Travel Guide to Istanbul, Turkey

Having visited Turkey almost 11 years ago, I instantly fell in love with it! So much so, that I was itching to return back this time with Anush since it was his first time around. From its incredible history, rich culture, delicious food, friendly locals and diverse landscapes Turkey has so much to offer. This time we only split our time in Istanbul and Cappadocia so I will be sharing two separate travel guides to these two destinations. Other destinations that you can consider adding to your itinerary – Izmir & Ephesus ( I did this last time around), Pammukale (salt pools), Mediterranean beach towns such as Kas, Bodrum and Fethiye (great during summer months). Since this was the start of their winter and the off season we only split our time in our top 2 places in Turkey.

 

Travel requirements to Turkey :

Turkey has been open to international tourism since this summer. Travelers are not required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 test. If a traveler is showing symptoms of COVID-19, a PCR swab test may be performed. If the test comes back positive, the traveler will be quarantined at a state medical facility at their own cost.

Even though there is no test required to enter, but all passengers are subject to temperature and health checks at airlines, airports, hotels, restaurants, etc. However to be safe we tested a few days before departure as well as tested and quarantined after coming back to the US. We also made sure to have travel health insurance for our trip that covered all pandemic related costs.

Aside from temperature checks, masks and social distancing are required at all public places. While we were there, there was a partial shutdown too ( was announced the day we were leaving!) but it didn’t affect us much. The only thing that changed was all restaurants were only takeout and delivery; and guests could eat at the restaurants of their own hotels. We had no trouble getting any food we wanted as we could try all the delicious street food and take food to go from literally anywhere. So make sure to check these updates before you travel.

You would also need an evisa to travel to Turkey. Its super easy to apply online and only takes a couple of minutes. You can do so a few days before departure.

 

How to get to Istanbul ?

Turkish Airlines have direct flights to Istanbul from several cities in the world, including 7 US cities.

 

 

Why Istanbul ?

Istanbul is a destination that embodies the phrase “East meets West” spanning across both Europe and Asia making it the only transcontinental city! To be really honest I’m not much of a city person at all and nature is always my true love, but I do love a city that has so much character, history and culture like Istanbul. Its truly such a unique city and is a melting pot of mixed cultures. This mixed eclectic vibe is seen across all aspects such as its religion, food, cultures and so much more. Whether you are a history buff, food fanatic, arts and crafts connoisseur, nature lover you are guaranteed an incredible experience in this beautiful city.

Best time to go ?

Because Turkey experiences hot summers and cold winters, the spring and fall seasons (April, May, and mid-September through mid-November) are usually the best time to visit. However if you want to make sure you want to visit the beach towns of Turkey mid November might be a little late as many places close for the season. We went at the end of November which is the very beginning of the off season. It was comfortable fall temperatures in Istanbul and a little mild winter weather in Cappadocia. But off season also means – better prices and lesser crowds which is what we loved about going this time around.

 

How to get around Istanbul?

Loved walking around in the Sultanahmet area

We used taxis everywhere, as we wanted to avoid public transport during the pandemic. Most taxis also had physical barriers like plexiglass or a plastic sheet between the driver and passengers which was great! You can also use the app BiTaksi there (its the Turkish version of Uber) or you can simply hail a cab from anywhere. We also walked a ton, the main parts of the city are very easy to navigate and very walkable from one attraction to another.

 

Where to stay in Istanbul ?

We stayed 4 nights in Istanbul and 4 nights in Cappadocia for our trip. My two favorite neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul are along the Bosphorus and in the Sultanahmet which is what we did.

1 ) Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus (luxury)

We stayed at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus for 3 nights and absolutely loved it. Timeless and iconic, the Four Seasons Bosphorus is a beautiful palace hotel between the continents as it sits on the shores of the Bosphorus that links Europe and Asia. The main building here is a beautifully restored 19th Century Ottoman palace and had the perfect mix of ancient Turkish architecture and modern contemporary design. Staying here truly felt like we had a taste of royalty, which was an incredible experience in itself. It felt pretty cool to be on one continent (Europe) and to be able to see the other one (Asia) right across the Bosphorus! Read more in my blog post here.

