You can cover all of Istanbul’s magnificent main sights in a healthy long weekend, especially since many of them are in walking distance of each other in the old city, Sultanahmet.
Things to see and do
“Free” walking tour (tips based). Lasts around 2 hours, there’s both a morning tour and and afternoon tour, no booking required, just turn up. A great introduction to the Sultanahmet area and its history.
Basilica Cistern. Entry 10TL. Magical. Make sure you go first thing (9am) to avoid a long queue and the crowds inside which would spoil the atmosphere. Skip the audio guide because the same info is available on signs. Recommended length of visit: 1 hour.
Blue Mosque. Entrance is free but donations are welcome upon exit. Open to the public even on Friday (the Muslim holy day) but closed to non-worshippers for at least half an hour after each call to prayer and longer at the midday call. Recommended length of visit: 30min – 1 hour. You never get tired of just walking past and admiring it:
Aya Sophia (Hagia Sophia). Entry 20TL. Not open on Mondays. Quite fascinating: it started life as an Orthodox basilica, became a mosque and now functions as a museum. Be prepared to queue even if you go first thing. Recommended length of visit: 2 hours.
Grand Bazaar. I expected this to be like the souks of Morocco but it was surprisingly modern even though the building itself is hundreds of years old. Almost no touting, too, which is nice. Worth a bit of a wander but after a while all the shops start to look the same.
Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. Smaller and cheaper than the Grand Bazaar, and I preferred it. Predominantly made up of spice, tea and sweet stalls it’s also surrounded by cheap places to grab lunch.
Galata Bridge and Galata Tower. Exiting the Spice Bazaar you’ll find yourself in Eminönü, one of Istanbul’s many ferry ports. Walk across Galata Bridge and you’ll find men of all ages fishing all day long and can take a peek at what they’ve caught. After you’ve crossed the water follow the signs up a steep backstreet to Galata Kulesi (tower) which you can go up (12 TL) for a fantastic view of Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Asian side.
You could also…
Go to Taksim… but during the day I found it choked with people (imagine Oxford Street at Christmas then double the amount of people) and at night you have to dodge all the people trying you invite you to bars to sell you impossibly expensive drinks. (Mainly a problem for single guys – one of the guys in our hostel dorm had 6 different people try this scam on him in one evening.) The backstreets are more interesting than the main boulevard, so if you do go, go wandering into those.
Visit Topkapi Palace… but we didn’t, mainly because some friends said it wasn’t a must-see unless you had extra time to kill, and the line when we visited the gardens (which you can do for free) was hilariously long. We went to Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian side instead. (Entry 20TL, includes free guided tour.) We got there by taking a ferry to Eminönü to Üsküdar and then a bus (but you could walk it from Üsküdar in about 30min).
Take a ferry instead of a Bosphorus tour. You can take a ferry to the Asian side from Eminönü for a measly 2TL and actually get off an explore the area (which is wonderfully tourist-free and not nearly as crowded as the old city), or you can pay anything from 12TL to €35 for a trip up and down the Bosphorus where you can’t stop and get off to visit any of the sights. Having said that, everyone I know that has done a Bosphorus tour did enjoy it, so really it’s up to you.
Go to a hammam. I spent a lot of time analysing reviews of Istanbul hammam on TripAdvisor and came to two conclusions:
1) The touristy ones are more expensive but perhaps preferable if you’re concerned about language barriers.
2) It seems a lot of negative reviews are from people that expected a bathhouse to be the same thing as a luxurious spa treatment and were sorely disappointed.
In the end I chose Süleymaniye because it had better reviews, a very helpful website, and was cheaper than the two big ones. I also liked that it allows couples to visit together because while I know that’s not traditional, it meant Alex and I could share the same experience. After what I’d read I was expecting quite an intense ordeal, but it’s not that dissimilar to the same kind of experience you’d have at a Japanese bathhouse (just with more sauna time). And maybe they went easy on me, but the scrub was no where near as painful as a pedicure I once had. Conclusion: very relaxing and you certainly feel clean afterwards!
Visit a tea house. Turkish coffee is famous worldwide but the local drink of choice is tea: normal black tea. (Apple tea is definitely worth trying though – it’s served very sweet and tastes like hot apple juice!) This place is right in the middle of the tourist district but the tea’s half the price anywhere else in the area (1TL vs 2TL) and it’s in the middle of an atmospheric cemetery. You can also share an apple, or perhaps rose and mint flavoured shisha for 12TL. It’s very authentic but (/so?) don’t expect fancy service – be quick with your order or the staff will move on! (But don’t worry, he’ll likely come back later.)
Places to eat
Balkan Lokantasi. Self service, point-at-what-you’d-like, home cooked, super cheap, delicious. We had two meat dishes, one vegetable dish, bread, two drinks and two desserts for 20TL.
Sultanahmet Koftecisi. A short menu (kofte or grilled lamb) but done to perfection.
Sultanahmet Fish Restaurant. A bit of a splurge on a backpacker’s budget but very friendly staff (no touts – a good sign) and tasty seafood. When we visited they took one of our desserts off the bill and gave it to us on the house just because!
Pasazade. I haven’t actually been there (we just ran out of time) but a friend of mine enjoyed it so much she ate there twice on her visit to Istanbul.
Palatium Cafe. Another recommendation we didn’t get a chance to put to the test, but it sounds like a cool place to go: there are glass floors that allow you to see ancient ruins underneath and I think you might even be able to go downstairs to see them!
Durumzade. Too many good places to eat in Istanbul, not enough meals to try them all out. This place is reputed to serve up perhaps the best kebabs in all Istanbul, although again, we didn’t get a chance to try them.
Lastly, find these boats in Eminönü next to Galata Bridge:
They each serve up freshly grilled fish in bread with lettuce and onion for 5TL a pop. A wee bit bony, but delicious.
You will need to pay for a visa on entry. The price varies on your citizenship but is €15 for most countries. It’s best to have this ready in cash and note that for some odd reason Turkish Lira are not accepted.
We stayed at Agora Guesthouse and Hostel in Sultanahmet which is in walking distance of almost everything listed above (or a short tram ride if you’re tired of walking). Free wifi on every floor, nice big lockers in the rooms, good showers, excellent breakfast buffet, rooftop terrace and common area, helpful and friendly staff.
The metro, tram and furnicular system is limited but easy to use. Buy a jeton (token) for for each leg of your trip from one of the vending machines at the station. For example, to get from Atatürk Airport to Sultanahmet you will need 2 tokens: one for the metro and a second one when you change to the tram. Each token costs 2TL and vending machines accept coins, 5TL notes and 10TL notes. You can buy a bunch in advance so you’ve got them handy.
The other main method of payment is the Istanbulkart – you’ll need one of these to use the buses which don’t accept cash or jetons. (Unless a kindly passenger offers to swipe their card for you in exchange for cash!)
There is no direct public transport to Sabiha Gökçen, the airport on the Asian side, but you can get there quite cheaply by taking a Havataş bus from Taksim Square. (Allow approx 45 minutes to get to Taksim from Sultanahmet and 1.5 hours for the bus to the airport.) The Havataş bus costs 12TL – just hop on and buy your ticket on board.