"A vast and wonderful city......." Istanbul by leics

Istanbul Travel Guide: 8,072 reviews and 20,961 photos

My first trip to Istanbul, in April 2010, was for just 3 nights...two whole days and a morning. I knew that was enough to do nothing more than scratch the surface of this huge and vibrant city, to see the major historical sites and to spend just a short while exploring the realities. Even so, I crammed in far more than I expected because the sights and sites of the city's historical heart..the area in and around Sultanahmet...are so easily walkable. But I hadn't seen enough so I knew I'd have to come back one day.

This time (I have much more flexibility with dates nowadays) I chose late September. I was blessed with three sunny and very warm days, ideal for all the walking I did. But, without realising, I'd chosen the same dates as the Turkish public holidays following Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice): Kurban Bayrami. Ataturk airport was thronged with people arriving to visit friends and relatives and Istanbullu were out and about in their thousands on family day-trips, having picnics and barbecues, visiting the mosques and historical sites of Sultanahmet, doing lots and lots of shopping in Eminonu (the Spice Bazaar was closed but the shops were almost all open), packing onto the ferries to the extent that I saw many totally full, with hundreds left on the quayside to wait for the next boat. None of this busy-ness affected me very much (people are so courteous that even in crowds there isn't the pushing and shoving one might expect) but it was absolutely fascinating to observe.

On my first visit I chose a (very good) hotel in Cankurtaran, on the hillside sloping down from Sultanahmet to the Bosphorus. This time I chose an even better hotel further up the same hillside, less than 5 minutes' walk from the first. The eastern part of Cankurtaran is imo an ideal location for exploring the historical city on foot, safe, used to dealing with those who have no or little Turkish and with plenty of easily-accessible places to eat....but far enough away from the busy, visitor-focused heart of Sultanahmet to have minimal traffic and no crowds.

In 2010 I managed to fit in much more than I expected by walking and walking so in 2015 I was able to explore more widely. I wanted to revisit Ayia Sofia but, even in September, the queues were simply too long for me to bother.

There have been some changes in the five years between my visits. There are more information boards and some of the narrow streets have been partially pedestrianised. But the place hasn't changed much. The colours are still as vibrant, clothing styles still as varied, people just as courteous and friendly and there is still a staggering amount of traffic, despite the public holidays, especially on Kennedy Caddesi (the main road to and from Ataturk) and across the Bosphorus bridge.

In 2015 lots of small things went wrong. Nothing major (clock died, watch died, phone died and then revived, ipad kept turning itself on and draining its battery) but I was annoyed that the tour to Chora church (etc) I'd booked didn't turn up. My excellent hotel sorted it out (basically, there was only me and the company couldn't be bothered) and suggested another tour to less-visited places, which I decided to try. It was ok, and took me to places I would not otherwise have visited, but I still haven't been to Chora church.

So I'll just have to go back again but, to be honest, Istanbul is such a wonderful city to explore that another trip will be no hardship at all. :-)

As a rough guide to what it is possible to see in a short time, during those 2 full days and a morning in 2010 I managed to fit in (not just ticking boxes, but taking my time and properly looking):

* Topkapi and the Harem, of course. The Harem is fascinating and very beautiful in parts but by the time I'd explored it I found the rest of the palace complex too crowded to be enjoyable. I may go back next time.

Ayia Sofia

* Sultanahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque)

* Ayia Irene. On my first visit it wasn't open to the public so I saw it from the outside only, though I found some some Roman excavations to the side. In 2015 Ayia Irene was open for visiting: almost completely bare, still needing renovation but giving a glimpse of its ancient past.

* the Basilica Cistern , which is wonderful, even if its presentation is a bit cheesy and touristy.

* the Byzantine Hippodrome and its various ancient columns

* the really excellent Archeology Museum (so excellent that I made a return visit in 2015).

* the equally excellent Museum of the Ancient Orient

* Sirkeci station

* the Spice Bazaar (or the Egyptian Bazaar, if you prefer)

* a wander across Galata Bridge into Karakoy and a visit to its fish market

* Rustem Pasa Camii, with the most wonderful Iznik tiles

* a wander along some of the sea walls and what is left of the vast Palace of Bucoleon (barely anything, sadly)

* a very quick whizz round the Grand Bazaar..not my idea of fun, I'm afraid

* Beyazit Camii with its beautiful courtyard columns of marble, serpentine and porphyry, taken from from Constantinople's ancient buildings and re-used.

* various wanders around Cankurtaran and Kumkapi

Things which stick in my mind from both visits:

* the huge variety of clothing styles and the number of ways one can wear a headscarf!

* the beauty of tiles

* the abundant friendliness and courtesy of ordinary folk

* the almost-silence inside the huge buildings, even when they are full of visitors

the April tulips....such bright colours and so many of them

* the cats...although mostly street cats they almost all look well-fed and almost all are happy to be played with and stroked. There are few dogs too, mostly guard-dogs. All the others I saw in and around Sultanahmet belonged to restaurants etc and were more than happy to spend their time lying around outside, dozing through the day.

* walking back on the lower deck of the Galata Bridge and being 'hooked' by a fisherman above...and how kind and concerned were the two waiters who rushed to my aid, how they disentangled me (the hook had, fortunately, caught in my shoe rather than in my flesh) and insisted I took the lead weight as my 'good luck charm'.

* the delicious smell of fried fish around the Kayakoy fish market and the many people thoroughly enjoying their fish sandwich lunches.

* the umpteen street sellers of simit, roast corn on the cob, roast chestnuts, and the knife grinders, and the shoe-shine-men.. the little boys I saw with their plastic bags of tissues and their sets of scales...

