Istanbul, Turkey is an incredible city that blends the cultures of Europe and Asia. It is located on both continents and divided by the Bosphorus Strait. The city is full of unique architecture, food, fascinating culture, and street cats. This quickly became one of our favorite destinations and we hope to see more of Turkey on our next European adventure. Istanbul is one of the most awe-inspiring cities we’ve been to so far. If you are visiting it for the first time, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to travel to Istanbul.
Why We Traveled to Istanbul
Our decision to go to Istanbul was easy as we had a cat-sit there for two weeks, and we love cats. We stayed there to watch a cat named Kedi, which literally means “cat” in Turkish. In fact, we watched a documentary movie about the street cats of Istanbul called Kedi. The movie helped inspire our visit, especially for Brianna with her love for cats. Another major draw to Istanbul was the drastic cultural differences. We love differing cultures and meeting locals. It wasn’t initially part of our plans, but we go where the cats take us.
When is The Best Time to Visit Istanbul?
We arrived in Istanbul in January and the weather was mostly good with occasional rain showers. However, the best times to visit are between March and May, and also between September and November. These months have comfortable weather, low crowd sizes, longer daylight hours, and more opportunities for discounts on tourist activities. With a moderate climate, Istanbul rarely sees temperatures below freezing or above 90°F (32°C). There is something for everyone at any time of year, but the off-season is best.
Why Should You Travel to Istanbul?
Traveling to Istanbul is an incredible experience. Aside from the cats we love to see, Istanbul has a fascinating history dating back thousands of years. It is the former capital of both the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it includes historical sites from the Roman times. We love the architecture, the vast variety of culture, the people, and the stunning location on the Bosphorus. The city has its own sound during the call to prayer that is so beautiful to hear.
The entire old part of town is a UNESCO Heritage site and includes many mosques, museums, markets, and a variety of cultures. Here are some of the most important historical sites to visit in this area and why we loved them.
The Hagia Sophia towers over the city of Istanbul and has the religious importance of both Orthodox Christians and Muslims. It was one of our primary attractions in the city and was wonderful to visit. On the ground floor, we saw predominately Muslim symbols blended with remnants of Christianity. On the upper level, we found mosaics of Jesus and Christian symbolism.
These Christian mosaics are stunning works of art with very intricate details. We had to be careful about taking pictures as the museum did not allow us to use flash. The mosaics are very sensitive and the flash could damage them.
Hagia Sophia was originally built as a cathedral in the 6th century and then turned into a mosque in the 15th century. From 1934 to 2020, the building was designated a museum, but the court of Istanbul turned it back into a mosque at the end of July 2020. Fortunately, we visited it back in January and we were some of the last visitors of this as a museum. There is a lot of backlash on this decision as Hagia Sophia holds great significance for Orthodox Christians.
The Future of Hagia Sophia
The doors are still open to locals and foreigners as they have been at all other mosques. Hagia Sophia attracts over 3.7 million visitors a year, so it is best to see it in the off-season.
Like many cathedrals we visited, we enjoyed looking up the most. There was so much to take in with the beauty of both the columns and the dome. The interesting blend of religions and the architecture of the building completely wowed us. We loved the circular lighting fixtures that seemed to hover above us throughout the ground floor of the building. There was even a cat inside to welcome us. It was definitely one of our most memorable places in Istanbul.
The Suleymaniye Mosque is one of the most important structures from the Ottoman era, and has great religious significance. The public calls it the “mosque that will remain forever”, and they built the mosque in 1,557. In the courtyard are the tombs of many important public figures, including the person who designed the mosque: Sinan the Architect.
Who is Buried in Suleymaniye Mosque?
Buried inside these tombs are Suleiman the Magnificent and his wife Hurrem and their daughter Mihrimah along with other important figures, including Sinan the Architect. Sinan designed the Suleymaniye Mosque along with many other architectural wonders that still stand in Istanbul today.
This was our very first mosque and also our favorite. It did not have any scaffolding and felt purer. Unlike Hagia Sophia, this was never a Christian Cathedral. The architecture, lighting, and the dome are more open to natural sunlight. The colors are also lighter and the artwork is simplistic.
