Istanbul has a sort of mysticism and old world charm throughout its streets. We had been in Asia for the past 5 months, and we could remember a sort of feeling as we drove through the city to our Airbnb of, “This is it. This is Europe.” Centuries-old minarets towered above buildings as the Bosphorus churned beneath old bridges.
There were no towering skyscrapers to block and detract from the view of the ancient city. Buildings and homes from another time climbed the hills that overlooked the sea.
Popular western European countries such as France and the UK may have a lot to offer, but there are things they are definitely lacking in. Things such as a slower pace of life, a warmth lost in most cities, a stronger connection to the past, and a lifestyle that comes with a lower price tag.
And I’m being serious when I talk about the warmth! There were so many times when we were offered thing for free. I remember one very rainy night, we were stuck in a coffee house waiting for our Uber. Because of traffic issues, our driver took a while to get to us (I think around 20 minutes). So while waiting, the kind owner of the cafe came up to us and gave us hot comforting pomegranate tea. This is something I will never forget.
So when you visit Istanbul, be prepared to be surprised by the hospitality shown by the locals.
I may be a bit partial towards this one since our Airbnb was literally half a block from it, but.. you need to see the Galata Tower.
The tower, ranging back to 1348, is massive and offers amazing views of the city. Surrounded by cute shops and sidewalk cafes, you can treat yourself to gelato served (literally) underneath the shadow of the tower.
You can eat tasty food from Guney or relax with a Turkish coffee with the locals (Turkish coffee is amazing by the way). It’s definitely something you can’t miss, so find a slow time of the day to head on over and explore the neighbourhood.
Para Palace Hotel Jumeirah
Walking into this old hotel is like stepping into a different era. With turn of the century architecture and furnishings, its where old-world grandeur and Ottoman opulence meet.
Even if you’re not staying there, you need to stop there for tea or a Turkish coffee. As you relax with your drink, you can listen to 1940’s music play softly in the background and imagine that you’ve stepped into a different decade.
Fun Fact! Agatha Christie wrote the book, “Murder on the Orient Express” while staying at the Para Palace! Istanbul is where her story first starts out so it only seems fitting.
The Blue Mosque
If you’re going to see mosques, make sure this one is first on your list. The courtyard of the Blue Mosque is massive with minarets towering above you and the domes of the mosque making you feel like you’re on a movie set.
Inside you will hear prayers being chanted and see beautifully painted ceilings and large pillars. Find a place to sit for awhile and take in the ancient atmosphere of the mosque.
Try a Traditional Hammam
Hammams are Turkish baths and have been around for centuries. In our visit to Istanbul, we went to the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami, and it was definitely an experience. You will be soaked and massaged under a white marble dome, treated to Turkish Delight and tea, and taken into another room where you will be massaged again. And to end it all, you will be served with a large plate of delicious fruits.
Quick Note: There are a couple of things to keep in mind before booking an appointment at a hammam. First, read reviews online. There are a lot of great Turkish baths, but there are also some that won’t give you the best of experiences. Second, hammams are separated by male and female. So if you go with your significant other (or friends), just know that you will be split up in order of your gender.
Federal Coffee Company
If you’re a coffee drinker and/or a serious foodie, then you need to come here. We lived just a house over from Federal so it kind of became a morning (and sometimes afternoon) ritual for us.
With a very relaxed vibe and great interior, it offers a wide variety of amazing drinks and foods.
For drinks, our favorites are the Mocha Chai Latte and the Dulce Mocha. Both are instant happiness in a mug.
As for food.. well we loved their breakfasts a little too much, but we either got their Aussie Breakfast or their pancakes.
The Aussie Breakfast contains bacon, sautéed and seasoned mushrooms (don’t know how they did it but they tasted like magic), two eggs, hallumi cheese (Hallumi is a mixture of goat and cow milk cheese, and it’s pan fried. It’s like nothing we’d ever had before and tastes so good.), and freshly baked bread. Top all of those things onto a slice of hot bread and you have an explosion of flavours.
The pancake had a few blueberries cooked inside, lemon juice drizzles over them, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, and topped with more fresh blueberries. Can’t recommend Federal more highly enough.
While exploring some of the old streets and shops of Istanbul, we both came upon an old castle gate which led into a huge park. With shading trees, bright flower gardens, green grass, and beautiful fountains, we were immediately drawn in.
It was one of those accidents that happen, and you’re glad they happen. It turns out that Gülhane Park used to be a closed in space for the royals (as it is on the Topkapi Palace grounds), but was opened up to the public.
And whether you grab some food and have a picnic under the cool shade of the trees, or just walk the paths and people watch, you’ll definitely enjoy it.
If you’re looking for a Mediterranean experience, then definitely try the Greek restaurant, Eleos. Although it is a bit more expensive than most restaurants in the area, it’s a great place to eat.
Overlooking the Bosphorus, you’ll be able to watch the ships sail over the bright blue waters as you listen to Greek music.
We recommend the grilled bass and goat cheese stuffed red bell peppers.
The Hagia Sophia is interesting in that it was a Greek Orthodox church at one point, then turned into a mosque, and then turned into a museum.
When you step inside, you will see paintings of Mary and Jesus alongside many Islamic structures. It is a mix of religions and extremely fascinating to study.
In fact, just the large amount of space above us as the ceilings climb high with tall pillars, was just enough for us to remain in awe as we explored
With the Basilica Cistern being very close to Hagia Sophia, we decided to make the short few minute walk over.
Being a hot summer day, we instantly felt relieved as we descended underground into the ancient Byzantine cistern. As we walked through the dark large room, dim lights lit up the pillars. You could almost feel how old it was.
It turned from, “Yeah sure, we can check that out,” to, “Kinda glad we made that apart of our outing.” We had been around tourists all day, so going into the cool cistern was very relaxing.
If you’re looking for an afternoon or evening of exploring and shopping, then definitely head on over to Istiklal Street. Being a major tourist destination, you’ll find all sorts of clothing stores, local and international.
However, there are also live performances, small alleyways with coffee shops (We recommend Mandabatmaz; great Turkish coffee!), carts with grilled corn on the cob, chestnuts, and pretzels, and plenty of shops with gelato and Turkish Delight.
Along the way, you will also find old cathedrals and museums dedicated to certain parts of their culture.
You can definitely make a day of it on Istiklal Street.
Quick Note: If you’re looking for budget-friendly places to shop, there are multiple streets (connected to Istiklal) where you can get a whole outfit for under $20. There will be a mix of small vendors and actual shops. We recommend Terkoz Street (or Terkoz Ck.)
If you’re looking for a place to get goods that you couldn’t get in your own country, then definitely check out the Grand Bazaar.
There you can find rugs, lamps, scarves, perfumes, sweets, spices, and so much more. We were able to find some great fabrics for a low cost, but just make sure to barter! It’s expected from the shopkeepers.
Dubb Indian Restaurant
With a terrace view overlooking the Hagia Sophia, you can relax after a few hours of seeing the sights to some tasty Indian food. However, we feel that their ice cream is definitely the highlight. Mixing delicious flavours and fruits and nuts, it’s seriously refreshing after a hot afternoon.
We had made some amazing memories when visiting Istanbul and met some amazingly kind people. After staying there for around a month and a half, we were so glad to have gotten to know the city.
If you’re planning on making a trip to eastern Europe, then I hope you can find time to visit this beautiful city and get to know its locals.
Now if you have any questions on these locations or on Istanbul, feel free to let me know in the comments down below! I’d love to help you out!