With so much of the world yet to see, a place has to be special to want to visit it twice. Unexpectedly, Istanbul turned out to be one of our favourite holiday destinations in Europe and one of the rare destinations that we would absolutely visit again.
What to do
- Topkapi Palace (must visit) – Once home to the Sultans and their wives, Topkapi Palace is now a museum showcasing some of the most incredible Iznik artwork you’ll see in Istanbul together with magnificent views of the Bhosporus.
- Suleiymaniye Mosque (must visit) – Somewhat overshadowed by the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Suleiymaniye Mosque is stunning both on the inside and outside, boasting a magnificent entrance, courtyard, cemetery and stunning views of the Bhosphorus. Getting to the Mosque on foot if you are travelling with young children or have a stroller can be a challenge as it is located on a steep hill but your first step through the grand entrance will leave you speechless.
- Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) – is one of the most visited and famous sights in Istanbul. The glistening blue interior, the 6 minarets, cascade of Domes and grand forecourt coupled with the enchanting call to prayer that echoes over the historic old quarter becomes more enticing each time you visit.
- Hagia Sophia – Church turned Mosque turned Museum, Hagia Sophia is a fine example of Turkey’s rich history. The interior of Hagia Sophia Museum boasts remains from its Byzantine era and Ottoman era.
- Galata Tower and surrounding area including Beyoglu – The Galata Tower dominates the skyline on the opposite side of the Galata Bridge to the Blue Mosque. The surrounding area is lined with narrow cobbled streets, boutique hotels, hip and trendy shops and a great spot for people watching over a hot glass of freshly prepared Turkish tea.
- Dolmabache Palace – is an magnificent palace sitting on the Bhosphorus. The grandeur and detail of the interior is outstanding and each room is unique and decadent. Unfortunately, photography within the interiors of the grounds is not permitted so take our word for it and make this one of your must visit sights.
- Istiklal Avenue leading to Taksim Square – Quite possibly the heart and sole of Istanbul – Buzzing with tourists and locals, Istanbul’s equivalent to Oxford Street, is filled with restaurants, shops, street entertainment and a tourist tram that takes you from one end of Istiklal Avenue to Tamsin Square.
- Grant Bazaar and Spice Bazaar – A labyrinth of passageways filled with shops selling everything from traditional ceramics, jewellery and clothes with a few cafes dotted around. Other than walking around for an hour or two at the most, the nearby Spice village and surrounding streets sell the same products at a fraction of the price.
- Eminonou – can be found at the southern end of the Golden Bridge in the Old Town, Fatih district. The area is busy and vibrant, filled with restaurants, shops, Mosques and leads to a number of points of interests.
- Day trip to the Asian-side – If you are in Istanbul for more than 4 days, consider a trip to the Asian side. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time. Regular ferries travel between both sides.
Hints and Tips
- A visa for travel to Istanbul from the UK is required and should be purchased online. You can no longer purchase visas at the airport.
- Turkey has experienced a number of political un-rests over the last couple of years. Extra security is present and additional security checks at the airport and some of the main attractions are required.
- Allow yourself extra time at the airport for check-in due to an additional security step required before entering Ataturk Airport.
- Although Turkey is a secular state and liberal Muslim destination, modest clothing is required when entering places of worship.
- During peak season, queues at the entrance to Istanbul’s major sights can be as long as 2hrs. If possible, purchase tickets in advance.
- Istanbul is very hilly with many steep pedestrian roads which can make sightseeing on foot for young children and a travelling with a stroller a challenge.
- As with most cities, the best way to see the sights is by foot. Do wear comfortable shoes.
- The exchange rate in Istanbul is better than in the UK but only if you are willing to shop around once you get to Istanbul.
- If you decide to shop in the grand bazaar try to negotiate the price down significantly from the first price offered. If you are after a bargain the nearby Spice Bazaar is cheaper.
- Public transport (Trams/Metro) is very convenient, spacious for strollers and takes you to the main sights in Istanbul and will save you a lot of money compared to a taxi.
