Destination: Istanbul, Turkey. April 2018
I had visited Istanbul around 5 years ago and loved the unique culture, architecture and atmosphere of the city. This time I had the opportunity to take a group of Dubai based social media personalities to experience Istanbul as part of The Travel Hub's curated travel.
We were very fortunate to be looked after by flydubai and flew Business Class from Dubai to Sabiha Gocken (SAW) airport. Often, the business class option with flydubai is comparable to the economy class fare on other airlines, meaning you can enjoy all the perks and comforts of business class without blowing your travel budget just getting there! The list of destinations offered by flydubai seems to grow every month, to learn more, check out the review on our website (click here).
There are 2 international airports in Istanbul, Attaturk and Sabiha Gocken. It is important to know which one you're flying in and out of, because quite literally Attaturk is in Europe and Sabiha Gocken is in Asia! Both are a little way out of the main area of Istanbul. Hotels will often provide an airport transfer or this can be arranged through your booking. Both our hotels provided transfers which saved any need for searching for options close to flying. Otherwise, we found Uber to work really well in Istanbul - cheap, efficient and clean. I would definitely use Uber in preference over the local taxis, which were for the most part rude and lazy. The Ubers are often actually quite luxurious - large vans with leather interior!
Often when you travel, it helps to have certain things on the ground looked after for you. We used a service run by Istanbul Tourist Pass to assist in a lot of the logistical details during our visit. The website and app based platform provides a number of services that will make your visit to Istanbul easier and save you money.
Staying connected online was an important feature for our group and we were provided with a portable "dongle" that provided unlimited wireless internet for multiple devices. Whether you're using this for social media, keeping in contact or simply searching for somewhere to eat nearby, having internet access is becoming essential for modern travel.
The pass also allowed priority access to things such as boarding the hop-on-hop-off Bosphorus cruise, which can be a huge advantage during busy months when these can get crowded. Similarly, we booked our guided tours of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Basilica Cistern through Istanbul Tourist Pass and our private guide provided priority access, avoiding the lengthy queues and saving us hours of waiting in lines.
Istanbul Tourist Pass is an easy way to plan your your activities in Istanbul as well as a great way to save money if you're looking at experiencing a number of the attractions!
Where To Stay:
Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet: (map)
We spent the first 2 nights in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, staying at Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet. This property was opened in 2017 and is stunningly appointed in traditional Ottoman design, which really sets the atmosphere for where you are staying. The interior has been expertly handcrafted and the detail of the workmanship is an impressive feature.
The rooms are beautifully furnished and the bathrooms in particular are themselves an "instagrammable" highlight, with each having a unique Ottoman mosaic. If you are really looking to indulge, there is a glamorous Sultan suite that takes luxury to the next level. Your booking will even include private use of a Bentley chauffeur during your stay.
Ajwa has just opened the first of its neighbourhood apartments which provide a wonderful alternative to staying in a traditional hotel. The 4 bedroom apartments can be shared amongst a group or a family and have features including a small "winter garden", private Hammam and your own kitchen facilities which can come with staff.
The breakfast at Ajwa Hotel is a wonderful selection of traditional regional cuisine and in the evening you can dine at the Azerbaijan inspired Zefaran Restaurant. The food is richly traditional and the view back over the Sultanahmet area creates the perfect atmosphere.
The Afiya Spa is the ideal opportunity to enjoy a traditional Turkish Hammam, so after a day wandering through the Grand Bazaar you can return and be fully refreshed ready for your next day of exploring the cultural sights.
Perhaps one of the best features of this stunning property is its location within Istanbul's most popular tourist area - Sultanahmet. It is one of few hotels providing 5 star luxury in this more traditional neighbourhood. The convenience of being able to walk straight from the hotel doorsteps, through the colourful streets and a short distance to the iconic Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia is a wonderful convenience.
Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas: (map)
We then stayed 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which is located in the heart of modern Istanbul, close to the trendy shopping and dining areas The hotel is everything you come to expect from a Park Hyatt property, with beautifully appointed rooms that are much larger than what you will find in most hotels.
