Where to stay: I visited Istanbul while traveling for a weekend with my students, and we stayed in the Zeynep Sultan Hotel, which was absolutely lush and beautiful. I recognize that this wouldn’t exactly fit into my budget had I not been traveling for work, so I will instead recommend that you find a place to stay in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul, which is the Old Town. Staying in this neighborhood will put you within walking distance to essentially everything in the city, and it’s a great way to walk around at night and enjoy kebab shops and tea rooms, or beautiful and serene evenings gazing at the Blue Mosque.
Where to eat: Grabbing cheap food in Istanbul is actually the best way to get an authentic experience. If you’re looking for decent food in the touristy old town of Istanbul, there are some great kebab shops on Caferiye Sokak, which is the road that runs parallel to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. You’ll be able to find different meat kebabs, like chicken, beef, and lamb, but also falafel and other various dishes that will be delicious and inexpensive! Another must-try in Istanbul are Turkish Delights. They’re indescribably wonderful treats that often have different fruit and nuts in them, and they’re small square pieces that are covered in white powder on the outside (otherwise impossible to describe). The best ones that I was able to find (and I did a thorough taste-testing in the city) were again on Caferiye Sokak, and the shop is called Hafiz Mustafa. You can buy pre-boxed ones or just fresh from the counter, and they’re great! They also have a tea room and other traditional treats, so it’s worth a stop. Going to a tea room is the way to spend an evening in Istanbul, rather than going out to bars (which you’ll have trouble finding in Sultanahmet). There’s a great tea room just near the Blue Mosque (if you follow the signs for the Mosaic Museum to the left of the fountain between the Mosque and Hagia Sofia, facing the Mosque, then you’ll find it), and they offer dancing and music performances as well as authentic tea and shisha. Definitely try the apple tea- it’s sweet, delicious, and inexpensive!
What to do: Istanbul is a city with thousands upon thousands of years of history, so it’s certainly challenging to know where to start! I absolutely recommend buying a Muze Pass if you plan to go to the Hagia Sofia museum, the Topkapi Palace and Harem, and one or two other museums, as this will allow you to bypass ticket lines, and will cover all of those places for a certain number of days (one entry per site). You can buy the Muze Pass at any ticket counter where they accept the passes, or at stands near the Hagia Sofia/Blue Mosque, and many hotel receptions will also sell them. With that being said, I highly recommend a visit to the Hagia Sofia, as it’s one of the oldest cathedrals in the world with one of the most interesting histories. The juxtaposition of Christian and Muslim decor, fixtures, and architecture absolutely blew my mind. Directly facing the Hagia Sofia is the Blue Mosque, and again, I strongly recommend a visit. The best part of this one is that the Blue Mosque is free to enter, but there are restrictions on when you can enter based on prayer times. It’s best not to be there within a half hour to an hour in each direction of each prayer time. Be especially cautious of Fridays, as the restrictions on entry for tourists will be stronger. Also note that if it’s raining, the Mosque may be closed all day to avoid getting the carpets wet for those who will later be praying. For women, remember to bring your own head scarf if you don’t want to borrow one of theirs, and for all, be sure to wear clothing that covers your legs and shoulders, as these things are required when entering the mosque.
The Topkapi Palace is an absolutely beautiful place which deserves at least a full afternoon. The Muze Pass will give you entry to the Harem as well, which was honestly my favorite part of my visit to the palace, as it shows what the life of the Sultan was really like, and furthermore, it dispels myths about the Ottoman royalty which are often perpetrated by the “West”. The architecture and tiling inside the Harem is absolutely breathtaking, and worth a visit on its own. The Underground Basilica Cistern is a really neat place to check out, particularly if you have a rainy day. Note that the Muze Pass does not cover this site, as it’s run by the municipality, rather than by the organization which runs the pass. The other place that’s not to miss, particularly if you’re looking to bring home souvenirs, is the Grand Bazaar. This is the main stage of the art of haggling in the city, so walk in expecting not to ever pay the first price offered, and it’s possible to get some great deals. Just remember which entrance you walked into, because it’s quite easy to get lost inside the giant labyrinth of shops.
I certainly recommend a walk from Old Town over the Galata Bridge and up the hill to the Galata Tower. Aside from this being a beautiful walk with amazing views, the neighborhood near the Galata Tower is really great. There are much cheaper restaurants and shopping opportunities over there, and it’s a really nice place to spend an evening. Similarly, for an off-the-beaten-track place to visit, hop a 20-minute ferry from the port near the Galata Bridge to Kadikoy, which is the Asian side of Istanbul. Not only is the ferry ride absolutely stunning, visiting the Asian side of Istanbul is a really cool experience that many tourists either opt out or don’t even consider. The ferry is also only 4 TRY round-trip making it a very cost-effective thing to do if you’re on a tight budget. Be forewarned that this side of the city is much more chaotic and crowded than Sultanahmet, but it’s still a really great way to immerse yourself into the vibe of the city. There are far less touristy shops, but you can certainly buy much cheaper clothing and food here, and it’s a nice place to spend an afternoon.
Overall Opinion: Traveling to Istanbul was an absolutely amazing experience, and I would go back in an instant. The city offers so much in terms of variety of sites to see, things to do, and great shopping. It’s also extremely unique culturally because it’s such an interesting mix of European, Middle Eastern, and Islamic styles and customs. I found that visiting Istanbul gave me much more of a culture shock than most of the other places I’ve visited in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, as it’s so vastly different than almost any other country in Europe. Certainly travel to Istanbul, and Turkey in general, with an open mind and willingness to go with the flow, and I’m sure that you will thoroughly enjoy your experience.