Everyone in Australia and elsewhere seems to be fascinated by the magical beauty and uniqueness of Istanbul. Before Australia, as a Turkish national I spent 29 years non-stop in Istanbul and I found out many visitors need an itinerary with a local touch.
In this blog entry you will find my personal favorite places, attractions and accommodations both for Istanbul and secondly for Cappadocia, where the fairy chimneys are. I don’t want to impose anything on anyone, these are just my humble experiences. (I added some external links of web pages here to make it easy for you to navigate, so you can click on some names)
Istanbul trip is not just about museums or history. The city is very much alive; it is all about eating, shopping, stroking a stray cat and living the moment to its fullest.
So my first advice would be no matter what you plan you will miss something in the end as the city and its hidden treasures are huge.
WHERE TO STAY?
For accommodation i would suggest Sultanahmet district, the old city. The reason is Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar can be visited in 1 day as all these are within a walking distance to each other. Topkapi Palace is also in this area but I would prefer to do it on the a separate day because it takes longer to finish the palace. In recent years we stayed in Amira Hotel, the latest one with my and my partner’s mums a year ago. As I did not hear any complaints from our mothers I take it as a positive sign.
USEFUL TIPS: As it will be your first visit probably you can ask for Airport Transfer when you book your hotel, or you can simply take a taxi at the Ataturk Airport. Don’t forget taxis is Istanbul are usually small Fiats or factory fitted LPG cars so if you are 5 people with many suitcases it would not work. Second tip: Istanbul can be as expensive as Sydney. They only use Turkish Liras in taxis. Don’t forget to get some local currency at the international airport. For light travelers I would recommend the interconnected light metro and tram system. At the Ataturk International Airport there is a light metro system taking you half way through. You can change the line in Zeytinburnu station and hop on to tram to Sultanahmet district. All announcements are both in Turkish and English, so are the signs, it is not too difficult after all. If you are going to stay for a week or so in Istanbul the alternative would be buying an IstanbulCard (like Opal of Sydney, Oyster of London) for tram, metro, ferry, bus, all are connected.
From Amira Hotel you can walk to Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque) in one minute and to Hagia Sophia in 3-4 mins. If you are travelling at a peak season I would suggest to wake up reasonably early and visit the Blue Mosque to beat the tourist crowd. 20 minutes or maximum 30 minutes should be enough to see and photograph the whole interior of the mosque. Remember during the prayer times the mosque is closed to tourists. In your case only the noon prayer would affect you, so be mindful between 11:30 am to 1:30 pm as the mosque might be closed.
Next stop is Hagia Sophia, one of the historical architectural wonders and the biggest church of its time in ancient Istanbul. Usually queues for entry are too long and move slow. If this is the case you can skip and wait till next day if you wish. It would take an hour to finish Hagia Sophia.
Behind Hagia Sophia there is a street called Kurucesme Sokagi with authentic Ottoman houses served as hotels today. You might like to see how the life was once upon a time.
Imagine yourself in front of Hagia Sophia. You will see a tram line on the road. (You can always use this line to go to Grand Bazaar or to Karakoy- Taksim area, it works both ways and you can ask the locals) After Hagia Sophia when you cross the main road in 5 seconds you will see the entrance of the Basilica Cistern an ideal place to hide from heat and it is quite relaxing. The cistern is a Byzantien underground structure used for irrigation of the city, really beautiful) 30 mins enough + you can have your photo taken in traditional Ottoman costumes, tacky but nice!
After this you can walk up on Nuruosmaniye Caddesi (street) to the Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi). About a km walk to get there. This is one of the oldest and covered markets of the world with separate sections for jewellery, carpets, leather, currency exchange. Minimum 2-3 hours required. Not luxurious yet very good local restaurants and Turkish coffee houses inside the Grand Bazaar might help you to have a bit rest.
