Last updated on 24 March 2022
Istanbul is so happening in multiple ways that many mistakes it as Turkey’s capital, while Ankara is. Good old Sultan Ahmed square takes you back to Ottoman times. Taksim square shows you today’s world. Our Istanbul Travel Blog shows you how to and how not to explore the magical and happening city on a budget.
- Why visit Istanbul
- Where to stay
- Reaching here
- How many days to spend
- What was planned & What went wrong
- Money-saving tips
- Things to do in Istanbul
Is Istanbul worth visiting?
Istanbul is a city that contrasts with itself most. You imagine the old historic town to be slow-paced, but everything in Istanbul is fast-paced. You assume it to be a middle east country city where you can’t party, but it has a vibrant nightlife. Along with massive structures of Byzantine dome, you see silhouettes of glass skyscrapers and towering minarets side by side. It is the city of four empires – Greeks, Ottomans, Romans & Byzantine. So the city’s food is influenced by many and blends in to create delicacies for all, and it is extremely delicious.
What is best about Istanbul?
It is your heaven to shop or wander in the world’s oldest Bazar and hog on some mouthwatering food. Whether cycling through the historical sites or taking a Stroll on the streets full of old buildings and Felis catus, the sidewalk cafes are never far from wherever you are. Listening to Islam prayers, sipping tea in front of architectural wonder and watching people in the square is surreal. Perhaps this is the only city where I saw people fishing standing on a busy bridge of a modern city with a hook. So, definitely, it is a magical city that makes you say – “Istaaaannnbul.”
Which is the best part of Istanbul to stay in?
Neighbourhoods in Istanbul
- Sultan Ahmet is the closest to Hagia Sophia but expensive. It is full of rooftop terraces overlooking Hagia Sophia. Hence it is a place where more tourists reside.
- Taksim square – The modern part of Istanbul makes it the best place for nightlife.
- Galata – Being in the upper part of the city, you will be rewarded with the best view of the town – Yet expensive.
- Besiktas – closer to the Bosphorous bridge and the sea, makes it a romantic place in Istanbul – the area of the elite and wealth.
We stayed in Fatih – the best place neighbourhood in Istanbul according to us.
It is closer to the historic towns, Balat and Fener -Quieter and cheaper than Sultan Ahmet. The local markets are nearby and you find more local residents than tourists here. We stayed at Ali’s BnB (which isn’t listed in BnB anymore, but his gift shop is still there).
What is the best way to get to Istanbul?
Istanbul is the headquarters of Turkish airlines. So there is no shortage of flights flying from different parts of the world. But the catch here is – The city has two airports.
Check your tickets carefully, especially if you are booking connecting flights yourself! The two airports aren’t closer to each other plus all of them are very far from the city. You really have to specify which airport when you take a taxi to the airport.
Is there a train to Istanbul?
Turkey’s railways are considered one of the best by budget travellers. The Bosphorous express runs between Istanbul, Sofia(Bulgaria) and Bucharest (Romania). This sounds like the route in the book “Murder on the Orient Expres”, excluding France, Croatia and Belgrade. Before buying a Eurail pass, calculate if it’s worth it – Usually, these passes are useful for long-term travellers only.
Can you cruise to Istanbul?
Greece -Turkey cruises are very famous among luxury travellers. But we aren’t a fan of it. Fast ferries can be a cheaper and quicker route from Istanbul to other beachside towns.
How many days do I need in Istanbul?
Our BnB host Ali suggests one whole week in Istanbul is a must. If you are willing to see only the most famous tourist spots, one whole day is the least you need – And don’t do that. We wanted to experience Istanbul by walking or cycling at our own pace. So we stayed for 3D+3N in Istanbul. 3 to 5 days is an excellent time to experience Istanbul beyond touristy spots.
How to plan your Istanbul Trip
We both found the Topkapi museum full of Greek & Roman Marble statues boring.
The Ideal Istanbul Itinerary for 3 days
DAY 1 & 2 – Historical sites and street strolling, Bath and Bazar.
