View from the Galata Bridge
Haga Sofia / Sainte-Sophie
View from Galata Tower
Baklavas in the Bazaar
Bosphore ferry trip
Istanbul street food
Istanbul has a lot to offer to backpackers with its beautiful mosques in the historic district of Sultanahmet, its lively Bazaars, its many culinary specialties and extraordinary nightlife in the Taksim district. The city is very touristy and European, which makes it less cheap as you might think, although prices are still cheaper than in Western Europe.
WHEN TO GO TO ISTANBUL?
Don’t mistake it, Istanbul is not a hot city throughout the year. Far from that actually! We went early April and it was really cold. So do not get a bad surprise and watch the announced temperature before filling your backpack with shorts and flip flops Winters are cold and wet while summers are hot. When it is spring, there are tulips in all city parks.
HOW TO GO FROM THE AIRPORT TO DOWNTOWN ISTANBUL?
There are two airports in Istanbul : Ataturk Airport and Sabiha Gokcen Airport. Ataturk Airport is about 30 minutes by taxi from downtown (40 minutes with the traffic jam), we paid 50 lira with the Taximeter from the neighborhood Sultahamet. Our hostel provided a shuttle but it was actually more expensive for 2 people than a taxi (27 €!). To go around the city, taxis are really worth if you are 4, it is often cheaper than taking the tram. It’s also easier to go party. It is also possible to take the subway from the airport to Zeytinburnu and then a tram to Gulhane Zeytinburnu station.
GETTING AROUND IN ISTANBUL?
No need of transportation to visit the old town, if you stay in the Sultanahmet district. To go to Taksim and the Bosphorus, it will take a tram or a taxi. A tram ticket is € 1 (3 Lira), if you need to change, you must repay another tram ticket. This is not always the most economical solution considering the price of taxis, if you are many.
WHAT TO VISIT IN ISTANBUL?
- St. Sophia (Hagia Sofia) is a MUST. Admission is charged 25 Lira. The queue seems long but it goes pretty fast and it’s worth it. The interior is more beautiful than the outside. It was formerly a church that was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople.
- The Blue Mosque, the symbol of the city for its postcard look. The square between the 2 mosques with the fountains is superb! Provide a veil to go inside and you will also have to remove your shoes. There also veils to lend in case you do not have.
- Visit Topkapi Palace (25 lira). A tip: buy your tickets the day before closing, you will avoid queuing and that will save you a lot of time. There are also automatic machines to get tickets.
- Walking in the tulips park near the Topkapi Palace. It’s funny, everyone takes pictures in the flowers. There is a beautiful view of the sea, terraces to eat or drink.
- Climb the Galata Tower for a 360-degree view (6.5 €).
- Take the ferry to the Bosphorus and then eat a baked potato in one of the restaurants around the Bosphorus, with views on the bridge. This is an iconic street food in Istanbul, very appreciated by locals. Do not get trapped by the locals who will try to sell you a boat trip on the Bosphorus for a very expensive price… the most economical is to take the ferry as a transit.
- Do some shopping in the Grand Bazaar. You will find essentially lamps, jewelry, fake bags, fake clothes, typical dishes, tea glasses, fabrics, scarves.
- Also hop by the Egyptian Bazaar for spices and food (Lukum, Baklava, halal bacon, cheese …).
OUR TOP TYPICAL EXPERIENCES IN ISTANBUL
- Eating baklava (we ate baklava almost every days, our favorite was the one we tried in a cafe near the large Bazaar, delicious !!)
- Go see a fortune teller who reads your future in a cup of coffee! There is a street known for its fortune teller cafes in Taksim (İstiklal Cad. / Ayhan Işık Sk). We tested the Kapriss Kafe. “Consultation” + coffee will cost you only 20 Lira. Whether you believe it or not, it’s a fun experience!
- Getting washed in a Hammam! Unfortunately, historic hammams are only frequented by tourists today, and the prices are adjusted accordingly. We have been to Cemberlitas : 30 €, only to be washed with soap and massage + access jacuzzi and swimming pool. It’s expensive for what it is, but we can not pass by without testing Istanbul hammams. Do it in the evening to unwind from the day’s visit, because after that, all you’ll want is to go to sleep. For couples, there is a steam room that accepts men and women together, the Süleymaniye (35 €). But beware, you have to book in advance for this one!
