- Middle east
4 Days in Istanbul, Turkey
I had been traveling from one Muslim country to another for the past few months now, and I thought I had enough experience to form an expectation for another Muslim country I was bound for, Turkey. Boy. how I was wrong. Even though Turkey is a Muslim country, it had nothing in common with other countries I have been to except for its religion. Turkey is less conservative, much more open to western culture, and more developed towards European style rather than Middle Eastern style. It was a breath of fresh air arriving in Istanbul and witnessing the liveliness of the city that acted as a hub between 2 continents.
I spent 4 days in Istanbul exploring the usual tourist trails mostly in the European side, and one of those days, my good Turkish friend, Tulu whom you may have remembered from my trip in Dunedin, New Zealand last year, showed me the real Istanbul as we devoured our ways through the Asian side of the city.Table of Contents
Where to Stay in Istanbul, Turkey
As for the accommodation, I first stayed at Bada Bing Hostel but I did not like it that much. There were a lot of party goers and it can get loud at night. What I didn't like most was that they run a travel agency on the side and every time I asked them what I should do in Turkey, they would try and push me into buying their tour packages (especially the Blue Cruise tour).
What I would recommend is the World Hostel near Galata tower. Very well located, friendly staff and spacious rooms. Security is their top priority and it really showed. They have digital locks on every floor. They give you free breakfast and also run a cafe on the side. I always find myself sitting in the cafe, sipping coffee while watching all kinds of people walked through the Galata street.
Day 1: Exploring Istanbul from the European Side
One thing I learned from flying to Istanbul is that a flight at 3 AM meant that you would not get any sleep that night. I had to check my bag in at 1AM, go through immigration and waited for the boarding call at 2AM. Woken up because they served breakfast on the plane at around 4 - 5 AM. I arrived in Greece at 7 AM, boarded another plane at 8 AM and arrived in Istanbul at 10 AM. Basically, I was a walking zombie that day.
I went straight to the hostel and took a nap that afternoon. After I woke up, I decided not to waste a good sunny day and walked along the Bosphorus. It was a great decision because that was the only sunny day I had.
The mix between old architechture and unique-looking mosques are what defines Istanbul.
There is nothing like sitting in a mosque listening to the sounds of the city and the prayers dissolved into one harmonic rhythm.
I was there at the height of the Turkish 2015 election, so the city was more colorful than usual.
I bought a grilled corn from a street vendor, and sat by this mosque as I enjoyed both the corn and the sun like every else on the that beautiful day.
I went to the Grand Bazaar after and as you may have guessed it, I got lost in no time.
Istanbul was a breath of fresh air compared to the more conservative neighbors like Cairo and Amman.
Since it was a clear day, and I know that luck is not usually on my side when it comes to the weather, I decided to go up the Galata tower for sunset.
There was a long line at the tower and it took me almost 30 minutes before I was able to get up the tower.
It was totally worth the wait. You can see a 360 view of the city from up here especially on a sunny day like this.
There were many people at the top but because of the line, it was never too uncomfortably crowded.
As the sun was about the set, the whole sky turned blue and purple. People called it the Blue hours and I could see why.
Before going back to the hostel, I snapped this photo showing 3 types of people, 3 types of personalities.. just like the diversity of the city itself.
Day 2: Visiting Hagia Sophia and more!
First lesson learned that day, it's actually spelled Aya Sofya, not Hagia Sophia!
One of the many dreams I had was to see the inside of Hagia Sophia, now that I was there, it felt so unreal!
Sometime, you just got to look up and wonder, "How the fuck did they build this place?".
Is it a church? Is it a mosque? No one knows anymore.
Both the ground floor and the second floor of Hagia Sophia were turned into an art exhitbition showing the greatest work of Islamic art. The view from the balcony really captured the scale of the place.
Too bad, when I was there, half of the mosque were under maintenance. I heard they were trying to recover the wall paintings that was covered when they turned it into a mosque.
The remnant of Christianity within the Hagia Sophia.
You could see the Blue Mosque at the very cool angle from the second floor. Even at the window, there was a line!
Since it was raining outside, I was stuck in Hagia Sophia for an hour and a half. I did not mind that though. I was living the dream!
As the rain started to slow down, I decided to run to the entrance of the Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul.
The cistern is the perfect place to visit when the weather is not on your side. The water dripped from the ceiling added to the creepiness of the place.
In the cistern, you will see 2 Medusa's heads under two pillars. No one knows exactly where it came from and why one of them is tilted sideway. Creepy!
Next up, the Blue Mosque which is a few minutes walk away from Hagia Sophia.
Since I was there when they were praying, I was unable to go in and the rain was pouring more and more every minute.
This was the Hagia Sophia from the outside. The Blue Mosque wins when it comes to the exterior but the Hagia Sophia's interiors definitely takes the crown on that front.
Hagia Sophia is a little expensive to get inside compare to the Blue Mosque (which is free) but I think Hagia Sophia is much more rewarding. Mosques look similar to each other in general except the Hagia Sophia which looks nothing like any mosque I've seen.
Since the rain just won't stop pouring, I retreated into the Grand Bazaar again and yes, I did get lost.. again!