3rd Day – The Modern Istanbul – Taksim square and Besiktas.
Day 4 – Leave to Cappadocia/Izmir/Sarkoy
This plan is ideal for those staying in Istanbul for three days unless you fall sick because of Marble flooring in winter!
The first two days went as planned at our own pace. Wandering in the narrow alleys, we bought chestnuts from street cart vendors wearing white apron-like doctors. We got trapped by a carpet shopkeeper and escaped him. We saw a group of Pakistani tourists waving their flag – Trust me, as an Indian seeing the Pakistan flag-waving a metre ahead for the first time is an unworldly moment. Soon they understood we are Indians and shared smiles. We spoke to each other in Hindi, and they told us how much they enjoy Rajnikanth movies & how we dream of visiting Hunza valley one day.
Crowd gathering at Hagia Sophia
We walked to Topkapi palace with Simit in our hands, got bored in the museum, and ran to the palace area for visual vividity. The shades of turquoise blues and green and a gold sheet blanket studded with precious gems showed us how lavish Ottoman life was. After the delicious meal of Kebaps and a heavy stomach, we walked to Galata tower via a bridge. And saw a vendor selling an oyster dish in a stand that looked similar to our Golgappas.
Gorgeous Galata bridge and Handsome Turks
Arguing about which handsome man had caught more fish at Galata bridge, we lost our way to Galata tower. After a sanitaryware shopkeeper helped us get back to the route, we reached Galata tower. Standing in the waiting line for an hour, we went up to see Istanbul’s never-ending sprawl along the black sea from high above. Took a tram back with a local resident’s help to Sultan Ahmet square on that rainy evening and sat in a cafe sipping tea and hookah.
What a perfect day it was in Istanbul until it began to rain.
After the rain, we walked back to the room, shivering because the temperature had dropped unexpectedly. A hot soup in the nearby cafe and Ali’s tea made us feel better. On the next day, we wore warmer clothes, but it was not warm enough at the end of the day.
The second day in Istanbul
In the morning, we came out of Blue Mosque to see a cluster of tiny domes and black clouds that seemed to contest each other. A bit of sunshine and the cold breeze felt good until we went inside the famous Hagia Sophia deluged with Marble and Basalt in every corner.
We walked for three hours wearing loafers without socks- floor to floor, terrace to terrace, absorbing every tiny detail of this architectural marvel. The previous day’s rain the next day’s Marble floor cold got Ashrith into trouble. It felt as those marble on the wall behaved like Air conditioners throwing cold air of 5*C. Still, we managed to stroll and shop in the Grand Bazaar for 2 hours.
Fever before Turkish Hamam
When it was time to go for Turkish Hamam, he felt feverish. Fortunately, the sun showed mercy, so we sat and rested for a while, listening to the prayers at the square with hot tea. By night his fever increased. Without Our host Ali’s hot soup, rice and chicken, he would have struggled to sleep. The fever was so intense that he struggled to get off the bed to go to the washroom.
The third-day plan was to explore modern Istanbul. With a flight to catch in the following early morning, it could have been a gamble to go out on the street again to feel more of Istanbul. Instead, we spent time at Ali’s home and short walks in Fatih with more Turkish tea.
The summary of the story is
Wear socks and full-length pants even in summer or spring while spending time inside Hagia Sophia. The marble feels colder than the other flooring materials and can create knee joint pain and chillness for many. Otherwise, you may sleep in a room with fever-like Ashrith instead of enjoying amazing Istanbul.
What is the best way to travel in Istanbul?
Walk and Cycle– Istanbul streets are very walking-friendly. Though there are no cycling lanes, it is equally fun and safe enough for cycling.
How do I budget for Istanbul?
Istanbul isn’t cheap for Indian Travellers at least. Some tips to save money here are –
Choose your neighbourhood wisely in prior so that you don’t have to pay on taxis more.
Eat Simit, save money on Breakfasts- Not every fancy cafe in old Istanbul are worth its cost. Save money on cafes and have Simit, roasted Hazlenut with a cup of tea from the streetside tea seller.
