I always find it pretty exciting when I leave the airport of a city I’ve previously only transited through, I’m not quite sure why. My excitement was through the roof for Istanbul then – this was my fourth time landing in the city but only my first time passing through immigration and entering Turkey properly. Istanbul is perhaps one of the most famous cities in the world due to its unique geography (it quite literally sits in the middle of Europe and Asia) and it was thrilling to finally be here for real.
My timing couldn’t have better either. As of March 2020, Turkey abolished visas for UK citizens, meaning I could pass through immigration with ease… well, not quite. My late night flight seemed to arrive with loads of others and so I had to queue for ages to get through, maybe the longest I’ve ever waited at immigration. It was so long, in fact, that by the time I got through, my backpack had already been removed from the baggage carousel and dumped at the side (I had no idea of course and stood like a lemon by the carousel wondering where on earth my bag had gone).
Even late at night, getting from Sabiha Gökçen airport to the city was pretty easy. This is Istanbul’s smaller, second airport, mainly servicing budget airlines. I left the terminal and crossed the roads over to the somewhat chaotic outdoor bus station. Buses to Taksim Square, right at the heart of Istanbul, leave every half an hour through the company HAVABUS. There’s space under the bus to put your bag and the conductor will pass through the bus just before departure to collect the fare. It cost 18 lira (around £2) and the conductor did seem to have quite a lot of change if you’ve just withdrawn cash from the ATM.#
The journey to Taksim took about 70 minutes but it was late so there wasn’t much traffic – it could take longer in the daytime. From Taksim, it’s easy to get a taxi to anywhere in the city, but a lot of accommodation is also situated in this area too. My hostel, Taksim City Hostel, was just a 5 or so minute walk away. The hostel was fine – the location was definitely great. Staff were fine but I wouldn’t call them friendly, although they did serve up a simple free breakfast every morning which was a nice touch. Most of the issues in the room came from some of the other guests who seemed to have the sudden urge to make video calls at 2am. Maybe I’m getting too old and grumpy for hostels…
I spent my first day in Istanbul just exploring – and there’s certainly a lot to explore. I was gifted with sunny weather for six out of my seven days in the city which was a welcome surprise and meant my step count in the city was huge (I averaged 17,000+ steps a day). The hilly city definitely warrants good walking shoes, especially if you’re wandering over from Taksim to Sultanahmet, the area where many of the most iconic attractions are. It’s a fantastic walk though – first taking you down the shopping street of Istiklal Street, a long and winding pedestrianised street (except for when a random car decides to come along) with a great mixture of shops, restaurants and cafes. There’s also a tram line running down this street. It’s a bit unnecessary and mainly for tourists but it’s nice to see it clatter past.
After Istiklal, there are a series of winding, narrow cobbled streets which are fun to explore. You can also meander past the 600-year-old Galata Tower (or up it if you prefer) which is still in fantastic condition. After more winding roads (definitely have an offline map handy), you will finally make it to the riverfront. One of my favourite things about Istanbul is the proximity to water. It is segmented at so many different angles by water and ferries are a fundamental mode of transport here. You can take a ferry over to Sultanahmet but it’s equally interesting and fascinating to cross over one of the bridges. The bridges in Istanbul are almost always packed with fishermen, to the point that you wonder how anyone actually catches anything.
On the Sultanahmet side sit two of Istanbul’s most iconic mosques – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. They sit opposite each other with a nice little park in between, usually packed with people. The Blue Mosque is actually free to enter and, if you’re appropriately dressed, it’s definitely worth heading inside to sample the artistic interior. You have to remove your shoes to go in (you’re given a bag to carry them round in). Also worthwhile exploring round here are the narrow souk streets where all manner of things are on sale. Bring your best haggling skills.
Istanbul is also packed with plenty of parks to escape the chaotic traffic of the city. Some are in better condition than others – the one close to Taksim Square isn’t great. However, Gulhane Park (near to the two mosques) is a great hilly park to either explore or relax in. There’s also a tiny park, Sanatkarlar Park (more of a hill really) which is a good sunset spot in the evening, plus it’s not too far a walk from Taksim. If you want to venture further, there’s a fantastic park on the Asian side – Goztepe Nature Park. Again, it’s pretty hilly and is close to the river, meaning there are plenty of great lookout points.
Two other things I loved sampling in Turkey were its food and its tea. Obviously, Turkish kebabs are in abundance and are definitely worth a try. Beyond that, most meals usually involve grilled meat of some sort accompanied by barbecued vegetables which are full of flavour. There are also some great bakeries, with interesting local options mixed with traditional European choices. My favourite was Kovan Firin, where I usually stopped by to pick up a picnic lunch before heading wherever. Food isn’t super cheap but it’s still easy to get a delicious meal for around £3-£5.
One particularly delicious and cheap restaurant was in a small side street off of Istiklal Street, called Tarihi Kalkanoglu Pilavcisi which I visited a couple of times. It’s a simple restaurant which serves any combination of rice, beans and lamb (you can have all three or just pick two or, if you really want, just pick one). Staff don’t really speak English but the short menu has pictures so it’s no problem. The meat was delicious and the beans were really flavoursome, plus the meal comes in at about £2. It was really yummy, hearty food. Also definitely make sure you sample Turkish tea, which has a really great flavour to it. It usually costs just a couple of lira in pretty much any cafe or restaurant. I was constantly impressed with how long locals could make a tiny cup of tea last.
My timing in Istanbul couldn’t have been more perfect – firstly, the weather was mostly fantastic, which allowed me to take some great day trips from the city (more posts on those to come) and, crucially, it was my final trip before COVID-19 spiralled out of control across Europe. When I visited Turkey, there were no coronavirus cases reported there, now, as I write this, there are thousands. I returned from Istanbul in the second week of March – a week later, the UK was in effective lockdown and all non-essential travel was banned. I had no idea Istanbul would end up being my last trip for possibly many, many months – it inadvertently ended up being the perfect destination.