Most people see Istanbul as a quick stopover worthy of a couple days, but take it from me this city deserves to be explored. This city has everything you could possibly want to see and then some. For a bustling metropolis that covers two continents, it boasts an amazing food scene, vibrant nightlife, and beautiful parks. Unfortunately, it’s a city that’s seen its fair share of conflict. The bombing of Ataturk airport occurred just weeks after my arrival. There are also constant protests that often shut down bridges and and transportation. However, if you’re willing to take a chance and I definitely think you should, Istanbul will be an unforgettable trip.
Arriving in Istanbul at Ataturk airport I was greeted by a friend who was kind enough to let me stay with him on the Asian side of Istanbul. This is where you’ll also find many budget accommodations if you’re a backpacker. Most people though, choose to stay on the European side where you’ll find most of the tourist sights.
However, if you’re like me and start on the Asian side you’re already in for a treat because the Ferry into the European side is a sight on its own and definitely worth doing once on your trip because the Asian side is definitely worth checking out as well (check out my post on touring the Asian side).
Once you’ve arrived in Eminonu, head right for the fishing boats on your right hand side. This is where you’ll be treated to the sandwich of your life! Mackerel caught right on the Bosphorus, fried right on the boat fresh for you to eat for about $3! Take your sandwich to go or eat it on the banks of the river and plan the rest of your day.
From here make your way to either the historical centre (turning left from Eminonu) or through the Golden Horn (Istanbul harbour and waterways) into Galata and the new town (turning right from Eminonu).
Galata Tower – great view of the city from the top of the tower
Hagia Sofia – probably the most popular sight in Istanbul. Best to visit early in the day
Blue Mosque – I highly suggest wearing full length pants. My long dress didn’t make the modesty cut. Ladies, bring your own scarves to cover your hair! If you are deemed to not be dressed modestly, they do provide you with proper coverings if needed. You will also not be allowed into the Mosque during prayer services
Basilica Cistern – Either go early, or use this as a place to beat the mid day heat in the summer
Topkapi Palace – For an extra fee I highly recommend you visit the library and bath
Grand Bazaar – Haggle for everything here. If you’re buying jewelry its normal to be invited to haggle over tea (Check out my guide to the Grand Bazaar)
Spice Market – every spice and food you could possibly want great place to pick up snacks for a few days (dried fruit, turkish delight)
Istanbul is a great walking city (at least on the European side). You can get from one end of the city to the other with ease. Driving is a nightmare in the historic core but it is possible in the new town. For the most part though stick to walking. It’ll inevitably get you anywhere faster.
If you’re looking to cross into the Asian side, I recommend taking the ferry for a beautiful relaxing journey but if you’re in a rush the underground subway will get you there in a snap.
Trolley cars are also a great open air scenic option if you’re traveling from the Golden Horn into Galata