I had no idea what to expect when planning my trip to Istanbul except that I would be staying with one of my good friends and her family. It was my first time visiting Istanbul, but I had high hopes for this famous city, known for its beautiful architecture and proud history.
I can honestly say that I had the most amazing experience in the beautiful city of Istanbul. The capital of Turkey, on the edge of the Sea of Marmara, is rich in history and culture, delicious food and a kind and welcoming people.
A Beginner’s Guide to Istanbul – Top things to do in Istanbul
- Peruse the Grand Bazaar
- Take a stroll around Ortaköy
- Have coffee at a renovated palace at The Kempinski
- Eat stuffed potatoes in Taksim
- Walk around Galata
- Experience Turkish Ice Cream
- Take a cruise on the Bosphorus
- Sample some Simit
- Marvel at the Hagia Sophia
- Watch the devout at the Blue Mosque
- Enjoy breakfast on the waterfront
- Feel like a royal at the Topkapi Palace
- Bargain at local markets
- Vegan in Istanbul
Peruse the Grand Bazaar
The largest and oldest covered bazaar in the world, the Grand Bazaar is a little over 500 years old, with 61 covered streets and over 4000 shops. You can buy everything from intricately hand-woven carpets and delicate mosaic lamps to spices, inviting dried fruit and glistening Turkish delight.
As we browsed the many little streets, vendors would call us out, inviting us into their stalls. This one vendor called me Shakira to try and get me to buy a pair of jeans!
You do notice that they’re not aggressive though, they’re very respectful and they’re not too ‘in your face’. And they’re very welcoming.
We were invited into one carpet shop by a gentleman and even though he knew we weren’t going to buy anything, he offered us some sweet Turkish apple tea and gave us a demonstration of how they roll out the carpets, along with a history of the meanings of the different symbols on the colourful handmade patterns.
One thing I noticed and loved about the Grand Bazaar was the variety of scents. I made sure to take everything in as I walked around, from the various piles of delicious spices to the flowery soaps, the bread fresh out of the oven and even the leather jackets that everyone is trying to get you to buy.
I would recommend visiting the Grand Bazaar fairly early in the morning to avoid the flow of people that come around at midday and in the afternoons.
Take a stroll around Ortaköy
This little seafront area, filled with little restaurants and shops, is home to the beautiful Ortaköy Mosque. You can browse souvenirs and sample some local street food, or just sit in a cafe and watch the boats go past.
Have coffee at a renovated Palace a The Kempinsky
If you’re interested in walking in the footsteps of royalty and seeing an old palace which has been renovated and its exquisite architecture restored, I’d recommend going for tea, coffee or maybe lunch at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski.
The architecture which dates back to the prestigious Ottoman Empire is truly stunning! If you then take a walk on the main road as you leave the hotel, you’ll walk along a boulevard with old walls on either side, beautiful arches crossing the roads, and on one side of the wall, framed photographs of the much-beloved founder of the Republic of Turkey: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Eat Stuffed Potatoes in Taksim
We made our way to Taksim which is a popular dining and shopping area rich in history and culture. You can either walk down the long high street towards Taksim Square or take the little tram.
All you’ll see are ice cream shops selling the famous Maras ice cream (I’ll get to that in a minute), towers of Baklava and Turkish delight and piles of yummy food including the stuffed potatoes known as Kumpir.
In the middle of Taksim Square is the Republic monument which was inaugurated to commemorate the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Walk around Galata
The neighbourhood of Galata is one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Istanbul located at the north of the Golden Horn. It was established as a western, Latin and Catholic colony right next to ancient Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Orthodox Byzantine Empire.
Today, tourists can visit the Galata Tower which was the northernmost observation tower, from which there is a beautiful view of the Bosphorus and city below. I actually didn’t go up because the queue to wait to get inside was way too long.
There are also several cafes in the area and some beautiful churches belonging to the Catholics that took residence here during the wars.
Little side streets lead off to cafes where young men sit outside smoking shishas, playing games and sipping Turkish tea. It’s a very unique experience.
Experience Turkish Ice Cream
Now let me explain something to you, Ice cream in Istanbul is an art. And it’s not regular ice cream, oh no no! It’s got a bit of a bite to it, a stringy consistency, and oh, it looks like that (below). So at the stalls where you’ll find this particular Marash ice cream, you’ll see the men, dressed in their uniform, banging the ice cream to make sure it doesn’t harden and stays soft. So you basically go up to them, ask them for a mix and they put on quite a show!
Take a cruise on the Bosphorus
You get to sit down in comfort, have some tea and sandwiches on a boat, and enjoy the view from on the Bosphorus, for A POUND! So if there’s one thing you absolutely need to do when in Istanbul, it’s take a tour on the Bosphorus.
There are more expensive charters that you can rent out for events, weddings or just a cruise. It’s so worth the ride and the view.
Sample some Simit
Sprinkled around the city are little stalls selling the popular ‘simit’ bagels, which are so tasty that they can easily be eaten plain and on the go.
You’ll also see vendors selling grilled corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts which I can imagine are a hit in winter. Trust me when I say you won’t go hungry in this city!
