When I was invited to attend the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul, I decided to stay on for an extra week. I bought a guidebook, consulted with friends, and made plans with Meruschka, who was also traveling to Istanbul for the forum. A week should be plenty of time to explore the city, I thought — visit all the best tourist attractions and maybe fit in some locals-only activities. Right?
A man sells Turkish flags outside the Spice Bazaar.
One week in Istanbul is nothing. We didn’t scratch the surface…In fact we didn’t even touch the surface. Meruschka and I spent a lot of time being lost and wandering aimlessly and taking hundreds of photos, which was awesome but we didn’t manage to do half the things we planned.
The Süleymaniye Mosque, largest mosque in Istanbul and reportedly the most beautiful. Alas, we never made it.
Istanbul reminded me of a few important travel lessons:
1) When visiting a huge, frenetic, culturally rich, ancient city like Istanbul, sometimes you have to throw out your guide books and to-do lists. Getting around takes time and it’s easy to get lost and distracted.
2) Getting to know Istanbul, which has tens of millions of people, thousands of historical sites, and a language barrier for those who don’t speak Turkish, is exhausting. Cut yourself some slack and don’t try to do more than a couple of planned activities each day.
3) Calm the f*ck down.
Actually, the only important lesson is #3.
Hence, I don’t feel qualified to create one of those “Top 10 Things to Do in Istanbul” posts that travel bloggers love to write. But I can provide a haphazard list of ten things we did that were really cool.
Cool Things I Did in Istanbul
1) Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia is the most famous historic building in Istanbul, and the one tourist site that Meruschka and I made absolutely sure to visit.
The square in front of the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia was a cathedral for nearly 1000 years, before becoming a mosque and then a museum. Unfortunately a large part of it was under renovation when we visited (hence the scaffolding).
Meruschka in one of the Hagia Sophia’s upstairs halls.
2) The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, right across the way from the Hagia Sophia, was the one place I managed to visit during my eight-hour layover in Istanbul last October. Obviously I had to go again so that Meruschka could also see the mosque’s signature blue-tiled ceiling. I had fun people-watching on my second Blue Mosque visit.
You have to be both Muslim and a man to step into the main prayer area that takes up most of the inside of the Blue Mosque. This guy decided to sneak a selfie after he finished praying.
3) Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern, also right near the Hagia Sophia, is a huge water storage facility built in the 6th century by the Emperor Justinian. The cistern contains 336 stone columns and two enormous Medusa heads. You have to see it to believe it.
A small part of the Basilica Cistern.
Giant Medusa head.
4) The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is jaw-dropping for its sheer size; according to Wikipedia it attracts 250,000 to 400,000 visitors a day. (This seems impossible to me, but who knows.) Be prepared for some friendly heckling from the vendors, who can smell a foreigner coming from miles away.
One of the main halls in the Grand Bazaar.
5) Neighborhoods of the Golden Horn
We took an amazing (albeit freezing) walking tour of Istanbul’s most historic neighborhoods — Fener, Balat, and Ayvansaray — with a local company called Fest Travel. This section of Istanbul has a huge number of Byzantine-era churches, ancient synagogues, and mosques, most of which would be hard to find without a local expert.
Inside a historic Armenian church in Balat.
6) The Trams of İstiklal Street
İstiklal Street, which we first discovered on a walking tour with Context Travel, became my favorite street in Istanbul. The wide street is closed to cars for most of the day, and can only be traveled on foot or via the Nostalgic İstiklal Cadessi Tram.
The Taksim-Tünel Tram, chugging up İstiklal Street. We managed to ride the tram on our last night in Istanbul, through the tunnel that runs up Galata Hill.
7) Galata Tower
Galata Tower is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. We never climbed it, but we looked at it from just about every angle.
Galata Tower at nightfall, shot on my first day in Istanbul.
8) Ferry Cruise on the Bosporus
The Bosporus Strait divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Taking a ferry ride up the strait (we caught the ferry from the Eminönü terminal for the equivalent of about $5) helped me get a feel for the geography of the city and put Istanbul’s massive size into perspective.
Our boat was surrounded by dive-bombing seagulls for the duration of the 1.5-hour ferry ride.
The European side of the Bosporus.
The Asian side of the Bosporus — I have no idea what this exquisite building is. (UPDATE: Thanks to my rockstar reader Catherine, I now know that this is the Palace of Kyyksu.)
9) Street Markets in Kadıköy
We only made it to the Asian side of Istanbul on one evening, which is a shame because I was dying to do more exploring there. But I was enamoured with our one stroll through the streetside fishmongers, spice stalls, bakeries, and cafés in the Asian neighborhood of Kadıköy.
Fishmonger in Kadıköy.
10) Chora Church
The Chora Museum, similar to the Hagia Sophia, is a sixth-century Byzantine-church-turned-Ottoman-mosque-turned-museum. Unfortunately it was also under renovation when we visited; the exterior of the church was surrounded by scaffolding and the majority of the interior was closed. (This was a bummer, especially since no one told us that the inside was mostly closed until after we’d paid our full admission fee.) But still, the mosaics and frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the church — even the few we were able to see — were worth the bus fare and admission.
Byzantine fresco in the Chora Church.
Bonus place: Buyuk Valide Han
The Buyuk Valide Han is difficult to find without a local. (We were lucky to go with Sezgi Olgaç, a Turkish Instagrammer who showed us around one afternoon.) It’s an old inn that now houses a warren of craftsmen’s workshops, whose roof happens to possess the best view in town. The han’s roof used to be a well-kept secret, but now the entire student population seems to know and gather there every afternoon for selfies.
There was a long line of people waiting to climb on top of this mound on the roof. Each person or group spent at least five minutes getting her/his photo taken in a variety of poses.
I skipped the line and shot this a few feet down from the crowded mound. Still not a bad view.
Looking back at this list, I take it back. We did a sh*tload of stuff in Istanbul. There are even a few things that I left out — like Topkapi Palace and the Spice Bazaar and all the beautiful graffiti — because this post is too freaking long already. And don’t even get me started on the food — I’m saving Istanbul’s food for a separate post.
A quick note about terrorism in Turkey. Terrorism is on everyone’s mind and there’s no denying that Turkey has had some issues lately. But terrorism is also an issue in France, Kenya, England, Indonesia, the United States, and several other top tourism countries. Isolated terrorist incidents, in my opinion, are no reason to avoid visiting an incredible place like Turkey. I made that decision before I went and it was the right one for me.
The rainbow steps of Cihangir, home to the city’s cutest cats. (Photo by Meruschka Govender.)
More Turkey posts on the way.
My flight to Istanbul was provided courtesy of Turkish Airlines, the World Tourism Forum, and Blogger Casting. Opinions expressed are mine.