What to see in Istanbul? When is the best time to visit and how many days to plan for a trip? Is it safe to visit Turkey? This was my fifth time in Istanbul and a special journey – me, my husband and my mom took my grandmother to finally see tulips of Istanbul, a long time dream of hers! Tulips are the symbol of the Ottoman empire golden years, and those same golden years are now the subject of the popular tv-series “The Magnificent Century”, so quite a few people told us not only to enjoy the spring in Turkey but also visit the filming locations! Actually, I would even say that Turkish tulips are not by any means worse, probably even more beautiful than the Dutch tulip gardens in Netherlands!
Before visiting I got in touch with some of my Turkish acquaintances and all confirmed that currently it is safe for tourists to visit (it was not the case about a year ago), so on a cold April morning we departed to Istanbul!
Getting there: many airlines serve the enormous Istanbul Ataturk airport, but probably it is the easiest to use Turkish Airlines, as they fly nearly everywhere – it is the airline that serves the most countries in the world and is considered to be one of the best class services out there. I have taken their business class to Guangzhou and back from Hong Kong and can’t say a bad word. Free luggage was included and I also was able to pre-order a special non-lactose meal.
Where to stay: I stayed using my Radisson Rewards points. This year their Turkey hotel award chart was updated, so I was able to book 5 nights for 140 000 points in a 4 star hotel Radisson Blu Hotel, Istanbul Atakoy. The cost of the other room that we paid for (since I did not have enough points) was 88 euros. When booking the hotel I had written in the “special requests section”asking for a surprise for my mom and grandmother, and there was a lovely piece of cake waiting for them! Do let the hotels know if you are travelling on a special occasion!
Transportation: We used Uber for almost everything except from and to the airport (use referral code alinaa1865ui for your first ride free!). Considering that we were a large group and standing in public transport would not be optimal, we were really happy for our choice with Uber! Uber XL is the only type of Uber available in Istanbul, and the service was superb – we felt like driving with a chauffeur, enormous, classy Mercedes and VW vans took us everywhere we needed and we paid on average 2-3 times less than a taxi would have cost (we paid 17 to 120 TL depending on the distance, one lira is 20 eurocents), and without the hassle of negotiations about the fee, cash etc. Beware, traffic in Istanbul is insane. If you have a chance not to use ground transportation from 4 pm til 8pm, please try. You will be stuck for hours!
Guidebooks: Many have written about Turkey and Istanbul, I personally used Istanbul guide by Lonely Planet when planning this trip.
Mobile internet: check with your mobile supplier, as Turkey is not covered by the EU data plan.
Best time to see the tulips: first two weeks of April, and this is around the same time as Istanbul Tulip Festival takes places. If you are a little early or little late, most of the times you still can see something, as there are various types of tulips in parks and around the city with different blooming times.
Day 1: Arrival, Spice Bazaar and Dinner at Eminönü Port
From Cold to Spring
It was such a pleasant feeling to step down the stairs exiting the airplane and feel that warm wind and sun shining on me! It is actually so sunny that you might even want to pack some sunscreen, as I got a tad more sun than I was expecting!
One thing to know about Istanbul – when you proceed to passport control, beware that it can take a while (closer to an hour or even two!). Since it was not an option for my grandmother to be standing up and waiting for so long, I asked the guards to let her pass in business line and they allowed to. I am very thankful for the employees for doing that!
Trouble at the Hotel
Once we arrived at the hotel, I asked if my upgrade would be available, as I am a Silver member with the hotel chain. And then, the, unfortunately, usual story began, when I was told that only Gold members get upgrades and it was resolved only about 10 minutes later when I showed the hotel loyalty program website where it said that Silver members too. Unfortunately, this seems to be a thing for this program, as I have heard this sentence numerous times, despite staying in the hotels extensively for the past 4 years and program being essentially the same in terms of perks during all of this time. Every time it has made me feel like I am begging for something that I don’t deserve, when in fact, as a frequent customer, I should be offered the better room if one is available. In the end, we got a room on the higher floor, with a larger balcony and sea view – it was quite nice, but while the rooms were non smoking, there were so many people smoking on the balconies, it was impossible to open the window at all, and with AC going crazy and heating up the room to 26C rather than making it cooler, I was glad we didn’t spend much time at the hotel. The hotel was in a beautiful place and had everything I needed, but the never ending smoke is something I cannot stand.