Marvel at the Hagia Sophia
Right after having done a cruise on the Bosphorus, we made our way to the Sultanahmet area and to the iconic Hagia Sophia. There’s something almost mystical about walking around in the stunning nearly 1000-year-old compound, under 300-year-old chandeliers, knowing that all those years ago, distinguished members of the Ottoman Empire, people from a completely different era, walked these very floors, and gazed at these very walls.
The museum is decorated with mosaics which have worn away with time but there is still much being excavated and renovated. The walls of the museum are adorned with deities from Catholic times, and when the Sultan took over from the Byzantine empire, giant Arabic symbols were then placed on the walls.
Watch the devout at the Blue Mosque
The famous Blue Mosque, located right on the opposite side of Hagia Sophia, has been under renovation for some time but we did get to have a wander and go inside. Similarly to Hagia Sophia, the Mosque has stood proudly for hundreds of years and is highly important to the Muslim population of not just Istanbul, but the whole of Turkey.
Enjoy breakfast on the waterfront
Super important to the Turks, no breakfast is complete without traditional bagels known as ‘simit’, boiled eggs, cheese and olives, and a little side of chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.
One morning we went for breakfast by the Bosphorus at this cute little cafe called Hayrola Cafe and it was so cute to eat right by the sea. There’s something about gazing out into the Bosphorus strait where only 100 years ago, the Ottoman Empire ships sailed to protect Turkey in the wars.
Feel like royalty at The Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace, where the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire once ruled, is now open to visitors to walk through. It does get very busy here and it is a bit of a walk to visit the grounds, especially in the summer heat, so do make sure you have your water.
It’s definitely worth it to see where the Sultan once welcomed ambassadors, and to learn little tidbits about the customs and art in the palace, like for example the fact that each room in which the Sultan would see commoners, there would be a little water fountain with running water so that people outside wouldn’t hear what was being discussed.
You can either hire a tour guide to take you around or you can buy little audio guides outside and listen to the history as you go around.
And if you do get too hot, a few places do sell ice creams to cool you down and there is a cute little cafe inside the compound with the most stunning view.
In the museum shop, they’ve got a little section where you can dress up in traditional garments and take pictures of a lavish throne.
Bargain at local markets
In one market we visited, these two vendors were more than happy to smile for the camera as these lovely old ladies rolled the dough to make the famously thin pancakes that can be filled with literally anything.
Vegan in Istanbul
The Turks love their meat I’ll tell you that, but the vegetarians and vegans can have quite a blast too.
Staying with my friend’s grandparents, you can bet that her sweet grandmother made some amazing traditional Turkish food. You can get these delicious foods at many of the Turkish restaurants in Istanbul as well.
You absolutely must try the Fava (a paste made with broad beans), Mucver (aubergine pancakes), azeytinyagli biber dolmasi (rice stuffed bell peppers with olive oil) and let’s not forget the ispanakli borek (spinach and pastry).
I also had dolma (rice wrapped in spinach leaves) and this delicious rice made with cinnamon, almonds and raisins. I don’t think my tastebuds have ever had a more ranging selection of tastes.
Oh and let’s not forget the abundance of cherries, of which I ate my body weight in.
If you follow me on Instagram you would have seen the giant boxes of Turkish delight and baklava that I bought because I could not resist! But that’s not all they had to offer if you have a sweet tooth.
They’ve got different types of sweet treats including semolina with ice cream, but the most interesting one was one made with chicken breast.
Yup, a dessert made with mashed up chicken breast and milk and apparently its a big hit with the locals! Would you be adventurous enough to try that?
If you’re interested in trying your hand at some Turkish cuisine, head on over to the Turkish Yummies blog where my friend’s amazing mum is sharing her culinary tips and tricks!
My Istanbul playlist:
I don’t know about you but every trip that I go on, there’s always a song, or at least a few songs, that come out while you’re travelling or that won’t stop playing on the radio and I thought I’d share mine with you for this trip. I also put a few turkish bangers in there if you want to check them out!
Songs I listened to on my trip:
- Istanbul by Constantinople
- Magenta Riddim by DJ Snake
- Euphoria by Loreen
- Dum Tek Tek by Hadise
- Cevapsız Cınlama by Emrah Karaduman (ft Aleyna Tilki)
- Lost in Istanbul by Brianna
Being in Turkey, it was hard not to think of events going on in the neighbouring lands
As I was driving from one place to another with the family, alongside the coast or in the mountains, I would notice a few roads and houses and neighbourhoods that if I closed my eyes, could have been a road or a neighbourhood back home or in the beautiful islands of Samoa.
We are all so different in our traditions and cultures, but the earth we live on is, for the most part, the same, because it forms part of the same planet, warmed by the same sun, and ultimately plagued by the same existential problems, such as global warming, diseases and whatever else goes on up in this big wide universe that could potentially end us, like meteorites and aliens (humour me).
Travelling and seeing different places allows us to realise that maybe we aren’t so different after all and it allows us to wonder, or at least I did, why on earth we fight with each other.
Why do we declare wars over land and religion when we have the potential to live so peacefully on our different yet similar parts of the world?
While I do think we should all make the most of our lives and live them to the fullest, we must never forget how fortunate we are and always remember to be grateful and humble. Travel and make beautiful memories, but pay attention to the world and seek to understand more about this beautiful race of ours.
On that note, sit back, grab some Oreos (or in my case the rest of the baklava I brought home with me) and let’s see what life has to offer us next