Turkish culture has always had a constant presence in my life. Growing up with close family friends who showered me in Turkish food and tradition, as well as being raised in London where there is no shortage of expats from the country, has long made Turkey a place of interest. With my recent and long-overdue visit to Marrakech heightening my love for Islamic architecture, it was certain that it was time to cross off this nearby-yet-otherworldly destination from my list.
Failing to find someone to join me on this adventure, I decided to book a flight to the country alone. During my five days of solo discovery, I visit Istanbul’s incredible mosques, churches and museums while making time to experience as much Turkish cuisine as I possibly can. For a breakdown of this trip, head to the bottom of this page. Otherwise, scroll down for more.
I purchase a 5-day Museum Pass which allows me to visit the city’s main attractions for a one-off price of 85TL(around 16GBP). This is a really great deal that I would recommend as the entry to a single attraction, such as the Hagia Sophia, can cost around 40TL alone. After a security check (something you will experience frequently during your time in Istanbul) I make my way inside the building. Immediately, I feel a sense of both awe and admiration as I take in the intricacies of the Hagia Sophia‘s interior. Built almost 1,500 years ago, the Hagia has been a Greek Orthodox church, an imperial mosque and, now, a museum.
In contrast to the powdery pink exterior, inside, walls and alcoves adopt deep earthy tones which are pleasantly interrupted by jewel-coloured Byzantine mosaics of respected social and religious figures. I spend around 40 minutes attempting to take in each small detail. Among the painstakingly designed decoration, I am most impressed by the preservation of Viking era ‘graffiti’ carved into the bannisters on the Hagia’s first floor.
Exiting the Hagia Sophia, I make my way to Topaki Palace, the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 500 years. Using my Museum Pass for entry, I am first struck by the bright white of the Palace’s exterior and then later, by the impressive view of the Bosphorus from the Palace’s gardens. I do not spend as much time as I could have here as it’s quite busy and the intense September heat was exhausting me. Also, some of the Palace’s quarters were closed off for renovation, however, I do recommend taking the time to explore the Imperial Hall and Treasury where you will find a collection of opulently designed items belonging to the sultans, such as layered jewels, encrusted daggers and gemmed aigrettes.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque (aka the Blue Mosque)
Nicknamed for the handpainted blue tiles that adorn its walls, the Blue Mosque stands no more than a 5-minute walk from the Hagia Sophia. It’s true name, Sultan Ahmed Mosque comes from the Ottoman sultan that it was built for. Only open to visitors outside of the five daily prayer times, the Mosque has continued to function as a place of worship since 1616. During visiting times, non-worshippers are able to enter for free and, if necessary, are provided with overall garments to cover exposed arms, shoulders, hair and legs.
After covering-up and removing my shoes, I enter. The first thing that overwhelms me here, is the swarm of fellow visitors spread across the Mosque’s rich red carpet. Though, with its far-reaching ceilings and dazzling sources of light, it is understandable why this is a place that attracts droves believers and non-believers alike.
Ortakalar Kebap Lahmacun
Upon exiting the mosque, I seek out a place to eat. My first experience of eating in Sultanhamet isn’t great; being a tourist hub this isn’t unsurprising, as, like in many countries, some restauranteurs feel confident in serving sub-standard, overpriced food to tourists that they assume don’t know any better. Luckily for me, I’m approached by a local who strikes up a conversation and recommends me a place to eat named Ortakalar Kebap Lahmacun.
Here, I order the Beyti kebab, which I think is now my favourite Turkish dish. The Beyti is a ground beef or lamb, which has been grilled on a skewer, wrapped in soft flatbread and smothered in a tomato sauce and yoghurt. With an apple tea, my bill comes to around 30TL total which is around 6GBP
Departing from Sultanahmet, I take the tram and train to get to Taksim, which is what I will call Istanbul’s ‘hipster’ region and also home to the Galata Tower.
Standing directly beneath the blazing sun, I queue for an almost unbearably long time to gain entry. Unfortunately, the Tower is not included with the Museum Pass so even after finally making it inside, I question whether or not it is worth paying the fee as, in all honesty, I don’t really know what the place was about. After entering the lift and conquering a steep set of stairs, I finally reach the top of the Tower and understand what the hype is all about.
The Galata Tower provides a breathtakingly beautiful panoramic view of the Bosphorus and it’s surrounding. It is a tight squeeze to navigate your way around the balcony of the tower alongside other visitors, so I would not recommend this for those with an intense fear of heights as even I, having little concern about such things, felt nervous looking directly over the edge.
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art was easily one of my favourite places to visit during my time in the city. Before visiting, I took the time to explore the 17-19th-century Ottoman artworks at the Pera Museum and frankly, was bored. Istanbul’s Modern Art Museum provided a completely different experience. At first, I was slightly resentful that I had to pay 25TL to gain entry as the museum was not included in the 5-day pass, however, after spending almost an hour and a half enjoying the artwork here, I believe the additional fee to be worth the sacrifice.
