We spent a couple of days in Istanbul while en route to Kenya. Especially if taking Turkish Airlines, a stopover in Istanbul is a great way to break up the travel between the U.S. and Africa. During our stay, we sampled the vibrant nightlife, dining, and shopping, and found time to do a little sightseeing, too, with a rich history dating back to the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
To put it mildly, Istanbul can be challenging to navigate and communicate, as seen in the video below. That said, for a big city of 13 million+ people, Istanbul is also relatively easy to get to know, especially with a superstar tour guide who can bypass lines and tailor an itinerary to your liking.
Here are our best tips and must-do’s for travel in Istanbul to get a real taste of Turkish life and culture, plus one thing NOT to do.
- Get connected.
With Wi-Fi being so accessible in most cities and hotels around the world, we often don’t think it’s necessary or economical to sign up for an international data plan. In Istanbul, you might find yourself needing cell service at odd times, like when you’re lost and need to use Google Maps to find your way back to the hotel.
We learned the hard way.
Our taxi dropped us off several blocks away from our hotel. Street signs were absent on many streets and despite a printed map of the area, the street names weren’t matching up. We even had the hotel address written on a piece of paper and no one was able to give us directions that made sense or got us to where we needed to go. Without exaggeration, it took us 40 minutes to finally get to the hotel, luggage in hand, and sweating buckets. Don’t forget that when you’re not using the phone to turn your cell service and data roaming OFF. Use Wi-Fi where it’s available for checking email and posting on social media.
- Consider a tour guide.
Because of the language barrier (for a non-Turkish speaker, trying to read, much less pronounce, Turkish words is near impossible) and the long lines to get into the main attractions, do yourself a favor and hire a tour guide. You will see more, do more, and save yourself a lot of hassle.
We recommend Hakan Gurger, owner of Guides of Istanbul, who drove us around Istanbul and the Bosphorus in style in his convertible BMW. The other benefit, of course, is a guide’s insight about Turkish culture, customs, locals-only-know-hotspots, and history that puts it all into perspective.
- Tour the Old City.
The must-see attractions when in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. The history is rich and impressive. All are within easy walking distance from one another and can easily be seen in half a day so long as you don’t linger or have to wait in long lines. (Another reason to hire a guide so you can bypass the lines.)
If you like to cook, leave ample time for the spice market. The teas, dried herbs and spices are not only colorful and fragrant, but also some of the most unique blends that you can’t get anywhere else in the world. All can be vacuum packed and sealed for easy transport in your luggage. Men, beware (or be on the lookout for, if you wish…) for the special herb that vendors sell “just for men.” (and for women too, as in photo below) It’s the Turkish version of Viagra aka Mesir Macunu.
- Watch out for the tourist traps.
Even experienced travelers can make mistakes when in a time crunch and trying to squeeze as much in as possible, which is exactly what happened to us. We had been told by everyone we spoke to prior to visiting Istanbul that one must-do activity was taking a ferry cruise of the Bosphorus. We asked at the hotel where to go, misunderstood the directions, and ended up at the dock where we thought we were supposed to be. One company offered a 90-minute tour (exactly what we were looking for) and we took a short van ride to another dock not far from the main drag at Eminönü. Not only was this boat chug-chugging along at a pace that we could have outswam, it left 40 minutes late, and stopped along the way at another dock to pick up additional passengers. Because we had other places to see and things to do, we jumped ship. Literally. And took a cab back into Istanbul and tried to demand a refund as the 90-minutes consisted of seeing absolutely nothing. (Click here to see Lanee lose it with the boat’s ticket seller. Not our finest moment.) We later learned that we had gotten on the wrong ship at the wrong dock. The only ferry to take in Istanbul for a short cruise of the Bosphorus is TurYol. Do not take any others no matter how they try to sell it to you – you will be disappointed and not get your money’s worth. If you choose to go with another company, make sure it’s with a trusted private guide, like Gurger, who has his own luxurious private boat tours of the Bosphorus.
- Experience Istanbul’s nightlife.
The city comes alive at night—especially after midnight! And it happens from the ground floor up. Listen and look up to the rooftops and you’ll know where to go. If you want to do it like a local, anticipate a very late night (good to overcome jet lag – just stay up!). It starts around 9 pm with shots “to get ready for the night” — we started at Tektekçi.
Next stop: meyhane and raki, which can take hours – several traditional dishes and small plates to share, like Turkish tapas. The name comes from two words: mey (wine) and hane (house). Classic dishes include Cacık (yogurt, cucumber, garlic) and patlıcan salatası (an eggplant salad).
“Raki is not just a drink,” as Erk Erkaka of tour company Locally Istanbul explained. “It’s about the company you’re with,” sipping the traditional Turkish aperitif (similar to Greek ouzo) among friends while you get even more “ready” for the night. By midnight, everyone heads to the dance clubs. On the way, take a stop at one of the hookah bars. Around 3 or 4 a.m., the night begins to come to a close. Istanbul nightlife is most certainly on par with the crazy shenanigans in places like Ibiza and Tel Aviv, so be prepared for a wild night if you venture out with or like a local. A private guide like Erkaya can show you the best of Istanbul nightlife in one night.
For a more mellow evening, have dinner (a late one) at one of Istanbul’s best restaurants. Our favorites included Mikla on the rooftop at the Marmara Pera Hotel (which also has a terrific rooftop bar), or Munferit (just off the buzzing Istiklal pedestrian mall in the trendy, hipster neighborhood around Yeni Carsi). Around the corner from Munferit is Istanbul’s own “French Street” (Fransız Sokağı), a lively outside stair corridor filled with street musicians, cafés, bars and artists; worth a stroll through.
- Get a scrub at a Turkish bath.
If you’ve ever experienced a Korean spa, then you have an idea of what the Hamam experience is like. Check your modesty at the door, and be prepared for a unique and relaxing treatment that will have you thinking the sultans were quite lucky that their wives and brides were treated to these so frequently. You’ll leave with your skin as soft and silky as it’s ever been. The two we preferred were the Cagaloglu Hamami, a more traditional spa in an old historic building with incredible marble ceilings and facilities (and is on the list of “1000 Places You Should See Before You Die”) and the Aya Sofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, which is a newer, more lux facility that caters to the tourist crowd. Both are in the Old City.
- Spend an afternoon or evening along the Bosphorus.
While the historic sights are indeed impressive and not-to-be-missed, the gem of Istanbul is the beautiful Bosphorus. The café culture along the water is fun and relaxing, with terrific views and merriment day in and night out. The House Hotel Bosphorus is perfect to enjoy outside dining or cocktails along the shores, and is located right next to a lovely outdoor shopping area. The hotel itself is centrally located to the most lively sections of the high-end neighborhood that surrounds it, but keep in mind that the ride into the Old City will take about 30 minutes.
In the below video, a recap of our trip — good, bad, and downright nasty.