General information: Istanbul may not be the administrative capital of Turkey (it’s Ankara), but it was the capital of the East Roman Empire, Ottoman empire and it must be recognized that it’s the actual center of the country, it’s where everything happens, where there are more job opportunities and where more and more people move to. It’s a huge city, with its 15 million inhabitants (they say it actually has much more, but these are the official figures) and more than 5 million tourists a year, it has everything. It’s located on two continents, Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus channel, which makes the city even more attractive and special.
How to get there?
Well, it depends on where. I left from Sarajevo, because they have a very good connection with Istanbul. (I was first coming from Brussels, spent 6 days in Croatia, went by car to Sarajevo, the night before randomly got invited and overslept in my friend’s family house in Novi Travnik. Don´t ask, I don´t know.) So, I came by flight from Sarajevo. It’s only two hours of flight and with Pegasus Airlines (low cost) I got quite cheap ticket, and that was for the New Year. There are other airlines that go there, but they are usually more expensive. Of course, sometimes Turkish airlines has offers, so you have to check the prices from time to time. We landed at the Sabiha Gökcen airport, which is an hour and a half from the center (if we assume that the center is where Taksim Square, in the European part). There is very good connection with the bus (the Havabus company) to the center, and it’s quite cheap, 3 euros in one direction, you buy it directly on the bus, in cash.
What to eat?
Well, I liked the food. Especially the sweets. But everything else too. Actually, when I returned from Turkey, I started watching Turkish videos and recipes and doing everything at home. I find their gastronomy very interesting, because it has connection with Mediterranean cuisine (Greek in particular) and with the Balkan cuisine (heritage of the Ottoman Empire). That is, sarma, burek, baklava, lokum or Turkish coffee (not filtered) are not somethig unknown to me. What I didn’t like so much is that they like to make it all spicy, I prefer more moderate flavors. So let me continue with the Turkish coffee. Besides being so tasty, also, after taking it, I read the future to my friends. It’s not a joke, it’s wisdom.
Practical information: Make sure you always have some Turkish money, because sometimes it’s not possible to pay by card, whether you are in the bus or in a restaurant, and less in a bazaar (market). The Turkish currency is lira, and one (right now January 2020) equals 0.15 euro ($ 0.17). If you want to have internet always and not only when there is wi fi, then you will have to buy a Turkish card for your cell phone. It costs more at the airport (about 20 euros), but since I didn’t want to be without internet I bought it. As my accommodation was in the other part of the town, I wanted to be in contact with my host, because I didn´t want to be homeless the first night, it was evening and I would be feeling scared without a phone with internet in such a huge town, yes, imagine my brain understandind that Brussles is actually more dangerous than Istanbul. Mindblowing. Anyway, my friends bought the SIM card the day after and payed less. You also need to show your Passport while buying the card.
As for the security, order, cleanliness and stuff, I assure you that the city is safer and cleaner than many European capitals (you didn’t expect that, didn’t you ). The subway is cleaned perfectly, public spaces are also very clean. You can walk around the city relaxed, without thinking that someone can steal you. Obviously, as everywhere there will be a minimum probability of that, but there it’s a really loz¿w probability. So, good for Istanbul. Another reason to come back. (as if I needed more of them)
Public transport is really well organized for such a big city. There is tram, metro, metrobus, bus, taxi (normal one and apps too), whatever you want.
If you wanna go to the bazaar (market), and you will wanna go because every tourist goes, you have to haggle, you have to be insolent and pretending to be “in a bad mood” until prices fall by half or even more. It’s not about offending them, they like to haggle. Don’t be silly, don’t pay more, especially if you don’t have a good budget.
There are just few supermarkets in the tourist areas, but in the non tourstic parts of the city you can normally find them everywhere. Also, of course, a lot of exchange offices, there are millones of them open even till late in Taksim or Sultan Ahmet area.
When you are in a cafeteria, tea shop or a restaurant, don’t be surprised if the waiters bring you tea or coffee that they did not manage to drink, they are like that, a little vultures with those things. I don’t like that, we Croats are used to being in a cafeteria for 4 hours, always drinking the same coffee, which has been cold for centuries, but nobody will take it away because it’s considered rude and an attack to our privacy. Anyway, almost the only thing in Istanbul and Turkey that is not positive.