Spice Market & Grand Bazaar
Visiting after a long day of walking I found my visit to the famed Spice Market to be quite an exhausting encounter. Having had a similar experience in Marrakech, I mostly knew what to expect but facing it was a different story. While vendors are much less aggressive than those in Morocco, the indoor market was overcrowded with visitors and I soon tire of being called Beyoncé or Rihanna from eager salesmen. In an attempt to make the most of time in the market I buy a handful of Turkish Delights for a fraction of the price that they would cost in the UK.
Visiting the Grand Bazaar was a strikingly different experience. The labyrinth-like layout can easily entrap you, however, vendors seemed barely interested in enticing me into a sale, despite the fact that public footfall appeared to be relatively low.
Taking a public ferry from Emininou, on the European side of Istanbul, I travel to the area of Kadikoy on it’s Asain counterpart. The journey only takes around 20 minutes however there is immediately a noticeable contrast between each side. If there’s one thing to be said about the Asain side of Istanbul, it’s that it is strangely European. I spend my time there admiring the street art and trendy boutiques and cafes feeling as if I could easily be somewhere in Italy or France. Here, I have a late breakfast at a place named Munchies where I am served a generous serving of pancakes that are accompanied by an abundance of sweet and savoury sides from Nutella, to tapenade to string cheese.
I receive another dining recommendation from a local who suggests I visit a place named Sultanhamet Koftesci. Located incredibly close to the tourist hubs of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, I was sceptical as to the integrity of the food here, however, to my surprise everything I am served is incredibly tasty and well presented.
Throughout my stay in Istanbul, I am frequently approached by locals (always men) who are more than happy to provide me with recommendations or act as a guide – this help is always followed up by a request to have dinner or a drink, and preferring not to take them up on that offer, I always say no. Sometimes the men accept the first ‘no’, other times, it takes some persistent insistence, which can become quite frustrating.
On one occasion a local asked me if I had ‘ever tried a Turkish man’ which is followed up by the informative statement that ‘Turkish men love black women’ – so heads up to all of my black female readers seeking out some Turkish Delight.
I believed that the Bosphorus tour would be the highlight of my trip, however, I found the whole experience to be a nightmare. I bought a ticket from one of the vendors at Emininou bridge who kindly reduces the price from 15TL to 11 as that is all the cash I have at the time. Unfortunately, the pleasantries end there as I am rushed to board an empty minibus and left wondering if I have just bought myself a kidnapping at a discounted price. Eventually, my mind is at ease as the bus overfilled with other tourists and we are taken on a small drive to the touring ferry’s port. I sit on the top deck of the ferry which quickly becomes over occupied and myself and fellow passengers are forced to squeeze closely on an already uncomfortable wooden bench. When the tour begins I am already wishing it over. The Bosphorus is beautiful when observed from the city but when the roles are turned, the view provided by it is less than exciting. My experience was tainted further by the fact that I was seated beside an annoying young boy and also frustrated by my inability to exit the boat until the journey, which seemed to last forever, was complete. Ultimately, I was happy for it to be over.
Balik Emkek at Emininou Pier
On my last day in Istanbul, I am running pretty low on cash so find this to be the perfect opportunity to head to Emininou Pier and experience Balik Emkek. Balik Emkek is a fish sandwich made with the day’s latest catch. This is one of the simplest and cheapest foods that I try while in Istanbul, though it sits beside the Beyti kebab in regards to my favourite Turkish dishes. At just 5TL each, the sandwich is incredible value for money and the bustling environment in which it is served, with flocking seagulls, hungry locals and shouting cooks make it an absolute must-do.
How I travelled: I flew from London Stanstead to Istanbul S.Gocken Airport with Pegasus Airlines. I booked a month in advance, finding the flight on Momondo, and the return ticket was priced at £102. When in Istanbul, I travelled mostly by foot, using app Maps.me to navigate the city’s streets and by public tram which is something that I would definitely recommend.
What I did: I spent much of our time discovering the most popular attractions throughout the city. I visited the Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Galata Tower, The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, the Istanbul Museum of The History of Science and Technology in Islam (that I do not mention above but do recommend), the Spice Market & Grand Bazaar, the streets of Istanbul’s Asain Side and Emininou Pier.
Where I ate: The most notable places I dined include Sulhamanet Koftecisi, Ortakalar Kebap Lahmacun and at Emininou Pier. There are also many opportunities to try street food and I would greatly suggest seeking out a good borek, baklava (seek out a branch of Hafız Mustafa 1864 and Turkish ice cream)
Tips & Tricks: If you plan on visiting multiple public attractions, save a lot of money by purchasing the 5-day Museum Pass and speak with locals for recommendations around the city.