 

2 ) Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Sultanahmet (luxury)

Four Seasons has 2 stunning properties in Istanbul. The second one is the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Sultanahmet which is a beautiful historic hotel located right in the heart of the old city/Sultanahmet ( this is closed till Spring 2021 for renovations). It has the best views of the old city from its famed terrace!

 

3 ) Hotel Amira Istanbul (small boutique)

If you are looking for a small boutique hotel at a great price and in the heart of the old city – Hotel Amira is fantastic! Loved our stay at Hotel Amira. The room was clean, comfortable and very well adapted to new COVID protocols. Especially loved how conveniently located this hotel was in the heart of the Sultanahmet close to all popular attractions. Also really liked the terrace cafe – Amiralto! Great food and views of the old city from here.

 

Things to do in Istanbul :

1 ) Mosques 

Did you know that Istanbul has over 3000 mosques?! While visiting mosques always have a headscarf in handy, as some require you to cover your head upon entrance. Also make note of their prayer times as these are the only times you can’t visit the mosques. (you can simply google the prayer times – it changes through seasons). These are the 4 mosques that we visited:

Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is an Ottoman-era mosque which is one of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks. The interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles and it is truly stunning! Unfortunately the work on the ceiling isn’t visible when you visit now, due to renovations for 2 years! I remember seeing it last time around in 2009 and it was absolutely beautiful. Its still a must visit on your trip to Istanbul.

 

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia – outside (top) and inside (bottom)

Hagia Sophia is a great architectural marvel having being built in the 6th century! It was initially built as a church in the Byzantine empire and then was then converted to a mosque in the Ottoman empire (15th century). In 1935 it was converted to a museum up until recently in 2020 when it was made a mosque again. Regardless of its tumultuous history, it is truly spectacular on the inside and outside and leaves you awestruck with its incredible detail and architecture.

 

Suleymaniye Mosque

My first time visiting this mosque and it was quite honestly my favorite! It is the largest mosque in all of Istanbul and was built in the 16th century in the Ottoman era. When Anush and I visited here we were literally the only ones there – loved spending sometime in its beautiful courtyard soaking in all the peaceful vibes.

 

Ortaköy mosque

Ortaköy is a lively area centered on the city’s waterfront square, where crowds gather to listen to impromptu concerts or sip on some Turkish tea. In this pic you can see the ornate Ortaköy mosque that sits at the water’s edge in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge that connects Europe and Asia. We didn’t visit inside the mosque.

 

 

2 ) Bazaars 

These are 2 of my favorite markets/bazaars in Istanbul :

Grand Bazaar

 

Inside the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with 61 covered streets and 4000 shops ! Whether you are window shopping, trying your skills at bargaining or shopping for beautiful Turkish handicrafts like lamps, rugs, etc you are guaranteed a sensory experience like none other.

Handicraft Lights at the Grand Bazaar

We got to visit a traditional lantern shop – Handicraft Lights. I was pretty convinced that there is a magic lantern somewhere in this beautiful store! Also got to see how these gorgeous lamps were handmade in store. Really makes you appreciate the deft craftsmanship that goes behind making each piece.

 

Egyptian Spice Bazaar

I visited this last time in Istanbul and loved all the colors, aromas and sights of spices and other treats such as nuts, honeycomb, Turkish delights, dried figs, Turkish cheese, etc. A must visit for a first timer in Istanbul.

 

3 ) Palaces

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th-19th century and is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. It officially became a museum in 1924, shortly after the end of the Ottoman era, and features brilliant architecture, manicured courtyards and extensive weaponry, porcelain, cutlery, art and fabric collections.

Dolmabache Palace

Dolmabahce Palace is an ornate 19th century Ottoman palace and is one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. It is located right on the shores of the Bosphorus (close to FS Bosphorus!) and is opulent and stunning on both the inside and outside.

 

4 ) View of Istanbul from a terrace

Taht Istanbul

The picturesque city of Istanbul is best viewed from any rooftop especially in the Sultanahmet like this one at Taht ( another popular one is Kubbe Istanbul ). In this pic I’m on the European side and in the far distance you can see Asia! And while the views were epic let me tell you – all I was worried about was getting pooped on by all these birds. Full disclaimer this is a “photoshoot” setup where people can go to the terrace to take photos at the pictursque setup for s small price. Its usually something we avoid however the view was too good to pass on for this one!