There is a rooftop pool and bar that is an oasis in the city, especially during the warmer months. The perfect place to relax and enjoy a poolside drink. The fitness centre is excellent if you are a traveller who likes to maintain their healthy lifestyle.
To upscale your stay at the Park Hyatt, you can consider the Presidential suite, which is more like an apartment than a hotel room. In addition to the stunning bedrooms, there is an upstairs sunroom perfect for unwinding with a good book and a large balcony with stunning views back over the iconic Bosphorus.
The breakfast at the Park Hyatt is something to absolutely ensure that you have included in your booking! You have the availability of a buffet breakfast along with selections from the menu including a variety of egg options, pancakes and local favourites such as Kuvurma & Menemen.
A feature we found in both the Ajwa and Park Hyatt hotels was the staff were incredibly warm, friendly and accomodating. If you are visiting Istanbul for a 4 or more days, I would definitely recommend staying a couple of nights in Sultanahmet and then a couple of nights closer to Taksim. This allows the perfect opportunity to explore the best areas of Istanbul. I couldn't recommend these 2 hotels more highly based not just on the quality of the rooms, but also on the service they provide!
What To Do:
You can essentially separate Istanbul into different neighbourhoods and devote time to visiting each of these separately when travelling to the city.
My favourite area to explore in Istanbul is without doubt the "old" area known as Sultanahmet. It is here that much of the historically and culturally significant buildings can be found, but also where you will find a lot of the authentic places to eat, shop and just generally explore! A huge benefit of staying at the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet was the ease of walking from the hotel to any often highlights around this neighbourhood. Even the streets themselves are entertaining to wander through with camera in hand.
The Grand Bazaar (map) is an enormous traditional market with over 3,000 shops. You can buy almost anything here for a price that you will agree upon with the storekeeper. They are far more experienced with bargaining than you, but its entertaining to test your skills. You can definitely find great quality and good deals if you know what you want and have the time to wander through. Be aware the Bazaar is closed on Sundays and public holidays! Its opening hours are 8:30am to 7:00pm. We bought small souvenir bracelets, plates and scarves at a relatively cheap price. You can wander through most of the Bazaar in under 2-3 hours.
There is another small Bazaar close to the Blue Mosque - Arasta Bazaar (map), which is nice to walk through. It has several of the similar style of shops as the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar but on a far smaller scale. If you dont like crowds, this might be more appealing.
Not far from the Grand Bazaar is the Spice Bazaar (map) and this is the place to do some gift shopping! You can buy all variety of Turkish sweets (Turkish delight, baklava, nuts, dried fruits), a huge range of spices and every sort of tea you can imagine. Again, the price you pay will come down to your bargaining skills, so you dont have to settle on the first offer! It will take you less than an hour to wander through the straight Spice Bazaar.
We used a guide arranged through Istanbul Tourist Pass to take us through the main historical buildings of Sultanahmet. Even if you normally like to explore places yourself, I found having a tour guide around Sultanahmet really helpful. Firstly the history is quite complex and involves several different phases. Secondly, it saves a large amount of time being able to fastback the queues and know what areas of these very large buildings to visit.
First we went to Topkapi Palace (map) - now a museum, it was once the residence and headquarters for the Ottoman Empire. The details of how the Sultan of the time lived during the Ottoman time is fascinating, as is the evolution of this role through history. The Palace is divided into distinct areas that at one time, separated different the classes. It is interesting to learn about the history and relationships of the Sultan, his family, associates and workers who all lived in the Palace. Much of the Palace is now a museum, containing a huge number of mostly Ottoman and Islamic artefacts. Entry is L40 and opening hours are 9am to 6:45 (April-Oct) 4:45 (Nov-March).