Spice (Egyptian) Bazaar and Galata Bridge
When got to the city center on the first day, we only had one hour left til sunset, so we proceed to the “little” Egyptian Spice bazaar, which is to be closed shortly for the night. I honestly like this pavilion more than the Grand Bazaar, as it is little less covered in smoke (I realize this is a local issue, but for me it makes a real difference), not that many people there and it is incredibly beautiful. You can get all the usual souvenirs – Turkish delights, spices and teas.
Soon the market really was closing and the shop keepers started putting the merchandise away. We went outside and at that moment we really felt that we are in Istanbul with every pore of our body! It smelled like wet pavement and tomato leaves, as a man is watering his plants for sale in the garden section of the market, swallows are up in the air around us chirping, a cat runs nearby. No wonder Istanbul is called the city of cats, as thee are at least 30 000 of them here! But people take good care of them – feeding and building small houses for them. Cats might help with the rats too, but I was told it is by far not the only reason for the love displayed towards them!
Eminönü & Dinner
We cross the larger square on the way from the market, and see large flags flapping in the wind. It smells like roasted chestnut here! Then we proceed to go through the tunnel in the direction of the Galata bridge, and Eminönü port nearby is very much alive. Hundreds of fishermen are fishing here, the fishing lines shining in the evening sun. My Turkish colleague Azerhan told me that the fish is really caught to be eaten (not just by the cats!), and some find their way to the nearby market. If you are just visiting and want to experience fishing in Istanbul, all you need to do is rent the equipment from one of the guys on the bridge! I must warn you that we did not see any large fish caught, but spring supposedly is the best time to fish due to fish migration (which also brings a fair share of dolphins we see in the next days in the small bays!).
While we are wandering around, the first lights at the mosques light up, and we hear muezzins calling the prayers. Eminönü is a total assault at the senses, with fish and nearby restroom, yet beautiful music being played on a xylophone nearby and roasted corn sold on the street, it is pleasant and disgusting and vibrant all at the same time!
It is really getting late, and we still want to eat something, so we head to the first place of dinner – Hamdi Restaurant, and luckily, there is a table on the roof free! The food is absolutely amazing! Kebap, tasty bread, olives, hummus, everything so fresh and delicious! If you are in Eminönü, it is a perfect place for a dinner!
Day 3: Emirgan Park, Dolmabahçe Palace and Dervishes
Finally the Tulips!
The next morning begins with a drive to the most famous tulip park in Istanbul – Emirgan! It takes us nearly an hour to get there, as it is quite far from our hotel, and when we reach it, it does not seem that impressive at first. But we just keep on going deeper inside and at one moment we are absolutely awestruck by the stunning carpets of tulips! Bright yellow and bright red tulips with deep blue grape hyacinths look surreal! We see green parrots in the trees and a squirrels.
More and more people show up, and there is a bit of car traffic as well, as there is a car park on the top of the hill. Turns out, we have arrived on the official tulip season opening day, as there are set tables and a little stage at the main square of the park! To take a little break from the crowds, we eat in the cafe just nearby, it is 45 TL per person for “all you can eat buffet”. Then we start going back in the direction of the entrance and we realize that just now we are passing the most beautiful places where there are almost no other visitors! Good thing we decided to take another route! I would recommend this as the key must-see if you are coming to see the tulips in Istanbul, and plan 2-3 hours at the park! The earlier you come, the less crowded it will be there!
Dolmabahçe Palace and Whirling Dervishes
Our next sightseeing spot on the list is the Dolmabahçe Palace. Once we finally it, as the traffic is getting very heavy, we barely make it inside, as most museums and palaces are only open until 4pm in spring and you have to enter until 3pm, as the walking route does take a bit of time. You are not allowed to take pictures here. Plan 2-3 hours for the palace and at least an hour for the beautiful seaside park.
Next it is time to start moving in the direction of Hodjapasha Dance Theater, where we will see whirling dervishes. If you want a real Turkish experience, go for dervish prayer rather than belly dancing, as belly dancing is not a local custom! Whirling dervishes is something you can’t miss if you are looking for unique and perhaps, not that well known activities in Turkey!
Since we arrive to the theater a bit early, we start with a dinner in Balkan Lokantasi nearby, and this is one of the most authentic and also cheapest places we eat in Istanbul during our whole stay! The food is just amazing, your will pay just a few lira for every dish, and the four of us probably ate here for the same price we paid earlier at the park for one person.
