I visited a lot of cities and a lot of countries this summer, but Istanbul is one that stands out the most. At least once a week, my sister and I text each other something to the tune of “ugh can we go back to Istanbul plz”. I think part of our love for the cultural capital of Turkey may have been partially due to the fact that it was quite early in our trip that we visited. However, that’s definitely not the only factor – I have heard so many other travellers rave about this totally unique place. It was also our first time in a Muslim country, and my sister’s first time in a really exotic place! I had been to China, but otherwise our most jarring cultural experiences were probably in the Caribbean.
No matter what the reason we loved it so much, we are both desperate to revisit Istanbul. We spent three nights in our favourite hostel of all time and wandered around the city for two full days; not nearly enough time despite the amount of stuff we managed to pack in. Read on to discover how to spend the perfect weekend in Istanbul – keeping in mind the fact that we definitely didn’t have enough time to explore in depth!
We arrived in Istanbul super late at night, and despite my usual preference for getting myself lost and confused on public transport with all of my belongings, we decided to book a private pickup for once. This wasn’t too expensive at 30 Euros from Ataturk Airport – it’s a lot more if you’re flying into the airport on the Asian side.
Our transport was arranged through Cheers Hostel, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Obviously, the best part was the dog who lives at the hostel. He is named Zamon (I have no idea if I’m spelling that correctly) and I love him so much. He would snuggle with us at breakfast and greet us enthusiastically every time we came back in: it was hard to tear ourselves away. In my mind, any hostel with a cute resident dog is automatically leaps and bounds above the dogless options.
What’s the best thing to do upon entering a totally foreign city? Throw yourself into one of its most overwhelming sites. We first headed to the Grand Bazaar, which was everything we had dreamed of and was totally magical and, like I said, overwhelming. Over the coming months I would get used to the insanity of Morocco, but the Grand Bazaar in Turkey was an amazing introduction to the vibrant world of Muslim countries. We bought scarves, gifts, sampled snacks – and discovered the sales tactics of the salesmen. At least four men asked if we were twins (NOPE) as a way to drag us into conversation.
On our way to the Spice Market, we got ourselves a little lost (intentionally) and stumbled upon Istanbul University and the New Mosque. If you’ve never been in a mosque before, prepare yourself – they are seriously incredible. I never wanted to leave, and the Blue Mosque would prove even more amazing. Make sure to follow mosque rules (cover your hair, shoulders and legs, and remove your shoes) and be respectful as most mosques are working and people are praying.
Next up, visit the Spice Market: it doesn’t sound that exciting, because what traveller really has enough room to buy a bunch of spices, but the smells alone are enough to justify a visit.
Then, we made our way down to the water and decided to hop on the ferry to Asia. One of the coolest parts of Istanbul is the opportunity to hop back and forth between Europe and Asia, so I absolutely recommend you make time for this: it’s so cheap and although we didn’t have time to explore much of the Asian side, it was fascinating to see how different it felt despite the short distance we had travelled. The views from the ferry are also stunning:
Now, I have discussed many a time that I am not exactly a museum person. However, my sister wanted to visit the Archaeology Museum and I decided that while in such an ancient city, I couldn’t really say no – and it had pretty good reviews. We had a lot of fun taking very mature pictures and my sister helpfully explained the history of Istanbul to me as we explored the exhibits.
You have even more to see tomorrow – try to get a good night’s sleep!
If I have one practical tip for Istanbul, it is to arrive at the Topkapi Palace as early as possible. We went right at opening and I would recommend doing the same – when we went in there was no line, but as we were exiting around lunchtime the line was insanely long. While we had a little bit of trouble understanding the history of this place as signage was lacking, the complex is breathtaking and completely worth the visit.
A visit to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without the Hagia Sophia – this gorgeous building used to be a mosque, was converted into a church, and is now a museum. While there was a lot of construction and the building has clearly gone through a lot of wear and tear, nothing beats the amazing way the light comes in through the windows. Don’t miss it!
Next, the Blue Mosque, which is conveniently right across from the Hagia Sophia. I could have sat in this place for hours. I have genuinely never been somewhere so beautiful. The ceiling was a work of art, the building shockingly massive, and the people inside fascinating and warm and kind. If I go back to Istanbul, this is the first place I’m stopping.
End your busy stay with a trip to a local hammam and prepare for a ton of culture shock – read about my experience and tips here.