The Basilica Cistern (map) is an impressive underground chamber built in 532 during the Byzantine Empire. It was used to store water that was delivered via aqueducts, supplying the Great Palace. When the Byzantine vacated the Great Palace, the cistern was closed and forgotten about for centuries to the point nobody in Istanbul knew it existed. In 1545, it was rediscovered when rumours of people collecting water and even catching fish from their basement lead researchers to locate the huge chamber. The symmetrical marble columns are impressive, as is the feeling of walking through the dripping chamber on a hot day in Istanbul. There are currently restoration works being done and the water has been drained from the majority of the cistern, leaving a uniquely exposed floor. Normally the floor is covered in water and you may recognise it from the scenes in the movie Inferno. Entry is L20 and opening hours are 9am to 6pm. The lighting inside the cistern is very dull, so look to use long exposure settings on your camera to create striking images (especially if the ground is full of water),
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) (map) is one of the most fascinating buildings in the world, let alone in Istanbul. Not only due to the architectural brilliance, but also because of the story it tells in relation to Istanbul as a city. Commissioned as a Church in 537 by the Byzantines, it became a mosque in 1453 during the Ottoman rule and since 1935, has been a museum. It is one of the only places in the world where you will see elements of Christian and Islamic design, artwork and traditions co-exist in the same building. Many of the original Christian mosaics have been painstakingly restored and this work continues, at considerable expense. Opening hours are 9am to 6pm (April to Oct) & 4pm (Nov to March), entry is L40 for adults.
Unfortunately, the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) (map) was closed inside for restorations when we visited Istanbul, so we could only see it from the outside. At most times, you are allowed to enter and do a tour inside the Blue Mosque (outside of prayer times unless you are there to pray). It is one of those buildings, that you can get so many different perspectives from different places and it can look quite different depending on the time of day. We even found a small carpet shop that allowed us to take photos from their rooftop terrace which offered a really unique view of the Blue Mosque. See below for my favourite places to view/photograph the Blue Mosque.
Probably my favourite place in all of Istanbul is the area between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia - Sultanahmet Park (map). Especially on a warm spring day, there is a wonderful atmosphere with so many people coming to spend time there. Street food vendors selling Simit and roast corn on the cob, the fountains going and the gardens full of colour........all that between 2 of the most impressive buildings. On the East side are some restaurants and a traditional Turkish Hammam, Ayasofya Sultan Hammam (map). If you're looking for somewhere to have lunch, try Mihri Restaurant (map) at the North of the Hammam an get the Pide!
Taksim & Istiklal Caddesi:
In contrast to the "Old Town" of Sultanahmet, the area around Taksim Square is much more modern - everything from the architecture to the atmosphere. Taksim Square (map) is a large area that itself is relatively unflattering. It can be the site where people congregate for political rallies, football games etc. However the streets that run off Taksim Square are of more interest to the visiting tourist. In particular, Istiklal Caddesi (or Istiklal Avenue) (map). It runs from the Northern end at Taksim Square right down to the Galata District. The street is lined by boutiques, department stores, cafes and restaurants. Istiklal seems busy no matter what time of day or night you visit. The atmosphere the night we visited was wonderful - the 2 larger football clubs in Istanbul were playing a big game, so lots of people were out watching the game and afterwards, celebrating/commiserating the result. You will find a number of known retail brand stores as well as lots of local boutiques and traditional shops. The food scene along Istiklal street is fantastic if you want to sample authentic cuisine. There are lots of narrow streets and alleyways that run off Istiklal and have there own little vibe - you can take a wander up Sahne Sk (map) for example with its market-style stalls, traditional food and boutiques - see Sampyion Kokorec below in "where to eat". There is a red tram which runs the length of Istiklal and provides more of a fun photo opportunity than a genuine mode of transport.
I would definitely suggest visiting Istiklal in the early evening and walking the length, stopping from time to time to sample different eateries or dining in one of the terrace restaurants.
The Bosphorus is more than just a stretch of water for the city of Istanbul - it has shaped the city's history and defines who the city is. The narrow Bosphorus Straight runs from The Black Sea in the North, to the Sea of Mamara in the South. On the east bank is the continent of Asia and on the west, Europe. This geographically made the Bosphorus Straight and Istanbul, hugely important and is one of the reasons it has been a critical city in the development of civilisations through history.