As the time is nearing 7pm, we go to the theater. Dervishes are the guides in Sufism (Islamic misticism), and by whirling they reach closeness with the god. It is active type of meditation and dervishes have to learn it for about 1000 days to be able to perform it. It takes a lot of training and stamina to be able to whirl like that for several hours at a time!
We buy the tickets in advance online, as it is often sold out. But the prayer takes places several times a week, so you should be able to find a time slot suitable for you! The ticket was not cheap, around 20 euros per person. Although it is a religious ceremony and you are not allowed to applaud or take pictures during it, you can still buy a ticket! It did seem a bit surprising, but I guess it makes for a good balance between religion and satisfying curiosity of the tourists. There are free drinks at the exhibition hall you will wait for the show to begin. The performance is very impressive, and it seem unbelievable someone can whirl so many times and not fall down! Actually, the Guinness record is over 3500 whirls in one hour! I am not quite sure what is it exactly that I expected from this performance. I can’t even say if I liked it or I didn’t. Some of the performers seemed to be in a state of trans, you could see the bottoms of their eyeballs while they were turning. While the performance is beautiful, one hand towards the sky, the other towards ground, symbolizing the connection with god, you can’t stop thinking what happens to ones brain. This probably is not the activity where to take small children along.
Day 3: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Gülhane Park and Bosporus Cruise
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia
Our first stop of the day is the Blue Mosque, one of the most famous places in Istanbul. I have been here numerous times, but I still felt disappointed when I learn it is closed for renovation, as somehow I had completely missed that, while checking several times the opening times between prayers on it’s website! But the works should be completed soon and the mosque will be once again open for visitors. Check the prayer times in advance as tourists are not allowed in during this time!
Next we are headed to Hagia Sophia just across the square. We wanted to buy the tickets online, but the museum site had some technical issues, so in the end we had to wait in quite a long line to the ticket booth. But this way we hear the many tour guides offering their services and decide to take a guided tour instead. The cost is 100 TL for four persons and the tour takes about an hour. It also lets you skip the line. The tour turns out to be really good, and while I had been to Hagia Sophia before, I learned a few new facts and also noticed mosaics I had not seen before! The grand history of this place is absolutely stunning, and a guide will tell you the key highlights and show what is really important! The cathedral is undergoing renovations now, and here I was really very happy to see that something is finally done! It is absolutely magnificent, and if you visit just one monument in Istanbul, this is it!
After exiting the cathedral we sit down in the cafe on the cathedral grounds and order a glass of fresh juice. It is three times more expensive here than elsewhere, but of course we want it now, and decide to splurge out and the 12 TL for orange juice. The pomegranate juice costs 15TL. At least the glass is really large. In Istanbul you might get that lingering feeling that you have to haggle for everything to get a fair price. Sometimes I also felt like I was maybe overpaying for something, but when I recalculated prices to euros, I still felt like I was paying very small amounts, and I would say that in general Istanbul was not a very expensive city, but, perhaps this is the feeling after recently having visited Norway. In Istanbul you can get a grand meal for the price of regular lunch at home! Just research the places in advance, as if you have to pick a place just walking by, you might be disappointed. I had done all my recommendation research at home, but the place near Hagia Sophia turned out to be closed, and we just picked one on the street. It turned out to be pretty horrible.
Hippodrome, Obelisk and Basilica Cistern
When you walk at the Hippodrome area, it is a strange feeling to realize that most of the historic heritage is still there, about 2 meters underground, waiting to be dug out. You will notice the grand obelisks, and especially stunning is the Thutmose III obelisk that was first erected in Luxor 3500 years ago. In 390 Theodosius the Great ordered for it to be cut in three parts and transported to Constantinople, and the upper third stands here still.
We also visit the Basilica Cistern, which was built in the 6th century, as a major water tank under the city. This is the largest tank from the several hundred under Istanbul, and it is very impressive. Aqueducts transported water to it from the Belgrade forest 19 km away, and it could hold 100 000 tons of water. 336 columns hold the ceiling of the cistern, and many of them were brought here from ruined buildings around the Roman Empire. The most impressive are the two Medusa heads at the very end of the tour, and it is still not known where those came from originally. One is upside down, and the other is sideways, supposedly to neutralize their gaze! Cistern is being renovated as well, undergoing largest restoration in the past 1500 years.
