3 Magical Days in Istanbul (With Quick Tips for Travelers)

Istanbul – the city on two continents, where religious tradition and ancient history clash with a modern way of life like nowhere else; where lots of Turkish men (in a 65:35 ratio to women, as I observed), women and girls with burkas, but also hand-holding Muslim couples dressed like Westerners mingle with tourists from literally every country in the world; where you can see over 3,000 mosques, and listen to their daily prayer calls; where you will eat amazing food, and meet very friendly but also very feisty individuals.

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Quick Tips for Travelers:

  1. You will definitely get around with English or even German.
  2. Wifi is literally available everywhere in cafes and restaurants.
  3. The Metro is safe and most efficient, especially during traffic hours.
  4. Unfortunately, you might get ripped off.
  5. The city is very walkable.
  6. You can get amazing fake-brand products in Turkey.
  7. The country is also known for excellent leather products.
  8. Haggle every price they offer you at the Grand Bazaar.
  9. 3, or even 5 days are too short to see everything!
  10. Cab rides are cheap compared to Western Europe or the US. We paid around $10 for a 45 minute ride (in traffic).
  11. Tourist attraction prices are relatively cheap.
  12. Smile big at people when you talk to them.
  13. You pay with Turkish Lira = TL. Get your money from an ATM.
  14. My must-sees: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace.
  15. What I should have done: A food tour

My trip:

Day 1 – Sultanahmet & Grand Bazaar

My mom and I left on a Tuesday morning from Stuttgart and arrived in Istanbul around noon. Our hotel Senatus was in the historic district of Istanbul, Sultanahmet, where both the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are located. I forced my mother to take the subway even though she’d rather have taken a cab. Not me – I love exploring on the subway, and only having two carry-ons made it much easier.

The red plastic subway tokens are 4 TL each, about $1.50 (verify). One token is valid for one ride – anywhere. The trains have announcements in Turkish and English.

Once in Sultanahmet, we knew we were very close to our hotel, but we had no clue how to get there, and thus, we wanted to take a cab. “30 Lira,” the driver said. Knowing that he was completely ripping us off and too stupid to have asked him to turn on his meter, my mom and I took the price, because it was only about $10 and we just wanted to get to the hotel.  The ride took about five minutes. As we later learned, 30 Lira would have taken us from Ortaköy to Sultanahmet (xx km/m) in rush hour traffic.

At our hotel, the Senatus Hotel we were first put into a smoking room. When we asked for a new one, the receptionist had it for us in less than 10 minutes and it came with an apology in shape of fresh fruit. The rooms at our hotel were pretty tiny, equipped with everything necessary, but had hard beds. Also, they mostly book couples, so they have single beds and only one room with separate beds. Our single bed was definitely too small for two tall German ladies.

Because we were hungry, we searched for a restaurant on tripadvisor and found the Aloran Café, which was just around the corner. On our 5 minute walk, we were invited for lunch from almost every restaurant on the street (The street had restaurants and hotels left and right, with a few shops in between; we definitely stayed in the most touristy area).  All restaurants pride themselves on tripadvisor reviews and print the logo on their menus or hang out a certificate. I trust the latter rather than the former…

For lunch, we had a Greek salad, the huge Turkish bread filled with air inside, a lavash (or puff bread), and lamb and Istanbul kebob. Don’t expect skewers here. The lamb kebob were pieces of lamb with, and the Istanbul Kebob were chicken pieces in a crème sauce with peppers, dill, tumeric, etc.

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As I found, you’ll always get served dill and mint, and sometimes parsley. The friendly hosts gave us apple tea, a Turkish delight (the typical Turkish colorful gelatin paste surrounded by powdered sugar, and some pendant as a small gift. Apple tea tastes like warm apple juice. Depending on the place, you’ll find lots of sugar in it; sometimes you can add it yourself.

After lunch, we asked someone about the fastest way to the Grand Bazaar. We only had wifi, no Internet on the go, so we had to stick to old-school directions and a map. Fortunately, that was pretty were easy. We were told to walk past the Blue Mosque to the train station, and then we could either take the Metro or walk two stops. We decided to walk the busy shopping street get to see more.

At the Grand Bazaar, a must-see attraction, literally every single vendor tried to get us into their store. We ended up in a leather store where a guy known everywhere as “The Dragon” talked to us in German. He was nice, attentive, and asked many questions, but at the same time had this demonic aura surrounding him. If he had told me he killed someone, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Nevertheless, he was an excellent sales man and got us to stay for at least an hour and buy two jackets. He also introduced us to a guy who led us through alleys and then somewhere upstairs, where they had a “secret” store with fake brand purses, wallets, and backpacks made from the finest material.