Now, the Bosphorus is a busy waterway, with people commuting under it, over it and across it as part of their daily life in Istanbul. You can just sit on the banks and watch all manner of vessels travel up and down - from huge shipping containers to small fishing boats. For so many locals in Istanbul, spending time on the banks of the Bosphorus is part of life.
The best way to experience the Bosphorus is by getting out on it! There are a huge variety of options and itineraries. For simplicity and convenience, we decided to take the hop-on-hop-off cruise through Istanbul Tourist Pass. By booking through the website, the confirmation is sent to your mobile phone app and this serves as your pre-booked ticket. We quite literally skipped past the huge queues and collected our ticket from the side office at the dock at Kabatas (map). Many waiting in line had to wait for the next boat as the queues on bright sunny weekends can get quite busy! The boats leave the dock at Kabatas Dentur every hour from 11:45 through to 16:45 (you can also start your cruise from Besiktas). The whole loop takes around 1 hour 40 minutes, but you can hop off at any of the stops along the way and visit attractions such as the summer palaces of the Ottoman Sultans in Beylerbeyi. We chose to hop off in Emirgan (map) for a traditional Turkish Breakfast as Emirgan Suitis (see "Eating" below). Emirgan has a long stretch along the Bosphorus where hundreds of people come sit, walk and enjoy the views. There are people fishing from the banks, street food vendors, cafes and parks. A short walk in from the cafes is the huge Emirgan Park (map). On a nice day it is full of people playing, having a picnic or just enjoying the sunshine and green. In April the park is home to the International Tulip Festival. All the neighbourhoods along the European side of the Bosphorus have their unique charm and if you have the time are definitely worth visiting.
The area to the South of Istiklal is Galata and is dominated by the tall cylindrical Galata Tower (map). Built in 1348 you can climb the tower to get a view across the city - however, be warned, the queues acan be very long in the tourist season!
Word of note! When you put "Galata Bridge" in Uber, be sure you dont select the Galata Bridge in Bulgaria, as it becomes difficult to explain the situation with the driver if they dont speak English! For some reason, a lot of the Uber drivers didn't know where Galata Bridge is and you may be better referring to it as Galata Koprusu (MAP). The bridge spans the Golden Horn and as a visitor to Istanbul, I think its a hugely important landmark for several reasons.
Firstly, it links the traditional old area of Sultanahmet with the more modern area of Istanbul. If you are feeling adventurous, you could potentially walk all the way from Taksim Square, down Istiklal, through the Galata District, over the Galata Bridge and into the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. It would take you around an hour..........if you didn't stop along the way, which would be nearly impossible.
Secondly, the area around Galata Bridge is in its own right a great place to visit. On a weekend, huge numbers of fishermen will line Galata Bridge, casting their lines over the side. On a level below them on the bridge are cafes and restaurants that will literally look out through the fishing lines. Looking up the Golden Horn from the bridge you will have a view of the beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque to your left and then over to the Galata Tower to your right, making it a wonderful spot to compare 2 sides of Istanbul.
If you walk down onto the old side of Galata Bridge, there are a number of floating "restaurants" cooking fresh sardine sandwiches which are a must try!
There is a tunnel under the road that leads you to a walk-through Bazaar selling lots of spices and arabic sweets. If you keep walking South from here you will find your way back to the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar and then eventually back to the Blue Mosque! You can also walk easily from here to the Suleymaniye Mosque (map) which overlooks the Golden Horn - there is a terrace behind the mosque with great views. It isn't the largest of the Ottoman mosques, but is definitely one of the more beautiful. The area around the Suleymaniye Mosque is also interesting with its very traditional wooden houses.
If you love a place where you can walk around eating from small street stalls, calling in at cafes and sampling traditional cuisines...........you will love Istanbul!
There is absolutely no shortage of street vendors selling roast cobs of corn, roasted chestnuts, Turkish ice cream, fresh squeezed juices and of course, the Turkish equivalent of the bagel, Simit. You will be hard pressed to walk around most of the busier areas of the city and not find one of these mobile options.
