Of all the fascinating places in the world that I’ve visited, Istanbul tops the list. If you love history, art and architecture, and encountering different cultures and cuisines, then you also must visit someday.
You may be surprised to discover how huge, diverse, clean, accessible, and tourist-friendly the city is. (But also note my warnings below in “Tips.”)
I left Friday afternoon (April 27) on a non-stop flight from Prishtinë to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines and returned Monday morning (April 30). Three days and three nights…barely enough to cover the top sites.
- Grand Bazaar
- Süleymaniye Mosque
- Old City (non-touristy)
- Hagia Sophia
- Spice Market
- Bosphorus Cruise
- Basilica Cistern
- Galata Bridge
- Blue Mosque
- Topkapi Palace
- Chora Museum
- Istanbul Airport (actually Day #4)
- Hustling. Do not stop to respond to locals in the tourist areas, no matter how polite, well-dressed, and articulate they may be. They are there only to sell you something and will not stop until they’ve wasted your precious time and money. Similarly, do not accompany any local to a shop, restaurant, bar, or club.
- Tickets. Buy and print your tickets online in order to avoid the long lines at the popular tourist sites. For Topkapi Palace (and perhaps Hagia Sophia), be there when the place opens and see the Harem and Treasury before the biggest crowds arrive.
- Valuables. Keep your valuables out of sight and well secured. I keep my wallet and camera in my front pants pockets and, in crowds, put my hands in those pockets as well.
- Spend local. Shop, drink, and eat where the locals do, and you’ll save lots of money. Tourist areas and sites will charge 2-3 times local prices.
- Go local. Buy a good map and visit some of the non-touristy areas. While exploring on foot is usually the best way to discover a city, it is easy to get lost in Istanbul. For 2 liras (about $1.25) per trip, you can ride the metro, tram, or ferry and see lots of the city for next to nothing. I particularly recommend taking a ferry from one side to the other (and back).
- Dress smart. The weather can be a challenge with wide ranging temps (cold mornings, hot afternoons), pop-up storms, and rough winds. Wear multiple layers and shoes that can pound the cobblestones for hours.
- Money. Use the ATMs from established banks for the best exchange rates. Keep several 1 lira coins in your pocket for the public bathrooms (WC). Have a mental system for easy conversion, e.g., 1 lira = appr. 60¢.
- Mosques. Visit some of the big and small mosques. You are welcome as long as you observe the rules: take your shoes off; stay in the visitors’ section if there is one; women wear scarves; don’t flash photo during prayers at the big mosques; don’t photo at all during prayers at the smaller mosques; you may sit on the carpet, but don’t recline or lounge. In general, be respectful: you are in God’s house, not your own.
- Interpersonal behavior. You’ll see men walking arm-in-arm with other men and women with women. This is what same-sex friends do in this part of the world. Do not confuse homo-social with homosexual: this is not a gay-friendly society. (But Istanbul is more progressive than the rest of Turkey or the Balkans.)
- Hygiene. Most Europeans aren’t so bothered by natural body smells, and many don’t wear deodorant. If Turkish (“squat”) toilets intimidate you, you might read this wiki article. I strongly advise that everyone travel with a small (pocket-sized) pack of Kleenex/tissue. (And I always keep a handkerchief with me for sweating and nose-blowing.)