Istanbul can be quite confusing at first glance.
It’s a city of three parts divided by two bodies of water…the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The Golden Horn divides the European side in two..the historical Sultanahmet and the more modern Beyoglu side whilst the Bosphorus divides Europe and Asian.
As a travel agent in a previous life, one of the first things I used to do was to take out a map and explain the different areas of Istanbul to clients and where you will want to go. Decide what is important for you. Some people will only want to see the historical monuments, others will want to concentrate on exploring different food areas and others will want to head off the usual tourist track. Knowing what you want to see will help you decide where to stay but in the end you’re only as far away as a tram ride!
How long should you stay…
I’m a big believer in staying as long as you can. The ideal first trip should be a stay of five nights at least! But not everyone has this time. Of course longer is fabulous and any less means that you will have to prioritise where you go and what you see.
What to do…
If you’ve read my Guide to Istanbul: What to do, you probably have a lot of questions…the first being how do you fit all this in! The answer is that you don’t…you choose what you would like to see
Allow 2 days to see the classic iconic monuments of Istanbul.
Start the days early…be at the gates of the Topkapi Palace and Aya Sofia just before opening time! A visit to the Topkapi Palace will take you at least 3 hours so don’t waste precious time in the queue.
When planning your days, choose sites that are located close to each other. The Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, Basilica Cistern and the Blue Mosque, are all near Sultanahmet Square.
The Grand Bazaar is a short walk up the hill. After your visit here, head to the Sulimaniye Mosque (either walk or catch the tram to Universite stop) . From here you can then continue down to the Spice Bazaar and the fabulous Rüstem Pasa Mosque
On your third day, walk cross the Galata Bridge, stopping for a fish sandwich at the Karaköy Fish Market and then head up the hill to the Galata Tower. Istiklal Cadessi is not far from here… a walk along this pedestrian street will take you all the way to Taksim. You may even have time to take the funicular down to Beşiktaş and walk along the Bosporus to the Dolmabhace Palace and the Istanbul Modern!
What have you missed? Is there somewhere you really wanted to see and haven’t? If the answer is yes, then the fourth day is the day to do this! You could also visit Kadiköy on the Asian side. If you don’t have time for a food tour, wander around the market area yourself and have lunch at Ciya Sofrasi. After lunch head, take the ferry back to Eminönü and either head out to the Chora Museum or take a Bosphorus cruise.
The Museum Pass Istanbul
This works in a similar fashion to most city museum passes. The pass costs 85TL and lasts for 72 hours. It’s great that you don’t have to queue for a ticket but you can do this yourself by getting to places early.
Aya Sofia (25TL), Topkapi Palace Museum (25TL) and the Harem Apartments (15TL), the Archaelogical Museum (10TL) and the Chora Museums (15TL) and are on the list as well as a few other lesser museums…so do your sums and see if you think this is worthwhile for you. After five visits to Istanbul, I am yet to use one!
Traffic in Istanbul is chaotic!
Because of the many one way streets, a short ride in a taxi can often take a long time. If you do take a taxi, make sure the meter is turned on, the flag fall is on the meter (in new cars you can see it on the mirror) and you have change so you can avoid any money problems. Have an idea of where you’re going but with the maze of one ways streets it’s hard for the first time visitor to know where you are!
The answer is to walk everywhere or learn to use the public transport system… its easy and fun!
Especially in the Sultanahmet area, you can easily walk between sights..infact you can walk from here to the European side as well but there is a tram if you prefer!
If you are going to be moving around a lot , buy an Istanbulkart card. This card, which is like London’s Oyster card, will take you everywhere…tram, bus, metro,funicular and ferry. Buy the card at vending machines at most transport stops or at the small kiosks selling papers and cigarettes. They can also be bought at the airport. The card will cost you 10TL (refundable when you leave..keep the receipt) which you then top up with as much or as little as you like, remembering that each trip costs 1.95 TL each. You can use the one card for up to five people.
You can also buy single ride jetons (tokens) at Jetonmatik machines at the transport stops. These are more expensive …costing 3TL per trip, but can be handy if the need arises.
The main tram route that you will use takes you from the European side to tourist sights of Sultanahmet. If the tram doesn’t go somewhere, the bus certainly will. Make sure you take at least one ferry ride..it really is a side of Istanbul that shouldn’t be missed. Many of the ferries you use will leave from Eminönü or Karaköy.
