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- Stayed: August 2018
- Accommodation: 1st visit – Big Apple Hostel in the Sultanahmet area (where the main sights Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern are). Great place, highly recommended. Perfect location for first-time visitors to Istanbul. All the staff are great, friendly and super helpful. Lovely rooftop terrace for the free breakfast and evening drinks overlooking the Bosphorus. 2nd visit – Cheers Hostel, Sultanahmet. Had high expectations of this place as it is so highly rated on Hostelworld but I was disappointed. Over-rated. Dorm smelt funky. Don’t stay here if you want to get any sleep – this one is strictly for the party hard crowd.
Istanbul is a vibrant city full of colour and life. This is a city I have wanted to visit for years but had put off visiting as I’d been warned that it may not be completely safe for solo female travellers but some lovely travellers I met recently in Georgia convinced me to go – I’m so glad I did! What a city! So much to do and there are beautiful sights to be found everywhere. At no point did I feel unsafe, however, solo females do attract attention. I found that many men would try to chat to me as I walked by, they were not rude, just over-friendly, but it can get a bit wearying after a while. Tip: wear headphones, even if you don’t want to listen to music, and they will pretty much leave you alone. Doing this made my experience more relaxing. Another tip is to avoid using taxis if you can – they are notorious here for trying to rip off tourists and this did happen to a few of the friends I met during my stay.
Istanbul is huge but the tram and metro are really easy to use and you will find people in blue ‘Ask Me’ t-shirts dotted around tourist areas ready to help with buying travel cards or give directions. The city itself can be overwhelming as there is so much to do but for a first visit, I would recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area and allocating enough time to see the sights in that area. I invested in a Museum Pass for 125 Lira (which I bought at the Hagia Sophia ticket office) and this card gives you entry into Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Harem plus several other places such as Hagia Irene. Even if you don’t manage to visit all of the venues on the list, buying the Museum Pass will save you queuing to buy tickets at all of the included venues.
On day one I did the Hagia Sophia first. I went in around 10.30 am and the queue wasn’t so bad but by the time I came out a few hours later, the queue was massive. Always a good idea to visit the main sights before the group/cruise ship tours arrive. I absolutely loved the Hagia Sophia and 20 Lira for the audio-guide was worth it if you want to learn more about its history etc (you will have to give them some form of ID to rent the guide). At the moment there is some scaffolding down one side of the interior but it still has the wow factor. Then I headed across to the nearby Basilica Cistern which is 20 Lira a ticket and is definitely worth a look. Afterwards, I walked down to the Galata Bridge, crossing the Bosporus to explore the Galata Tower, Beyoğlu area and took a walk up İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s famous shopping street full of high street brands and historic passages. In the early evening I visited the Blue Mosque. It is free to visit but you have to visit outside of prayer times. Whilst the exterior is stunning, I was underwhelmed by the interior, perhaps because it is such a popular venue and quite noisy when I visited. You will have to dress appropriately to go inside but long skirts to cover shorts and scarves to cover the hair of female visitors are available for free.
I saved the Topkapi Palace and Harem for my second day and I recommend doing Hagia Sophia and Topkapi on separate days as both sites can take a few hours to cover properly. Again, entry was quiet at 10.30 am (but the site became extremely busy later in the day). The audio guide for both the Palace and Harem is 30 Lira. I was advised to visit the Harem first. Parts of the Harem and Palace are currently closed off for restoration but there is still plenty to see. The most popular section of the Palace is the Chamber of Sacred Relics, attracting long queues but worth any wait – this Chamber contains Prophet Mohammad’s footprint, hairs from his beard, a box containing a tooth and his swords and visitors are required to dress appropriately to enter. After the Palace, I walked to the Grand Bazaar, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Only closed on Sundays, the Bazaar attracts up to 400,000 visitors daily. Go prepared to haggle and drink tea with shopkeepers keen to persuade you to make a purchase. If the Grand Bazaar is too much for you, you could visit the much smaller and more relaxed Arasta Bazaar, a short walk from the Blue Mosque.
Art buffs can indulge in their passion at Istanbul Modern – but I will post a separate post for this Art venue on the Art page of my blog.
Some restaurant recommendations for you: Babylonia Garden & Terrace Restaurant in Sultanahmet (a short walk from Topkapi) – great service, good food and a relaxed vibe – I enjoyed a breakfast and dinner here and left very happy both times. Galata Kahvesi in a shaded alley in Beyoğlu is a fab spot for lunch. Günay Restaurant in the shadow of the Galata Tower is always super busy but the service and food were both excellent.
For those of you looking for a decent hair salon to get your hair done whilst in Istanbul I can really recommend Hair Mafia. I’m really particular about who does my hair colour so I get really nervous about going to new hairdressers. However, after neglecting my hair for three months I had to bite the bullet. A bit of research led me to Hair Mafia and I had a great experience with them.
If you are considering a visit to Istanbul, I would give yourself a minimum of three days to cover the main tourist sites and to get a feel for the Europe and Asia sides of Istanbul. I thoroughly enjoyed my three days and as I only really scratched the surface of everything Istanbul has to offer, I have no doubt that one day I’ll go back.
Selection of pictures from my stay: