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How to spend a weekend in Istanbul like a local

by Victor Eekhof
How to spend a weekend in Istanbul like a local

I don’t like sugarcoating things when it comes to reviewing tourist destinations like Istanbul. On the internet, every photo of a city’s major sights seems to have the clot of tourists photoshopped out. Sure, some of the popular markets and museums are decent, but take in account the long queuing time and you’ll find that there are better ways to spend your time. This holds true even more when you’re just visiting Istanbul for the weekend and have limited time. Since I’d heard many good stories about the city, I decided it was time for me to spend a weekend in Istanbul at the end of March in 2013.

Istanbul Bosphorus Blue Mosque

This is how you might picture Istanbul. The mighty Bosphorus with mosques all over the place. You got it right, but there is so much more.

As I always do, I went onto the couchsurfing website to find a local to stay with. I ended up staying with a cool lady who really took the time to hang out and show me bits of “her” Istanbul. It is a major tourist hub, ranking 7th of Forbes’ “world’s most visited cities” with a whopping 7.5 million tourists per year. As with most popular destinations, tourists tend to crowd around the few museums and sights mentioned in the travel guides we all know (and use). It is my challenge to share with you the experiences which I find have the best balance between time spent queuing up and the price, while maintaining the feeling of being wowed.

Do embrace the magic of Istanbul’s many mosques

Take the tram to see the world famous Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) and Suleymaniye (The Magnificent Mosque) and the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) museum from the outside. The majestic architecture is simply stunning, and especially at sunset or sunrise it feels as if you have entered a world which only exists in fairytales.

Istanbul Blue Mosque

I did my very best to capture the magic of the Blue Mosque with as little members of the tourist kind as possible.

Don’t be a jackass when you make it inside of a Mosque

If you decide to actually enter a Mosque, don’t be an ignorant foreigner and stick to the etiquette:

  • Don’t enter the Mosque during prayer times (dawn, midday, afternoon sunset and night)
  • Dress modestly, head and knees should be covered
  • Women should cover their hair
  • Remove your shoes before entering a Mosque
  • Don’t eat or talk inside the Mosque
  • Don’t make the people praying feel like zoo animals by taking pictures of their every move
  • Don’t fart inside a mosque. I mean, dude..
Istanbul inside the Blue Mosque

Respect is the key to understanding tradition and religion

Do go for a (long) walk along the Bosphorus river

Funnily enough I found out an old classmate was also in Istanbul at the time I was there. Even better, she was just a 30 minute walk from where I was, so we agreed to meet at the Starbucks in an area called Bebek. It is the wealthier area of Istanbul, so expect to find high-end cafés and restaurants. You’ll pass under the Bosphorus Bridge, which connects the Asian and European side of Istanbul and is the 4th longest suspension bridge in the world. The curvy road ahead takes you past charming houses and plenty of chilled-out fishermen. For stunning views, you can walk up the hill on the west of the river. Since there is not an easy way (unless you’re a local or speak the language) to get back by public transport or taxi, keep in mind that you might have to walk back down the same road.

Bebek area Istanbul

Charming houses and chilled-out fishermen

Istanbul steps

Get lost. No really, walk around until you don’t know where you are. It’s where all the beauty is.

Don’t bother visiting the Asian side of Istanbul if you’re only staying a weekend

I actually did visit the Asian side one night to have a bite to eat with my new local friends (indeed, plural. Couchsurfing rules). Although crossing the Bosphorus Bridge by bus was amazing by itself, the Asian side doesn’t have much to offer to the short-term traveler. The majority of the historic sites are concentrated on the European side, so unless you feel the sudden urge to shop in any of the big clothing store chains, you’re better off staying on the west side of the Bosphorus.

Bosphorus Bridge Istanbul

Simply crossing the Bosphorus Bridge by bus makes it almost worth visiting the Asian side of Istanbul

Do endulge yourself in the local cuisine

Being both cheap and delicious, Turkish food has the best of both worlds. Note: Istanbul might not be very suitable for vegetarians. Here’s a couple of things you should try:

Sultanahmet Kofte

Get your Sultanahmet Kofte at Tarihi Sultanahmet Kofte:
Alemdar Mahalle, Divanyolu Caddesi 12A
Sultanahmet, Istanbul

Sultanahmet Kofte Istanbul

You got to love your meats when in Istanbul, but when you do you’ll have a great time feasting

Iskender Kebab

Obvious, but nonetheless a must eat. Try one at any of the street food places near Yeni Cami (map).

Yeni Cami Street Food Istanbul

There are loads of places near Yeni Cami where you can get some delicious Iskender Kebab. Take a minute to relax and do some people watching while you’re here.


The best way to get social with locals is to invite them (or get invited) for some chay. I recommend getting some chay (Turkish tea) while cruising the Bosphorus on a ferry. Both the ferry and the tea are a bargain and provide you with nice views while taking you to suburbs of Istanbul which you haven’t yet explored. Lots of ferries go from the Yenikapı ferry terminal (map).

Istanbul chay bosphorus ferry

Life is good when you have tea with a view.
Photo: The Wandering Okie

Places to avoid

As with every major European city, Istanbul offers a variety of tourist traps. I define a tourist trap as a point of interest that almost always has a queue and doesn’t allow for more than 2 minutes of viewing time when you actually get to the front of it. Basically, any place that the locals wouldn’t dream of going to fits in this category. Here is my top 3:

Grand Bazaar

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Although there are a couple of cool local items for sale, the sea of tourists and the hawkers make it hardly worth spending time here.

Galata tower (restaurant)

Galata Tower Restaurant Istanbul

I can find better ways to spend 80 euros than watching pensioners awkwardly dancing to presumed “local” folk music.

Topkapi Palace Museum

Topkapi palace tourist line

No words needed. Well, maybe that the artifacts on display aren’t worth it.

Planning your weekend in Istanbul

If you’re a budget traveler like me, a good start is to check Google Flights or Skyscanner for flight prices and options and try Couchsurfing or Airbnb for accommodation. If you are the type of person that likes to plan their holidays, there are lots of travel agents such as First Choice offering day trips to Istanbul from their resorts in Turkey, which makes it an option for the lazy travelers.

Enjoy Istanbul!

Not your average Turk

Sponsored link disclosure

To keep things honest: this article holds one or more sponsored links, which means that I have received a fee to include these links. I do however make sure that the link(s) are relevant for you, the curious reader. If you have any questions or remarks, please do get in touch.

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Tanya Shafi

WOW! they most certainly are worth it! Kindly have some respect about Topkapi Palace:

“No words needed. Well, maybe that the artifacts on display aren’t worth it.”

Alexandra Bellink

As an American who has pretty much made Istanbul a second home after 7 visits in 2 years, I am happy to see a traveler go out of their way to see (and write about) sites other than the most famous spots. Hopefully you got the chance to stop by Ortakoy on your way to Bebek too! Although just to let you know, there are quite a few neighborhoods on the Asian side that have more to them than big shopping malls; Kadikoy (more for bars, restaurants, and markets) and Kuzguncuk (more for lunch) are lovely ones.

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