfortunately, what this means is that it can take a long time to shuffle around. I got the top right around sunset, but by the time I got around to the main view (south overlooking the Old City), it was almost 45 minutes (people taking photographs took a long time). But despite the crowds, the views were quite spectacular. And by the time twilight was over, the crowds disappeared and I got to spend quite a bit of time shooting — I was able to put my camera on the railing and take some long exposures (tripods are not allowed).
Taksim Square, Istiklal Caddesi
North of Galata Tower is the heart of modern Istanbul, Taksim Square. Taking the underground Tunel tram from Kabatas is a great introduction. As you come out of the tram station you are greeted with the energy of Taksim Square with tons of young people hanging out (if you’re there in the evening).
From Taksim Square starts Istiklal Caddesi, one of the most famous and popular streets in Istanbul. It is a pedestrian-only street lined with restaurants, cafes, bookstores, and theaters. It is packed in the evenings. Istiklal feels just like any shopping avenue in Paris or London, complete with familiar names like Benetton, Gap, Starbucks, etc. There are some absolutely fantastic bookstores here. One had amazing antique maps and books that I would have snatched up if only I had space in my luggage.
The best way to get from Europe to Asia is to take a commuter ferry. They run about every 15-30 minutes and take about 15 minutes each way from Eminonu (Old City) and Karakoy (Galata). You have a choice of several ports on the Asian side — I would recommend Uskudar. I took the ferry to HaydarPasa the first time, not realizing that the walk from HaydarPasa to Uskudar didn’t go along the waterfront (as it looked like on the maps); instead I ended up walking most of the way along a busy highway next to a large industrial port. On the other hand, I did get some great views of Old Istanbul on the ferry ride.
The Asian shore is THE place to come for sunset. Spectacular colors, lots of people hanging out on the promenade and lounging on the waterfront loungers/cushions.
There are so many places I did not get to see…Suleymaniye Mosque, Eyup, Ortakoy, Dolmabahce Palace, Chora Church, Old City walls, Rumeli Hisari, and many more. If I’d just visited each sight to tick off a checklist I probably could have visited everything; but I like to take my time and often visit the same place several times. I’ll definitely have to come back with more time.
Getting there and around
Ataturk Airport is the major airport serving Istanbul, although a lot of budget airlines fly into Sabiha Gocken (slightly farther out). Ataturk Airport is very modern. On the return, when you are departing from Ataturk, you have to go through a security checkpoint just to get to the check-in desks (common in many 3rd World countries). The airline check-in lines can be very long (many tour groups), so it’s better if you can check in online beforehand and bypass the lines.
You have to get a visa to enter Turkey. You can easily get one once you arrive. Costs $20 per person for US passport-holders and they take cash (USD) or credit card.
It’s a 20-minute cab ride into the Old City, but can stretch to an hour or more depending on traffic.
Once in the city, I walked around mostly, averaging about 10 hours a day. Great way to see the city and soak up the atmosphere.
But sometimes for a little rest, the Istanbul Metro came in very handy. Very easy to use — the red T1 line serves most of the tourist spots. The trams are overground and run very frequently. Ticket machines are at every station. The trams were very crowded, no matter what time of day or night — a couple of times I had to wait for a second tram to get on.
The ferry is the other way to get around, mainly between Europe and Asia. I loved taking the ferries — great way to see the city from the water. Each ferry line has its own little terminal building (so to go to Uskudar, you just look for the building that says Uskudar). Ticket machines on the outside. The ferries were quite crowded during rush hour. The ferries are a cheaper and quicker alternative to the more expensive and touristy Bosphorus cruises (although the cruises go close to shore and hit all the main sights).
Ah, the food…I love kebabs and looked forward to the food in Istanbul — and I was not disappointed. The food I had was great. There are obviously a lot of tourist restaurants, so I cannot vouch for all of them. But I’d looked up some beforehand on Istanbul Eats and they were all great. The koftes, doner kebab wraps, all just fantastic. I did want to try some Ottoman cuisine, but most of the restaurants looked too nice/upscale for what I was in the mood for (more on that on my return trip later). Many hole-in-the-wall places, some that have been around for almost 100 years.
One of the highlights was the wet burger at Taksim Square. Burgers dipped in a spicy tomato sauce — moist and yummy. Highly recommended.
I tried the raki at lunch one day. Loved the anise flavor. It was stronger than the first few sips led me to believe (it is 45-50% alcohol after all).
And of course, the divine baklava. I’m not a big fan of very sweet things, but baklava is just right for me to have two or five. I didn’t realize there were so many different variations of baklava — so naturally I had to try as many as I could in my few days there!
The people overall were very friendly and helpful. The staff at the hotel reception gave a lot of great tips. Locals on the streets would offer help to tourists without being asked (e.g. on the tram if they overheard tourists wondering how to get somewhere). I got asked a few times where I was from (the big camera around my neck was a big giveaway); upon learning that I came from the US they were inquisitive about where exactly.
I never felt unsafe, threatened, or in danger, even though I was out till midnight with my DSLR around my neck.
Unlike a commonly-held preconception, Istanbul doesn’t feel like a very Muslim city. The people are very modern, most dress like westerners, most speak English. Istanbul seems to have found a good balance between modernity and Islam. Other than the five-a-day calls to prayer, you cannot even tell it’s a Muslim-majority country. I saw many young couples making out along the waterfront promenade in Asia at sunset.
I LOVED Istanbul. The history, the sights, the food, the people. I spent four full days and still only saw a fraction of what I wanted to see. I returned later for a longer trip — look for a trip report coming soon.