Enjoying the Sights and Sounds of Istanbul

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I’ve always been curious about Istanbul and Turkey in general…would it feel European or Middle Eastern? How open to tourism would the locals be? Would the public transportation be easy to navigate? What would the weather be like?

I visited Greece a few years ago and loved it, so it seemed like this region would likely be a win as well. Of course, I only spent three days in Istanbul, so there is a LOT I didn’t see, but I feel like I gave it my best. There were crowded areas, crawling with tourists, and quieter spots, with authentic feeling streets and terrific vantage points. It was an exciting place to explore and I would definitely go back, especially to check out the islands near the coastline.

The views from the water are really unmatched, especially since the public ferries cost less than a dollar to ride. The Bosphorous Strait runs in between the Asian and European sides of Istanbul, carrying enough ferry routes to get to all the major places you might like to go. There are beautiful mosques amid the sky scrapers on both sides of the waterway, providing unique and picturesque skylines. One of my favorite things to do was just take the ferry from one side to the other, enjoying the breeze and all the things to see.

There is quite an assortment of unique foods in Istanbul, many that were new to me. I’m not a meat eater, so there were plenty of traditional items that I didn’t want to try, but I was brave enough to eat gozleme [pictured below, similar to crepes with different fillings, mine had cheese, olives, potato, and spinach], borek [another filled pastry, this time fried phyllo dough], knafeh [pictured farther below…sweet, cheesy, with a Wheetabix style cereal, a pistachio crumble on top], simit [like a sesame bagel], acibedem cookie [almond paste, quite soft], pomegranate juice, Turkish delight [so sweet and gooey], and pide [also pictured below, basically like pizza].

Some of it was weird and would take some getting used to! I also tried Turkish coffee and tea and decided they weren’t my favorite. : / But it’s always fun trying new things!!

I think that’s really why I enjoy traveling so much — it’s the novelty of seeing a new place, smelling new smells, tasting new foods…experiencing a new culture. I just love new things. 🙂

When I do land in a new place, I usually spend my first hours figuring out the bus/tram/metro situation. Istanbul is well connected with both streetcar type transportation on the ground level as well as subways underground. It is quite easy to move quickly from one side of town to the other. They also have funicular style rides that get you from the bottom to the top of steep hills without much effort at all! You simply buy an Istanbulkart, load it up with money, and scan it to ride. These cards can be used on the ferries as well, and even to pay the $0.10 to use a public restroom! It’s very convenient and pretty inexpensive! I love cities with great public transportation like this!

The street level trams in the touristy areas did get crazy crowded during the busiest parts of the day, but for the most part, everything was simple and smooth.

In my hunting for views, I found a gondola that took me up to a cemetery built on the mountainside. I found the Camlica tower on the Asian side [pictures from the observation desk above]. And I hiked up to the top of another hill, the one where the giant flag flies. It’s so fun to get up above the city and look down on everything. I could see for miles from the top of this tower.

There were a few abandoned and run down buildings like the one pictured above, but for the most part, buildings and streets were maintained pretty well in the city. There are definitely tourist sections and neighborhoods that are more authentic, with a local vibe. I felt like I should probably visit the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern [you have to see the iconic places, right?], but I got some pictures and didn’t stay long at either place. Both had long lines to get in and people everywhere. The cistern was only cool because of the lighting effects [unless you have a passion for historical architecture, I guess]!

Most of the time I just wandered about, walking from place to place on my own, but my favorite organized activity was a free walking tour with Guru Walk!! Our guide was able to explain so many important things and gave us a real view of the neighborhoods of Barat and Fener. I do love a good walking tour. 🙂 There are other organized activities that you might like as well, including guided tours on the Bosphorus.

There were regular calls to prayer, five times a day, from multiple mosques, echoing around the city. This reminded me of Addis Ababa, where I spent one night many years ago. There is such a variety of people in the city of Istanbul, from tourists to locals, of many ethnic backgrounds. Some women wore headscarves, some wore full burkas, and just as many wore neither. One thing that did seem interesting to me was that I didn’t see anyone else wearing sandals, like me [Keens]. Men and women alike were all wearing sneakers on their feet!

So did I get my questions answered? For the most part, yes! The weather was temperate, not very humid, but reasonably warm. Transportation was well connected, inexpensive, and easy to navigate. The people were mostly friendly [except for one bus driver who shooed me away, presumably because he didn’t speak English and didn’t think I was in the right place…maybe I wasn’t…], and there are PLENTY of other tourists in the city. A couple times there were aggressive rug salesmen who tried to get my attention, but I’m pretty good at saying no thanks and moving on. Since I haven’t been to the Middle East, I can’t really say if Istanbul has its own culture or is influenced by its neighbors, but it is a very cosmopolitan city, with influences from all over.

The Istanbul airport is new and modern and beautiful and I was able to enjoy a traditional Turkish breakfast on my last day in the country [olives, cheese, bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, jam]. Overall, my short stay in Turkey was pretty amazing and I would love to return. I had hoped to visit Cappadocia while here, but those plans fell through and I went to Copenhagen instead [next blog post]!! Cappadocia — wait for me, I’m coming!!

Cheap accommodations in Istanbul:

  • Yolo Hostel: located about five minutes walking from the ferry terminal at Kadikoy, on the Asian side. I stayed in a six bed mixed room, but there were privacy curtains, so it was more comfortable. I appreciated the comfortable bed and bedding, and the clean, hot shower. ~$22/night
  • Archeo Hostel: This place was so nice! I was given a free welcome drink and free Turkish breakfast! They would have served me free pasta, but I didn’t get back in time for the evening meal! The bed and bedding was very comfortable and the lockers were large. I also appreciated the location in a nicer neighborhood. ~$25/night
  • Agora Hostel: Not my favorite from a bed perspective [the rooms weren’t as comfortable or well kept up], but the rooftop terrace was INCREDIBLE. I sat up there for quite a while enjoying the night air and the views. If you want to spend the night close to some of the main tourist attractions, this location is better than the other two. ~$25/night

Need to stay connected to the Internet while you’re in a fun, new place? YES!! My go-to option for an e-sim is Airalo!! I’ve connected to the Internet using this e-sim service now in Belize, Costa Rica, Denmark, Bulgaria, and Turkey without ANY trouble. Before I landed in Istanbul, I bought 2 GB for $6.50 and that was just enough to stay connected throughout my three day adventure. Of course, I save my social media posting for when I’m connected to Wi-Fi at my overnight accommodation, but 2 GB is enough to get me around Google maps and other basic communication throughout the day.


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Hi, I’m Laura

I’m based in Washington State and will definitely be showcasing local destinations, but this girl loves to fly all over the world!! If you love adventures and frugal travel, stick with me!