I can't explain the beauty of Istanbul in words. The wonderous array of orange, purple, yellow, and red lights as the sun ascends and descends is unlike any I've seen in the world (although Bali is a close second). If you are planning a trip there, or plan to go at some point in your life, I have created a wanderlust guide for you. Although these tips are mainly for those who lean towards frugality, if you're balling out of control, I'm sure you'll appreciate this insight as well. Here you will find any and everything you need to know about this amazing city. It gives you all the necessities to begin to maneuver like a native instead of a regular tourist.
The longer you stay, the more words you will inevitably pick up, but if you’re not staying long, make sure to know these words well before you start your interactions. The locals appreciate it and are always pleasantly surprised. They are also less likely to severely jack up their prices to infamous “tourist prices” when you speak their language! This is a list of the words I used the most in my time there:
Tashakurle: Thank you
Nargile: Sheesha/Hookah (don’t judge me)
Yarin Geurshurus: See you tomorrow!
Nakadar: How much?
Indirim: Discount (important for you shopping-addicts)
Something to keep in mind is that you will see a lot of signs with words like "Tabarlaşhi" or "Için" . You might, for some reason or another, need to pronounce these. After some serious inquiries, I found out that no-one understood me because I was pronouncing them horribly wrong. Know that the ç is pronounced "ch" and the ş is pronounced as "sh". Keep this in mind my fellow wanderers.
There are many places that you can choose to stay in Istanbul. I personally stayed in Taksim, even though there are a good sum of tourists in the area. I had to keep in mind that Istanbul in general is for tourists, while there are many locals, the city thrives on tourism. It also happened to be easiest for me as I didn’t want to move too much with my luggage, and it’s where I found an awesome deal. Hostels are known for giving discounts if you’re staying for a bit of time!
My favorite area because I stayed there and made some genuine friends, so I’m biased. In general the biggest attraction there is definitely Istiklal Street. Remember that name, it will come up more than once during your stay. It is basically the turn-up arena of Istanbul. Around 3 million people visit this street per day during the weekend, so prepare for a ton of people. Thankfully no vehicles are permitted on the street, as there is barely room for walking. It stretches about 1.4km, or just short of a mile and is the go-to place for cafés, shopping, food, and people watching. It is family friendly during the day with street performers, but once night falls, prepare for the drunks. Families are still welcome, but the club scene emerges and things change up just a little bit. You will see a lot more transgenders or “lady-boys” as the locals sometimes call them, and girls in skimpy clothing with high heels ready to get their evening started. Sidenote: props to those girls for walking up all those hills and valleys with heels on!
A predominately residential area just a hop and a skip away from Taksim Square. If you’re looking for affordable stay that is only one major road from the excitement, this is the place. It is considered the slums and you will notice many impoverished Turks, and displaced Syrians. You get more of a sense of how the "other side" lives here. Don't get too distracted by the glitz and glam of Istiklal and give this place a visit. The people are wonderfully friendly, although I was warned to not wander into the area after dark.
You may hear this place referred to as “the old city”. It is extremely touristy as all the major attractions are located here. The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Bus City Tours are all here. What this should mean to you is a hell of a lot of people. I visited the area during Ramadan as most tourists came after the holy month. The prices are the most expensive of any I’ve seen in Istanbul as all the visitors surround the area. You can expect to pay regular USD prices for most things including food, drinks, and all sorts of trinkets. It is swarming with sightseer shops and might be a nice place to pick up gifts for home if you plan on sharing your experiences. After about 10 or 11pm it gets pretty quiet. Actually, its completely dead. If you’re looking for a go-to place after that time then head to Taksim!
On the Asian side as a major traffic-hub and residential area, it is still noticeably quieter than the European side. It is pedestrian friendly with a tram that takes you up the torturous hills. There are many shops and cafes everywhere and the outsiders are significantly less. Of the tourists you do see, it is evident that many visit Istanbul regularly. If you’re looking for a place to spend to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the European side, then Kadiköy is a nice alternative. Think of the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday, that's here! There are also a quaint amount of bookstores for all you bookworms (myself included!). If you're interested in shopping while there, then head to Moda!