They place ostrich eggs between the lamp bowls in chandeliers to ward off insects like spiders. Over the years, the number of them has decreased and the color of them has darkened.
There were far fewer tourists inside so we could take more time appreciating the interior. As for the outside, it is so beautiful, just like the others in the historic district.
The Blue Mosque is another iconic landmark of old Istanbul. The name of the mosque comes from the blue tiles and paint in the interior.
A recent restoration project in 2013 changed the exterior colors of its domes to blue, making it even more beautiful. Unfortunately, during our visit, the Blue Mosque was covered in scaffolding and we did not spend much time there. It was still breathtaking with all of its colors, but we were disappointed to not get to see any of the interior blue with the construction.
We had high expectations of this mosque based on the photos we saw online. Unfortunately, we felt a little disappointed by the construction in progress, but we still appreciated the grandeur and artwork inside.
While we explored the area of Galata in Istanbul, it was hard to miss the Galata Tower, as it dominates the skyline. This 66-meter tower has been in Istanbul since the 14th century. From the tower, there is an unobstructed 360-degree view of Istanbul. We did not climb the tower, as we had similar views from nearby, and we did not want to brave the massive line. We enjoyed the atmosphere of the area and the wonderful backdrop of the city below. There are several shops and restaurants nearby, and it is a prime spot for nightlife. While in the area, we searched through many shops for a patch for Brianna’s backpack to add to her country collection.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Over 4,000 shops are spread across 61 covered streets, and it has over 91 million visitors each year, making it one of the most touristed attractions in the world. The original core market was completed in 1461, and it has since expanded into a city within a city. It has a post office, banks, a tourist info center, a health dispensary, restaurants, a hammam, and a mosque.
We barely scratched the surface of this enormous place and we stumbled upon it completely by accident. At the time we were hungry and anxious for lunch so we weren’t prepared to spend a lot of time there, get lost, and take pictures. We loved seeing so many shops selling carpets, jewelry, antiques, textiles, and so much more. The size of this place wowed us, but it can be overwhelming. If you do not plan to buy anything, we recommend entering at one gate and exploring near that gate.
Rumeli Hisari Castle
Rumeli Castle has stood for over 500 years and is an immense complex of walls and old castle ruins. It has three enormous towers and thirteen smaller towers in excellent condition. Today it functions as a museum and is open to the public. What we enjoyed most about this castle were the views of the Bosphorus with castle ruins in the foreground AND CATS! The place was literally overflowing with cats running everywhere. Brianna was in little kitty heaven. It was also amazing to float by on the daily ferry rides. From the ferry, we could see how large it really is. What a beautiful area!
Karakoy is a lively neighborhood, and it is very central to Istanbul. The area is the home of many bars and restaurants, and it is well known for its nightlife. It is very walkable and has some quiet streets to get lost in. One of the more interesting features of Karakoy is umbrella street. Besides the umbrellas, this street isn’t much different from any other. However, it is a unique photo spot that we couldn’t pass up. What a fun street!
While in Karakoy, we also came across some rainbow stairs. It disappointed us at first because most of the steps were faded and in poor shape. Fortunately, we kept walking down to a fresh set where the paint looked better.
We explored the Asian side in a lovely area called Kadıköy, but we liked to call it “Catikoy” for all the street cats. There we walked along the water in Moda Park and relaxed with many felines.
Cats of Istanbul
In Istanbul, there are thought to be 125,000 cats roaming free. Muslim countries honor their cats, which are considered ritually clean animals in Islam. Many small containers of food and water line the sides of buildings in the city. They take good care of their street cats.
Outside of the residential streets, we found many shops and restaurants on Osmanaga Street. This street has a large street food scene and nightlife. Nearby we found some alleyways chock-full of restaurants. We had no trouble finding something to eat.
We found some more fun stairs while we wandered the neighborhood. There were even some VW Bugs representing the old mixed with the new. Istanbul has a lot of old and new, which is what we get excited about.
