Istanbul Part 1: Where to Go, What to Do

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A (spring) break of ten whole days from math requires drastic measures: and for me, that meant spending the entire time in Istanbul, the allure of the Bosphorus too compelling to ignore. Not to mention, I had the good fortune of having some incredible hosts who let me stay with them for the week in their home!

Istanbul is a trip too big to contain in one post, so I’m breaking the tale into three exciting parts:

Part 1 (you are here): my review of major activities + things you MUST do + things I thought were overrated


Part 3: My love letter to Istanbul: thoughts + CATS



Istanbul is what some would call a “world-class city” and as such, there’s plenty to do. Even with ten days I had to prioritize what I wanted to spend my time on and what I thought I could skip. Below you’ll find the top three things I did while in Istanbul, a few other great things to do, and a few attractions I thought were slightly overrated.


1. Staying in a country house

Okay, ironic, the first thing on this list is not technically in Istanbul and not technically something available for everyone. But I do want to flex a little that I had the incredible experience of staying in my hosts’ beautiful country home outside of the city to soak in the nature and have some incredible meals.

This is the house: it overlooks some beautiful rolling hills- and that field right there? Lavender!

It was absolutely wonderful to hear nothing but the birds and breathe in some fresh air, and the countryside around Istanbul– rolling hills, lots of wheat fields and fruit trees– was absolutely beautiful in the spring.

I had the experience of helping to make pide (failing miserably to roll out the dough). You can see the finished product here 

2. Topkapı Palace**

It’s one of the major destinations in Istanbul, and probably the most expensive place in terms of entrance fees (95 lira for the palace + harem), but I thought it was by far the coolest tourist attraction on the Historic Peninsula.

Notice I starred the name: I’ll use this to denote a place that you want to visit as soon as it opens in the mornings to minimize tourist overflow. The historic peninsula (as I quickly discovered) becomes saturated with tourists starting from mid-morning all the way until the attractions close around four or five, which is a huge headache and (at least for me) ruins lots of the appeal of the attractions themselves. Every day I was in the city, I got up early to try to get to a single tourist attraction before it opened to be one of the first in the building. Then, I could leave the historic peninsula right as it got busiest around mid-morning. This worked really well for me and as a result I had a few precious moments to myself in these beautiful attractions.

Anyway, Topkapi was the residence of the Ottoman sultans (as well as some Biblical relics- you can see the alleged staff of Moses and sword of David, as well as various body parts of the prophet Muhammad, e.g., his beard and a box containing his tooth!). Not to mention the palace is filled with examples of beautiful, intricate Islamic art and architecture, for example, in the sultan’s primary residence:


Or in one of the many pavilions in the third or fourth courtyard:



It was also super fascinating to see relics of the lives of the harem (women in the royal circle) and of the many servants in the palace (there is an entire wing devoted to the cooking staff, including an entire confectionary– sultans like their sweets!).

Tile on the royal hamamı (bath-house). I loved walking through these old baths. The rooms formed a brightly-lit labyrinth that I managed to sneak into before the tourist hoard and for a good half hour had all to myself to wander around.
What I have to assume is an old toilet for the servants. Little things like this about daily life hundreds of years ago I think are the coolest things to see in the palace.


3. Şehir Hatları Tour of the Bosphorus

I pinned a day of the week when the weather portended to be beautiful and spent the entire day on a ferry on the Bosphorus headed straight for the Black Sea. That’s right, for only 25 lira you can board a municipal ferry that takes you on a six-hour cruise (2 hours sailing there, 2 hours break, 2 hours coming back) to Anadolukavağı, a small, remote neighborhood of Istanbul right by the Black Sea.

Charmed by the old-timiness of the tickets. WARNING: don’t be fooled, make sure you get the tickets for Şehir Hatları and not for some more expensive touristy ferry. The ferries all leave from Eminönü by Galata Bridge. Make sure you find the right pier!
Pretty cloud

When we arrived at our destination, all of us disembarked and pretty much immediately did two things in an order that depended on how hungry we were: 1) Hike up a small hill to Yoros Castle and 2) get seafood at one of the many restaurants by the pier. I did Yoros first.

The walk up is short and pretty easy.

Spring was in full swing, and beautiful wildflowers abounded. There’s a good-sized highway that goes directly to Yoros, and on the way down I took an alternate route through town which got me some beautiful photos:


This wall had a bunch of Evil Eyes embedded in it. All staring into your SOUL

After a lovely lunch by the sea, we returned home. A beautiful day, highly recommend!!



Aya Sofya** 

This is an obvious must-see, and the most popular tourist location in Istanbul. And it’s spectacular– a melding of Byzantine Christian mosaics and Islamic art unlike anything I have ever seen before. And Viking graffiti! Just make sure to go in the morning, right when it opens. I showed up an hour early and there was still a bit of a line!

When I first arrived in the mosque, a lone black cat was there to greet us early-morning arrivals.
It is a BEAUTIFUL building.

Galata Tower** 

I actually love the neighborhood around Galata, but the tower itself has some great views of the city. Make sure to go when the weather is nice (and in the morning, so it’s not so crowded).



Dolmabahçe Mosque

Okay, so technically Dolmabahçe PALACE is the attraction that people want to visit. But every single time I was there, the line was too long for me to even think about going in. However, adjacent to the Palace is a tiny mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus. When I was there, this mosque was absolutely empty and quiet, which immediately made it one of the best mosques that I saw while in Istanbul (and I saw quite a few mosques). Highly recommend for some peace amid the hectic tourist attractions.


Suleymaniye Mosque

This was another of my favorite mosques in Istanbul (probably because it was the first one I visited). Overlooking the Bosphorus, the mosque also features several mausoleums with the graves of Sultan Suleiman I and his family, which I thought were beautiful. It was also slightly less crowded than its sisters the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya.



Okay, you should still visit these places. But due to high tourist activity and general tourist-trappiness, I was not super impressed.

Grand Bazaar/ Spice Market

So in general I DO NOT appreciate when people heckle me to come into their restaurant/ buy their wares and I WILL NOT engage if someone tries to heckle me in this way. Unfortunately, in these markets (and in the historic peninsula in general) this sort of heckling was really aggressive, which really put me off.

The spice market in particular was kind of disappointing. It’s in a very new building, which though decorated nicely has lost the kind of historic charm that the Grand Bazaar, at least, has. The shops (which are all pretty much identical) are pretty overpriced and cater exclusively to tourists, which kind of got on my nerves.

Later I had the opportunity to go to what I considered a “real” market and enjoyed that much more.


Basilica Cisterns**

This place SHOULD HAVE been cool, but unfortunately I went at a bad time and it was absolutely chock-full of other people, which made the entire experience kind of awful (save for a few friends I made along the way LINK). Would definitely recommend going when it’s not as crowded.


All right! That’s the end of Part 1! Check out Part 2 (FOOD) and Part 3 (love letter/cats) for more about Istanbul!