Istanbul has a rich history with interesting cultures. It has a large population of 15 million, dwarfing London (8.8m) and Los Angeles (4m). It is the only city that is in both Europe and Asia. The Bosphorus Strait that divides the city offers outstanding views.
Getting There and Arrival
We flew from London Heathrow to Istanbul Ataturk via Frankfurt with Lufthansa. We snagged a relatively good fare in business class for £297 return. The arrival time was not so friendly though. After delays in London and then in Frankfurt due to bad weather, we finally arrived Istanbul Ataturk at about 2.30 am. In our transit in Frankfurt, due to late arrival of the aircraft for over 1.5 hours, we were bussed directly from the aircraft, bypassing immigration and security. It did not really matter in the end, because after boarding was completed, the onward flight was also delayed by another hour. The flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul was only fractionally full – a rare sight indeed in today’s travels. The front cabin had only three passengers, and the economy cabin had about thirty people. The Lufthansa Airbus 320neo capacity is about 154 passengers.
When we arrived, Ataturk Airport was relatively quiet at that time in the morning. We were the first to get to the immigration and cleared the process in less than three minutes. We applied and obtained our e-visa in advance, although we were entitled to get a visa on arrival. If you qualify for visa on arrival, you have to use an ATM-like kiosk to complete the process. I would advise, for convenience and speed, to get an e-visa before arrival. You can apply directly on Turkey’s Foreign Affairs Ministry website. The visa fee varies according to your citizenship. For instance, Canadian passport holders pay US$60, while UK and USA passport holders pay only US$20 for multiple entry visa, valid for 180 days but your stay must not exceed 90 days. Citizens of some countries such as Malaysia, Japan and France can enter Turkey visa-free.
While waiting for our bags, we changed a small amount of Euro into Turkish lira so that we had sufficient cash to pay for our taxi ride. There are several money exchange bureaus in the baggage hall. Several ATM machines are also available. We received a rate of 5.22 Turkish lira to one Euro. There was a hidden charge of 4.2%, presumably as a commission, which I was not fully aware of. You will undoubtedly get a better rate in downtown Istanbul, especially in the Grand Bazaar area. As comparison, we received 5.43 from a changer in Grand Bazaar versus 5.22 at the airport, about 4% better before commission. The money changers in downtown do not charge commission. The rate displayed is the net rate you get. Unless you are changing many thousands, it really matters little. (But if saving a tenner or two does make you feel good, I can totally empathise with that.)
Getting from Airport to City
Upon exit of the arrival hall, we headed to the taxi stand, which is located just outside the arrival terminal. There were many orange and yellow taxis waiting for fares despite the ungodly hour. From our research, we knew that 60-65 liras was the range to pay for a taxi ride to city centre and there should be no night surcharges. We jumped on an orange taxi without much deliberation after the driver agreed to use the meter. The vehicle was relatively new and clean. The fare was 56 liras from Ataturk Airport to Istanbul Marriott Sisli which was about 21 km apart. We rounded up and gave him 60 liras.
Hotel and Location
Hotels are plentiful in Istanbul, from budget to luxurious range. First was to decide which area to stay. Old Istanbul or modern Istanbul? We chose modern Istanbul. Then, which area of the modern Istanbul? The main zones are Sisli, Beyoglu, Taksim and Besiktas. We opted for Sisli in the end, primarily because of the location of our preferred hotel, i.e. Istanbul Marriott Sisli. The only reason we did not favour the old Istanbul was because it lacks recognised international hotel chains. The international names are almost exclusively located in the modern side of Istanbul, leading to an impression that the modern Istanbul is the centre and life of the city, and is the place to be.
All the hotels in Istanbul maintain a high security stance. Before entering the lobby, all bags are scanned through an x-ray machine and guests have to walk through metal detectors. The front external perimeter is secured with vehicle access barriers in the form of retractable road blockers. The need for high security is understandable as Istanbul has had its fair share of undesirable terrorist activities.
Going back to the location, after four days in Istanbul, we concluded that Sisli is a little out from most attractions. It is central alright, and easily accessible by metro, but it was an effort to get to and from the places we visited. Our walk from Sisli to Taksim Square itself took 40 minutes. Under the hot sun, it seemed like an eternity; needless to say, a feat we did not repeat. In the end, we found ourselves drawn to the charms of old Istanbul where most of the main attractions and food places are. We spent a lot of time in the Eminonu and Galata Bridge areas. All the attractions in Sultanahmet are easily accessible by foot from here. If we were to visit Istanbul again, we would favour staying in or near Eminonu which is located in the old city.
Language and People
The prime language is, of course, Turkish. English is also widely spoken and written. Menus and instructions are also widely available in English. We found the people in Istanbul were neither friendly nor unfriendly. When approached for help, they would happily assist. They tend to dress in modern western attire and are secular in their religious practice. We were in Istanbul during Ramadhan (fasting) month. We did not see religious police enforcing rules. Restaurants and cafes were opened and were not short of happy patrons.
Istanbul is a very large city. Where walking is not practical, Istanbul Metro and taxis are the best methods for getting around the city. We mostly used the metro for our travels. The metro is modern, clean and reliable, but always busy. Regardless of the time and day of travel, we always ended up having to stand all the way to our destinations.
When travelling with the metro, you cannot buy individual tickets with cash, except for very few destinations. You need to buy the IstanbulKart. It costs 10 liras; 6 for the card (non-refundable, unless you want to go through hoops to get this back) and 4 as the initial top up. You can buy IstanbulKart at the dispensing machine in major metro stations or stalls/shops that advertise the IstanbulKart. At the Metro stations, they have two types of machines; one for just topping up the card, and one for buying the card (also doubles up as a topper machine). Make sure it is the one that dispenses the card. I have to say, it was not the friendliest machine to operate, I managed somehow after some struggles. I topped up 20 liras each time, and when it got down to 5 liras, I repeated the top up, but be mindful that you do not want to end up with more than you need by the end of your trip. Each trip costs 2.60 liras.
The IstanbulKart can be used for multiple passengers, up to five people. For convenience sake, 2-3 people is an ideal number. To use the card for multiple people, at the ticket barrier, tap the card once and the barrier will open. The first passenger walks through. Then, pass on the card to the second passenger. He taps the card and walks in. Or alternatively, the first passenger taps the card and let his fellow passenger to pass though. Then he taps again, and he walks through himself. At the destination side (exit), the card is not required. Just walk through the barrier. The card can be used on buses, trams, Metrobus and some ferries. The card is valid for two years, and if you return before then, you can use the same card, saving you the initial 6 liras.
Main Places to See
There are plenty to see and do in Istanbul. For a first timer like myself, the obvious top attractions would not go amiss.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque, also popularly known as Blue Mosque
Nearest metro station is Sultanahmet on the T1 line. It is still a functioning mosque. If you are entering the mosque, please be respectful of your dressing. Females must cover the head and shoulder, and must not expose the legs. The mosque loans out complimentary head and leg covers if needed. This magnificent mosque has six minarets and is dubbed the Blue Mosque because the interior is adorned by blue Iznik tiles. No disrespect to anyone, I did not see much ‘blueness’ inside, although the interior is pretty majestic.
About 30 metres away from Sultan Ahmet Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, known for its massive dome. Built during the Byzantine era, it was used as a patriarchal church. Later, when the Ottoman Empire took over Constantinople (historic Istanbul), it was converted into an imperial mosque. Converted into a museum in 1935, it is now one of the top attractions in Turkey.
A stroll away from the Blue Mosque is the Topkapi Palace. Built in 1478, the palace was home to the Ottoman sultans until the middle of 19th century. It is now open to public as a museum. Entrance fee is 40 liras, excluding the Harem.
Located in Beyoglu, Taksim Square is the focal point for parades, social events and gatherings. The nearest metro station is Taksim on the green T5 line. We visited Taksim in the afternoon and there was not much happening. However, it has lots of cafes and eateries overlooking the expansive square. Perfect for people watching and letting time pass by.
From Sihane metro station, you can easily walk downhill to Galata Tower. Cafes and boutique shops lined the cobbled streets around the tower. The queue was a bit too long when we visited Galata Tower, so we passed up the opportunity to see Istanbul from the tower.
Continue walking downhill from Galata Tower to reach the Galata Bridge. It is one of the five bridges that spans over the Golden Horn (an estuary). You can’t miss this – it is an iconic bridge famed for locals casting their fishing lines. The catches, from what I could see, were mostly small fish measuring no more than 12-15 cm. The locals called them ‘istavrit’, commonly known as Atlantic horse mackerels. Under the bridge itself, there are many restaurants, mostly plying for the tourist business. The Galata Bridge connects the Karakoy neighbourhood with Eminonu.
After crossing Galata Bridge, you will reach Eminonu which is in the Fatih district. Eminonu Pier, located on the left hand side, buzzed with activities, but still exuded a calming effect because of the water. Eminonu has the busiest ferry crossings for the Bosphorus and Marmara Sea (you catch the Bosphorus cruise here). Many of the old city landmarks are just a stroll away from here. There are also many restaurants serving local cuisines. You will also notice that on the right hand side of the bridge, there are three attractively decorated boats. They are famous for the Balik Ekmek – essentially, a grilled filet of mackerel garnished with sliced vegetables in a bread roll. It was cheap at 10 liras. Watch our short video here – theatrically dressed to entertain the tourists. The taste of the balik ekmek? I will let you decide.
Not too far away from the Blue Mosque is one of the world’s most visited sites – the Grand Bazaar, walkable in 10 minutes. This is a colourful and bustling dry market place. It is also the world’s largest and oldest covered market. Traders ply their wares here, from hand-painted ceramics, intricately woven carpets, jewelries, leather goods, lanterns, copperware to food and drinks. There are also numerous money changers here – inside and outside of the Grand Bazaar. Here, you can most definitely get better rates than the airport.
Spice Bazaar (Market)
Just a short stroll from Eminonu metro station or Galata Bridge is the Spice Bazaar, also commonly referred as Egyptian Bazaar. It is actually part of the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) complex. It is not as big as the Grand Bazaar, but it is so vivid with colours. Definitely is a gastronomic paradise. All kind of spices, olives, cheeses, dates, dried fruits, nuts and Turkish Delights are stacked to the brim here.
Cruise on the Bosphorus Strait
The visit to Istanbul won’t be complete without seeing Istanbul from the Bosphorus Strait. We took a full cruise from Eminonu Pier to Anadolu Kavagi and back, lasting six hours. The word ‘cruise’ was too flattering. It should be more appropriately described as a ferry ride. There was nothing luxurious about this cruise; you sit on hard benches or mildly padded polystyrene cushion. But it was a snip at 25 liras. The ferry was clean, organised and cheap, not to mention, very punctual too. It was operated by Sehir Hatlari, an approved operator by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipal. The ticket counter opens about one hour before departure.
We departed at 10.35 am, zig-zagged the busy Bosphorus waters and made five stops (at Besiktas, Uskudar, Kanlica, Sariyer and Rumeli Kavagi) along the route. The route was very scenic and beautiful. We passed some stunning landmarks including the impressive Dolmabahċe Palace, Rumeli Fortress and the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Bosphorus Bridge is the first bridge that connects Europe and Asia. It is a suspension, completed in 1973, spanning a touch over 1 km long. It is officially named as 15 July Martyrs Bridge, and unofficially known as the First Bridge. We also passed the other two suspension bridges that span the Bosphorus Strait (Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge).
Just before arriving our final stop at Anadolu Kavagi, we were lucky enough to be treated by a small pod of dolphins porpoising in the Bosphorus!
After almost 2 hours in the ferry, we alighted at Anadolu Kavagi pier at 12.25 pm. The ferry berthed here for about 2.5 hours before sailing back to Eminonu at 3 pm. Do not miss this because there is practically no or few alternatives to get back to Istanbul.