Since it was raining all night, I did not get to go check out the nightlife and decided to end the day early.
Day 3: Exploring Taksim Square
The next day, I decided to go to Taksim Square to get my night bus ticket to Selcuk at the Metro Bus ticket office nearby. I discovered the famous Taksim shopping street, Istiklal street without knowing it was there. There weren't many people in the morning but during the evening time, the place turned into this..
With thousands of people from all across the globe and many street performers entertaining those people, it was the perfect place to go people-watching.
Day 4: Exploring Istanbul from the Asian side
I was glad to meet her again after we hitchhiked together in New Zealand 6 months back. It was nice to meet a familiar face after several months of traveling solo.
In order to get to the Asian side, I took a ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar which took 20 minutes to get across. From that point on, we simply went around eating everything that were in our paths.
There is a reason why the Asian side is not so popular among tourists. There were not many notable monuments or attractions on this side but because of that, everything on this side is cheaper.
We started off our days by going to a pastries shop and ate a bunch of Peynirli Gözleme and Açma Ve Su Böreği. We walked along the Bosphorus and stopped for a little taste of Midye Dolma or stuffed mussels that was being sold by street vendors all over Istanbul. It was delicious!
Last but not least, Tulu insisted that I try one of the local delicacies that her friends hated, the Kokoreç, a dish that consisted mainly of lamb or goat intestines. Despite the disgusting explanation, it actually tasted really good and not weird at all. It tasted like a grilled peppery minced beef.
Both of us were so full, we ended up sitting near Maiden's tower later and talked about what we both had been through in the past 6 months. It was a nice change to be able to develop a travel friendship further instead of leaving it at that when we went separate ways 6 months back. After an hour or so, we said goodbye to each other and went separate ways again. I have a feeling I will meet her somewhere soon.
There you have it, my trip across 2 continents in a nutshell that ended my time in Istanbul.. for now.
Next up, we will go south of Istanbul to Selcuk and explore the ancient Roman cities of Ephesus and Pamukkale. I hope you enjoy the trip I took you through as much as I did myself. Since I spent a whole month in Turkey, there will be a lot more posts about this wonderful country coming so stay tuned.
Direction to the Metro Bus Ticket office in Taksim Square
From the Taksim square, walked passed the Marmara hotel on your right and right by the big flag of Turkey, you should see and intersection. Turn right and follow the road until it curves left, you should see the blue and orange Metro sign at the end of the curve.
Further Reading for Turkey
Turkey is a country that stands in the middle of Europe and Asia. Empires after empires rose and fall on this land and in order to see Turkey as a whole, you will have to go further than just Istanbul.
Here is a selection of articles and travel guides that you might need to further plan your trip to Turkey:
- Looking for a complete itinerary and travel guide for Turkey? One Month Itinerary for Turkey.
- A lot of Roman-influenced can be seen throughout Turkey. One of the big ones is Ephesus, a Roman ruin near Selcuk, south of Istanbul. Here’s a quick guide on how to get to Selcuk and visit Ephesus.
- Pamukkale is a popular tourist attraction since the ancient time. People from all over come to bath in these white salt pools along the cascade. It is an incredible sight to behold and if you want to visit, check out my One Day Travel Guide to Pamukkale.
- The southern coast of Turkey boasts a vivid turquoise colored sea, stunning cliffs and the Lycian trail, one of the best long trekking trails in the world that runs along the coast. Check out our travel guide on hiking the Butterfly Valley and Kabak in the Southern port town of Fethiye, Turkey.
- Cappadocia is a big area full of amazing things to do, from hot air balloon to hiking the valleys. Here’s a complete guide on how to spend 4 days in Cappadocia, Turkey.
- Mt. Nemrut and a collection of stone heads of gods atop the mountain are not easy to visit. The question has to be asked, Is Mt. Nemrut really worth visiting? We have the answer.
- It’s time to go off the beaten path with a visit to Van, a city in Eastern Turkey known for its massive breakfast and an Armenian temple on an island. Here’s a travel guide on how to visit Van, Turkey.
- The Northern coast of Turkey, below the Black Sea is also a great place to go off-the-beaten-path. Trabzon is an important ancient port city full of history waiting for you to explore. Check out my travel guide on how to visit Sumela Monastery in Trabzon.
- Kars is a city located on the easternmost part of Turkey and along the border with Armenia, there’s an ancient Armenian ruin called Ani that will blow your mind away. Here is a complete guide on how to visit Ani from Kars, Turkey.
- Not convinced by my words? Maybe these photos of Turkey will help! 45 Photos that will inspire you to travel to Turkey.
- Since you are already all the way east, why not cross the border from Turkey to Georgia and make your way to Tbilisi, a vibrant capital city of Georgia. Check out my Georgia Travel Guide to plan your next trip to Georgia.
- For all articles about Turkey, visit Turkey Travel Guide page.
- Looking for more travel guides for the Middle East? You can find more on my Middle East Travel Guide page.
- For more of my travel guides, visit my Destinations page.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by Pete Rojwongsuriya, the founder of BucketListly Blog where we will follow his solo journey around the world as he experiences different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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