In every Bazaar, from a small strip of stores through to the Grand Bazaar, there are countless stores selling Turkish sweets - baklava, Turkish delight, nougats, etc. Some are almost sickly sweet and you just have to censor the thought of calories and convince yourself that all the walking is burning it off. If you walk through the Spice Bazaar, there is no shortage of options and if you have the time/patience, you can sample whatever you fancy in the different stores and then bargain for a better price. There are a chain of stores called Hafiz Mustafa that are excellent for traditional sweets. Make a point of calling in to the store at Taksim square (map) and sitting down for a tea and some baklava...........you wont be the only person, its hugely popular. If you have a sweet tooth for chocolate, stop in at Tarihi Meshur (map) on Istiklal Caddesi and pick up some chocolate coated nuts. Another place for traditional deserts is the restaurant Saray Muhallebiisi (map) and the syrup dripping from the in the windows is sickly sweet!
The length of Istiklal Caddesi is a wonderful place for food. There are many terrace restaurants and bars which have seats overlooking the street, making them a perfect spot for dinner and watching everything go by below. Many are small and authentic with a cosy atmosphere.
There are also a number of very authentic restaurants to try in the Taksim/Istiklal area. Tarihi Kalkanoglu Pilavcisi (map) serves hot dishes like Kavurma and beans - try the Karisik. Further down is Sampiyon Kokorec (map) - a well known local restaurant that specialises in traditional delicacies of Midye (stuffed mussels) and kokorec (sheeps intestine sandwich). The mussels are very nice, but I can honestly say the kokorec, despite the description, is actually really good! Its beautifully spiced, has a hint of chilli and the taste of "intestine" is not over-powering at all. A must try! Another local delicacy in Istanbul that tastes much better than it sounds are "wet hamburgers". At the top of Istiklal is a shop called Kizilkayalar Hamburger (map) - they sell doner kebabs and burgers. The hamburgers may not look much in the window, but they are surprisingly nice and its more than tempting to get another!
As mentioned, close to Galata Bridge there are a number of floating restaurants that sell fresh fish sandwiches (map). The fish is cooked in front of you and placed in a fresh bun with lettuce and onion. Add a god squirt of lemon juice and a shake of salt and you have a very tasty snack to keep you going as you continue exploring.
There are a huge number of options around the Blue Mosque/Hagia Sophia. For a nice traditional Pide, stop in at Mihri (map) at the Hagia Sophia end of the Ayasofya Hammam. Its a nice place to stop for lunch in the middle of your day in Sultanahmet. Pide is like a flat open pizza/calzone and with a choice of toppings. The service perhaps leaves a little to be desired, but I think its a great place for lunch if you're doing the tours of the museums.
On the other side of Hagia Sofia (opposite the Basilica Cistern) (map) is a restaurant called Green Corner Cafe. The tea and coffee is quite good, although the food quite basic - kebab, chicken tawook, salads, etc. The staff were very entertaining and its a really nice spot for lunch our afternoon tea.
When you are exploring the Grand Bazaar for the day and need somewhere for lunch, the best place to try is Havuzlu Restaurant (map). This place in the heart of the bazaar is no-frills and serves home-style Turkish meals. You order from the warmer and the waiter will bring everything to your table. I recommend the roasted chicken and spiced meat-balls. There is also a good selection of vegetarian options.
If you want somewhere in Sultanahmet with an incredible view, look no further than Seven Hills Restaurant (at the top of Seven Hills Hotel) (map). Its a nice spot to come of an evening and you have wonderful views of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia - one of the best views in the city actually. The staff weren't great and the seafood in the ice box" could've done with having some ice in there. They do make a nice traditional tea and the view itself is worth going up for a drink! Go here for the view alone, its worth it!
The restaurant at the top of Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, Zeferan, serves traditional Azerbaijan cuisine (map). The food is wonderful with a strong emphasis on grilled meats and fresh ingredients. Certainly try the Pilaf - an Azerbaijan specialty of rice in a crispy outer layer. The view from the Zeferan restaurant is equally as impressive and gives a great look back over the Sultanahmet neighbourhood and across the Sea of Mamara.
