Our month long trip to Turkey in 2014 was our first foray into ‘long term’ solo travel, a trip we planned completely on our own with just our copy of the Lonely Planet. It was also the trip that changed us – our adventures in Turkey opened our eyes up to a world full of history outside the one that we had grown up in, and instilled within us a desire to explore more – 18 months later, that’s exactly what we started doing.
We dedicated an entire week to the buzzing city of Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural centre. Rich in history spanning Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires over hundreds of centuries, today Istanbul is Europe’s fifth largest city with over 14 million inhabitants.
Turkey is often left off the typical ‘Euro-Trip’ tourist trail, but it’s absolutely a country that cannot be missed. If you only have a few days to spare, Istanbul is the place to spend them. With so much to see, these are our top 10 must-do’s whilst in Istanbul – both touristy and non-touristy!
1. Visit During late March – April
Not only is the weather perfect for travelling (think crisp mornings and sunny days), but the city of Istanbul blooms spectacularly with millions of tulips flowering during this time. Every year 15 million bulbs are planted, and they flower for just a few short weeks from mid-March through to mid-April. One of the best ways to enjoy them is to take a stroll through Gulhane Park in Sultanahmet.
2. Drink Copious Amounts of Apple Tea
Despite being a self confessed coffee lover, tea is the drink of choice in Istanbul (because it’s coffee is el-crappo…!) Apple Tea is the type you want to try – it’s referred to by everyone as the ‘tourist tea’. For just 1 or 2 Lira, you can get a glass of this delicious, fragrant beverage anywhere – it will soon become an addiction. Don’t fear though, it’s not an addiction you have to give up – you can buy tea everywhere to take home when you leave – the granulated type is best.
3. Find a Rooftop Terrace to View the Blue Mosque at Sunset
The Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet is an absolutely must visit during the day, but be sure to find a rooftop terrace or restaurant around sunset time to view this spectacular mosque from a completely different vantage point. Most places around Sultanahmet offer dining options from their top floor. In the colder months, these aren’t always open as it gets too windy – this was the case with the particular establishment that we visited, however we asked if we could visit the terrace to take some photos and then eat at the ground level restaurant – this wasn’t a problem. Explore the area and see whats available – you won’t be disappointed.
4. Visit Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is an unmissable sight in Sultanahmet. Used as royal residence for over 400 years, its now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The sprawling grounds feature gardens, courtyards, gates, kitchens, stables, audience halls, private chambers, privies, harem chambers, treasuries, galleries, mosques and more! It’s location is also a beautiful vantage point over the Bosphorus and the Asian, Anatolian side of the city. Give the palace at least several hours to explore.
5. Take a Cruise on the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is a narrow sea channel, separating Asian Turkey from European Turkey. A ferry trip down the Bosphorus is a very popular activity amongst tourists, and is a beautiful way to view the city skyline and the various architecture along the way. Make your way to Eminönü and catch one of the many public ferries that leave frequently throughout the day. A return trip of around 1.5 hours costs just a few lira. Take something warm to wear – the wind is incredibly chilly!
6. View the City Skyline from Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower located in the Karakoy quarter of Istanbul. Built in 1348, it was the tallest building at the time, standing 66.9m tall. It was originally used as an observation tower for spotting fires across the cities. Ironically enough, over the centuries it has been destroyed by fire several times, and in its latest restoration the wooden interior was replaced with cement and an elevator installed to take visitors to the observation deck. Whilst super windy from the top, the tower is the perfect place to take in the photogenic city skyline of Istanbul. Don’t let the pricey entrance fee put you off – the views are well worth the price!
7. Chase Pigeons in Taksim Square
Despite being the location of several protests and incidents over the years, Taksim Square is a major hub for Istanbul’s public events and parades, transport, as well as a gateway to Istiklal Caddesi (THE place for shopping in Istanbul). Due to previous attacks, there is a constant police presence in the area so its very safe to explore. Taksim Square is worth a visit for its monuments, insane amount of pigeons and its pedestrian streets that take you past beautiful buildings, boutiques, stores, cafes, museums, restaurants and theatres.
8. Get Lost
Istanbul is a city where you can wander aimlessly without a real sense of purpose. Getting lost in amongst its neighbourhoods is when you find its real gems and hidden treasures. You can never really get lost either – its inevitable that before long you will come across a familiar landmark and be able to get your bearings.
9. Indulge in Turkish Desserts
Turkish Delight is probably the first sweet that comes to mind when you think of Turkish desserts, but this is just one of many incredible morsels that you must try whilst in Turkey. Pastry shops abound in Istanbul, and you can either buy a few select pieces in a little takeaway container, dine in and order a selection, or buy sweets by the kilo to eat later. I could not get enough of baklava whilst in Istanbul – it was my go too snack! Fruity, nutty, syrupy, flakey and sweet – Turkey does the most incredible desserts!
10. Take A Day Trip to An Island
An island, you say? Yes, thats right! The Princes Islands are an archipelago off the coast of Istanbul. Made up of four larger islands and five smaller ones, they are a popular day trip and reached by ferry from the mainland. The islands make for a peaceful break away from bustling Istanbul – no motorised transport (other than emergency services) are on the island, so you’ll find yourself taking a bicycle or a horse and buggy to explore! We visited the largest island of Buyukada, where we hiked to the hilltop lookout, visited churches and monasteries and enjoyed beautiful views over the Sea of Marmara over to Istanbul. A return ferry is just a few lira – well worth a day trip!
There is so much to do and see in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, museums and mosques and more – but the above experiences were some of the ones that created the most memories for us, and we weren’t overwhelmed by a crazy amount of other travellers. Istanbul was an absolute feast for the senses, and we’re so glad we spent the time that we did exploring this fascinating city – one of our favourites to date.
Have you been to Istanbul? What are your ‘must-do’s’? We’d love to hear all about it – leave your suggestions in the comments below!