The Backpacker’s Guide to Istanbul

by | Oct 22, 2017

I really love living in a big city, but when I travel I’m generally much more interested in the outdoor adventures like hiking mountains and chasing waterfalls. Obviously, it’s generally convenient to stop via major cities, so generally speaking I give them a day or two. But with Istanbul, that somehow turned into four and a half days! A sign of a good city, if nothing else.

Istanbul is a city that has intrigued me for a long time. Everyone who has been has told me that they loved it. But somehow, I can never get much of a reason why…

“It’s just a really cool city!” or “There’s just so much going on there!”

And honestly, that’s just it! Istanbul is a huge city with so much going on. It’s lively and fun and diverse. The city is split by the Bosphorus, marking the divide between Europe and Asia. Each side of the river is worth exploring, but most of the touristy ‘hot spots’ are found on the European side.

The Museum Pass

I’d highly recommend that you buy yourself a museum pass to see the main sights. It costs 85TL and is valid for five days. Many of the key places you’ll want to go to are included, and even if you only go to two or three of them, you’re getting a good deal with the card.

Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque is free, so you won’t need the Museum Pass to get into this one. Built in the early 1600s, this place is an iconic spot in Istanbul. There’s heaps of information about the historical and religious significance just outside the mosque and you once inside, you can gawk at all the pretty, colourful tiles and patterns. As you go in, staff will provide you with the appropriate clothing to ensure you’re dressed respectfully. This means you don’t need to worry about carrying around extra layers all day.

Hagia Sophia

This stunning structure, just across from the Blue Mosque, was built as a catholic church in the 4th century. It was later made into a mosque, before eventually becoming a museum. Without the Museum Pass, it’ll cost 40TL and you’ll potentially face quite a long queue. We got a guide when we had a look around, which was a good way to get an insight into the history – as there aren’t many signs inside.

Topkapi Palace

Filled with history, culture and beauty, Topkapi Palace is a must-see. It was built from 1460-1478 and used as a palace for hundreds of years, but has since been made into a museum. You could spend all day exploring the massive 700,000 sqaure-meters of the palace grounds. While others enjoy looking at the ancient battle weapons and reading the tales of Ottoman Empire, I was mostly drawn in by the beautiful, colourful tiles that fill many of the rooms. Without the Museum Pass, it’ll cost 40TL, plus an extra 20TL to check out the Harem.

Archaeological museum

Showcasing an assortment of archaeological treasures from Turkey and other nearby countries, this one is a good spot for the history buffs (i.e. not me!) Despite my aversion to history, I enjoyed seeing the Egyptian mummies and tombs, and reading the crazy stories of some notable ones. And guess what? More pretty tiles! Winner.

Other spots included on the museum card include: Hagia Irene, Istanbul Mosaic Museum, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam, Chora Church, Mosaic Museum and many others. There is also a huge assortment of sights and shops where you can get a discount with this card.

Markets

I think it would be fair to say I’m a bit of a market junkie… And the markets in Istanbul certainly hit the spot! While you could find just about everything you need in the shops on the streets all over the city, I just love the atmosphere at a market. The colours, the smells, the huge variety of jewellery, homewares, antiques, clothes, shoes, bags and food all available at your fingertips! There’s two main markets to visit in Istanbul.

The Grand Bazaar is immense. There’s so much to explore in this market. While I didn’t actually buy anything there, I certainly spent plenty of time browsing! You’ll find lots of sparkly jewellery, colourful lamps, fake-designer labels and a bunch of odd, collectable, antique items. But the food was probably the highlight of this market for me! I can’t even begin to explain how many different kinds of Turkish delight there are – not to mention the chocolates and tea blends. Free samples, you say? I’m there. Yummy.

The Spice Bazaar, sometimes referred to as the Egyptian Bazaar, is the smaller and neater of the two. Much of the same products can be found here, but the building itself is slightly more impressive – with its patterned ceiling and floor.

On and around the Fishing Bridge

It’s absolutely worth going on a boat cruise. For only 12TL, the boat will take you cruising along the Bosphorus for an hour and a half, allowing you to take in views of both the European and Asian sides. Be sure to check out the many, many, many mosques that take over the skyline.

Boat tours start and end at the Fishing Bridge, another site in itself. All day and all night, you can find dozens of fishermen dotted along the bridge with their lines going out into the river. Underneath the bridge there are lots of restaurants, who of course specialise in fresh fish dishes! From the bridge you get great views of Istanbul.

Crossing the bridge, it’s a short walk to Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower that offers a panoramic view of the city. Just be aware that the queues are immense all day long! The view is great, but it’s only a very narrow platform to look out from, often crowded with people. Which brings me to my next point…

Drinks with a view

Instead of (or as well as) battling the crowds at Galata Tower, how about finding somewhere you can sit and relax with a glass of wine while you take in the view? There’s lots of places to get great views over Istanbul, but I’ve chosen three stand-outs:

Anemon Galata Rooftop

The day when I first attempted to go up Galata Tower, I was hot, exhausted and a little bit ill. I arrived at the tower with some friends, only to find a ridiculously long queue. Not impressed, we decided to make other plans. Right next to Galata Tower, we found this rather snazzy hotel. The rooftop terrace was an ideal spot to relax and take in the view. On one side, it looks over the main part of the city, and on the other it looks straight up to the tower.

Symbol Terrace

In the Taksim area (a spot known for its nightlife, not far from Galata Tower) this little restaurant is tucked away in a side street. I sat at Symbol’s rooftop terrace for more than an hour, having lunch and enjoying the view, and I had the place to myself most of the time.

Seven Hills Hotel

This super central hotel has an impressive rooftop bar with undoubtedly the best view in Istanbul. It looks over both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and is an ideal spot for sunset. The picture speak for itself, really!

The Asian Side

The Asian side is the more modern, trendy, hipster side of town. Walking along the Moda Park waterfront, you’ll get a feel for how the locals live, while also glimpsing views of the European side. As you walk down the main streets, you’ll find endless quirky little coffee shops and cafes, as well as boutique shops offering gorgeous handmade crafts.

Where to next?

Istanbul is a great starting point for a trip around Turkey. From here, you could fly or get an overnight bus to Cappadocia – my favourite spot in this amazing country! Other places worth a visit include PamukkaleFethiye, and Antalya. Have a look at my full itinerary here.