Istanbul: The Essentials (Through My Friends’ Eyes)

Hello lovely readers! As I continue backpacking the Middle East, I’ll keep sharing my top tips for everyone. This week, I thought we’d mix it up a bit, and I’d bring you the perspectives of my friends!

I was in Istanbul, Turkey last week with three friends I met while teaching abroad in Delhi, India in August 2017. Taylor is from Austin, Texas; Rashed is from Beirut, Lebanon; and Caroline is from Montreal, Canada. We were there for five days, and we rented a two-bedroom AirBnB near Istiklal Street, the main tourist shopping street downtown.

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The four of us inside the Hagia Sophia! From left to right: Taylor, Caroline, me, and Rashed!

Some quick facts about Istanbul:

  1. The city is split between Europe and Asia–and you can drive under the Bosphorus River to get between the sides!
  2. It’s actually not the capital–Ankara is! It was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires, however. Under the Roman Empire, it was called Constantinople.
  3. Between 96-99% of the population is Muslim. There are 3113 mosques in the city!
  4. 14 MILLION people live in Istanbul.

Known for the historic Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and more beautiful attractions, Istanbul has long drawn travelers from near and far. I asked my friends to answer some questions about the city, so you can get a holistic view of what to do, how to get around, and everything in between! Their answers are often opposing, but that’s travel in a nutshell. Find what works for you, and go from there.

istanbul_ the essentials

  • If you had to pick one thing to absolutely not miss, what would it be?

Caroline: Balat! It’s far away from the city centre, so it’s looked over a lot, but it’s definitely worth the trip! There are funky cafes, vintage stores and cafes, colorful buildings, random auctions, cats roaming around… It’s just a less-gentrified, but still hipster area.

Taylor: The Blue Mosque. Unfortunately, it was under construction when we were there, but I imagine it would be so amazing if it wasn’t.

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Roasted chestnut stands are plentiful in the city.

Rashed: Everything was under renovation when we were in Istanbul, so I would have to say the rooftop view of the city.

I’d say, like Rashed, getting a view of the city from above is essential. I absolutely love seeing the city I’m exploring from a new vantage point, and it makes me feel so small. Our AirBnB had a rooftop, where we were able to see much of the city. It was magic.

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The view from our AirBnB.
  • Do you feel like you could’ve passed on one of the tourist things we did? Why?

Rashed: The Blue Mosque was entirely under renovation, so I could have gone without that, to be honest.

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The famous Hagia Sophia–which used to be a Greek Orthodox church!
  • What do you wish you had known before going, if anything?

Caroline: I guess this is for every place I’ve gone, but I wish I hadn’t listened to people’s warnings about how “dangerous” it is. I felt safe the entire time. Also, how little English was spoken there.

Taylor: Yeah, I agree–don’t listen to what others say about a country before you go. It’s not dangerous! Also, yeah, learning a bit of the language would’ve been helpful.

  • What food was your favorite?

Caroline: Honestly, for me, dried fruit at the bazaars!

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Fruit markets line the streets of Istanbul.

TaylorWe had a lot of falafel, and that was really good.

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Falafel is very inexpensive in Istanbul.

Rashed: I loved the kebabs!

We had so much good food–I couldn’t possibly pick one thing. I did love the roasted corn we got outside the Blue Mosque, however!

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  • What’s the best way to get around?

Caroline: Walking!

TaylorWe didn’t take the metro, so I’m not sure about that. The taxis were still pretty cheap for the most part, especially when going to Asia.

Rashed: Definitely NOT by foot, because it’s literally *all* slopes. I would absolutely take taxis. The app we used was BiTaksi, which is an Uber-like app.

  • What are some general tips you have for tourists traveling to Istanbul?

Caroline: Get the Google Translate app! It’s nice because you can speak into the app and it’ll read it aloud in another language, and they have an opportunity to speak back. Also, don’t be afraid to venture off from the typical “tourist” attractions.

TaylorBring a scarf for modesty, especially in the mosques. Also pack lightweight pants because it’s so hot! Finally, like we mentioned before: don’t be scared.

Scarves are also so helpful to keep the wind from your hair.

Rashed: Our AirBnb was pretty good! Definitely a place to stay with a view, if you can.

Istanbul was a dream. The spice bazaars, the falafel, the beautiful views… I wouldn’t miss this city for anything! It’s the perfect mix of everything people travel for: religion, food, shopping, underground cafes (we went to both a gay bar and an anarchist cafe!), and more.

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Spices at the Grand Bazaar. I may have snagged a few!

As usual, I’ll keep you all updated as I continue to travel down through the Middle East. Thank you for coming back, each and every time!

Istanbul, a universal beauty where poet and archeologist, diplomat and merchant, princess and sailor, northerner and westerner screams with same admiration. The whole world thinks that this city is the most beautiful place on earth. -Edmondo De Amicis

until next time. xoxo

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