Once you step through immigration in the airport and the doors open you will see families awaiting their loved ones and hotel drivers with signs for "Mr. Mohamed" (not even joking, there will be at least one). As you continue to walk, you are going to see a million and one people asking you if you need a taxi. Pass them all. Taxi's are pretty expensive here, and half the time unless you have the exact address, they won't know where they're going. The metro is your best friend. The best way to do this without getting lost is to contact your hotel beforehand and find out which station is closest to it. If the walk is far, and you have massive amounts of luggage (which I hope you've avoided) then look for buses that can take you to a local area. From there you can take a taxi, and although it'll probably still be expensive, you'll at least be in the area.
Here's a metro map to make your life a little easier:
A single metro ticket costs 4TL, but if you’re staying for a while, it would best serve you to purchase a metro card for 10LE as your fares will only be around 2TL after that.
*If you'd still rather have a clean (but totally boring) map, here's a link for you.
I love food! Turkey might have some of the best-seasoned food I've tasted on my travels thus far. If I were to name you all the foods to try, we would be here until tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll name some of the staples you can't leave without at least sampling.
Simit: it’s the American equivalent of a bagel but looks almost like a pretzel. The consistency is a little harder than the average pretzel and it is covered in sesame seeds. This delicious carb is found outside of almost every metro, mall, and mosque. You can ask them to slice it and smother it in butter, light cheese, or my personal favorite Nutella! You can get it for anywhere from 2-3TL or .72USD.
Doner Wrap: it’s a wrap that can be filled with chicken or kebab and is accompanied with vegetables, a garlic-y type of spread and fries. I love the fact that the fries are already included in your sandwich which means you don’t need to order them on the side! They are sold almost everywhere and are a great quick meal. They will cost you around 6TL or 2.17USD.
Kebab: you know exactly what Kebab is. It's meat. It's delicious. It's a necessity. Welcome to its birthplace. Go ahead and indulge.
Turkish Ice-cream: it’s the best ice cream I have ever had in my whole entire life. It beats ColdStone’s Birthday Cake Remix, it beats Blue Bell and even Talenti. The consistency is so rich and almost chewy, but in the most delicious way possible. There is a legitimate show when you purchase this treat! Beware the guy in the interesting outfit might smash some ice-cream in your face, but it’s all in good humor!
Baklava: if you’ve honestly never heard of baklava until now, then I am so sorry that you have been deprived for so long. As a sweet pastry made with filo, filled with chopped nuts and topped with sweet, sweet honey, there’s no way you won’t fall in love. Some of the best I’ve had have been in random shops between Istiklal Street and Tarlabaşi Blv. The price is dependent on how many kilos you’ll be purchasing.
Kunefeh: it is the holy grail of desserts, and I say this knowing my mom makes the best ones, so realize I am biased in my review. Regardless, this sweet dessert is filled with cheese and topped with a sugar-based syrup. Although the cheese sounds out of place, it is very good and the tangy cheese keeps the sweetness at bay. Most places that sell baklava also sell kunefeh. The price is yet again dependent on how many kilos you’re purchasing.
Street Corn: it is exactly what it sounds like, corn from a street cart. You can watch these amazing men boil and grill your corn right in front of you and hand you the most organic vegetable/grain you’ve probably ever eaten. They top it with a good amount of salt so make sure to express to them if you’re not a fan. Their carts will never be too far from those selling Simit! It will cost you around 2-3 TL or .72USD.
Eminönü Fish Sandwich: it is the freshest fish sandwich I have ever eaten. Imagine a food truck, but instead of a truck, it's a boat. You walk up to the boats on the Eminönü station, it's actually more of pushing than walking, as everyone is looking to get a piece of this delicious seafood. Once you hit the front of the line, you signal a number indicating how many sandwiches you'd like and pay up. Don't expect to say things like "hold the lettuce" or "make sure the fish is sauted nicely" here. It is a quick in and out type of ordeal. The smell of the fish hits you as soon as you get off the tram/metro, and you follow it until you reach the beginning of the line where you pay about 8TL or 2.88USD
Make sure to try any and everything in Istanbul. You are going to fall in love with the food!
