If you’re looking for a genuinely impressive city break stopover on your ticket – look no further than Istanbul. There's a huge array of photogenic tourist sights and mosques to visit, combined with cheap accommodation and food and easy transport - you can splurge at little cost which in my books makes an ideal city! You won’t regret the time spent exploring the quaint cobbled streets, waterways and rooftop bars of this unique European/Asian gateway city.
As a city that straddles the Europe and Asia continental divide, divided by the Bosphorus Strait, I’ve always been fascinated with Istanbul. For years, I’ve been captivated by location shots popping up everywhere from the James Bond motorbike sequence on top of the Grand Bazaar, to the dreamy Chanel No. 5 ad with Audrey Tautou to the atmospheric cold war era settings in the film Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Add in Istanbul’s position as a stop on the luxurious Orient Express and it’s clear that this city has a very rich history and architecture worth exploring.
It’s a city divided and defined by its waterways, the Bosphorus Strait and the Golden Horn. One of Istanbul’s most attractive features is that the landscape rises steeply from the coast. Whilst this can make for some leg-aching hill climbs if you’re exploring on foot (be warned), it also means every hotel and bar of note has a rooftop bar with incredible views over the water – be it the Bosphorus Strait, the Golden Horn or the Sea of Marmara. I visited at the end of October 2013 when the weather was a warm and mild 18-20 degrees, perfect for sightseeing.
Many tourists tend to stay in the Sultanahmet area as this is home to most of the main sights. There is a good range of accommodation options for all budgets here and some good places to eat, including a traditional kebap place or café serving seriously tempting baklava on every corner. I stayed in the mid-range Ottoman Park Hotel in Sultanahmet (around £50/night inc breakfast and in-room wifi). Every morning we had our breakfast outside on the terrace overlooking the fishing boats in the Sea of Marmara, with a backdrop of the Blue Mosque. Definitely the best views I’ve ever had from a hotel - priceless!
I found that I tended to head over the Galata bridge to find restaurants that were less touristy and I found plenty of great options here, from traditional kebaps to sushi. If you’re more interested in shops than sights, you might want to stay on the northern side, around Galata.
The city’s main historic quarter is Sultanahmet, to the south of the Golden Horn. This is the place most tourists head to first. All the most notable tourist sites are here including the magnificent Blue Mosque, Haghia Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar.
Entry to the Blue Mosque is free, but you will need to respect the worshippers, which means removing your shoes and women covering their heads. If you don’t bring a headscarf, they are provided free. Inside you’ll be blown away by the intricate and delicate blue tiling native to Islamic architecture and the peaceful, prayerful atmosphere.
Next stop, and almost next door is Haghia Sofia, a 1,500-year-old construction that began life as a church, then became a mosque before ending up as a museum. Entry is around TL25 and worth the fee to see some of the religious frescoes and magnificent interior architecture.
Staying in Sultanahmet, you could visit the Basilica Cistern – an ancient underground reservoir built to serve water to one of the palaces. Wander the cool, eery and dimly lit caverns and check out the fantastic interior arches and brickwork construction whilst fish swim around the low-level channels. Entry is TL10.
Once you’re done with the sights and need some retail therapy – head to the Grand Bazaar for traditional Turkish souvenirs (we bought slippers!) and cut-price faux designer labels. The Mulberry handbag my friend bought has definitely outlived my £8 faux Converse trainers, but the haggling was fun! After you’ve got lost in the Grand Bazaar's alleyways, treat yourself to the incredibly moreish local baklava – a sweet treat flavoured with honey and pistachios, with a Turkish tea or coffee.
A must-try experience in Istanbul is to visit a Turkish Bath, the most famous are Çemberlitaş Hamami and Cağaloğlu Hamami. Men and women are segregated but this is not a place to linger if you’re bashful as you won’t be wearing much inside! With many others, you’ll lie on a massive, flat stone waiting for a staff member to wash and scrub you, before washing your hair. A vigorous and cleansing experience all round! Give it a go – at least you’ll be able to say you tried it!
North of the Golden Horn you’ll find the main shopping district. A wander through the streets here takes you through the boho district around Galata with coffee places, craft shops and jewellery. Further on, you’ll reach the main drag to Taksim Square, with the main high street shops. Taksim Square itself is worth a visit as the central hub of the city there’s always plenty going on.
Istanbul is incredibly easy to explore and it’s easy to pack a lot into a few days if you read up ahead. A brilliant way to see the city and get some photos of the skyline punctuated by mosques is to take a Golden Horn Cruise. A cheap hop-on-hop-off ferry takes you up to Eyüp, where you can get a cable car up to the café for seriously awesome views over Istanbul and the waterways – this is a must do!
A second way to see the city is to take the Bosphorus Cruise (TL25). The ferry stops at various places en route, before you reach Anadolu Kavaği, with views towards the Black Sea. You can get great fresh fish here and the locals are so friendly – they let me grill my own mackerel! You’ll have magnificent shoreline views and the chance to peek into the Asian side, even if you don’t get as far as disembarking.
If you have more time, I would definitely recommend taking a ferry day trip to the tranquil, car-free Prince's Islands in the Sea of Marmara. A hidden gem – these islands have no cars, so you can get a guided tour by horse and trap or rent a bike (we did both cheaply). The islands are so peaceful to explore – they’re covered with pretty, clapboard villas and pine forests, with views towards the Asian coastline of the city – which seems to stretch for miles and miles.
Getting around Istanbul is easy and extremely cheap and the transport systems are helpful well connected. You’ll arrive at one of the main airports – most likely the busy Ataturk International (European side). From here we can arrange a transfer, or you can get on the airport bus (TL35) or for a cheap and easy option, take the LRT and tram for TL1.40. You can buy a pre-paid travel card (like an Oyster card in London) which can be used on all the LRT routes, trams, funicular railway and many ferries – as a guide, about £20 got me through a serious amount of exploring on all forms of transport for 6 days!
A second airport, Sabiha Gokcen, is further out on the Asian side. This is less well served by public transport, so you’ll need to book a transfer or take a taxi into the city.
The tram routes take you all around Sultanahmet and over the bridge to Karakoy, the Galata tower and the shopping district of Beyoglu, with local ferries (many included in the travel card) taking you up the Golden Horn or over to the Asian side.
Eating and drinking in Istanbul is very cheap. A traditional Turkish tea, served in a small glass cost TL1 (around 30p) as does a traditional Turkish coffee (served with the coffee grouts in – don’t stir it!). Western-style coffees like latte and cappuccino are more expensive at around TL6, but still cheap enough to warrant many a coffee pit-stop to admire the amazing views round each corner!
Istanbul can be included ad a stopover on some round the world tickets, for example: