This year I was lucky enough to visit Istanbul for a second time. I love being a real touristy tourist when I travel. You know the ones who book guides and private cars, hotels and rely on around the clock service.
This time however we decided to ‘live local’. We hired an apartment, found out where the locals do their shopping, cooked most of our own meals, took trams, did self-guided tours and tried to get a feel for living like a local. Below you will find my suggestions of what to do/see ,if you ever find yourself in this magical city.
Big Bus Tours
Similar to our City Sightseeing Red bus the Big Bus offers the same hop on hop off facility. I love doing the bus tour as it helps you explore all major landmarks without breaking the bank. Sites include The Blue Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace , Bosphorus Bridge and Beylerbeyi Palace. You can either get a 24 or 48 hour pass. With prices ranging from €33.00 t0 €48.00 for adults.
Istanbul is the only city which sits on two continents. With one part of the city Asian and one part European. Formerly known as Constantinople.It was the capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. Today Istanbul exudes a quiet charm which creeps into your heart quite unexpectedly. You can not visit this city without visiting at least five of the top attractions people flock to see.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque
More popularly known as The Blue Mosque, because of the blue tiles inside the mosque. What makes the blue mosque even more interesting is the fact that it has six minarets. One legend has it that the Sultan instructed his architect to make gold (altin) minarets which his architect understood as six (alti) minarets. Plan carefully when visiting,as the mosque is not only inundated with visitors but it is still used as a working mosque and will close for a few minutes each day five times a day, to allow for daily prayers.
Situated in close proximity to the Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia pronounced Ayasofya ,was first a church and then later converted into a mosque. This is the first time I saw evidence of both religions in one house of worship.
The residence of sultans for almost 400 years , Topkapi Palace is now a museum which houses relics that Muslims queue to see. No photography is allowed in the exhibition hall and as explained to me , some of the relics now stored in the museum was brought over from Mecca/ Makkah in World War 1, when the Ottoman empire was in war with the British.
Located on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.Beylerbeyi Palace ,used to be a summer residence of the royals and sometimes used as a guest house for visiting royalty.Fun fact : ‘Most of the furniture in the palace was made by the sultan himself, who was an accomplished cabinet-maker’.
This underground cistern serviced the Great Palace and surrounds. With 336 columns, almost 7,000 slaves were involved in the construction of the cistern. Remember watching James Bond From Russia With Love? If not watch it again and you will see the Basilica Cistern, where Bond can be seen rowing a small boat in the majestic cistern.
Popular for hosting horse and chariot racing in days gone by. Now houses Obelisk of Thutmose III, Walled Obelisk and the Serpent Column.
If there is one thing you do when in Turkey is a lot of walking! Up small hills , steep hills and roads that resemble hills. Even with all this walking you have to visit the largest hill in Istanbul . This is where you will get the best vantage point of the city. It reminded me of Cape Town’s own Signal hill.
The Bosphorus separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey. If you have time take a Bosphorus cruise, you will get a different perspective of this brawling city. On my first visit I booked a City of Sultans tour with On the Go tours which included a Bosphorus cruise. For a different view consider doing a night cruise, which usually starts at €40.
The Grand Bazaar is the most intense shopping experience I have ever come across. Every day I discovered side streets I hadn’t been to the previous day. With 61 covered streets and over 3000 shops this comes as no surprise. The Grand Bazaar is worth a visit but many would call it a tourist trap. Say ‘no thank you’ firmly to persistent merchants and just walk away if you are just browsing. However if you up for a chat you are more than welcome to indulge the locals, you’ll get the hang of it sooner or later.
Spice Market / Egyptian Bazaar
Located in Eminönü, this is the most exotic market I have ever visited. Spices, teas, medicinal herbs, caviar,and of course Turkish delights( lokum) is what you can expect to bag when visiting the spice market. The different fragrances hang in the air as you learn that a few hundred years ago this used to be a marketplace for goods brought from Egypt hence the reference in the name.
Before signing up for a ‘Turkish Bath’ or Hammam please know what it entails. My vision was completely different compared to what typically happens in a turkish bath house. Basically you go through a series of rooms. These rooms/saunas allow you to get really hot and relaxed , once done you run cold water over your body to regulate your temperature. After which you will receive a vigorous wash and massage from head to toe.
You then get to relax and some even serve you some turkish tea as refreshment when done. As the saying goes ‘you have to try everything once’. And once is more than enough for me. Note: There are more ‘westernised hammam’s,so if you looking for ‘authentic’ speak to the locals who will direct you.
4.The Whirling Dervishes
The Whirling Dervishes also know as Mawlaw’īyya go into a trance like state as a form of ‘remembrance of God’.You can catch a show to watch this phenomenon at the Hodjapasha Dance Theater. Prices start From €24.00
In search of the best place to get our beach on we decided on taking a trip to the Princess Islands.Princess islands off the coast of Istanbul constitutes the district of Adalar. Apparently during the Byzantine period, members of royalty were often sent to exile on these islands.
We took a ferry to the island of Buyukada, the largest of the Princess Islands. On arrival a storm broke out and we had to run for cover, it goes without saying don’t forget to check the weather forecast beforehand. What I loved though was the feel of tranquil, rain beating down , people running for cover and trying not to lose their ice cream cones. The only transport on the Islands are horse & cart and bicycle. This island screams romantic and is the perfect couple outing.
6. Istanbul Kart
No guides,shuttles or private cars means we needed to get around on our own. After much research it seemed a good investment to purchase the Istanbul Kart. This multi purpose card allowed us to catch a tram, bus and ferry for a fee of TL10 (Turkish Lira). You can then pre-load your card with more credit at any machine which says ‘Istanbul Kart Satis Noktasi’. The actual card can be purchased at the Airports or little kiosks that sell newspapers.
7. Ad.dar Community Center
Whilst visiting I came across Ad.dar, meaning home in Arabic.A Community Center for Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Istanbul. They have a range of workshops and activities for children, youth and adults often run by volunteers. Ad Dar also helps refugee children enroll in school & assists with the transition period helping families rebuild their lives in Turkey. If you find yourself in Istanbul on a Friday evening with nothing to do, why not support this community center by going to a movie screening. Ad dar usually hosts the screening at 8:00pm on Friday evenings.
Istanbul is a city rich in history, culture and medieval architecture. What better way to immerse yourself in the culture than by visiting art houses.I visited “Marmara university art gallery” which was a surprise find.
Another must see is the museum of Turkish and Islamic arts.Housed in the palace of Pargalı Ibrahim Pasha, who was the second grand vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent, and husband of the Sultan’s sister, Hatice Sultan.For a more comprehensive list of art galleries click here.
Anyone who knows me knows I love markets and I was more than happy to see local markets set up on specific days selling fresh fruit , eggs , breads and everything else you can think of.
Something new I stumbled across one Sunday afternoon was Arasta Bazaar. An open air market which sells homemade toys, homemade bread, organic syrups and is closely situated to the Blue Mosque.
You might also be interested in visiting Fatih Market, situated in the Fatih district this market trades on Wednesday from 5am to 9pm. With a little bit more research you will see that there is a market in different parts of the city almost every day of the week.
If you follow kickboxing you should know Gokhan Saki. This Dutch-Turkish heavyweight kick-boxer is the first ever Turkish fighter holding a K-1 tournament title. We tried to meet up with Gokhan but he replied saying ‘ he had no upcoming appearances but if we were to find ourselves in Turkey again or Dubai in the near future he would love to set up something. Well at least I tried! For more kickboxing information, events or videos click here.
Thank you for reading! Let me know if you need help planning your trip to Turkey xoxoxo