The world-famous Topkapi Palace is also behind the Hagia Sophia and it would take 3-4 hours easily to see Harem and Selamlik (Female and Male) sections. LUNCH IDEA: Try Konyali Restaurant in the garden of the palace, but be mindful it is pricey! Snack menu was not that good so I moved to real menu! Ali Nazik and all other kebap + rice selections were cooked for the sultans, yum)
HIDDEN TREASURE: SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE AND ITS NEIGHBORHOOD
Not as famous as the Blue Mosque but best mosque of Istanbul in terms of architecture is Suleymaniye Mosque. Relaxing, spacious and different.
You can take the tram to Sirkeci and then walk to the mosque through Egyptian Spice Bazaar and old, traditional, narrow streets.
NUMBER TWO RULE: TAKSIM,
Taksim is the name of the central district, all suggestions I made here are on the European side and close to Taksim by underground, bus or taxi. Taksim Square (or also known Beyoglu and Istiklal Avenue is about 1 km long and is harbors the most cosmopolitan, liberal and gay district of the city)
In Taksim, to my taste the best restaurant is Haci Abdullah.
For dinner: If you happen to be in Taksim at night time, I would recommend a dinner or at least a cocktail in Marmara Hotel Roof Restaurant or Bar. The view is really good.
MY PLACES TO GO:
As an Istanbulite I would highly recommend the Maiden Tower an islet with a Byzantine romantic legend, cafes and restaurant and museum. You can see the whole old city from the sea: Here is the link
Do you like antiques? Then Cukurcuma is your district. It is next to Taksim, walking distance. Here is the link
ISTANBUL MODERN MUSEUM : If you are into contemporary art and museums then this is a good place to be. From Taksim Square there is a underground funicular system going to Kabatas where the museum is. 10 mins from Taksim.
LOCAL SHOPPING EXPERIENCE:
Eminonu district is good to give an idea about local life, you will find the Epyptian Bazaar, an old stone building where you can buy spices etc.
Turkish Delight: In Eminonu you will see the first Turkish delight manufacturer Haci Bekir (since 1777). These guys used to cater for the Ottoman sultans. Their first manufacturing place is still open. Here is the address:
Hamidiye Cad. No.83 34110 Eminönü / İstanbul
Tel. 212 522 06 66
If you like urban life and modern way of shopping you can go to Levent area by using the underground system. Please search Tripadvisor for further comments on these shopping malls.
METRO CITY (average price)
ISTINYE PARK (expensive)
AKMERKEZ (one of the first shopping malls in Istanbul)
There are hundreds of more malls everywhere in the city. Shopping paradise really!
I assume first you will stay in Istanbul. It is better to fly light to Cappadocia. If you like leaving heavy luggage to be stored at the Istanbul hotel would be an idea.
Also if you have a transit flight back home i would suggest to come back from Cappadoccia 1 day earlier to Istanbul in case there is delay, cancellation. I would not normally expect such thing but still caution would be good. How to get there from Istanbul?
Either by bus or plane. Flying to Kayseri where Cappadocia is near.
Last time we took Pegasus Airlines Very reliable, low-budget carrier like JetStar. But it only flies from the second airport on the Asian side of Istanbul. It is called Sabiha Gokcen Airport. To get there from there are shuttle bus services from Taksim. It cost approx: 6 AUD per person. Havatas‘s webpage is also in English.
Another alternative flying Anadolu Jet, Turkish Airlines from Ataturk Airport. It is easier but flight would cost more.
For Cappadocia baloon tour, the best one was Butterfly Balloons in our experience 2 years ago. Please insist on Mike as the pilot as he speaks English and very experienced.
For Cappadocia accommodation i had chosen a bit luxurious hotel called Gamirasu Cave Hotel, about few kms away from the town centre, below i put its web address yet please remember there are hundreds of similar cave hotels in Goreme city centre and personally i would advise to look at Tripadvisor to find a good one.
Of course the bible for tourism is the Tripadvisor, you can also find the best and new deals like cafes on it.
I am done here, the rest is up to you. How do they say, oh yes