How To Enjoy Istanbul, The 2018 Survival Guide

Day 314/365: Everything about the city in one place

I spent five nights in Istanbul, the only city on Earth that’s on two continents. I wanted to write more about this beautiful city, but rather than have everything in one article, I decided to write a detailed survival guide first and then move along with the rest of the information in future articles. This piece will be straightforward and include things like transportation, food, accommodation and the attractions of the city.

Transportation

You will most likely land on Ataturk Airport, Turkey’s largest airport and one of the largest in Europe. If not, you’ll just have to figure this part by yourself. On your arrival, you’ll pass through immigration and then land at baggage claim. After hopefully claiming your baggage, my advice is to withdraw some money, as much money as you think you’ll need, from the ATM of your choice. I work exclusively with ING, so finding out that these ATM’s are all over the city, including the airport, was a relief for me.

After you withdraw your money, it’s time to head to the metro station located just below the main terminal of Ataturk. You’ll quickly find your way thanks to the signs above your head. Once there, you’ll need to buy an Istanbulkart. It costs 10 liras to buy and it comes with 4 liras credit, as the plastic itself is 6 liras. I put a 50 liras note in the machine, ordered a card and then deposited the rest of the money on the card. In about 6 days, I’ve never run out of money. I travelled a lot with the tram and also the ferry, yet I’ve never run out.

If you stay in Sultanahmet, or the old town, your best bet is to take the T1 tram line to wherever you want to go. This line connects Fatih, the district where your metro will drop you off, with Sultanahmet (The Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace) with Galata and Beșiktaș (Galata Tower, Taksim Square, Dolombache Palace) all on one single line. That’s the best transportation system I’ve ever come across in my travels.

And the best part? It only costs 2,65 liras for a trip. That’s close to 50 cents US.

Accommodation

There are two options when it comes to accommodation in Istanbul: Sultanahmet or Kadikoy. In Sultanahmet, there are many hotels with rooms starting from 30 bucks per night. Don’t believe in Booking.com’s prices, nobody but the 5 stars hotels respect the prices shown on Booking. The smaller places will always find a way to overcharge you. Even if you find a great deal on Booking, it means nothing and you’ll still pay the entire fare of the room. Which is not totally unreasonable, giving the fact that most hotels are in walking distance to the main attractions here.

The second option is to stay in Kadikoy. This is the district of Istanbul that’s on the other side of the Bosphorus Strait so in Asia. I haven’t stayed here this time around, but I’ll 100% surely live here the next time I’ll be in Istanbul. Why? Because everything, including food, hotels, drinks, clothes, absolutely everything is at half price. You can find a decent, 3 stars hotel with breakfast for 20 bucks per night. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the people smile more and the overall experience of living in a more laid back district than Sultanahmet or Besiktas, for example, is great.

The only downside is that you’ll have to commute to the city centre or Besiktas every time you’ll want to visit something. The good news is, the Istanbulkart covers your ferry rides. One ferry ride to Sultanahmet costs, that’s right, 2,65 liras and the ferry only needs about 20 minutes to get you to the other side. That’s one dollar and 40 minutes of your time per day for commuting. So yes, I 100% recommend you to stay in Kadikoy if you’re reading this.

Food and Drinks

Food is quite cheap in Istanbul if you do your homework. Never eat on the main streets. There’s one kebab place right around the corner that sells the same thing at 60% of the price. Always. For breakfast, I used to get an ayran, which is a watered down salty yoghurt that costs less than 1 lira. I’d have that with a simit, a sesame seeds pretzel that you can get plain for 1,75 liras or with Nutella for 4 liras. If you want to splurge, you can get a menemen, traditional breakfast eggs cooked in a copper pot that are simply delicious. That’s anywhere between 10 and 25 liras.

For lunch, get a quick doner or a durum for anywhere in town. They all taste great, but if you really want the best, check out my other articles about my favourite spots in the city. One doner should never cost more than 14 liras. Follow that with two pieces of baklava, and trust me, two are enough, that should never cost more than 10 liras. I found two pieces of delicious baklava for 6 liras in Kadikoy. Again, I can’t recommend Kadikoy enough.

For dinner, head to a place that has locantasi in its name. I went to Balkan Locantasi for most of my dinners, a place that serves fresh food at ridiculous prices. My last lunch there, I paid 2 bucks for chickpeas with tomatoes sauce, beef with aubergine, dessert, bread and water. Ridiculous! Yet so tasty. You can read more about these places in my other articles.

Drinks will mostly be tea and water in Istanbul. You can have a beer, but that’s about it. Yes, there are expensive places that serve cocktails, but I wouldn't advise you on going there.

Attractions

Blue Mosque — this is the most important and famous mosque in the city. It’s famous for its blue tiles from the inside, but also for the fact that it has 6 minarets. Most mosques only have 1, 2 or 4 at best. The Blue Mosque is free to enter, yet going there in the morning is your best bet in order to avoid the massive lunch and afternoon crowds.

Hagia Sophia — this was a church at first, which turned mosque when the Ottomans took over the city, now turned a museum for the world to enjoy. There’s a 30 liras entrance fee that I think it’s reasonable. Waiting times are between 10 and 30 minutes in the mornings.

Basilica Cistern — if you’ve read Inferno, chances are you’ll know all about this place. If you didn’t, learn that this underground ex-mosque was later turned into the water tank of the city. It was constructed with columns from different temples, which makes it a unique place to explore. There’s still some mystery about the Medusa heads in the basilica, but people say those were just two other columns used for the erection of the place. Entrance fee is 20 liras and the lines are about 5–10 minutes long at most.

Topkapi Palace — the palace sits right beside the Hagia Sophia and it’s realy beautiful, although I have to say the entrance fee is ridiculous. I paid 60 liras for the normal ticket and an extra 35 liras for the Harem rooms of the palace. While the interior gardens and parks are great, the palace itself was a complete letdown. Very little rooms with a few artefacts, a lot of people and seriously, not such an amazing Harem like I learned it should’ve been. I would not recommend this place.

Dolombache Palace — this palace… is amazing! Unline the Topkapi, the Dolombache is probably the most beautiful palace I have ever been in. It’s stunning. The interior grounds, the doors to the sea, the crystal staircase, the ceremonial hall, they will simply take your breath away. When I was at the pyramids, I was struck with amazement and wonder… but I was not left without words. They’re just rocks, one over the other, in the shape of a pyramid.

Well, when I entered the ceremonial hall at the Dolombache, I was simply left speechless. My mind went numb. I will never ever forget that moment, which because I travel a lot now, almost never happens to me. The ticket to go to the palace is 100 liras and covers the Harem part as well. You can get a 60 liras ticket for just the palace, which is still a great deal as you can see the crystal staircase and the ceremonial hall. No photos inside. Well, at least you shouldn’t…

Besiktas — Galata Tower — Taksim Square — these are all places in Istanbul you should visit and take some time to admire. The Besiktas area is filled with small shops and restaurants, like the Karadeniz Doner, for example, that is legendary all over the world for the food. Also, Taksim Square is the place where locals gather when they want to scream out their problems or celebrate their victories. Finally, Galata Tower will surely give you an amazing view over the entire city. Don’t worry, the lines move pretty fast and you’ll get to the top with an elevator, not by stairs.

Thank you for your time!

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