Istanbul is the perfect city. Which makes me question quite why it took me so long to go there. It’s a great place for a long weekend plus, with Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport being an excellent international hub, it’s a super stop-off to break up, or recuperate from, a long plane journey. You can read top tips on how to get through a long flight in this article.
Istanbul is a wonderful mix of Mediterranean-style culture (think great food, pavement eating, long meals) combined with Central Asian/Middle East influence. It is a transcontinental city as it straddles the Bosphorus strait which separates Europe and Asia. So it’s perfectly situated on the waterfront, has an incredible history, a huge love of food and a relaxed approach to eating. Well, what more could you want?
We stopped off at Istanbul for 72 hours on our way to Tanzania from the UK, arriving late on a Monday afternoon, departing Thursday evening.
As I hadn’t been to Istanbul before we decided to stay in the main tourist area on the European side. Given we were only there a couple of days this worked perfectly. I think next time though we’ll venture out to stay on the Asian side and consider an AirBnb, largely because I like the comfort of an apartment.
That evening we had a quick wander around and ate at Hamdi, which was great as an introduction to Turkish cuisine and is one of the premier kebab restaurants.
Full Day 1
Today we did a walking food tour with Culinary Backstreets. Initially, I was disappointed we couldn’t do this on our 2nd full day and had to do it the day after we arrived but I think it turned out to be a stroke of luck. Why? Because it meant we were able to get our heads around the city with the added advantage of a knowledgeable local and it helped inform us where we’d like to revisit the following day.
We loved this tour. It showed us where to go for great food at places that we would never have attempted on our own. At $125 USD per person, it’s not cheap but I feel it was good value and our guide, Benoit, was knowledgeable, enthusiastic and quite simply, really good company.
There were only three of us in the group, plus the guide, so we didn’t have to wait for stragglers and it was always easy to find somewhere to sit at the places we went to. It made a great day out. But go easy on breakfast that morning as you will spend nearly all day eating and wandering.
We loved all of it but it was a great introduction to the Asian side which is an area we probably wouldn’t have gone to on such a short visit.
That evening we sat and watched the sunset from our hotel bar drinking some lovely Turkish wine and rubbing our full bellies.
Full Day 2
We decided to go out early, at around 7 in the morning hoping to miss the morning rush of workers, which was quite easy as the streets felt oddly empty particularly for such a large city. From our hotel, we could easily wander up to Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
For a huge city, it was incredibly peaceful. We felt very comfortable wandering the streets and it wasn’t really until 8:30 – 9 that the streets and roads got much busier. In fact, almost no shops were open at that time, but you could grab a simple Simit easily enough if you were peckish. This is Turkish bread, often sold by street vendors. It is a round loop covered in sesame seeds. Delicious.
Armed with the knowledge from yesterday’s guided walk that breakfast is one of the most important meals in Turkey and knowing that, (unlike the previous day) we weren’t going to be eating all day we took a more leisurely approach to breakfast. We returned from our morning walk around 10 and filled up with lots of bread and cheeses and lovely dried fruit and nuts in our hotel’s top floor restaurant watching the city unfold.
Later we retraced some of our steps from the foodie walking tour and went back over the Galata bridge for cheese baklava and a walk up to the Galata tower. We decided not to enter, the queue was long and it wasn’t our thing. Plus, as we’re confident we will return to Istanbul we just wanted to soak up the city rather than spend days inside seeing all the sights. We will do that another time.
We then stumbled across a metro station and took the metro a few stops up to Taksim Square and wandered around there for a while but it was a little too commercial for us. We then decided to use the Galata tower as a visual guide to walk back from Taksim. It was lovely walking down the residential streets and great to see a side of the city with few tourists.
Half Day/day of departure
We were flying out of Istanbul that afternoon, so we took breakfast at the hotel and wandered to the market where locals shopped to stock up on dried fruit and nuts. They vacuum pack the bags so it’s perfect to bring back. The range is incredible.
Now I know they are packed well, on my next visit I’ll be stocking up on olives and cheese too. Then a final kebab and stop at a coffee house for a last Turkish coffee and some baklava and it was back to the airport.
I highly recommend a trip to Istanbul, just don’t be like me and leave it so long. It really is a fabulous city.
Where to eat: Hamdi Restaurant is great for an introduction to standard Turkish cuisine. The main restaurant is up on the third floor. If you can get a table by the upstairs window you get a fabulous view over the city.
Where to stay: The accommodation choices are huge in Istanbul and fit a range of budgets. We stayed at Ottoman Legacy Hotel which worked out well. Staff were very helpful and attentive and when we asked we were given a late check out on departure.
There is a pool and a spa you can use and my partner used the gym during our stay and was very happy with it. The hotel has a wonderful view from the top floor breakfast restaurant.
How to get from the airport to town: We booked a car but it didn’t turn up so went to one of the many car service booths at the airport. It was quick easy and the cars were in excellent condition – think people carrier style. Cost on arrival to central Istanbul 25 Euro and took about 30 mins.
Walking food tour: We did the ‘Two Markets Two Continents’ walking tour with Culinary Backstreets: http://culinarybackstreets.com/tours-food-tours/tours-istanbul/2016/two-markets-two-continents/
Sightseeing: You can save money with an Istanbul Museum Pass which is valid for 5 days costs 85 Turkish Lira ($22/£17/Euro19) and gives you entry into many of main sites free of charge and without having to queue.
What to buy: Dried fruit and nuts. Delicious! I mean proper Turkish Delight. Not that horribly soapy stuff but the genuine stuff. We bought ours in the beautiful cafe, Şekerci Cafer Erol. It’s gorgeous looking, divinely delicious and makes a great present. Small boxes can be bought for a reasonable price and can make a change from taking chocs when going to friends for dinner.
An unusual taste but none the less still yummy is rose jam which can also be purchased, along with the gorgeous Turkish delight, at Şekerci Cafer Erol in Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city.
When to visit: We went in mid-October and the weather was pleasant and sunny. It can get quite cold in Istanbul and can reach high temperatures in the height of summer. But I’d be happy to go any time of year.
What to be aware of: I felt very safe in Istanbul but like many countries, it does have issues related to terrorism and extra vigilance is required. As usual, we took standard precautions, most of which we would do at home too. We kept our valuables safe and I used a cross body bag when out and about.
Be aware of the ‘shoe shine scam’. If you see a shoe shine person drop their brush as they’re walking along past you, it’s natural to want to pick it up and give it to them. If you do, they’ll thank you profusely and before you know it your shoes are being shined ‘for free’ and you’re hearing a hard luck story which makes you feel the need to pay over the odds for your ‘free’ shoe shine. To a certain extent it is harmless but it’s still a scam.
Bio: Melanie Hayes has a restless soul and blogs about travel at Passport Amigo.