If you’re not sure where to go, ask a friendly local…they are only to happy to help.
There are three main players in the phone system game. Turkcell is one of the biggest cell net providers closely followed by Vodaphone and Avea. If you have an unlocked phone you can use a prepaid Turkish sim card. If you are staying only a week or two in Turkey, there won’t be a problem but it becomes trickier if you are staying longer! Phones and ipads have to be registered with the government at a cost of 115TL per device!
We weren’t told this when we bought our sim cards and found that one of our phones was cut off after 15 days. The other was ok for about 4 weeks but I think we were incredibly lucky with this one! As we were planning to be in Turkey for nearly 2 months, we found the best ways to get around this was to buy a cheap second hand Nokia phone from one of the many phone shops for about 40TL. The ipad was a different story and as we used it for keeping in contact and for navigation, we paid the registration fee which was arranged by the friendly Turkcell man in Sinop!
The lira is the unit of currency. Confusingly, hotels charge in Euros.
Vat refund is available for items bought over 100TL but not all shops participate in the scheme.
ATM’s are widely available in Istanbul
Visa rules for tourists have recently changed. Please check these for your nationality before you leave home.
As of April 17th 2014, visas will be obtained online by going to www.evisa.gov.tr.
All you have to do is give the information required and, after your visa is approved, make the payment. You can then download your visa. Visa information can be found here
Bay or bayan…it can be confusing but if you’re a man head towards bay and if you’re a woman, bayan is for you! Most mosques have fairly clean public toilet facilities for which there is a small charge.
To ask for the Bathroom/toilet: Nerede Tuvet (neh-reh-deh oo-vah-leht)
Where to Stay….
This is a hard one! As a first time visitor, you’ll be spending a lot of time in Sultanahmet but as most of the good restaurants and bars are on the Beyoglu side, you’ll also spend a lot of evenings here. It really depends on the time you have in Istanbul.
Me…I love staying on the European side!
Hotels in Sultanahamet
Ibrahim Pasha: A very cute boutique hotel situated between the Blue mosque and the Grand Bazaar.
Pros: Lovely roof top terrace, delicious breakfast included
Cons: The lead in rooms are very tiny…there is not much room around the bed!
Book the Hotel Ibrahim Pasha here
Neorion: A popular hotel in a great position not far from Eminonu
Pros: Fabulous friendly staff, buffet breakfast included, tea and afternoon snacks included, great central position
Cons: Can’t think of any
Book Hotel Neorion here
The Four Seasons Sultanahmet: A fabulous five star hotel that was once a prison, not far from the attractions of Sultanahmet.
Pros: Great rooms, fabulous roof top bar,
Cons: breakfast is not included
Book the Four Seasons Sultanahmet here
Hotel in Cihanger
The Witt Suites: Whilst I haven’t stayed here, friends highly recommend them. Fabulous position in Cihanger with large rooms, breakfast included. Book here
After a couple of years staying in hotels in Istanbul, we finally took the plunge and booked an apartment for stays in Istanbul. We stayed in both Galata (perfect for 3 days) and Cihanger (perfect for the longer stay of 11 days) and loved these areas. We’d definitely book an apartment again.
There are many companies offering apartments but we liked these
Manzara Istanbul www.manzara-istanbul.com
Istanbul Sweet Home www.istanbulsweethome.com
Cross Pollinate www.cross-pollinte.com
Remember to check what floor your apartment is on! Even though an apartment may be renovated, the buildings are old and you may have to walk up five flights of stairs! Air conditioning is not necessarily available in all apartments
Learning a few Turkish words goes a long way with the friendly Turks. These will help you win friends!
Hello: Merhabā (mehr-hah-bah)
Good Morning: Günaydın (gew-nahy-duhn)
Please: Lütfen (lewt-fehn)
Thank you: Teşekkürler (te-shek-kewr-lehr)
Yes: Evet (eh-vet)
No: Hayir (hah-yuhr)
Excuse me: Pardon (puhr-dohn)
I don’t understand: Anlamadım (an-la-ma-duhm)
Where is: Nerede (neh-reh-deh)
Whats your name: Adınız ne (ah-duh-nuhz neh)
Your Guide to Istanbul: What to do
Ytravelblog has a great roundup of posts on Istanbul
Istanbul’s Hidden Street
A Foodie’s Tour in Istanbul
Istanbul’s Shoe Shine Scam