Part of our Bosphorus cruise was to take us to Emirgan to enjoy one of the best Turkish Breakfasts in Istanbul at Emirgan Sutis (map). An absolute must for anyone visiting Istanbul is to enjoy a traditional Turkish breakfast! It comprises of a huge spread of dishes ranging from a selection of breads, cheeses, honey and olives, to hot meals like egg dishes (Sucuk), Kavurma with meat and a delicious mince filled pasty known as Borek. Of course all this is accompanied with the customary Turkish tea! Emirgan Sutis came very highly recommended and it didn't disappoint, however if you're planning to visit here on a weekend, be prepared for a wait! They don't take bookings, so I would advise getting there a little earlier and putting your name down, then enjoying a stroll along the banks of the Bosphorus if you need to wait.
If you are staying at the Park Hyatt Istanbul Macka Palas, you will be able to construct your own Turkish breakfast each morning. The breakfast here is excellent and includes your choice of a hot dish such as Kavurma. Just around the corner from the Park Hyatt, and walking distance from Taksim Square, is the Grand Hyatt Istanbul (map). Their restaurant 34 offers an all day menu of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine. There is a lovely outdoor dining area that is perfectly suited to relaxing on warmer days and even when it cools down, in front of the open fire. The food is fantastic and I can definitely recommend the grilled octopus. They also have a great selection of Turkish desserts.
See Istanbul from the water! The Bosphorus has such importance to the city of Istanbul, through history and even now as it divides the uniquely different Asian and European sides. If you visit Istanbul, it is almost essential to view the city from the Bosphorus. The easiest way to do this is on one of the many cruise ships that go up and down the straight. We used our Istanbul Tourist Pass to catch the hop-on-hop-off boat from Kabatas, close to the Park Hyatt. The round trip takes you along both shorelines and you can see the different architecture on the Asian and European continents. We jumped off for a Turkish Breakfast at Emirgan. If you have time you can include a cruise of the Golden Horn and even out to places like Princes Island.
You won't visit Istanbul without seeing the Blue Mosque, so listing it as a must see almost goes without saying. However, it is truly one of those buildings you can find yourself looking at many times in the day and appreciating it in different ways. My top places to view the Blue Mosque include:
1. Sultanahmet Park (between the Mosque and the Hagia Sophia). Especially in the mornings when its quiet and again in the afternoon with the atmosphere of the crowd. (map)
2. A rooftop cafe such as Seven Hills in the evening around sunset. (map)
3. From a residential terrace/rooftop, close to the Arasta Bazaar. (map)
4. From the water.
5. For dinner from Zeferan Restaurant at Ajwa Hotel (map), giving you a stunning view back over the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. Especially just after sunset when the streetlights are taking over from the natural light.
Number 1 Travel Tip:
Plan your itinerary of things to see & do by areas. Each neighbourhood has its various things to experience and its best to really focus on that area for an entire day or at least a morning/afternoon. Even if you use the hop-on-hop-off bus (which I have done previously and really enjoyed), you will find you need an entire day as a minimum for Sultanahmet and at least an afternoon for Taksim/Istiklal and then a morning at least for the Bosphorous and so on.
5 Word Travel:
One of my favourite cities
Whilst Istanbul has some wonderful areas for walking around to explore, in particular, Sultanahmet, there are also some neighbourhoods that are a little harder to reach. The hop-on-hop-off boat and bus services in Istanbul are a great way to see some of these area! It is probably the best way to visit the less touristy Asian side of the Bosphorus if you want to tick the box of being in 2 continents in a day. You could easily spend weeks visiting Istanbul and its many unique neighbourhoods and then doing day trips to some of the places not far from the city. I think as an absolute minimum you need 4 days in Istanbul to experience parts of the old and new areas, less than that and you will feel you have missed things..........which might be a great excuse to come back!