* and, in 2015, the very few streetchildren I saw (some in Eminonu, more near Suleymaniye mosque): filthy but happy and well-fed enough. I'm told (by Istanbullu) that Roma from Syria and Iraq have moved into Turkey and some now live in this part of Istanbul, which has always had its own 'gypsy' population living near the land walls. That fits with my observations.

* the sheer massive variety and diversity of what is on sale, everywhere....

* In 2010, the ebullient, gregarious and absolutely tireless chef-hatted owner of the Kayat Cafe, just up the road from my hotel, whose cries of 'My sister! My brother!' to all and sundry ensured his cafe was full of people whenever I passed....and whose food was excellent, and well-priced, and whose much quieter relative (brother?) served everyone with courtesy and modest smiles. But, in 2015, he was no longer there and nor was the cafe, replaced by an upmarket 'crafts' shop. I do hope he's managed to set up somewhere else in the city: his ebullience and big grins lifted me every time I passed.

* the glimpses of ancient Sultanahmet which are still visible, hidden between and beside 'newer' buildings....six entirely inaccessible ancient hammam domes seen from my 2010 hotel ....a chunk of city wall protruding ...a watchtower leaning drunkenly over a narrow street...and, in 2015, vast underground arches and rooms which were once part of a Byzantine palace, excavated by the owners of the restaurant which stands above.

* the lack of health and safety regulations.....no nanny state here....people are trusted to know their own abilities and take responsibility for their own lives...

* the sheer number of people....not just the tourists but Istambullu themselves...

* the wooden houses in Cankurtaran, patched and re-patched, full of holes, leaning drunkenly at angles above the streets...and still lived in...and many with satellite dishes....

So very different in so many ways..... and yet on each of my visits as a solo middle-aged female I felt so much safer than in many other cities elsewhere.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Full of history, wonderful colours, friendly and courteous people.
  • Cons:Vast and busy...and the traffic!
  • In a nutshell:An absolutely wonderful city, full of history and interest.
  • Last visit to Istanbul: Sep 2015
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (45)

Comments (17)

  • MM212's Profile Photo
    Oct 26, 2015 at 3:52 AM

    yes you do need to return to see St Saviour in Chora!

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Oct 26, 2015 at 4:18 AM

      I know. I was very cross at being let down but I'll get there...and make my return visit to Ayia Sofia...next time. :-)

  • Trekki's Profile Photo
    Oct 26, 2015 at 2:28 AM

    Excellent writeup me duck! I am hungry now, even more now, for wonderful dishes with spices :-))

    • Trekki's Profile Photo
      Oct 26, 2015 at 2:39 AM

      :-) Although I don't like very big cities - I like chaotic big cities :-) So yes, and ... adding the food would make me like it a lot :-))

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Oct 26, 2015 at 3:16 AM

      Save up your pennies (eurocents)...must be loads of cheap flights to Turkey from Germany. :-)

  • stapledskittles's Profile Photo
    Oct 19, 2015 at 12:38 AM

    3 this page too, even if it makes me nostalgic and homesick :) I too love the lack of nanny-state nonsense. I first arrived in Istanbul when I was 9 and the wonderful chaos of the city matched the noise in my head....I instantly felt like I was home :) One day I'll move back for a bit (I did in 2010)

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Jul 17, 2015 at 1:41 AM

    Thanks for your very detailed and interesting page and for sharing travel advice...

    • hunterV's Profile Photo
      Jul 17, 2015 at 1:54 AM

      More or less, thanks. We all pray for peace....

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Jul 17, 2015 at 1:58 AM

      Yes. I think about you often and hope for the best.

  • roamer61's Profile Photo
    Jun 30, 2015 at 9:36 AM

    As you know, its a city long on top of my list and now, the compass is pointing in its direction.

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Jun 30, 2015 at 9:41 AM

      Your 'compass' should still be pointing in the direction of Greece, for a trip to both countries.

  • MaryLfloyd's Profile Photo
    Jun 17, 2015 at 6:07 AM

    Very personal and helpful. Thank you for sharing.

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Jun 17, 2015 at 9:21 AM

      Thank you. Istanbul is a wonderful place to explore imo. :-)

  • roamer61's Profile Photo
    Jun 3, 2015 at 12:18 PM

    Small school children are noisy, period. lol

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Jun 3, 2015 at 12:27 PM

      In my experience, teenagers are much worse...especially early teens.

    • roamer61's Profile Photo
      Jun 3, 2015 at 12:29 PM

      Oh, you must then be thinking about the 12-13 year olds. We call them tweens. Yes, I think I have to agree with you there. I remember how I was at that age.

  • pieter_jan_v's Profile Photo
    Oct 12, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    Hey J, Good to read you visited Istanbul. I still have great memories of my visit. BTW small typo in the intro (mnanage).. PJ

    • pieter_jan_v's Profile Photo
      Oct 12, 2014 at 8:55 AM

      For me it was April/May of 2011. It was a big eye opener and I loved every day (came back with a kilo of Baklava!). PJ

    • leics's Profile Photo
      Oct 12, 2014 at 9:09 AM

      I think it will be on next year's list, though I don't think the farmer's wife will appreciate it...too big, too busy, too much history!

  • zadunajska8's Profile Photo
    Jan 10, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    Some really useful tips here I'll try to put to good use later this year - perhaps most importantly about WHEN to go!

  • vichatherly's Profile Photo
    Aug 10, 2011 at 4:45 AM

    Excellent Istanbul trips. I've been a few times and still have not even touched the seurface of it's treasures


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