In about a 5 minutes walk from our cat-sit, we could be at the ferry port on the Bosphorus. The ferry was our most convenient way to get around in the city as it was cheaper than taking several buses, and had no traffic. Besides, this was an inexpensive way to do our own tour of the strait. There are paid tours of the Bosphorus, but this was perfect for us being on a budget.
We spent many ferry rides sipping on some cay (Turkish tea) to stay warm, and often with some roasted chestnuts from the ferry port. During our rides, the seagulls followed us, especially when passengers tossed bread at them. Miraculously, they would catch bread mid-air with no problem, or dive and catch it before hitting the water. This added more excitement to a beautiful ride.
On our ferry trips, we went underneath two similar-looking suspension bridges. The first one is the Bosphorus Bridge, and the other is the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge. We loved the colorful lights on both iconic bridges but never crossed them since we mainly used the ferries for transportation. Similar to San Francisco and New York, the bridges add a lot of character to the city.
Through Couchsurfing, a local approached us and offered to show us around Istanbul. He had lived in the United States for a while, so he was fluent in English. We met him in the morning, and then explored some areas we hadn’t yet seen. He was very generous to spend time with us and we love meeting locals. We discussed our travels and even had some deep conversations. It’s fascinating to get an outsider’s perspective of America. Best of all, we made a friend.
The National Drink of Turkey
Raki is the national drink of Turkey. It is made from twice-distilled grapes and aniseed. Raki is the go-to spirit for celebrating a birthday or killing the pain. It is also known as Lion’s Milk. Just one glass of this and we were spilling our soul to the person next to us.
While we were arranging our next Couchsurfing stay in Santiago, our host there had someone from Istanbul staying with him. Through that connection, we met up with that person’s aunt in Istanbul and enjoyed a traditional meal at her restaurant. She did not even charge us for the meal, which was very generous. We chatted up a gal in the restaurant for a while that was curious about us and our travels. This connection started halfway around the world, and it is one of the best experiences we had in the city.
Street Cats and Dogs
In Turkey, they really know how to take care of the street cats. They leave little bowls of food and water out for them, and near the docks, they happily get a fish or two. We had to stop and take pictures of them, especially when we came across an entire colony.
Did you know there is also a huge stray dog population in Istanbul? There are over 130,000 stray dogs in Istanbul, which outnumber the cats by 5,000. Most of them just mind their own business, but some were more aggressive and would follow us around. Unfortunately, the ones we saw looked very unhealthy. Coming from America, it was sometimes uncomfortable having stray dogs because we just aren’t used to them. This one followed us for a full mile along the shore of the Bosphorus.
We could not leave Istanbul without getting a Turkish bath known as a hammam. Our hammam included washing, followed by a massage, and then scrubbing (more like sandpapering) our bodies. Afterward, we had one more round of washing up with soap and rinsing with cold water. We also had a hot room to relax in, which was really luxurious. This was a splurge activity that was worth it and definitely a must for Istanbul. Make sure to bring a bathing suit with you.
Trying local foods is a good way to connect with the culture of Istanbul. Some foods we recommend trying are baklava, doner kebab, and burek. These seem to be some main staples of Turkey. Since Istanbul is on the sea, seafood is also plentiful. For dessert, we enjoyed getting a Turkish delight.
One regular street food that we had often was simit, which is like a bagel encrusted with sesame seeds. It would be difficult to not run into a stand selling these because they are everywhere.
Another common street food is stuffed mussels. This was our first introduction to mussels, and we weren’t sure what to expect. They sometimes stuff the mussels with spiced rice, pine nuts, and currants and serve it with a wedge of lemon. Ours were simply steamed with nothing but a squeeze of lemon. We sprinkled the lemon juice on top before eating them. These are not only tasty, but they are very inexpensive. Brianna never liked clams or oysters so she was surprised how much she liked mussels.
Turkish coffee is also a must, especially when it comes with a view. We found this rooftop restaurant and had some coffee to stay warm while waiting for our food.
