For years and years, I dreamed of going to Istanbul, and two years ago, Sasha and I decided to travel there after his MBA international trip took him to Accra, Ghana. He met me in Turkey, and we spent five days adventuring before heading to Athens (also highly recommended – travel guide to come soon!). There are so many iconic sites to see and oodles of delicious Turkish food and wine to be eaten. We both agree that our days in Turkey were some of our favorite together – this also includes the latter half of our trip, during which we went to Cappadocia. See photos of Cappadocia here.
I kept a very good travel diary while I was there, which was very helpful in writing this post. I also blogged while we were traveling – you can read the Istanbul posts here, here and here – lots of pictures! I have the travel bug and am dying to take Isla on an adventure, which Sasha laughs at. We are going to Mexico City in just a few weeks to celebrate one of my best friend’s weddings – I cannot wait to explore this historic city with some of my closest friends.
Have you ever been to Istanbul? If so, what would you add to my travel guide below? Click here to see a complete list of my travel guides, which includes Bali, Paris, Durango, Austin, Houston, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.
Food + Drink
Pasazade Restaurant – We were starving, walking around Istanbul trying to find Pasazade Restaurant after tackling some of the big sites earlier in the day. When we finally found Pasazade (check out TripAdvisor, I’m not the only one to recommend it!), we were overwhelmed by the happy servers. The entire staff was so happy and accommodating. We ate the Vegetable Bükme as an appetizer, then I had the Herb Sauté with Mushrooms and Sasha ate the Seferceliye. We of course dabbled in the Turkish wine. We were most excited about the slanted white plates that the food is served in! It’s the little things in life, I suppose!
Aloran Cafe – We walked by Aloran Cafe and it was empty (December is not tourist season in Istanbul), so we kept walking, even though it was ranked highly on TripAdvisor. The owner came outside and convinced us to come in, and ohmygosh am I glad we did. Sasha ate the kebab and I had a mixed vegetable dish – we were so full by the time we left, it wasn’t even funny. We had the Turkish wine recommended by our waiter and moved from glasses to a bottle rather quickly.
Red River – If you want to enter back into the Western world for a minute or two, go to Red River for a drink. We got complimentary drinks because we are from Texas, duh!
Al Bushra Restaurant and Bar (at Hilton Istanbul) – The views from this delicious restaurant are unbelievable. We felt funny eating at the hotel where we were staying, as we typically avoid that, but it was highly recommended by past visitors, so we gave it a try. This Lebanese restaurant was intimate with low lighting and round tables with comfy cushions. I ordered the falafel and highly recommend it!
Juno – We went to this eclectic little restaurant near the Hilton for a drink before dinner, and ended up staying to eat as we loved the atmosphere. We asked the waiter what he recommended (one meat, one vegetarian) and ordered that! I don’t think you can go wrong at Juno.
Pierre Loti Cafe – Apple tea. That’s all I need to say. I will dream of that drink forever! This little cafe boats amazing views of the Golden Horn. We also had Turkish coffee, which tasted like heaven as well.
Basilica Cistern – These underground caverns are the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. The cistern was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The lighting is kind of eerie, but it’s worth visiting.
Topkapi Palace – This large palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. Not only is the palace a majestic sight to see, the outer gardens are equally exquisite.
Hippodrome of Constantipole – The area is officially called Sultan Ahmet Square and used to be an area for the circus and other entertainment. The course of the old racetrack has been indicated with paving, although the actual track is 6+ feet below the present surface. The surviving monuments are two obelisks and the Serpentine Column, and these now sit in holes in a landscaped garden. The walled obelisk is massive and definitely worthy of photographing. The hippodrome is in the same area as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern.
Istanbul Archaeology Museum – We ducked into this museum as it started raining, and were really glad we had. The architecture of the old buildings and the gorgeous exhibits are fascinating – all signs have English translations, so you can follow along. If you are a museum person, I recommend you visit the Archaeology Museum.
Blue Mosque – One of the most famous sites in the world, the Blue Mosque (technically called Sultan Ahmed Mosque) will not fail to impress you. The mosque has one main dome, six minarets, and eight secondary domes. The design is the culmination of two centuries of Ottoman mosque development. It incorporates some Byzantine Christian elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. Be sure to wear conservative clothing during your trip to Istanbul – you will have to also wear a hijab (head scarf) before entering, but don’t worry, you’ll get one before you go in.
Hagia Sophia – Hagia Sophia s a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal church, that later became a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by Ottoman Turks. It is now a museum. You can see where the Muslims plastered over images of Jesus and Mary – it is a fascinating place to walk through. The view from the main entry (look upward) will take your breath away.
Gulhane Park – This park is luscious and green (and we visited in December!), and we spent about an hour just wandering through (and getting some delicious warm coffee). It’s a pleasant break from the busy hustle and bustle of the city.
Egyptian Spice Bazaar – The spice bazaar is a shock to your senses in the very best way. We spent about two hours just walking through and buying coffee, nuts, dried fruit and spices to take home. We bought the most amazing coffee (see note below), which all of the gift recipients loved.
Grand Bazaar – The grand bazaar is also rather overwhelming, as it is literally a maze of stores. As long as you’re not claustrophobic, you will love it. The stores aren’t selling high-end goods, but the trinkets, scarfs, candles, etc. are definitely worth looking through.
Rüstem Pasha Mosque – The Rüstem Pasha Mosque is famous for its large quantities of exquisite İznik tiles, set in a very wide variety of beautiful floral and geometric designs. The mosque is built on a high terrace over a complex of vaulted shops, whose rents were intended to financially support the mosque complex. The narrow, twisting interior flights of steps in the corners give access to a spacious courtyard. We went into this quiet mosque for a private tour – it was very calm and beautiful.
Pierre Loti Funicular – We rode the funicular ride up to the top of Pierre Loti Cafe, where the views of the Golden Horn are breathtaking. The hot apple tea at the cafe (mentioned above) was a perfect treat to sip on while taking in the views.
- Stand in line at the Egyptian Spice Bazaar to buy coffee from Mehmet Efendi – it is well worth the wait (and bring some home for family and friends!)
- Sign up for a tour with True Blue Tours (request Yilmaz – he was wonderful)
- Take a boat ride on the Bosphorus
- Done a hijab and enter a mosque with a local who can explain what happens where and why
- Drink lots and lots of Turkish wine
- Order a clay pot dish, which they will break at your table
- Get lost in the Grand Bazaar (make sure to haggle!)
- Walk around Gulhane Park
- Take pictures inside Hagia Sophia – it is gorgeous
- Wander through the Basilica Cistern (get the audio guided tour – it’s worth it!)