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Day 2 – Topkapi Palace, Galata Tower, Taksim, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Ortaköy

On our second day, we explored the Sultanahmet District, which includes the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

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Then, we went up the hill to see the Topkapi Palace.

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However, since we didn’t want to spend hours inside, we went back down and had a quick look at Gulhane Park.

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From the same-named tram station, we went to Karaköy, the Northern part of land, where we had tea and freshly squeezed pomegranate/orange juice by the water.

From Karaköy, there are signs that lead you up to the Galata Tower, which is about a 10 minute uphill walk.

At the Galata Tower, an elevator will take you up and then, you have to take two more flights of stairs up to the platform where you squeeze your way around other tourists. The view is breathtaking!

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Once we had seen enough, we decided to walk to Taksim, which took us through small alleyways, a busy main road with no tourists, but great views and lots of impressions of the everyday life in Istanbul, and Istiklal Caddesi, a shopping street.

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Here, we chose to eat at a buffet where we found the most locals.

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You can choose from main dishes with meat, side dishes, salads, desserts, and drinks. Each one will be given on one plate. Compared to restaurants, the food was mediocre quality, however.

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From Taksim, we took the train to Kabataş, where we sat down in a nice café by the water and watched a street cat devour leftovers from the table behind us. When she was finished, she came to us in hopes of more.

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The café was right in front of the entrance of the Dolmabahçe Palace.

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Because it was shortly after 3 p.m., we were only able to book the book through the Harem, not the whole palace. But just walking around one of the most beautiful and intricate buildings I have ever seen, a Baroque structure from the mid-19th century, was great. Not even the pictures do it justice:

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During the 15-minute tour through the Harem, where the Sultan’s wives and mother were housed, we were not allowed to take any pictures, but of course, I sneaked a few. Inside, you will see pompous furniture in many rooms with high ceilings and only a few bathrooms. In one of the rooms stands the deathbed of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first President of Turkey, with a Turkish flag on top of the headboard.

Excuse the bad quality of the pictures, but I couldn’t use my flash – had to be sneaky.

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After the palace, we walked down the main street by the water, Besiktas Caddesi, which turns into Çıragan Caddesi. By the university, you could see the crowd change. Surrounded by students, we sat down again for a fresh orange/pomegranate juice. Here, I bought jewelry from a market stand, which had prices on it, so nobody could rip me off.

My mom checked how much we had walked that day: 12 km and climbed 26 floors. Nevertheless, we walked 20 minutes more to get to Ortaköy, a not-so-touristy area by the water with a few market stands, a beautiful mosque and lots of restaurants with fresh seafood. We sat down in one of them and enjoyed our dinner during a gorgeous sunset, listened to the prayer call, and just smiled.

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Day 3 – From Europe to Asia in 15 minutes, the Basilica Cistern

We left early, took the train from Sultanahmet to Eminönü and the ferry from there to Kadıköy, which was a ferry from Europe to Asia – how cool is that. The ferry ride also cost 4TL and we used a token that was a coin (different than the subway) and took about 15-20 minutes.

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Kadıköy is full of small shops and restaurants and not very touristy. We made the mistake of not really reading about what to do, so what we found there, wasn’t what we were interested in, and so we decided to leave Asia after 1 only one hour. But at least I got some nice earrings and souvenirs for my friends.

Back in Europe, we walked by the water, and then went back to the Grand Bazaar, where we bought some more souvenirs. On the third day, I got so damn tired of everyone trying to convince us to buy their product and go to their restaurant and when you didn’t choose them, some got angry or mad! If you buy one thing from one person, he will direct you to another person. We had bought Turkish Delight, and the vendor had asked us to come to his leather store, which we did in the hopes of leaving right after he left us. But then the leather guy offered us tea, which we accepted in the hopes of him going somewhere getting the tea, so we could just sneak out. But he had someone else get it, and so I just said: “We’re hungry. We’re leaving” and dragged my mom out of the store. “That was not very culturally respectful,” she said. “I don’t give a shit right now. They’re gonna find other people to talk to.” That’s how annoyed I was.

In search of a restaurant for lunch, again, we were talked to by 3 people at the same time before we could choose one. We ordered salmon, a salad, and Turkish Pide.

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After lunch, we went to the Basilica Cistern, Yerebatan Sarayı (“Sunken Palace” or Yerebatan Sarnıcı (“Sunken Cistern”). An ancient water storage from the 6th century, this underground structure with the upside-down Medusa head has to be my favorite sight in Istanbul. We really saved the best for last!
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