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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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:
Get your Sultanahmet Kofte at Tarihi Sultanahmet Kofte:
Alemdar Mahalle, Divanyolu Caddesi 12A
Obvious, but nonetheless a must eat. Try one at any of the street food places near Yeni Cami (map).
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).
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:
Galata tower (restaurant)
Topkapi Palace Museum
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.