 

Seven hills restaurant

Best restaurant with a view of the old city located in the heart of the Sultanahmet – you can see both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the terrace here!

 

5 ) Other attractions 

Balat Neighbourhood

Colorful bohemian neighborhood with charming colored house, cute cafes, cobbled stone streets and the like. Check out Kiremet street for the row of instafamous colored houses of Balat.

Galata tower

The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower in the hip neighbourhood of Galata/Karaköy in Istanbul. This place has tons of cute cafes, hip boutiques and more. While in Karakoy, also check out the famous Umbrella Street or Şemsiyeli Sokak for an instagrammable photo opp here.

Basilica Cistern

This is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. A must visit in Istanbul!

 

Where to eat in Istanbul?

As for restaurant recommendations I only try and recommend ones that we personally ate at. As I mentioned earlier while we were there, there was a partial shutdown in Turkey and the only thing that affected us that all restaurants were only takeout and delivery; and guests could eat at the restaurants of their own hotels. For this reason the only few recommendations I have are these :

1 ) Four Seasons Bosphorus 

Aqua (above) and Igloo dining (below) at FS Bosphorus

Looking for a beautiful date night along the Bosphorus? Try Aqua (seafood) or Ocakbasi (Turkish) at FS Bosphorus.

 

2 ) Amiralto

Views and delicious food at Amiralto

We absolutely loved the food at the terrace restaurant of hotel Amira called Amiralto. You have to try the “Katmer” dessert here, it was to die for!

 

3 ) Seven Hills Restaurant 

Since this restaurant was part of a hotel (and not a stand alone restaurant , it was open to outside guests luckily! Some restaurants in hotels were exclusively open to their guests only while others also accepted other guests. Seven Hills has some delicious Turkish treats and the most incredible views from its terrace of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

 

 

Other things to know  :

1 ) Is it safe ?

I got this question a bunch so I wanted to answer it here. From our experience on Turkey we felt 100% safe in Istanbul and Cappadocia. The media definitely tends to hype things so please do your research properly before jumping to any conclusions. Yes there are parts in Turkey to avoid (close to Syrian borders), but the main tourist cities and towns like Istanbul, Cappadocia, etc are absolutely okay for tourists. In Cappadocia especially we felt so safe everywhere! Istanbul is a big city and like any other city there are neighborhoods you would want to avoid. But the main attractions are all located in great neighborhoods and it felt safe to walk around here everywhere. That being said like any place in the world, its always best to be cautious, aware and street smart about your surroundings.

Like I mentioned before Turkish people are in general so kind, generous and friendly. We are always cautious when we go to any foreign place and so this generosity initially seemed so out of the box for us!  But after much interaction, we learnt that being helpful and welcoming is a big part of their culture. For instance many shopkeepers offered us tea and chatted with us about our travels with no hidden agenda of trying to be overly pushy salesmen to us.

2 ) What to wear / pack :

Most parts of Turkey are super cosmopolitan and you can wear whatever you want for the most part. Only when you enter religious buildings such as mosques it is preferred to be modestly dressed. I always wore full sleeved maxi dresses and carried a scarf with me in my handbag so that I could use it as a headcover whenever need be.

Turkey has extreme seasons and such a diverse landscape so definitely check the weather forecasts before you go. You will need a total differnt packing list if you go in the summer v/s the winter. When we went it was mild fall weather in Istanbul and early winter weather in Cappadocia. Some things I packed for fall/winter in Turkey :

  • maxi dresses, blouses and maxi skirts
  • sweaters and warm pants/trousers
  • a warm jacket or two
  • layers to wear underneath. Long Johns were a savior under maxi dresses on freezing early morning days in Cappadocia.
  • boots, sneakers, etc – comfy shoes to walk in.
  • warm accessories like hats, beanies, gloves, scarves

All that I packed :

 

 

Hope this guide helps you. You can also check out my travel guide to Cappadocia. Thanks for stopping by. xo

Jyo

 

 

 

 

 

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