As far as food safety, Istanbul is clean, and we had no problems eating street food or at restaurants there. Do not expect to find pork anywhere since this is a Muslim majority country. However, expect a cat to join you for dinner.
Do Women Need to Wear a Headscarf?
Turkey has been a secular state since 1937, and the government does not require headscarves for women. However, mosques do require them inside. In addition, women need to cover their arms, and they also need to cover their legs from the knees up. Brianna kept a buff handy for these situations and it worked well. Many mosques have headscarves for women available at the entrance. Men should wear long trousers, but they can wear short-sleeved shirts.
Is Istanbul Safe?
Several people thought we were crazy to go to Istanbul, fearing we would get kidnapped, murdered, or blown up by terrorists. We just laughed at the thought. We felt safer there than in most American and European major cities. There were never any pickpockets chasing us down as they did in Rome. Even at night, we felt comfortable walking around. For being the fifth-largest city in the world with a population of 15 million, it has a crime rate lower than our home city of Portland, Oregon. Perception and reality are two very different things.
While we were in Istanbul, we regularly made runs to the store to resupply bottled water. Our host preferred using bottled water, so we stuck with it during our stay. We read that the water in Istanbul is safe to drink, and it is potable. However, the locals dislike the heavy chlorine taste of tap water and prefer bottled water. There is some debate on how safe the water is, so we recommend sticking to bottled water.
We knew about some terrorist attacks in recent history, including a larger-scale attack on the Ataturk Airport of Istanbul. These could happen anywhere in the world, and it was not a deterrent for us visiting. Take the same precautions you would in any other major city. If something seems suspicious, walk away.
What is the Best Way to Get Around in Istanbul?
Getting around in Istanbul is easy as you get a reloadable transit card and just swipe to board any local transportation. The best way to get around completely depends on where you are in Istanbul. If you are near a ferry port, then that is your best option when you are going to another port. If not, the bus and tram system are good options to get around the city. Keep in mind that the drivers do not always announce the stops, so you may need to follow along with your maps to know when to get off. We prefer ferries since there is not any traffic impeding our journey, and the cost is the same per ride. If it takes three buses to get into town, we pay for 3 rides. That is far more expensive than taking one ferry to get to the same place.
Do You Need a Visa to Get to Istanbul?
Getting to Turkey requires a visa for US citizens. Thankfully, the process is straightforward and you can get one online. First, you apply for the visa by filling out specific information on when you plan to arrive, where you are planning to stay, and all of your identification info. Then you pay $20 for each person and download your e-visa that is delivered by email upon approval. You can get the visa up to 3 months before your arrival date. Then you have to show your documents to this guard cat before you can enter.
Where Should I Stay in Istanbul?
Depending on your personal preferences, there is a neighborhood that suits you. If you are into nightlife, live music, and narrow streets, then Taksim is an excellent place to stay. This spot is also has many shopping areas, and cheap places to eat. It is close enough to the old city without being in the heart of it. The area is very walkable around Taksim Square. It is sort of a one size fits all place, especially for a first trip to Istanbul.
If having views of the Bosphorus Strait and the old city is a top priority, Karaköy and nearby Galata are wonderful places to stay. There are several rooftop bars in more elevated areas nearby to watch the sunset. These areas provide an outstanding combination of old and new. These are conveniently located near the center of Istanbul, making it easy to get around.
How Do You Meet Locals in Istanbul?
The best ways we found to meet locals are with Couchsurfing and Meetup. There are regular events and hangouts through Couchsurfing where you can meet other travelers and locals. Meetup has many social groups that you can join. There are also groups and events on Facebook that are easy to find and can help connect with locals. Meeting locals can give you an insight into Istanbul, and it is a great way to make new friends.
Why We Love Istanbul
Istanbul was easy to fall in love with because it has so much charm and variety. We felt at home instantly with so many colorful neighborhoods, old architecture, and very friendly and genuine people. The views around the Bosphorus are unforgettable, and we dream of our next cup of cay. It will be on our list for world trip two and we hope it is now on your list too.
What is the most exotic place you have traveled to?
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