After our great time in Budapest, we journeyed to Istanbul, Turkey. To travel to Turkey, visitors must obtain a tourist visa. This is easily done on-line – be sure to go to the official Republic of Turkey website. It’s a very quick process and once you have paid the US$62 fee, you receive your visa – in our case, it took about 30 seconds. Be sure to print it out and take it with you. The visa is valid for 90 days from your listed date of arrival. When you arrive at the airport, you will need to show your passport and the e-visa.
The Istanbul Airport, Havilimani, is the busiest airport in Europe and the 7th busiest in the world. This huge modern complex opened in 2018. It is located ~45 km from central Istanbul.
Although there is a metro connection to the city, this may prove a bit daunting for a newly arrived traveller. We chose to have our hotel book a driver to meet us at the airport. For €50, the drive took the four of us and our luggage on the hour long journey to our hotel. We definitely recommend this approach.
With over 15 million people, Istanbul is the most populous city in Europe. It sprawls over both banks of the Bosphorus Strait, with the western half in Europe and the eastern half in Asia. Its commercial and historical centre lies in the European area while about a third of its population lives on the Asian side.
Hotels, large and small, are everywhere is Istanbul and I’m sure there are pros and cons to each area. We chose the Sultanahmet area in the Old Town historic core. Our hotel, the Muyan Suites, was a 10 minute walk away from the famous Hippodrome and the two largest mosques, but it was far enough that we were away from the crowds of tourists that descend on that area each day. It was close to the tram line and about a 30 minute walk to the ferry terminals. We were extremely happy with this choice of hotel – the rooms were great, breakfast was delicious and the staff went above and beyond to be helpful and friendly. There was a great view from the breakfast area!
One word of caution – if you are mobility challenged, you will need to inquire about the streets surrounding your hotel of choice. For instance, we had to navigate a fairly steep street with a narrow cobbled sidewalk to reach the hotel.
Turkey uses its own currency, the Turkish lira, abbreviated as TL or TRY. At the current time, 100 TL are approximately Cdn$7. Credit cards are accepted at hotels and most restaurants. However, there are times when you will need cash so be sure to carry some Turkish lira. There are multiple ATMs in all major areas.
Sultanahmet Park is the centre of the historic core of the city. Here you are standing between the two main mosques, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. The Hippodrome stretches out from the Park. We visited the area many times on our way to various places, but the most magical was later in the evening on our first night. There were very few people about and we were enchanted.
The Hippodrome is an oblong square that is five football fields long and was the site for chariot races in about AD 500. It now is home to a number of monuments. The most prominent is the Egyptian Obelisk which dates from BC 1500 and is carved with reliefs that tell the story of its journey from Rome to Constantinople where it served as the race track’s centre point.
There are more than 3000 mosques in Istanbul. This number doesn’t seem so extreme when you realize that greater than 95% of the 15 million population are of the Muslim faith. The mosques range from grand buildings on sprawling grounds to small wooded buildings just off the street. They vary in style, both externally and internally. The most common form have a central dome and may have cascading smaller domes. Most have at least one minaret, the tall skinny tower. These were originally used for the call to prayer five times a day. Today the call is usually broadcast electronically, with the minarets having a symbolic presence.
We visited four major mosques.
The Sultanahmet Camii is called the Blue Mosque for the hues of blue that are prominent in the interior. The mosque with its six minarets was built in the 17th century.
The Hagia Sofia has a 1500-year history. It started as a church – home to the Byzantine Emperor and the Orthodox ‘Eastern Pope’. It then became a mosque when the Muslims conquered Constantinople. In the 20th century, it stood as a museum of priceless artifacts. And finally in 2020, it reverted to its status as a mosque.
The New Mosque of Mother Sultan is not all that new – this classical Ottoman mosque opened in 1665.
Construction of the Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent began in 1550 and was completed in 10 years. It rivals the Blue Mosque in size and design. The Süleymaniye area contains not only the mosque, but numerous other buildings including the mausoleums of Süleyman and his wife.
A few tips for mosque visits:
- There is no fee to enter a mosque.
- They are generally open all day, but they do close 5 times a day for prayer, usually for about 30 minutes.
- Women must cover their heads, so tucking a scarf in your bag is a good idea, but in a pinch, a hood on your jacket will work.
- Covered knees and shoulders are expected for both men and women.
- Everyone must remove their shoes before entering the main area. Most of the larger mosques have an anteroom for this purpose, but in some, you may be required to remove them on the front steps.
- The line-up to the big two (Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia) can be huge. We had decided we would give them a miss, but then we were out one rainy afternoon and found that the line-ups were gone. So if it rains, you know where to go!
