Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer, producer, and photographer covering travel, lifestyle, arts, and all facets that make life a journey. She calls Los Angeles home when she's there, but prefers to leave the city for the mountains and open spaces as often as possible. If you can't find her, she's trekking through a jungle, seeking a seeker, admiring wildlife, or on a plane, quite possibly jumping out of it when the adrenaline junkie is at her best. She is the co-founder of Voyage Vixens. Follow her on Twitter @lindsaytaub58 and @VoyageVixens.
In the past year since adding additional routes on Turkish Airlines (like nonstop service between LAX and Istanbul), Turkey has become a hub for travelers as both a stopover locale to break up travel on long-haul flights to Africa and beyond, and as destination in and of itself. Many travelers spend a couple days in the city, then head south to the beach towns like Bodrum.
While there may be some apprehension to visit at the moment with US troops sent to Turkey recently, Istanbul remains a city known for its vibrant nightlife and rich history dating back to the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires.
Istanbul can be a bit challenging to navigate and communicate, as seen in the video below, but for a big city (13 million+ population) it's also completely manageable to see all the sights in just a couple of days.
If you go, the following tips and tricks will ensure you make the most of your time in Istanbul, see the most important and historic attractions, and get a real taste of Turkish life and culture.
1. Sign up for a mobile data plan before you arrive. With Wi-Fi being so accessible in most cities and hotels around the world, we often don't think it's necessary or economical to sign up for an international data plan. In Istanbul, I'd recommend it. It is possible to get a temporary phone or SIM card for a temporary cell number and data, but you may need service or access before you've purchased it!
In the video below, you'll see my travel companion and I learned the hard way. Our taxi dropped us off several blocks away from our hotel. Street signs were absent on many streets and despite a printed map of the area, the street names weren't matching up. We even had the hotel address written on a piece of paper and no one was able to give us directions that made sense or got us to where we needed to go. Without exaggeration, it took us 40 minutes to finally get to the hotel, luggage in hand, and sweating buckets.
The reason we finally found it? Google maps, I kid not. The walking directions didn't work either—our savior was following the little blue dot to see where we were in relation to the pin that marked our hotel. This was not the only time Google maps came in handy. We used it several times while in the city to find a restaurant, a bar, the nearest tram stop, or just our way back to the hotel when our sense of direction was mysteriously missing. Blame jet lag?
Remember that you can get the minimum plan (only use it when you need it) and cancel it upon your return home. If you do this, don't forget that when you're not using the phone to turn your cell service and data roaming OFF. Use Wi-Fi where it's available for checking email and Tweeting or Facebooking.
2. Hire a tour guide. Because of the language barrier (pronouncing Turkish words is an adventure) and the long lines to get into the main attractions, if you're tight on time do yourself a favor and hire a tour guide. You'll not only see more and do more with a limited amount of time to explore, but you'll save a lot of headaches.
Tour guides like Hakan Gurger, owner of Guides of Istanbul, has a team of trained professionals who carry special credentials that allow them to bypass the entrance lines and most fees. With a guide, you also won't have to deal with public transportation or getting lost as many times as we did the first day.
Instead, on the second day, we rode around Istanbul and explored the Bosphorus in style in Hakan's convertible BMW. The other benefits of course include an insider's knowledge of the city, insight about its culture, customs, and off-the-beaten-track gems, and a history lesson that puts it all into perspective.
3. Avoid the tourist traps. Even experienced travelers can make mistakes when in a time crunch and trying to squeeze as much in as possible, which is exactly what happened to us. We had been told by everyone we spoke to prior to visiting Istanbul that one must-do activity was taking a ferry cruise of the Bosphorus. We asked at the hotel where to go, misunderstood the directions, and ended up at the dock where we thought we were supposed to be.
One company offered a 90-minute tour (exactly what we were looking for) and we took a short van ride to another dock not far from the main drag at Eminonu. Not only was this boat chug-chugging along at a pace that we could have outswam, it left 40 minutes late, and stopped along the way at another dock to pick up additional passengers. Because we had other places to see and things to do, we jumped ship. Literally. And took a cab back into Istanbul and tried to demand a refund as the 90-minutes consisted of seeing absolutely nothing. (You'll see a clip of this in the video. Not our finest moment.)