- The people are very friendly. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Where to stay
If it is your first time in Istanbul, there really is only 2 key locations and which base you choose depends on your preference – the Old District (near the main attractions) or the City Centre – near Taksim Square or the surrounding Galata/Beyoglu district. Getting to and from these two main areas is very easy via public transport. If you are travelling with young children our recommendation would be to stay somewhere near the Galata/Beyoglu district. You’ll be able to easily get to the Old Town via a short 10minute tram/metro journey and as a foodie, the dining choices in Istiklal Avenue are endless.
We stayed in the Beyoglu district and absolutely loved it. The area is new, hip with trendy restaurants and cafes and narrow streets lined with boutique style apartments and hotels.
We stayed at the Meroddi Pera Hotel which was a spacious, boutique style hotel in a quiet residential road and only a 10minutes walk toIstiklal Avenue, 5 minutes to Galata Towers and a short 10minute walk to the closest tram stop. Bare in mind that the return journey from the tram spot to the hotel involves a very steep hill which with a stroller or young children can be difficult.
Where and What to Eat?
Although Turkey is a secular state, the vast majority of the population are Muslim, thus pretty much everywhere serves halal food. Istiklal Avenue offers the most variety and diversity in terms of halal dining options. Eminonu area also has an abundance of dining options and the Galata region has a number of boutique style eateries. Since you’ll find a halal restaurant pretty much on every corner and street in Istanbul with everything from street food, traditional Turkish food and fine-dining, aside from traditional Adana kebabs, Iskender, Mezze etc, we’ve highlighted below, the top things you must try when in Istanbul:
Freshly baked Baklavas and Turkish delight – Being in Turkey, one must try both. The quality and taste is far better than any brand in the UK. You’ll find establishments all over Istanbul serving both including the chain stores.
Turkish Ice Cream – this is more for the entertainment factor and kids will love it.
Turkish coffee – thick, strong and rather bitter. This one is for coffee lovers only.
Turkish tea – warm, peppermint tea over a spot of people watching is always a good idea.
Kunefa – this cheesy, sweet pastry dish is an absolute must try. It is now one of my all time favourite desserts. Countless places serve Kunefa. Our favourite was in the Eminonou market area; same great taste for a fraction of the price compared to high-end places.
Nusr-Et Steakhouse (Etiler region)- If you are looking for a Steakhouse serving high end cuts of meat, give the infamous Nusr-Et Steakhouse a try.
Virginia Angus (Eminono region) – This place serves high quality black Angus gourmet burgers and dry aged premium meats cooked on an oak wood charcoal fire. Although we found the food to be rather average, it is worth checking out as there are very few “truly” gourmet burger places in Istanbul centre.
Simit – freshly baked bread topped with sesame. You’ll find street carts dotted around Istanbul selling piles of these.
Menemen – No trip to Istanbul will be complete without a traditional Turkish breakfast. Menemen is scrambled eggs sautéed with onions and peppers and served with warm bread for dipping or spreading – you choose!
Durum – A staple street food dish of slow cooked meat served in a wrap.
Karakoy Harbour – Enjoy fresh, grilled fish from a make-shift BBQ. This turned out to be one of our favourite meals.
When to visit?
The best time to visit Istanbul to truly appreciate the cities beauty is during the summer months when the sun makes everything look that extra special. We visited in early September when the weather was a comfortable 27 degrees and queues to the main attractions were minimal at most, partly owing to the fact that we visited 2 months after the failed military coup and thus tourists numbers were at an all time low. Despite the political unrest, Istanbul is a very safe destination and the locals are extremely friendly, and even more so if you are travelling with young children.
Grand palaces that transport you to the time of the Sultans, towering Minarets after Minarets echoing the call to prayer, fascinating old district, incredible Iznik art, charming cobbled streets and a buzzing street life makes Istanbul a must visit destination that will take you on a journey through Istanbul’s rich history from its Byzantime era and Ottoman era.