The Bosphorus Strait is an amazing hub of watercraft, connecting the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It is estimated that more than 45,000 ships pass annually. The strait is one of the world’s most difficult waterways to navigate, due to the narrow width at some parts of the waterway. The channel is only half a mile wide at the narrowest point, posing a hurdle to the oil tankers and other vessels using the strait.
A Bosphorus cruise is a great way to experience the waterway. There are numerous companies offering cruises of varying lengths and at different times of day. We found an easy and affordable way for independent travellers to do this on their own.
The public ferry travels from the Eminönü district ferry terminal to the village of Anadolu Kavagi at the mouth of the Black Sea. For 65 TY (~$4.50) per person, you board at 1035, cruise down the river for a couple of hours and arrive at the Asian fishing village. You then have about 2.5 hours to wander the small town and have lunch at one of the many fish restaurants. This is a fun activity on its own as you navigate the hawkers trying to entice you to visit their establishment. The return trip gets you back to Eminönü at ~4.30 pm.
There is no commentary on the ferry, but most guidebooks list the highlights – or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride, taking in the sights along the shore and marvelling at the busy ship traffic on this water highway.
A study has shown that Istanbul ranks highest in traffic congestion – and we can certainly agree with that. Pedestrians definitely DO NOT have the right of way and one has to be very careful when crossing streets or walking on narrow sidewalks (the trams travel very near to the sidewalk). We never saw a stop sign in our travels around the city. When crossing at one of the crosswalks with lights, watch for the little green man light to start blinking – you then have about 2 seconds to clear the intersection before the drivers hit their gas pedals. It was very interesting to watch the drivers manoeuvre the streets and intersections and we marvelled at the skill of our drivers to and from the airport.
Istanbul is known for its great market areas. The Grand Bazaar is basically the world’s oldest shopping mall. It dates back to the 1400s and in 2014, it was listed No.1 among the world’s most-visited tourist attractions. It has 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops, selling rugs to jewellery to spices and everything in between. The store keepers all try to entice you into their shop, with some quite entertaining patter, but they are respectful of a smile and ‘no, thank you’. We visited the Bazaar at 9 am on a rainy morning – and really had the place almost all to ourselves. It was so much fun to just wander and get lost!
We also had a great tea time in the market. And we marvelled at the tea runners, who carry trays of tea to the shop keepers.
The Spice Market, or Egyptian Bazaar, was established in the 17th century. Here you can find all types of spices, herbs, medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals.
We walked over the Galata Bridge which crosses the Golden Horn. This bridge is lined with restaurants on the lower level and fishermen on the upper level. The bridge leads to Karaköy in the ‘New District’.
We wandered the small streets observing artists at work as well as a number of coffee houses – stopping at one great one!
We climbed the hill to the Galata Tower, a 205 foot structure that has served as a fortification, a fire tower, and a dungeon as well as other uses over the centuries. You can climb the tower, but we didn’t feel it was worth the wait in line.
We walked for a ways down Istiklal Street – which was filled with both locals out shopping and tourists taking in the sights.
To escape the crowds, we veered off into the side streets, where we were immersed in everyday life in Karaköy.
We stopped for a tasty lunch of Turkish pide (think pita pizza).
As we made our way back to the bridge, we passed many street food vendors – so much food – if only we could eat steadily!
We stopped in at the fish market – so many fish!
Another day, we took the ferry to the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Here we visited the Kadiköy neighborhood. We enjoyed the market area and the more modern shopping areas.
We had a great lunch of börekçisi, phyllo pastry with various fillings – we tried spinach, cheese and meat. They were all delicious!
Cats hold an important place in Turkish culture and they are everywhere. For more information about this phenomenon, I refer you to Debbie’s blog, It’s a Cat’s Life in Istanbul
Gülhane Park was originally Topkapı Palace’s imperial garden. We didn’t visit the palace but we thoroughly enjoyed the garden.
We were determined to eat the characteristic Turkish cuisine and I think that we did a great job. In addition to the treats listed above, we had some other great eating experiences.
We found a neighborhood restaurant, Dubb Kebab, that we loved and returned there for 3 of our 6 dinners. We sampled their kebabs, fish, seafood, pasta and salads, not to mention the complementary baklava each night.
One evening, our favourite waiters prepared Testi Kebap – a stew of meat and vegetables, cooked in a clay jug and then flamed and cracked open at your table side.
We visited a Turkish restaurant where we sat on floor cushions and enjoyed Turkish pancakes.
Harvey sampled Turkish coffee – where the grounds float freely in the brew. Upon finishing your drink, you are encouraged to check the grounds for your fortune – you can use your imagination!
Finally, we can’t forget the Turkish delight. This gelled confectionery comes in so many flavours and mixtures. It is sold everywhere – and we ate our share!
We are so glad that we visited Istanbul! It was a side of Europe that is different from the countries we have previously visited in so many ways. It was an experience that we will always remember – and would highly recommend!
Bev & Harvey