Getting Around Istanbul
In mid-September I was faced with a question – one that I hope I have to face many times in the future. Sitting in our rented apartment in Greece, my girlfriend and I were trying to decide where to go for our last five days together before she left for Italy and I left for Mexico for our fall quarter study abroad programs. We narrowed the choices to Prague and Istanbul, and after some discussion we decided that Prague should be saved for a winter trip in the future. We booked flights and hotel reservations immediately and left two days later for Istanbul.
Istanbul is commonly referred as the point where east meets west, a city filled with history as tangled as the streets that cut through its oldest districts. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we arrived, but I quickly felt at home in Istanbul – it has the look and feel of many Western European cities, from its French inspired architecture to its cobblestone streets. In fact, I felt more at home in Istanbul than I did in many of the European cities I have visited, and this despite not speaking a word of Turkish, German or French, the three most common languages in the city.
My five days in Istanbul stick out as the best travel experience I have had, partly because of who I was with, but mostly because the city has a unique place in the world, a strong pulse created by the blending of so many different cultures. I plan to return for a longer visit one day, and in this small guide I hope to provide some ideas on what to see and what to do if you happen to have the great fortune of visiting Istanbul.
I stayed in Hotel Keban in Taksim square, which costs about fifty U.S. dollars a night for a reasonable quality room with a double bed. Istanbul struck me as a fairly safe city, even for tourists, but as with any city, a visitor would do best to avoid unpopulated areas at night. In that respect Taksim square is an ideal area in which to stay. Dozens of high quality, inexpensive restaurants are located around the square and the surrounding streets are well lighted, easy to navigate and filled with people even into the early morning. I am sure that if a trip was planned further in advance than my own, or you are willing to stay in a hostel, less expensive lodging in the area could be easily found.
Topkapi Palace, located in the Sultanahmet district, was the highlight of Istanbul. Surrounded by impressive fortifications, decorated in rich gold leaf and filled with a lush garden, Topkapi Palace easily rivalled, if not surpassed, the beauty of any palace or castle that Europe has to offer. For the cost of about ten U.S. dollars you purchase a ticket to the palace, although separate tickets must be purchased to gain admittance to both the palace harem and treasury. The additional cost is well worth it, and these sites should not be missed. The treasury is filled with ornate jewellery from various empires that occupied what is now modern day Turkey as well as impressive gifts given to Sultans from foreign allies. In the harem one can see rooms that were used by the eunuch guards, and even the Sultan’s own room, all built from hand-painted tiles and gold. Plan on spending at least four hours in the palace, as lines for tickets can be long and tours through the harem and treasury begin every half hour, and because the palace itself is quite large.
The Topkapi Cistern is located across the street from the Palace. Built in ancient times, the cistern is incredibly well preserved. After purchasing a ticket for about ten U.S. dollars, you can stroll through the torch lit cistern, which consists of several hundred pillars. Make your way to the far corner and see the two pillars supported by pillaged ancient Greek statues – giant Medusa heads to be exact.
Galata Tower, built as a guard tower in 1348, is an excellent location to take a date or loved one for a romantic (and breath taking) view of the city. Admission for the top of the tower is less than ten U.S. dollars per person, and you can stay as long as you like. If you go during the day, bring sun glasses to reduce glare from the sun off the surrounding water, and if possible, visit the tower just before sunset for an amazing view. The tower is less than thirty minutes walk towards the city center from Taksim, or a few minutes drive by taxi. As for taking a taxi, agree on an approximate, if not specific, rate before climbing inside as price inflation at the end of the ride is very common. Ask a hotel employee what a reasonable price for your destination is before you set out.
Sultanahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque) is a structure not to be missed regardless of your religious preferences. The inside of the mosque is adorned with tens of thousands of hand painted blue tiles, impressively large pillars, and stunning stained glass work.
The Grand Bazaar, which consists of over four thousand shops, is the largest market in the world. If you like to shop, you’ll love the bazaar, but be weary, pick pockets abound. Take a money belt and your patience if you go since the bazaar can be crowded and easy to get lost in. That being said, visiting the market is a rewarding and unique experience. In the market you will find everything from leather goods to high quality jewellery to pottery to Turkish rugs. Price bargaining is expected so plan on taking your time over each purchase and starting at a much lower price than what you eventually hope to end up paying. If you get hungry or need to sit down, many restaurants line the inside of the bazaar. Although it could be done, I wouldn’t recommend spending less than a half day in the bazaar-ideally less than a full day-since there is so much to see (and buy!).
This guide is only the most basic start to what could be written. The city contains dozens of mosques, museums, and palaces. If you are looking for a more extensive guide, try the Lonely Planet Istanbul guide, which I found to be detailed and useful.