We still have some time til the evening, so we walk through the Gulhane park, which is another tulip paradise. Alleys of platans with heron nests, green parrots and beautifully shaped flower ornaments. The garden is amazing, and it truly speaks for the heritage of the Sultan, as once it was off limits for regular people. However, it is all covered in large bright orange fence, which does not exactly add to the beauty! It is incredibly popular, so must be the only way to protect the beauty.
You must take an evening cruise on the Bosporus! It really lets you appreciate how enormous is this city. You can find the ships in Eminonu, and the price is just 12-15TL per person for an hour and a half’s ride! They will take you as far as Sultan Mehmet bridge, and you get to see all the places and locations you have visited or will visit in the upcoming days. Larger and smaller houses, mosques, and, unfortunately, also smog, as the air quality in Istanbul is not that great. We also saw the Hekimbasi Salih Efendi Mansion which was run over by a large transport ship just a few days later!
I recommend picking a nice place by the window inside, as by the end of the trip everyone will go inside anyway and the views are amazing inside too. Upstairs it can get windy and cold, so better you get the best spot right away! The waiter will bring Turkish tea (3TL) and fresh orange juice (4 TL, I must have had 4-5 glasses!) tot you while you are seated, so you will not lose your spot!
Once we are done with the cruise, we come back to Hamdi Restaurant, this time eating on the first floor, the food is as great as we remember it to be! We order some pistachio desserts and those are absolutely unbelievable! Always order Turkish desserts fresh and never buy pre-packaged boxes – this way you get the fresh stuff made on the same day!
Day 4: Topkapı palace, Orthodox Patriarchate, Grand Bazaar
On the fourth day of our visit the museum website still does not work and we are forced to again wait in a long line to get the tickets. It takes this long as some people cut the line and there are same kinds of guides skipping line for their customers. Some people also sell tickets in the line, having bought those earlier in bulk.
When we finally get in, it feels like every school in Istanbul has come for a field trip, as there are insane crowds. I have been to this palace before and somehow I did not remember than many people here before! It must be one of those places getting slowly overrun by the masses. But it really is beautiful, especially the tile covered walls and the sacred artifacts in the halls. Having suffered through the crowds for an hour or so, we head to the palace restaurant at the furthest terrace, and it is again one of the nicest meals in Istanbul, with golden plates and food suitable for the sultans. The view is stunning and once more you pay the same amount as a regular lunch at home, but in a far more stunning place with amazing service.
Istanbul is a very special place for the Orthodox, as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is located here. It is the seat of the 300 million orthodox head that rules Greek and Turkish, as well as many other orthodox branches of the world (but not the Russian – they have a separate one). It is sustained by the Greek government and most people working here or visiting are Greeks. This was the first place I visited when I came to Istanbul with a Greek bus tour in 2007! Patriarchate is like a paradise after the overcrowded city center. It is very quiet, peaceful and you can really appreciate the beauty of the building. It is more on the small side though, as it turns out, the Ottoman empire rules demanded that other religions than Islam had to have smaller religious sites! Had the Constantinople not been taken in 1453, Hagia Sophia would continue to serve as the patriarchate.
After the patriarchate we head out to the famous Grand Bazaar. It is traffic time of the day again, and some roadwork adds to the time traveled, so it takes us forever to get to the set location, but at least we enjoy the view – a store that only sells kettles, another one that only sells scales and so on. When we reach the market entrance we want to use, we see very, very cheap prices at first – a small cosmetic bag costs 1 TL, then the same bag, but deeper in the market is already 3TL, then already 5TL, the exact same bag! Grand Bazaar is full of cigarette smoke, so I could not wait to get outside. I would say this is more for souvenir shopping, and the experience itself is more of something to remember than a real shopping tour. I also don’t particularly enjoy haggling, but it is part of the experience.
