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The first thing that we need to know about Istanbul is that it´s not the capital of Turkey. That’s Ankara.
Nonetheless, Istanbul is considered the most important city in Turkey since its the biggest economic, historic and cultural center of this country.
During the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul was known as Constantinople. With the fall of the Byzantines and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the name changed with time to Istanbul. Although a big controversy remained about its name, President Ataturk, gave Istanbul its official name with the establishment of the Republic.
The city is divided in two main regions: the European side and the Asian side. Both parts of Istanbul are connected by the Bosphorus Bridge, allowing transit to flow constantly everyday.
Now that we have a really small notion of Istanbul´s history and importance, let´s read:
What to Do in Istanbul
Visit Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom”. This is one of the biggest and probably most important structures in Istanbul. It was initially built as a Church by Emperor Constantine and then transformed into a Mosque by the Ottomans after they took over the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
Nowadays, Hagia Sophia is a museum that can be visited by tourists. Many parts of Hagia Sophia have not been significantly restored after it became a museum. Inside you will find structures built in white marble brought from Marmara Island and yellow marble brought from Africa.
One thing that called my attention was the mix of Christian and Muslim figures inside Hagia Sophia. It is well known that Islam considers Jesus as one of their prophets, but I do not recall seeing a place that incorporates both religions on the same structure. Worth visiting.
The entrance fee costs 40 TRY (approximately EUR 10) and its open from 9:00 to 19:00.
Blue Mosque is a “Must”
The real name of this mosque is “Sultanahmed Camii”. Nonetheless, tourists call it the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior design.
The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the period of Sultan Ahmed I. The tomb of its creator can be found inside the mosque as well.
Sultanahmed Camii still remains as an active mosque, which is why tourists are not allowed to go in during the prayer time. However, it can be easily accessed and visited during the other hours of the day.
The entrance to the Blue Mosque is free. Visitors have to take off their shoes inside making this place a bit smelly when you visit. Nonetheless, this place is worth it.
Enjoy the view from the top of the Galata Tower
This is one of the oldest and tallest towers in Istanbul. Located on the European side of the city, north of the Golden Horn, the Galata Tower offers probably the best panoramic views of Istanbul.
The entrance fee costs 25 TRY (approximately EUR 6).
Get lost in the Bazaars
The bazaars in Istanbul are some of the nicest ones that I have seen in a while. Get lost exploring the small alleys with cozy and beautiful shops. Work on your bargaining skills and get at least one of the souvenir for your house. You will find rugs, carpets, lamps, clothes and other articles. My favorite: the “Evil Eye Talisman”, used for protection and easy to carry during your travels.
The biggest bazaar is called the “Grand Bazaar”. This market is one of the oldest and largest in the world and is worth a visit.
Check Suleymaniye Mosque
This may not be as famous as the Blue Mosque but it is definitely worth a visit. Suleymaniye Mosque is the biggest mosque in Istanbul and it is located uphill near the Grand Bazaar and the University of Istanbul.
The mosque was built between 1550 and 1557 during the time of Suleyman I. Inside the complex you will find also the tombs of the emperor and his wife Roxelana.
Walk around it for free and enjoy the fantastic view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus from the terrace.
Explore the Basilica Cistern
Located in the area of Sultanahmed, the Basilica Cistern is one of the most popular places to visit in Istanbul. It was built in 532 by Emperor Justinian and its considered the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in İstanbul.
The cistern was designed to service the Great Palace and surrounding buildings. It was able to store up to 80,000 cu meters of water from a reservoir near the Black Sea.
The columns inside are finely carved and detailed. There are two sculptures of Medusa, one sideways and the other upside down that will take your breath away.
Sometimes concerts are held in the Basilica Cistern.
The entrance fee is 20 TRY.
Walk through the gardens of the Topkapi Palace
This used to be the administrative place of the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. It was built in 1478 by Sultan Mehmet II and he lived there until his death in 1481.
Nowadays, the palace is a museum that can be visited by tourists all year long.
The Topkapi Palace offers amazing views of the Asian side of Istanbul. The entrance fee is TRY 25 (approximately EUR 6) although you can visit the gardens for free.
Cross to the Asian side by ferry
This is the best and most scenic way to cross from the European side of Istanbul to the Asian one. The ferry takes approximately 20-25 minutes across the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus is the straight that connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea in Istanbul. Even though it is crowded with ferries and boats, the color of the water is beautiful.
Head to the Karakoy pier where you can catch the ferry and enjoy the views of the two sides of Istanbul. Once you are in the Asian side, enjoy sunset by the riverside with some tea and a Simit (special turkish sesame bread).
Have a Turkish Breakfast
Ready to explode? Turkish people tend to exaggerate when it comes to having breakfast. Proper meals here include lots of bread, fruits, cheese, olives, veggies, eggs and of course, tea. They mix sweet with sour and make amazing breakfasts that will leave you full for the rest of the day.
Don´t miss the fish sandwich boats on the riverside
The Galata Bridge hosts a large collection of fish boats on the lower deck that sell fish sandwiches everyday. Even though they are not the most delicious, and some people doubt their reputation, they are worth a try.
It’s a great place to enjoy the view of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus although it can get a bit crowded and chaotic.
Get the Istanbul Kart
The Istanbul Kart is the transportation card that allows you to use all means of public transport while you are in Istanbul. If you plan to move around the city, this is a “must” or you will end up spending a lot of money.
This card allows you to pay for multiple types of transportation such as buses, metros, ferries, funiculars, and tramways. Additionally, take into account that most of these transportation systems no longer accept cash, so you’ll have to buy a ticket before boarding anyway.
By using the Istanbul Kart, you will get a 40% discount over the normal fare. Besides these, you can make until five transfers within a two hour period, and you’ll pay less for every transfer. Trust me, its worth it.
You can get a Istanbul Kart at the airport or the main transit stations for 10 TRY.
Adana Kebab, Turkish Coffee and Sweets
The food in Turkey is great and Istanbul is the best place to try it. Go for the real kebab called the Adana Kebab. Its a long hand-minced meat perfectly grilled that comes with bread, rice, fries and vegetables.
Get some sweets but don´t miss the Baklava a sweet dessert pastry made of layers of filo filled with chopped nuts and sweetened and held together with syrup or honey.
Finish your meal with a proper Turkish Coffee. Considered by UNESCO as World Heritage, this strong unfiltered coffee is delicious and will wake you up. Its served in a espresso cup with cold water and sweets on the side.
Safety in Istanbul
Before heading to Istanbul, everyone told me it was dangerous. Nonetheless, once you arrive you know that its not very accurate. Even though this is a chaotic city, I never felt unsafe. Of course, you have to take precautions and not trust random strangers that you meet on the street. Always check on your personal items in case of pick-pocketing but this is also not common.
For the ladies: I met many female solo travelers who also had a great time in Istanbul and did not feel unsafe. Every person has a different experience but I think that if you are mindful, nothing bad will happen.
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