Tipping, Tea, and Turkish Baths
I have read many articles saying that the tipping culture is as follows:
Taxis: round the fare up
While I was there, I have found that the people were often overly pleased when I tip. Once I got to know the place better, I asked around and found that an overwhelming amount of the locals never tip except for their taxi fare. As I like to travel like a native, I considered stopping my habit. After some consideration, I decided that my small contribution was worth putting a smile on these people’s faces. Take this information as you will and respond accordingly. I’m only here to “spit facts”.
Tea is such an intricate part of the Turkish culture. As a Sudanese native, I thought we drank a lot of tea, but we have nothing on the Turks. Tea is served any and everywhere. In many places it’s even free with your meal! At the hostel I stayed in, tea was available readily during any hour. Make sure to have a cup on a nice rooftop terrace during sunrise/sunset. It will be an unforgettable experience, granted that your view is decent. If not, ask some locals for their favorite tea spots and there is no way you can be disappointed. I love the fact that the array of teas is large and diverse. Lemon mint to pomegranate to every variety between green and herbal teas you can imagine. If you love tea, this is the place to go.
Coffee is also very common here, and although I do like Turkish coffee, I will always prefer teas. With every cup of Turkish coffee served, it is customary to also receive a small cup of water. When I asked why, the most common answer was, “we’ve just always done it that way, it’s tradition”. I saw numerous coffee shops with lines down alleyways that sold coffee beans from all over the world. It seems to me that relaxing with a nice cup of tea/coffee is and always has been a part of the culture in Istanbul.
Chances are, you’ve never experienced anything remotely similar to a Turkish bath before. I guess I should start explaining how the process goes. First, get naked! Are you shocked yet? You basically strip down to your underwear and wrap a sarong-type of cloth around you. Then you are asked to enter a marble room in which there are marble benches around the perimeter of the room and a huge marble island in the middle of the room. Inside it is hot and steamy (not in a HBO way), just in a hot summer’s day (almost like a sauna) way. After you soak in the humidity, you are to lay on the center island as a lady soaks you in soap and begins to scrub your body. Your whole body. Everything.
If you took a shower that morning, you’ll start to believe that it was a façade, and you merely imagined it, after seeing all the dirt slide off your body. Afterwards you get a heavenly massage and you’re taken to drink some tea to get your fluids up, since you’ve sweated out about 15 pounds by this point. All in all, walking out, you feel rejuvenated and cleaner than you’ve ever felt before. The whole process takes about an hour or two depending and will run you anywhere from 70TL-300TL or 25-110USD
Grand Bazaar vs Spice Market
Istanbul has everything from Mango to Louis Vuitton to Koton, so if that’s your thing then you’re in the right place. There are shops all over town for the likes of you. I personally prefer cheap, discounted, and local clothing and materials. As I asked around, I found that many tourists went to the Grand Bazaar. I didn’t like the idea of tourists being there so I started asking some friends I had made in the area about this “bazaar”. They told me that I would like it and should go, but when I further questioned them, I found that barely any locals go there. The only times locals go to the Grand Bazaar is to “buy gold for marriage”, but other than that, it was a huge tourist trap.
I decided to skip it, and urge you to do the same if you feel that we are on the same brain wavelength. I have heard that the Grand Bazaar is huge, and has a ridiculous amount of stalls and carts, but all the items are overpriced for the tourists who believe they are getting a “local experience”…not. When I asked for a better sort of experience, I was directed towards the Spice Market. *cue lights of heaven shining on me*
Oh the Spice Market! Imagine walking into a stampede of people rushing from four different directions. You have to fight your way through and it is going to be hot, and when you pass the fish section, you’re going to want to hurl, but there is honestly no experience more genuine. You will undoubtedly see tourists, as they have been steered in the right direction along their path as well, but more so, you will see locals! Buying spices, nuts, dates, and herbs for their next meal.
The stalls are each set up so that they face each other, while a good majority of the stalls have an attached store, others don’t. Unlike at Kroger or other supermarkets where the spices are neatly packaged and sealed, here, they are completely out in the open. You can touch and taste for quality before you purchase. This doesn’t just apply to the spices either. An overwhelming amount of dates, nuts, and dried fruit are all in accompaniment and as long as you’re considering buying, touch all you want. If you want a sample, be courteous and ask if it’s ok, but the answer is always “yes”. I got full sampling dates stuffed with nuts and Turkish delights of all kinds. Best. Time. Ever. Other than that, there is a section of the Spice Market known as the “Egyptian Market” where you can literally buy any and everything you can imagine. You’ll be hard pressed to find something at the Grand Bazzar that’s not available at the Spice Market. Shoes, watches, clothes, burkas, scarves, sunglasses, tazers, and my personal favorite, fragrances.
