We all know that Istanbul is a massive city, with tonnes of things to do. You could spend a whole week there and still not see/do everything there is to offer.
But what can you do if you’re only there for a weekend?
Back in October 2018 I spent a weekend in Istanbul with 8 of my travel friends, so I’m going to share with you some of things you can see and do when you only have a short time in this bustling city.
But first, did you know that Turkey is a really popular country for people to get hair transplants in? You’ll frequently see people walking around with bandages on their head. At first I thought ‘oh wow, these guys must have been in some bad fights’, but then my friend told me that it’s a popular place for men to go to have hair transplants. Turkish men generally have very good beards, so they have some of their beard hair removed and put onto their heads, over time this will grow and they will have a better head of hair again. Bizarre!
Anyway, back to the reason you’re here, a weekend in Istanbul.
I stayed in a hotel named Historic Galata and the rate was between £70-£80 per person for a 2 night stay.
This hotel is located a 10 minute walk away from an area of Istanbul called Karakoy which is buzzing with bars, restaurants and quirky little streets full of graffiti, including an umbrella street, where umbrellas are hanging in the air.
Karakoy is great in the day time, but also just as good in the evening, so it’s up to you which time you want to explore it. I had a coffee and a giant pink macaroon from a little cafe called Pim Patisserie during the day and then in the evening had a couple of glasses of wine with my friends in the ‘Wine Bar’.
Turkey is famous for it’s beautiful mosques. There are many to visit, I only ventured into a couple. Of course The Blue Mosque, (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), the most famous mosque in Turkey. It was unfortunately under construction when I went, so I was unable to see the beauty within, but the architecture on the outside was truly stunning. However, be prepared to queue to enter as the mosque is free so is a big attraction for tourists and locals.
On entering all mosques in Turkey is it expected of you to cover your arms and legs as a sign of respect, also in some mosques you are required to remove your shoes and put them into a bag and women are to have their heads covered. If you plan to go to a mosque whilst in Turkey I highly recommend taking a lightweight scarf or two with you, these can double up as either a shawl to cover your head or to cover your shoulders or even your legs.
A short walk away is the Hagia Sophia, this originally was a Greek Orthedox Cathedral, it then became a mosque in 1453 and later in 1934 it was turned into a museum and to this day is a Unesco World Heritage site. You can do a tour of the museum at a small price of £7 (100 Turkish Lira), the tour lasts around 45 minutes to an hour. The Hagia Sophia has beautiful artwork and murals all over the walls, make sure you admire it to it’s full as it’s stunning to see.
When you have had enough of mosques, close to the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern, it’s open from 9:30-6:30 daily and costs a small fee of £3.50 (30 Turkish Lira) to enter. You may have to queue for a short time to enter, but it’s well worth it.
This is an underground cistern, with 336 columns all surrounded by water. Asides from the cistern being popular for being underground there are also some sculptures of the Greek god medusa’s head inside. These 2 heads can be found at the end of the cistern and are a great picture point for all the photo lovers. Medusa was one of the Greek goddesses that was known for living in the underground world so it’s fitting that you’ll see her snake head down under the streets of Istanbul.
You can’t visit Istanbul without going to the Grand Bazaar, one of the biggest shopping markets in the world! It has over 60 streets and alleys and 4,000 shops. The market stalls and shops are full of wonders, from clothes and shoes, to traditional Turkish crockery and jewelry.
Even if you don’t want to buy anything, the Grand Bazaar is an awesome place to just get lost and wander around, along with immersing yourself in the Turkish culture. Make sure you try a cup of turkish tea or coffee whilst you’re there.
Traveller safety tip: One thing I would say is if you’re going into the little shops, make sure you browse the outside and if you really want to go inside, go with a friend, the shop owners and assistants can appear very friendly, but once you’re in the shop you may find it quite difficult to leave without buying anything, and they can charge you an extortionate amount.
Take a walk down İstiklal Caddesi, this is one of Istanbul’s popular shopping streets, it’s like a high street, but incredibly long. It was pedestrianised in the 90s, but the tram line was restored and opened up again in 1990. There are lots of shops, both ‘typically high street’ and touristic.
Visit and enjoy a Hammam Spa. I went to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hammam and the cost of a Full Body Hammam is around £35 (340 Turkish Lira).
Now, for someone who had never been to a Turkish bath before I didn’t really know what to expect. Little did I know that I would be in a big sauna type room with a load of other women, just wearing bikini bottoms, being massaged and cleaned/cleansed by other women (that worked there). The traditional body scrubbing session helps remove dead skin cells leaving your skin softer, healthier and brighter, followed by a relaxing aromatic bubble wash ritual, which revitalizes your whole body. The whole process took around 50 minutes, but you could relax in their cooling area for a while longer after the scrub if you wanted to.
The experience was completely different to anything I have experienced before, but when you are in different countries you have to embrace what they do. I must say I did feel very relaxed and cleansed afterwards.
Did you know Turkey is part of Europe and part of Asia? There are many bridges that can take you across the Bosphorus to both sides. When I went I stayed in Europe, but one evening my friends and I took the ferry from Karakoy (Europe) to Kadikoy (Asia) for a small cost of £1 (2.45 Turkish Lira). The views from on the ferry are stunning, you can see all the different mosques and old buildings lit up. On entering Asia it was a little hectic, a lot of hustle and bustle. We headed to a bar called ‘Green Elephant’ where we had some drinks and enjoyed a relaxing evening sharing our Hammam experiences.
Food & Drink
One of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had was in Turkey, the Turkish love their food and it really shows. If you have one of their classic breakfast buffets I guarantee you won’t need to eat anything else until the evening. Rumeli Kale Cafe is situated on the seafront in Europe and is one of the most popular breakfast buffet places in Istanbul, there were 9 of us on this trip so we had to book a table before. We couldn’t even begin to imagine the breakfast we got, it was a pre ordered mixed breakfast to start.
First came out different types of bread and cold platters, ham, lots of different cheese, salad, tomatoes, olives, jam, peppers and this amazing honey dip. Following that were some hot dishes, menemen, fried sausages, omelette, fried eggs, bacon, more bread. Tea was unlimited so you could drink as much as you wanted, Turkish tea is delicious.
For me, someone who has never been a breakfast lover, this was crazy to see so much food being eaten for breakfast. But if you love breakfast then you cannot go to Istanbul and not visit this cafe! If I remember correctly, the cost of this breakfast was something ridiculous like £9 per person.
On the final night my friends and I went to a nice restaurant named Kiva, it’s a beautifully modern restaurant with live Turkish music playing all evening, there was a great vibe there. Free flowing wine, live music and friends, what else could you want on the last night of your trip?! Our friend (who is half Turkish) had organised for us to have a bit of a buffet meal so we could try lots of different types of food, which was great. Sometimes being a vegetarian it can be hard to find things to eat, but Turkey caters for vegetarians very well, there was plenty of choice. I also tried a traditional drink called Turkish Raki, I’d describe this drink a little like aniseed and milk or water.
So there you have it, a packed weekend in Istanbul. There is so much more to see and do in this beautiful country, I would like to go back and explore more of Turkey one day.
Have you been to Turkey? Let me know in the comment box below.