For centuries, Istanbul has been regarded as the bridge between the European and the Asian civilizations. And not only because of its strategic location, on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait (a strait connecting the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea), but also due to its multicultural heritage and influences. From a geographical point of view, Istanbul is located on two continents: Europe and Asia. I remember that this is the first thing I’ve learned about the city, back when I was in school. And many years apart from that moment, I was ready to discover its flavours, on a four days trip.
Going through the whole history of Istanbul can take ages, but it would be a pity not to present at least a few major moments. The first colony on the Bosphorus was founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC, under the name of Byzantium. After the Romans conquered the colony, they established Constantinople – the “New Rome”, which became the capital of the Byzantine Empire. And it stayed like this for almost a millennium, a period in which the city managed to survive siege after siege, from various invaders.
But it all came to an end in 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and named it the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The next centuries were flowering for the city. Magnificent buildings were constructed, and Istanbul became one of the greatest cities in the world. The 20th century saw the born of the Republic of Turkey, and Kemal Atatürk, its founder, decided to move the capital to Ankara – where it still is today.
This change didn’t stop the city from expanding and growing in population (estimated now at around 15 million). Istanbul feels like any other mega city in the world, but in the same time keeps unspoiled its unique mix of sights, smells and tastes. It’s very busy and crowded, no matter the hour or the day. I must admit that I was overall quite impressed with what I found, despite the fact that it has (like any other major city) a few problems, such as chaotic traffic, congestion, poor street cleanliness, poor air quality and pollution.
How to get around the city
I landed on the main airport, Atatürk, situated on the European side, but there is a smaller second airport as well, on the Asian side: Sabiha Gökçen. Atatürk is connected to the city via metro, so it is relatively easy and cheap to reach the center. You must first purchase an Istanbulkart from the vending machines for ₺6 (approximately €1), and charge it with money. To reach Sultanahmet, I had to take the M1A metro to the Aksaray station, and then change to the tram (T1). The total cost was ₺4.4 (₺2.6 for the first ride, and a discounted ₺1.8 for the second), while the total time of the trip was just over an hour, which is not bad. Have in mind that a cab might cost ten times more and the ride can take even longer, especially if it’s rush hour – and trust me, the traffic in Istanbul is many times horrible. That’s why I recommend using the tram, the metro or the ferry. And in the city, my favourite: walking.
Who hasn’t tried at least once the delicious and rich local gastronomy? It’s almost impossible to deny trying it in one form or another, since the Turkish cuisine has had a major influence on so many cuisines around Europe, especially around the Balkans. There are a ton of tasty dishes that you can try, out of which my favourites are: simit (a bagel with sesame seeds), pide (flat breads with various toppings), börek (baked filled pastries), hummus, chicken or beef döner kebap and dürüm, şiş kebab (cubes of chicken grilled on a stick). The most common side dishes are rice, bulgur and grilled vegetables.
Here are a few places that I’ve tried and can recommend for eating out: Palatium (Cankurtaran Mh., Kutlugün Sk. 33-35) and Old Ottoman (Alemdar Mh., Cağaloğlu Hamamı Sk. No:17/J) – if you’re looking for something traditional, Cuma (Firuzağa Mh., Çukur Cuma Cd. 53/A) – for a Western European feel, and Dürümzade (Hüseyinağa Mahallesi, Kamer Hatun Cd. 26/A) – for the fast food lovers.
I saved the best for last: the desserts! The Turkish cuisine has many amazing (and sometimes extremely) sweet treats, like: baklava (a pastry with honey and nuts), kadayif (a thin noodle-like pastry with sugar syrup, walnuts or pistachios), künefe (a hot crispy cheese-filled dish, made with kadaiyf), cevizli sucuk (a mix of dried grape molasses and walnuts or hazelnuts), muhallebi (milk pudding), sütlaç (rice pudding), lokum (Turkish delight), dondurma (ice-cream), and the list can still continue. Many of the desserts go well with a cup of çay (black tea) or kahvesi (Turkish coffee). The best places to try some of these mouth-watering sweets are Hafiz Mustafa and Hakkı Zade 1864. Both are part of the same restaurant chain, started more than 150 years ago and spread all over the city.
If you’re planning a leisure trip to Istanbul, then you’ll probably end up staying somewhere in Sultanahmet or in Beyoğlu (and to be more precise, it will be either in Karaköy or around the Taksim Square). The first neighborhood is traditional and incorporates the historic center, where most of the famous landmarks are located, while the second one is modern and feels a bit more European. No matter the chosen location, you’ll see that you’ll be traveling from one district to the other pretty often.
I went for the traditional option, and stayed at a small, wooden hotel, named Esans (Ishakpasa Cd. Yenisarachane Sk. No:4), located 5 minutes away from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I appreciated the friendly attitude of all the people involved in running the hotel, and the great view from the rooftop, over the sea and the Asian side of the city. Other than that, not much to take away. The room was a bit kitschy, and there was an issue with a noisy water pipe as well, but since I did not stay that much inside, I didn’t care. It was a fine stay, fair for the money paid (€40 per night, for two).