Tourist attractions :
1) Bosphorus – the beautiful channel that separates Istanbul into two parts, the European and the Asian part. It’s quite an attraction (and a very surprinsingly cheap attraction) to pass the canal by boat, or to cross one of the bridges that connect the two European parts (that is quite close, so you can go walking although it can also be crossed by boat, bus and subway) . And having a good Turkish coffee with the Bosphorus view is simply priceless. (Thanks to the Turkish guy who took me there, for the umpteenth time I tell you, those Turks are beautiful, men and women, all)
2) Besiktas – the neighborhood that until reaching Istanbul I was directly associated only with the football club, and that because years ago a Croatian player was there. But, as my beautiful host (they were all really beautiful, can I even highlight one) explained, it’s a neighborhood where Turks like to have breakfast. So on a Saturday / Sunday between 10:00 – 13:00 it is perfect to walk around the neighborhood and sit down to eat in one of many restaurants and cafeterias in the area. The atmosphere is very pleasant, the people relaxed, there is not that tension that is sometimes felt in the most touristic parts.
3) Sultan Ahmet – It’s the most tourist area of the city, with Hagia Sofia, the blue mosque, Suleiman Mosque, Sirkeci station (I mention it below) and with many «bazaar», even the most famous – grand bazaar, is located there. I have to admit that I didn’t enter almost any of the mosques or palaces and I was just once/twice in a bazaar. You go once, you buy what you have to buy and bye. All this was too touristy for me, unnecessarily expensive, and I just didn’t feel like seeing any of it. Always the same everywhere, religious temples, palaces, shops. Well, no, I had no vacation since two and a half years, so I wanted to relax and Istanbul is a city where you can enjoy, time seems to be frozen and me there drinking my coffee forever and just don’t care about anything, randomly smiling to everyone because I was truly happy there. My friends were staying at Sultan Ahmet just to see all these famous things faster, but this time I just wasn’t in the mood for that kind of tourism.
4)Sirkeci terminal (Orient Express) – This train station is famous (among tourists and lovers of detective books at least) because it’s the terminal station of the Orient Express. We all know about the “Murder on the Orient Express”, so this train service became one of the most famous in history. Created in 1883, it begins in Paris and ends in Sirkeci. It’s a very interesting experience to see this terminal when you think about the whole story and mystery behind it.
5) Taksim: the “main square” of Istanbul, although it’s difficult for such a giant and diverse city to have a main square. And also in the Muslim culture and architecture, from what I realize there is no such concept of the main square. It’s something very typical of Christianity. So it turns out that Taksim is actually one of the city’s tourist centers. The big street where you enter from Taksim is full of beautiful and well-kept businesses and buildings, it looks like any other European city. It’s nice to walk around, but it should be noted that prices in restaurants there, as in Sultan Ahmet, can be much higher than normal. And that is why Turkish people don’t go there, why, if you can eat well and cheaper and in places where there are not so many people, why not. Fun fact: in the middle of that pedestrian street of one of the shops I heard the song “El cuarto de Tula” of Buena Vista Social Club and obviously I went there and began to sing, wondering why Turks put it at full volume at like 14:00 just like that. And the guy who worked there told me that he loves that kind of music, so we talked a bit, I recommended other songs, we were there listening to a whole BuenaVista playlist for a some time, before I left. Nice and unexpected experience. It wouldn’t surprise me even if I listen to music in Spanish in Krasnoyarsk now. It’s everywhere and I like it 🙂
Personal observation: I have to say, Istanbul reminded me of another huge, beautiful and crazy city that I visited a year and a half ago. This is Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, the cultural capital of all of South America and the crazy and perfect mix of Europe and Latin America. Now you will say, but what does Istanbul have to do with Buenos Aires? I don’t know exactly, but there is something they share, the two cities are somewhat chaotic, but they work, 15 million inhabitants each of the cities. And this two have it all, they are also financial centers of their respective countries, but they do not lose their elegance because of that. They are full of interesting cafes and small restaurants everywhere, relation quality-price in terms of food is amazing, which is an exception in large cities. (New York, Madrid, London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, none of those cities is good with quality-price). And in addition, another thing is that Istanbul has that special touch, like Buenos Aires, they are cities that throws you into their hurrican, mess you up, play with you but leave you room to breathe fully and have unforgettable experiences, which consist of many small moments that as a mosaic build a great unit. What I can conclude is that I loved Istanbul and that’s it. End of the story.