Anadolu Kavagi is a very small town. Most of its focus is at the pier. Here was where we had our lunch at Ismailin Yeri. I had the grilled calimari and red mullets from the Bosphorus. They were OK, but I wished I had gone for the bigger grilled fish – such as sea bream or sea bass.
Anadolu Kavagi has another attraction – the ruins of Yoros Castle. It is less than 1 km uphill from the pier. As it was midday and the sun was scorching hot, we did not make an attempt to scale the hill. Instead, we passed the time in a cafe by the breezy pier, sipping Turkish coffee and savouring a few local cakes while soaking in the views of Bosphorus.
The ferry departed promptly at 3 pm. The return journey was much of the same, but in reverse order.
The Turkish Bath (Hamam)
You have to try the Hamam – at least once. We decided to have the Hamam in our hotel at a hefty price of 210 liras. It involved a quick sit in a hot room, then moved to another hot room with raised central platform that is made of marble. While lying down, warm water was flooded on the body, then lathered with a soapy solution. The attendant then scrubbed the body in an up-and-down motion to remove the dead skin, followed by a short massage. Finally, it was rinsed off with cooler water.
I felt the experience was average, maybe would have been better if I had went for one at the historical or traditional hamam institution. But without the experience, I was not in a good position to offer a comment.
Turkey is world famous for its kebab, sish and Ottoman cuisine. We were truly excited at the prospect of savouring Turkish meals here in Istanbul. Restaurants and cafes are numerous, available at almost every turn of the city.
Our culinary indulgence included:
|All sorts of kebabs – in wrap, roll and plate.
The most common sight in the streets of Istanbul is the doner kebab stations. Doner is made of lamb, chicken or beef, slowly roasted over a rotating vertical spit and is served on a plate with salad and rice or potatoes. It is also available as a wrap or as a sandwich roll.
◄ Doner Kebab Grill - Taksim Square
|Pide – Turkish pizza with thick dough, shaped like a boat
◄ Turkish pide - thick pizza
|Lahmacun – a Turkish pizza with very thin and crispy crust
◄ Lahmacun - Turkish thin crusted pizza
|Simit – ring-shaped bread covered with sesame seeds
◄ Turkish simit
|Balik Ekmek – grilled mackerel with fresh chopped vegetables in a crusty roll. See our short video here.
◄ Balik Ekmek from the Derya boat - located at the end of Galata Bridge, over on Eminonu side
|Testi Vegetables – interesting take on vegetables cooked in a claypot over a fire. Meat versions available. See our short video here. Delicious!
◄ Testi vegetarian - lunch at Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant in Fatih
|Sac Tava – lamb and vegetables cooked in convex shaped pan
◄ Quick dinner at Urfalim in Fatih - a helping of Sac Tava
|Freshly grilled seafood from the Bosphorus
◄ Grilled Sea Bass - lunch at Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant in Fatih
|Turkish tea – brewed in teapot, resulting in deep red colour
◄ Turkish Tea
|Turkish coffee – smooth, slightly sweetish, sipped lightly so as not to disturb the coffee grounds at the bottom
◄ Turkish Coffee
|Turkish Delight (Lokum) – many varieties, and oh…so sweet!
◄ Turkish Delight
|Baklava – delicious filo pastry with nuts and bathed in sweet syrup
◄ Turkish Baklava
A typical sit-in dinner would set you back by 100-130 liras, dishes dependent. We enjoyed our culinary experience in Istanbul but to be brutally honest, I would say it was just average at best in terms of the taste. I have tasted and eaten better Turkish food in London and Frankfurt.
If you are not into the local foods, fear not. There are many outlets of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.
Getting from City to Airport
This one left me really baffled. The taxi fare from Ataturk Airport to Marriott Sisli was 56 liras, but the return journey in the morning ran up to 95 liras. There was no traffic jam or diversions. Either the route from Sisli to Ataturk Airport was substantially longer or I was taken for a ride. I did not care to argue – I was leaving Istanbul with an impression.
Istanbul is a relatively cheap city to spend a good long weekend or for a nice long week. The luxury hotels are affordable, food outlets are plentiful, and there are many things to see and do.