Photo Credit: Carlo107
The Black Traveler's Guide To Navigating Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey, the largest city in the country, is overflowing with an incredible amount of history and culture. Straddling both Europe and Asia, the city offers a unique blend of cultures and is welcoming to people from all over. Not sure where to begin with planning your Istanbul adventure?
Where To Stay
Sultanahmet – Located in the heart of old Istanbul, the Sultanahmet neighborhood is where you’ll find many of the city’s most popular historic attractions. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, many of which are within walking distance of Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, and the Hippodrome. The convenient proximity to these attractions is what led me to stay in the neighborhood at the Deluxe Golden Horn Hotel.
Eminönü – Eminönü is another great neighborhood choice when staying in Istanbul. Arguably one of the best and coolest neighborhoods for families visiting the city, the area is vibrant and lively. Not far from Sultanahmet but more budget-friendly, Eminönü is also close to the city’s main attractions mentioned above, and is home to the incredible Grand Bazaar with its more than 4,000 shops. Travelers looking to enjoy a boat cruise of the Bosphorus can board one at the Eminönü Pier.
Beyoğlu – Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district is the perfect area for those seeking a blend of history and modernity. The area is home to trendy cafés, shopping, and beautiful architecture. It has a thriving nightlife scene and is also where you’ll find Istiklal Avenue, one of the most famous streets and entertainment hubs in the city. Here, the famous red trolleys transport locals and tourists alike up and down the busy street filled with restaurants and stores. Beyoğlu is also where you’ll find the iconic Galata Tower. Stay here for an experience that is quintessentially and authentically Istanbul.
What to See and Do
Suleymaniye Mosque – Despite the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia being the most popular mosques and tourist attractions in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque was the one that really blew me away. Having visited all three, I must say that I was very impressed by the architecture, courtyard, and overall beauty of the latter. It was also much less crowded, which enabled me to enjoy its magnificence more peacefully. The sprawling views of Istanbul you get from the grounds are just the icing on the cake!
Visit a Turkish Hammam – Getting pampered in a Turkish bath is not your typical spa experience. It involves you stripping down and sweating out your body’s impurities in a steam room before being exfoliated, washed, and massaged into relaxation. If getting naked and being scrubbed down by a total stranger isn’t your thing, you might want to skip this, but many spa lovers rave about the ancient therapeutic tradition.
Cruise the Bosphorus – There are a variety of boat rides and cruises available to take you for a scenic tour along the Bosphorus, the strait dividing European Istanbul and Asian Istanbul. From luxury yacht tours to sunset dinner cruises that include Turkish entertainment like folk dancers, belly dancers, or whirling dervishes, there is a cruise to suit all preferences. The boat ride allows you to take in views of both sides of Istanbul and many of its most prominent landmarks, including its mosques, museums, Ottoman palaces, and the Bosphorus Bridge.
Topkapi Palace – This is one Istanbul attraction that is most certainly not overhyped. The more than 300-room palace is much more than just a palace. Aside from its brilliant architecture and beautiful gardens, it’s also a museum, housing an incredible collection of artifacts that once belonged to the kings and royal families that resided there. From jewels and weaponry to complete dinner sets and even items of Prophet Muhammad himself, the place is a history buff’s dream come true.
Grand Bazaar – Prepare to have all your senses ignited as you stroll through the seemingly unending corridors of the Grand Bazaar. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the bazaar spans a whopping 30,700 square meters. Shops offer a huge assortment of items, including silks, jewelry, antiques, foods, pottery, clothing, and more. I came home with a beautiful Turkish mosaic lamp, some amazing-smelling body oil, and several clothing items. Be sure to wear your bargaining hat and prepare to haggle for the best price. Also, be aware that you will most likely get lost in the bazaar’s maze-like halls. It’s part of the adventure!
What to Eat
Baklava – You wouldn’t dare visit Istanbul and not try the baklava, would you? It’s one of the sweets the country is known for. Karaköy Güllüoğlu has some of the best baklava around and offers many varieties of the flaky, nutty honey-soaked dessert.
Stuffed Mussels – These were a favorite of mine while in Istanbul. The mussels are stuffed with a savory blend of rice, herbs, and spices. After removing the top shell, you squeeze lemon juice over the mussel and rice blend, and use the shell as a spoon to scoop it into your mouth. There are many places offering stuffed mussels, but Midyeci Ahmet AKA the Lord of Mussels is one of the best places to get them in Istanbul.
Fish Wrap – There are various versions of the fish wrap available around the city, but the best is from Balık Dürüm Mehmet Usta. The small restaurant began as a food truck, which eventually became so popular he decided to open a brick and mortar location. Made with tender, juicy grilled mackerel and a fresh mix of veggies, the wrap can be made as spicy as you can handle it.
Mezes – Mezes consist of small plates, such as various flavored humuses, tabbule (a bulgur-based salad), or the eggplant-based babagannus, which can be enjoyed alone or atop a flatbread. Family run kebab house Asmalımescit Dürümcüsü is famous for its flavorful dürüms (wraps) as well as its delicious selection of mezes. The café is also said to be home to the city’s best ayran (yogurt drink.)
Currency – The most widely used currencies in Istanbul are the Turkish Lira and the Euro. While many tourist areas accept Euros and occasionally even US Dollars, paying in Liras will ensure you get the most bang for your buck.
Public Transportation – Public transportation in Istanbul is safe, clean, and reliable. It’s a great option for those looking to get around more affordably and without the hassle of sitting in traffic. The public transportation system is accessed via a reloadable transit card, the Istanbulkart.
Taxis – If you prefer to travel via taxi, avoid hailing one on the street. Istanbul taxi drivers are known for overcharging. Many will claim their meter is broken or take a longer route to charge you up. Instead, download the BiTaksi app. It’s like an Uber or Lyft exclusively for taxis.
Dress – As an Islamic country, avoiding revealing clothing is the best way to respect the culture. Especially when visiting mosques, modest attire is required by both men and women. This means covering from your shoulders down to your ankles. Women should also cover their hair with a scarf prior to entering.
Tap Water – You’ll want to avoid drinking the tap water in Istanbul, as it contains a high concentration of chlorine. Bottled water is available everywhere and your safest option.