Guide to Istanbul
The four days proved to be enough for Istanbul. I was able to see most of the places of interest, to taste the amazing local dishes, and to feel the vibrant city life. Here’s what I recommend doing and seeing in Istanbul:
→ Sultanahmet (the old part of the city) is the place where the Ottoman influence is felt the most. It’s a fascinating neighbourhood, with imposing and remarkable structures and buildings, created centuries ago. I recommend not using any public transportation to move around; follow the roads and loose yourself at least for some moments in the narrow alleys, and you’ll discover the uniqueness of Istanbul. The number of striking mosques in this area is unbelievable! There are so many, you’ll loose count at one point. Two of the world’s most well-known mosques (or, better said, a mosque and a former one) are located opposite one another: Sultan Ahmet Camii (or the Blue Mosque) and Aya Sophia.
→ Let’s tart with the first one: the Blue Mosque was built in the 1600s and has earned its name from the blue tiles on its walls. It has five main domes, six minarets, eight secondary domes, and it’s free to visit. Next to it, Aya Sophia has an incredibly long history: completed in the year 537, it was initially an Orthodox cathedral, later a mosque, and eventually a museum – which it still is today. Although it might seem awkward, I passed on visiting the museum, mainly because of the waiting time (the queue was always long), the price (₺60 fee) and of the fact that the city has so many other free mosques around.
→ Süleymaniye Camii, the last mosque I’m going to talk about, does not only impresses with its size, but also with its magnificent location. Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it houses the Mausoleum of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and a large terrace with a spectacular panoramic view over the Golden Horn and Galata. I must admit that I was lucky to discover the terrace, since it was not on my list – and boy, what a miss that would have been…
→ Continuing the trip with another jewel of Sultanahmet: Topkapı Sarayı, the 15th century palace that served for more than 400 years as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. The whole place is huge: it has four courtyards in total, plus tens of individual and connected buildings. I spent almost three hours inside, and had to hurry at some points. In many rooms you will find various collections of old items that were once used in the palace. I personally liked the Library of Sultan Ahmed III and the multi-coloured tiles covering the walls and ceilings of the kiosks from the fourth courtyard. The entrance fee is ₺60, to which you must add another ₺35 for the Harem. I think that it’s worth paying the difference, to see the Imperial Hall and the personal baths of the Sultan.
→ Right in front of Topkapı Sarayı‘s main entrance you’ll spot a magnificent fountain, built in Turkish rococo style: Sultan Ahmet Çeşmesi. So before entering the gates of palace, take some time to acknowledge this fine piece of art.
→ We’re not leaving the area yet. Yerebatan Sarnıcı (The Basilica Cistern) is the largest cistern that lies beneath Istanbul. Dating from the 6th century, it features a total of 336 marble columns. Three out of these columns are really special: the Hen’s Eye column and the two Medusa columns. The cistern’s popularity increased over the last years, after the ending sequence of the 2016 movie Inferno (the adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel) was filmed here. The entrance fee is ₺20.
→ Have you ever wondered how shopping malls looked a few centuries ago? Well, you’re in luck, because Istanbul is home to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It’s an interesting experience that you probably must try, but it’s not something that I really enjoyed doing. The place is very crowded and has a lot of low-quality products. So I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t buy anything while inside. The Spices Bazaar, which is close to the Grand Bazaar, was a bit more interesting.
→ The last recommendation from Sultanahmet is the boat tour along the Bosphorus, operated by Şehir Hatları, the city‘s official ferry company. There are three types of tours, all starting from Eminönü Pier. I chose the Short Circle Cruise (only ₺12), a journey of about two hours, that went from the pier to the second bridge (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Köprüsü) and back. From the ferry, I was able to see Kız Kulesi (The Maiden’s Tower) in its full splendour, from not so far away.
→ It’s time to cross the Galata Bridge into the district of Beyoğlu. This bridge actually connects two worlds… Passing it on foot, while walking next to huge crowds of locals, of tourists, and tens of fishermen, is an intriguing experience.
→ Despite not having an impressive high, at least at first sight (67 meters), the Galata Kulesi dominates the skyline of the Galata / Karaköy quarter. The tower can be seen from almost everywhere around and can be easily reached via a steep passage of stairs and small streets. If you plan to visit its observation deck, I suggest to bring your patience with you. Each time I was in the area, the queue was enormous. But most of the streets converging at the tower are perfect for wandering or getting lost.
→ İstiklal Caddesi is heaven on earth for shoppers. This elegant pedestrian street is 1.4 km long and has pretty much everything you ever though of. During weekends, it becomes a true beehive, as almost 3 million people visit it on a regular Saturday… That’s a lot, right? The street also features a stylish historic red tram.
The Gate to the Orient has been a kind and welcoming city. One last thing worth mentioning is that I felt safe at all times on the streets of Istanbul. The city is both traditional and modern, and there’s no doubt in my mind that I would come back one day.
Hoşça kal, Istanbul!