We exit the market on the main side of the road, drink a glass of juice each and then our team splits up, my mom and my grandmother go to see my uncle for dinner, and me and my husband have an evening for ourselves. We head to Galata tower for the sunset. We decide to grab a bite before that and a man invites us to the Olimpiyat Restaurant. He says there are spaces on other floors as well, would we like to see? It is typical for Turkish restaurants to have seating area on several floors. We decide why not? And head up, in the end settling on the 4th floor, just us, with a stunning view of the bridge and the city. We eat, we drink some tea and Turkish coffee and enjoy the evening. The sun sets and we don’t even leave the place, how nice it is! We only leave when two men show up who start smoking at the window. It surely is not easy t be a non-smoker in Istanbul! Still, despite the smoke, the evening was beautiful.
Day 5: Ortaköy Mosque, Aquarium, Forum Istanbul Shopping Mall and Ride to Asia
Sunrise at the Ortaköy Mosque
On the fifth day we wake up especially early, to head to the most beautiful sunrise location in Istanbul – Ortaköy mosque. We saw it well from the cruise and decided to visit it during sunrise. We arrive well before 6 am, when it is completely dark! There is a car parked right in the middle of the square and some girls are waiting for the sunrise, but decide to leave soon, and other than that we are in the company of cats only. They keep on passing us by and going to the mosque! Quite a particular sight, as none come back!
Then a man walks by, and drops the contents of a plastic bag inside the water – slices of several loaves of bread. I asked my colleague Azerhan what is the reason for this, but she was not sure, she said it is just about giving the bread to birds and fish not to throw it away, nothing to do with the religion. Later I learn that people in Turkey have a special relationship with bread, there are bins for bread and people will pick up a dropped slice from the pavement and put it in the grass. The bread is the gift from the Allah, and Quran says that Gabriel taught Adam to make bread from grain and Adam is the patron of the bakers. It is stunning how similar both of the religions actually are.
The place where the man drops the bread is swarming with jellyfish, there must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions of them. At first we thought that the water is dirty, well, it actually is, but the color of the water is from the jellies. I am later told that Marmara sea has become warmer and due to organic pollution there are many more jellies than there used to be.
Sea Life of Istanbul and the Shopping Mall
We conbtinue the morning by going to the aquarium – Sea Life Istanbul. If you are travelling with children, wax figure museum and Legoland are here as well, so you could easily spend a whole day here! We spend at an hour and a half in the aquarium, observing the big and small fish. It is one of the largest aquariums in Europe and definitely worth the visit!
Then we grab a meal at the Lunchbox cafe right next door and head to the Forum Istanbul, which is the largest shopping mall not just in Turkey, but in Europe! We try not to spend too much time here, but once we enter LC Waikiki sore that sells mostly locally produced clothing, we are stuck. Prices are insane, everything is very cheap and you can find some really interesting items here! Two hours fly by! There is also a large Carrefour store, so you can surely buy some more souvenirs there. I always enjoy browsing supermarkets when I am in other cities, often very interesting items can be found in a regular store!
We have spent too much time at the store, and when we are ready to go to our next destination, the largest artist store in Istanbul, Güven Art Store on the Asian side, it is again the time of traffic. It takes us over 30 minutes to get a car, then it breaks down so we wait for 15 minutes for another one to arrive, and by then traffic is horrible. It takes us over hour and a half to get through the tunnel, as the traffic heading to the tunnel is insane. But the store is worth the drive! The prices are quite similar to other European places, but the selection is good, and there are also some unfamiliar brands. The store assistants are very helpful and will find everything that you may need!
After the store we head to find something to eat. It feels like we really see the Istanbul for locals this time – we eat in Ciya Kebap and the feeling here is very different than in the center. This is the side of Istanbul I want to explore more when I come back, for the 6th time!
On the last morning we eat a slow, lazy breakfast and pack our luggage (which, obviously, doesn’t close and it takes a while to stuff everything in). Soon we are headed to the airport. We struggle a bit at the self check in, as there are some technical issues, and with the time it took to pass through security at the entrance, the check in, the passport control and getting to the gate, there is not much waiting around! I would recommend arriving at the airport not later than two hours before your flight, as queues can get long.
Soon we are in the air, and we see the city becoming smaller and smaller, and revisit the memories of the past five days, watching a movie with another eye (even the short haul flights on Turkish Airlines have individual entertainment systems!). Then we enjoy our non-lactose meal and a couple hours later we are back home. What an adventure! Even with 5 days in the city, and visiting for the 5th time, it feels like I have only covered the very surface of the city! Istanbul has so much to offer for any kind of visitor! I sincerely hope you will plan a trip to Istanbul, as it is one of the great cities of our planet!