- Watching the sunset on the Galata Bridge! There are many bars and restaurants on the bridge. This is clearly a tourist thing, but the view is definitely worth paying a little more expensive glass. Watch the fishermen who try to lure fish from the deck.
- Taste the street food, in the square between the Galata Bridge and the Egyptian Bazaar: the Baltik Elmek sandwich with fish prepared on the houseboats; donuts and other snacks from street stalls ,or the very strange pink drink with pickles that taste like vinegar… appreciated by locals but we found it disgusting.
- Take a fresh orange juice or pomegranate sold by street vendors right after the Galata Bridge towards Taksim, respectively 1 or 2 Lira: they are super good and fresh.
WHAT TO EAT IN ISTANBUL?
Turkish cuisine is delicious, and you could easily spend your time over there just tasting all the specialties… the problem is that there are so many that it is necessary to select! You’ll find a lot of these ingredients: yogurt (Manti, Iskender …) and puff pastry (Baklava, Boreks …). And of course Turkey is also the country of Döner Kebab! Here are some specialties not to be missed in Istanbul:
MAIN TURKISH DISHES
- The Döner kebab, a piece of mutton or sometimes chicken grilled on a large pin for long hours.
- The Iskender kebap, a version of Döner Kebap with pieces of meat served with Turkish bread, yoghurt and tomato sauce. One of our favorites!
- The Manti, Turkish ravioli with yogurt! A must among locals!
- Try the mussels stuffed with vinegared rice sold on the street in Taksim, at any time of day or night… Unique in the world! It can be a little scary for hygiene, but we had no problems and it’s delicious
- The Boreks, (we also found the same in the Balkans), puff pastry stuffed with cheese, spinach or meat. They are found in pastries.
- Of course the Baklava, consisting of pastry and pistachio in general, and a kind of honey syrup. It’s divine!
- The Lokums are made of sugar and starch confectionery, sprinkled with icing sugar and fragrant, often rose water, cinnamon or mint.
- The Kunefe is a dessert whose lacals are fond of, served hot and crispy, made with cheese.
WHERE TO EAT IN ISTANBUL?
A full meal costs about 20 Lira, or 7 €. The beers are relatively expensive, so about 11-12 Lira 3(-4 €) for half a liter. In some places, you can get them for 9 Lira. Other alcohols are even more expensive. The best place to eat specialties at reasonable prices is the Taksim area. There are many restaurants self service with Turkish specialties, it lets you see what you order, very useful when we do not know yet the Turkish specialties. We went to a very good local restaurant: Beyoglu Halk Döner Restaurant (Istikkal Cad N20 Beyoglu). Also at Taksim, a restaurant with homemade specialties, really cheap and delicious, the restaurant Hisko Köfte & Kebab (Bogazkesen Cd No 104 / A beyoglu)! A good tip! Near the Bazaar, we tested a chicken pita cheap in a snack frequented only by locals: Cigersi Basri. In tourist restaurants in Sultanahmet, around the two mosques, it is possible to negotiate the price if you do it well because the prices on the menu are the prices for tourists. A big of a tourist trap but which was great for the view and to relax after a day of sightseeing: take a Raki and Mezze on Galata Bridge at sunset. We paid 110 Lira for 2 (60 Lira for the Mezze and 40 Lira for water + raki). Raki is the typical alcohol in Turkey, it is a kind of Pastis with a taste of anise.
WHERE TO DRINK IN ISTANBUL?
Start the evening in Sultanahmet, in the bar on the top floor of the hostel Cheers Hostel: nice atmosphere, great view and the beer draft was shaped as a saxophone Then, go to Taksim in very affordable bar perfect for backpackers Rittim, where beer is 9 Lira and you can only take 4 shots of Tequila (called Bucket) for 20 Lira. Finish with the Eski Beyrut-Beat, a huge bar a little “underground” with a different style at each floor. We had overall a very crazy night in Istanbul!
WHERE TO STAY IN ISTANBUL?
The best area to stay is that of Sultanahmet, the old city, which will allow guests to be close to many attractions including Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. But it is also the most touristic district so with relatively high prices. From Sultanahmet, you can make it quite easily to Taksim, the True Istanbul, with all its restaurants and bars. We stayed at the Second Home Hostel, convenient and quite ok, with breakfast included. The staff were friendly and they try to organize activities such as evening dinners or pub crawls. For a drink, we went through the Cheers Hostel which looks much better, with a very nice bar and a great view upstairs, so we rather recommend you to try that one.