Rooftop cafes and views – Seeing Istanbul’s skyline filled with Minarets and skyscrapers is a thing all of us wish for. But you may end up spending a part of your fortune on this if you get carried away. For example, the Galata tower. It is worth every Lira we paid, but the coffee shop on the topmost floor is a ripoff. So when you choose a rooftop cafe or restaurant, beware of their overpricing.
Buy an Istanbul Tourist pass. Expect the crowd at major landmarks like Hagia Sophia. The Istanbul tourist pass we bought on the first day was valid for places like Topkapi Palace, museum, Bosphoorous ride, and many more; we could enter Hagia Sophia faster than the other tourists.
Overspending at Grand Bazaar: Trust me, the Grand Bazaar is alluring. If you are a shopaholic or less, this Bazaar attracts you more potent than the magnet attracts Iron. Before entering the Bazaar, stick to a number, set an upper limit to the budget, and carry only that exact amount of cash.
Dervish dance, Hamam and Belly dance – The first two are unique to Turkey. Maybe in certain parts of Afghanistan, there are Dervish Dancers. You find Hamams in southern parts of Iran. Turks know how to mint money from tourists through these activities. If you trust your host, as for his recommendation and go to the particular authentic one.
Things to do in Istanbul
The top 10 things we loved most in Istanbul excluding munching on Turkish food are
Walking in Fatih Neighbourhood
We chose the area because we wanted to be within walking distance of the main square. But didn’t know that we were in for a visual treat right after we stepped out of our BnB! The colourful houses with wooden walls, Victorian balconies with cast Iron railing patterns, and pots with flowering plants can take you back to the time of the Romans and Byzantines. Like the most famous Balat streets, this was the residential area for workers during Roman times. Less charming than Balat in terms of colours and contours, quieter with fewer tourists is a street you would love walking.
Watching locals fishing at Galata Bridge
The most memorable experience in Istanbul was seeing local fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder with their fishing hooks at the bridge fishing!
What is so great about watching locals fishing is that this is a Century-old tradition that the Turks carry on.
A 10 min walk from Sultan Ahmet square takes you to the bridge connecting old and new Istanbul, where handsome Turks of the older generation stand patiently catching the fish in their smart casuals. They had a small plastic bucket full of water for the caught fish. Some stood alone, and most did fishing and chatted with their friends in Turkish, which we absolutely don’t understand. Still, counting the number of fish in each one’s bucket and awarding the best fishermen of Galata Bridge by ourselves was one of the best experiences. The endless Black sea lined with domes and minarets felt like a canvas painting.
The mewing seagulls trying to catch their meal on the water surface makes it even more dramatic. The boats and smaller cruise blaring horns, and splashing water adds more life to the scene.
Listening to Prayers at Sultan Ahmet square
Living in India since birth, we both have heard a lot of prayers from various religions. But something is soothing about what we listened to in Sultan Ahmet. It is smoother, gentle and warm. The call from Blue mosque and the reply for it from Hagia Sophia is relaxing to hear. Plus, the seating between two mosques is the best place to end your day, watching people and sipping tea from a local tea seller walking with glass cups and a metal kettle.
This is the time when older men come to meet with their friends in a group. Each group were particular about from whom they bought the tea. We enjoyed observing them while they loved to watch foreigners like us.
Labyrinths of Grand Bazaar
Even non-shopaholics can fall in love with Grand Bazar because shopping here isn’t just buying but an experience. The vaulted yellow roof is similar to that of Hagia Sophia. The glittering mosaic glass lamps remind you of Ottoman luxury. The teacups remind you to take an elaborate tea break as Turks do. The fake designer accessories will get you back to the reality of the modern world. The sellers shouting and inviting in their distinct Turkish English accent –The vibe & the maze are great. Don’t’t be shocked if you spend more than three hours here
Visit Hagia Sophia
Where is Hagia now?