I need to let you know about buying perfume/cologne in this amazing market. It would be a disgrace to leave you in the dark. You know how you walk into Macy’s and the selection is all nicely displayed? Yeah, this is nothing like that. There are barely any actual perfume stores that you’ll be able to see. You have to walk into them by chance. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, a strange man will walk up to you with a black bag and start pulling out bottles of Chanel and Dolce & Gabanna and he might even begin to spray you down with some to show you their authenticity. Your first reaction will be to ignore him and tell him no, don’t! Listen to me, do not pass up the opportunity he is presenting you. Politely ask him to take you to his boss’s store. He will make you wait outside and go into a store in a cut down some stairs and ask if it is ok for you to come down. If you get to go down, your mind will be blown! Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana are only the beginning. Everything from Hugo Boss to Paco Rabanne to Prada is available.
Welcome to the Black Market my friend. You will undoubtedly wonder if the perfumes/colognes are fake, but on the contrary, they are as authentic as the $110 bottles in Macy’s. The fragrance lasts all day, you get the original bottle, and you’re never left with any sort of rash or irritation. Nevertheless, looking around, you’ll notice some of the bottles say “tester” or “sample” across them. Now whether these were stolen off a boat or went “mysteriously missing” is beyond me. All I can tell you is that they are quite real and quite cheap. I purchased the following:
Lady Million by Paco Rabanne: Retail-$107USD
Invictus by Paco Rabanne: Retail-$104USD
The One by Dolce & Gabbana: Retail-$112USD
Flora by Gucci: Retail-$110USD
I bought all of the above for just about $95USD after some extreme haggling. Note* I am an extreme haggler, your skills may not be up to par (no disrespect my friends, I just have years of experience from Sudan) and so you might not be able to reach such a bargain. Even if you walk out with four quality fragrances for a fraction of the price, you are winning. Go to the Spice Market, and win!
The city is flooded with them, and you will have a hard time to choose which one to go to, but chances are that you'll enjoy the one you choose. I called my personal favorite "Nargile", even though that's not its official name. It is on a side street off of Istiklal St. and the huge Koton store. I went there everyday while in Turkey and made genuine friends. Mesut, Gilias, Ali, Omer, and the owner Fehmi all hold a special place in my heart and became my personal tour guides. They let me know where to go, and what was a scam while I was there. They hooked me up with hookah/shisha, green tea, and free wi-fi while I visited. If you go, please tell them Guley (their nickname for me; means rose) sent you and they will give you the VIP treatment you undoubtedly deserve.
I got to go to Buyurkada and it was so beautiful! You take a ferry there and the island itself is mindblowing. Besides the natural beauty, the islands has no cars. It is only about 14km all around and the main source of travel is biking or walking. You will see many horse drawn carriages and make sure you ride on one. While they are stinky from all the poo, it's still a nice experience. The best part is exploring the island on a bicycle. You can even go to the beaches, but beware they cost money! Although only about 20TL, make sure to put it in your budget.
If you're coming here without a love, this is the place to find a nice foreign love. If you are of brown or dark complexion, boy are you lucky! These men (and I've heard women also) love chocolate! You will be approached many times for a photo if nothing else, and will have all the lovey-dovey eyes on you. My recommendation: come single, find bae, live happily ever after.
If you are into cloths, carpets, or anything of the sorts, make sure to visit Saddam! He is located in Sultanahmet and wanted me to let everyone know that he is not of the Hussein family (hope you're happy now Saddam). His family shop is filled with beautifully hand-crafted tapestries and his prices are the shiz.
all in all
Istanbul is a truly amazing time. I will never forget one sunset or sunrise I witnessed while I was there, nor any of the amazing people I came in contact with. Make sure you allow yourself to meet the people there, take in your blessings and begin the adventure of a lifetime.
*Make sure to check out the Turkey Gallery for all the pictures*