My friend Amy will be honeymooning in Istanbul this May, so I have decided to stop being lazy and update the blog with several posts about Istanbul (never mind the fact that I actually meant to post this 2 months ago…oops).
Let’s start with a few basics and then I will post detailed entries on various attractions in Istanbul in other posts.
Currency: Turkish Lira (Currently, $1 = 2.5-2.7 Lira)
Language: Turkish. I found that very few people in Istanbul could speak English, making it difficult to ask for directions or help. In general, my tip for this is to ask young people in their 20s as they are more likely to be able to communicate in English.
*Visa: American citizens (and citizens of many other countries) do need tourist visas to enter Turkey. You can fill in the application and pay online here. When I went last year, it looked like it was still possible to complete this process at the airport upon arrival, but the lines at passport control and customs were a nightmare and you do not want to wait any longer than you have to. Do this online in advance!
When to Go
My friend has selected to go in May and this is indeed a lovely time to go. When I was in Istanbul last year, I went at the end of May/beginning of June and the temperatures were pleasant. According to BBC Weather, the average temperatures are as follows:
The first few days were sunny and warm (as pictured in the featured image of the Blue Mosque above), but even though it was not the rainy season, it can still rain. One day there was a torrential downpour of rain, with water flowing down all the streets, turning them to rivers. It was impossible not to step in it and get your feet soaking wet.
When it starts raining in Istanbul, it seems that every person on the street suddenly becomes an umbrella vendor, pulling them out of god knows where.
Most of them look all the same: plastic clear umbrellas in various colors. They will try to quote you an exorbitant amount, but they will definitely bargain with you if you are firm and walk away when they overcharge. Do not pay more than 5L for one.
Where To Stay
The most popular, touristy area of Istanbul is Sultanahmet. This is the area where all the most famous attractions are: Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, Tokapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, The Grand Bazaar, etc.
Positives: Convenience, proximity to major attractions
Negatives: Crowded, more expensive accommodations and restaurants
On advice from friends, I chose to stay in the Taksim Square area instead. There are a number of places to stay close to the square and close to main shopping street Istiklal.
Positives: Less touristy, more nightlife, cheaper restaurants and accommodations
Negatives: Must take transportation to attractions
There are, of course, many other areas one could stay in Istanbul, but I wouldn’t recommend it for tourists. One day I wandered around after going to Cora Church. I got lost and the neighborhood I was in looked sketchy, so definitely choose your area wisely.
If you stay in the Sultanahmet area, you can walk to most of the major attractions. This is definitely true if you are only planning to stay in Istanbul for a few nights and want to only visit the main spots.
However, if you are staying a bit longer like I did (I was there 6 nights) or are staying in the Taksim area (like I did), then you will want to get a metro card. I got a card with 22L on it, but had to refill it a few times, which is easy to do at the stations.
For the most part it was okay, but once I got caught on the tram in rush hour and it was horribly crammed with people. Keep in mind that most of these people with their arms up, didn’t seem to think using deodorant was important. Why do some people insist on foregoing this important hygiene product!?
Dear god, whatever you do, get the Istanbul museum pass! For 3 days it’s 85L and definitely worth it if you plan to see anything in Istanbul. I didn’t get it when I first went to Topkapi palace and that was a mistake. I was stuck in a line for tickets for over an hour and nothing is clearly marked, so I didn’t know I could buy the pass from the machines. The next day, I skipped the line at Hagia Sofia and went right in; that was so satisfying.
On the pass I went to Topkapi Palace (including the Harem, which is normally extra), Hagia Sofia, Hagia Irene, and The Istanbul Archeology Museum. I also went to Cora Church, which the above link said is included, but I think it’s only included in the 5 day pass, because I had to pay 15L to get in.
Some of it I only went to because I had the pass, but it’s honestly worth it, just to avoid the lines. With the exception of Cora Church, the other 4 are all right next to each other, so they are quite easy to do at once. Unless you have a lot of time in Istanbul (like I did), I wouldn’t bother going to the church because it’s quite out of the way.
I also went to the Blue Mosque and Suleymaniye Mosque, which are free since they are active. You just have to be aware of the rules for attending a mosque (women need to be covered, take off your shoes, etc.).
The Basilica Cistern is also in the touristy area and definitely worth a visit. It cost 10L for the ticket.
If you have time and the weather is nice, I would also recommend taking the boat to the Princes’ Islands.
I will write more about each of the above attractions (with pictures) later.