A 537AD church that became a mosque in 1453 was converted into a museum in 1935 and became a museum in 2020. This Byzantine-time architectural wonder is Hagia Sophia. As an architect, no doubt, I admire this megastructure. For Ashrith, it was a fascinating place to see mother Mary, Gabriel and Jesus on the ceiling and holy Kuran inscriptions below it.
The blend of two religions and two cultures, the vast dome with ribs, and light piercing through the arched openings in the ceiling give the mystic vibe. You may be interrupted by scaffolding for restoration work, but the place is so huge that you can escape tourists on the upper floor. T
The terrace windows peep out to the black sea horizon at one end and the blue mosque on the other side. The wall mosaic of Jesus, Constantine and his queen giving donations and right to Tax exemptions results from artists’ obsession with detailing.
The mosque dominates the Istanbul skyline more with its tall tapering minarets and domes at multiple steps. When you walk beside the main street at Sultan Ahmet, The mosque’s entrance goes unnoticed. The drastic transition of a narrow entrance to the courtyard opens the mosque’s facade with hundreds of domes at various levels that look like bubbles floating in the sky.
The inside of the mosque is less impressive than its outside appearance. So the best view is from the courtyard or aerial view to see the minarets touching the clouds and domes merging between them. It is an active mosque, so entry to the mosque is banned during prayer houses. Plus, following the Islamic dress code is compulsory.
View from Galata Tower
This highest tower in Istanbul is around 63m tall and was built in the 14th Century. It was part of the security wall around the old town looking over the port. But as of now, it gives an extraordinary panoramic view of the city. Of course, there is a lift to get to the topmost floor. For a view like this, you won’t regret paying 35 Liras. You see a line of the tall skyscraper on one side. Next to that, its architectural and cultural contrast Hagia Sophia pops up.
Then you can spot the Fatih mosque with tiny domes and minarets that look like Blue mosque. The Karakoy port with ferries and cruises compliments the multilayered skyline. The brown tiled roof cluster right below the tower makes you realise what height you are standing. Getting here is easy with trams, but we recommend walking via the Karakoy streets.
The streets of Karakoy are way different from Faith and Sultan Ahmet. It is more European than Middle eastern. The usual cafe scenes of Fatih were missing here, making it less touristy. The tall buildings with cornices projecting out, arched ground floor facades, European columns on the upper floors with Corinthian capitals, and the plain face of the buildings are adorned with groves. A typical European street made me feel like I was walking in a central European city.
Enjoy Sidewalk cafes of Istanbul
Turks know how to use their carpets to the best. Most street cafe seats’ upholstery is of their rugs. The bright red maroon patterns with hints of Turquoise on the rugs add vibrance to the streets. Cycling and walking get more fun with a break at these places. Half of the cafes we found were expensive, but every cafe keeps it on the tables by the streets.
You will find Turkish tea and dishes like Kumpir in these cafes. But Hookah is mostly indoor.
Rooftop Cafe in Istanbul with a view
What should you not do in Istanbul?
Topkapi Museum – Overloaded with statues
Topkapi palace – Partly colourful, wholly under renovation in 2018
Dondurma – Taste isn’t as good as the tricks and looks!
Overhyped Cardamom coffee isn’t our favourite
What is there to do in Istanbul for 3 days?
I wish we had taken a tram to Taksim square, had more Kumpir there, and experienced modern Istanbul.
The sunset by the seaside at Besiktas, hearing the seagulls mewing must have been awesome – should have done that, if only we weren’t sick.
We had been to Balat and Fener -the Greek and colourful Jewish quarters for vibrant street view.
Dervish performances and belly dance clubs are expensive. We should have planned the trip financially better to enjoy these performances too.
I feel terrible for not having a relaxing Hamam by the end of the day after walking for almost 8km.
I wish I had observed and paid attention to the Egyptian obelisk at Sultan Ahmet! We walked beside each for several times without even realising what it was!
We should have gone to the underground in Cistern! Somehow we decided to visit Topkapi palace instead, which was a bad idea!
We covet wandering in Istanbul again and complete the incomplete
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