As we assumed, we later learned that we had gotten on the wrong ship at the wrong dock. The only ferry to take in Istanbul for a short cruise of the Bosphorus is TurYol. Do not take any others no matter how they try to sell it to you—you will be disappointed and not get your money's worth. If you choose to go with another company, make sure it's with a trusted private guide, like Hakan, who has his own luxurious private boat tours of the Bosphorus.
4. Visit the Old City. The must-see attractions that should be on anyone's itinerary when in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, and the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market. The history is incredibly rich and impressive. All are within easy walking distance from one another and can easily be seen in half a day so long as you don't linger or have to wait in long lines. (Another reason to hire a guide so you can bypass the lines.)
Leave ample time for the spice market if you like to cook — the teas and fresh spices are not only colorful and fragrant, you'll find unique blends that you can't get anywhere else in the world. All can be vacuum packed and sealed for easy transport in your luggage.
5. Spend an afternoon or evening along the Bosphorus. While the historic sights are indeed impressive and not-to-be-missed, the gem of Istanbul for me was the Bosphorus. The cafe culture along the water is vibrant and joyous, with views of the water that encourage relaxation and celebration.
The House Hotel Bosphorus is a great option to enjoy outside dining or cocktails along the shores, and is located right next to a charming outdoor shopping area. The hotel itself is a great option for a boutique hotel, centrally located to the most lively sections of the high-end neighborhood that surrounds it, but keep in mind that the ride into the Old City will take about 30 minutes.
6. Sample Istanbul's nightlife. The city is a party that comes alive at night. And it happens from the ground floor up—listen and look up to the rooftops and you'll know where to go. If you want to experience it like a local, be prepared for a very late night (good to overcome jet lag—just stay up!). It starts around 9 pm with several rounds of shots at Tektekci. The shots are fruity and sweet, not strong at all, and taste more like sugary fruit punch than anything. You'll know you've arrived when you see an alley crowded by around 10 p.m. with Turks getting ready for their night out.
Next stop: meyhane and raki, which can take hours—you have your choice of several traditional dishes and small plates to share—Turkish tapas, if you will. The name comes from two words: mey (wine) and hane (house). Dishes will include Cacik (yogurt, cucumber, garlic) and patlican salatasi (an eggplant salad). Raki is not just a drink, as Erk Erkaka of tour company Locally Istanbul explained to me. It's about the company you're with, sipping the traditional Turkish aperitif (similar to Greek ouzo) among friends while you get even more "ready" for the night.
By midnight, it's time to go clubbing and dancing. Many choose to head to a hookah bar or lounge in between or after. By 3 or 4 a.m., the night is over. Istanbul nightlife is most certainly on par with the crazy shenanigans in places like Ibiza and Tel Aviv, so be prepared for a wild night if you venture out like a local.
If you want to get it all in one night, consider a private guide like Erkaya, who can show you the best of Istanbul nightlife as a local. For a more mellow evening, choose to have dinner (a late one) instead at one of Istanbul's best restaurants. My favorite two included Mikla on the rooftop at the Marmara Pera Hotel (which also has a terrific rooftop bar), or Munferit (just off the buzzing Istiklal pedestrian mall in the trendy, hipster neighborhood around Yeni Carsi). Around the corner from Munferit is Istanbul's own "French Street" (Fransiz Sokagi), a lively outside stair corridor filled with street musicians, cafes, bars and artists; worth a stroll through.
7. Visit a Turkish Bath. If you've ever experienced a Korean spa, then you have an idea of what the Hamam experience is like. Check your modesty at the door, and be prepared for a unique and relaxing treatment that will have you thinking the sultans were quite lucky that their wives and brides were treated to these so frequently. You'll leave with your skin as soft and silky as it's ever been.
The two best in the city are the Cagaloglu Hamami, a more traditional setting in an old historic building with incredible marble ceilings and facilities (and is on the list of 1000 Places You Should See Before You Die) and the Aya Sofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, which is a newer, more luxe facility that caters to the tourist crowd. Both are located in the Old City.
The above list may seem lengthy, but I assure you, I did all of the above in less than 72 hours. It is possible. See the video below for a visual recap of the experiences, good and bad! You'll be on the go from the moment you arrive, but you'll leave Istanbul with a great sense of the city, its culture, history, and people, and will know what you'd return for and what you wouldn't.
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