"To savour Istanbul's back streets, to appreciate the vines and trees that endow its ruins with accidental grace, you must, first and foremost, be a stranger to them."Istanbul's copious charm never fails to impress and then entice anyone who steps into this wonderful and historic city. Located at the center of the Asia-Europe confluence, Istanbul's past and presence merge, making it a must-see location for travel-happy people.
If we are to follow Mr. Pamuk's advice, the best way to enjoy and savor Istanbul is to be a stranger here, and allow the city to weave its magic all around you. So, strangers that we are to the city, here's a little fuel to get you going. Before we get to the nicer part, which explains what awaits us in Istanbul, here are a few things that tell us what we need to know before we actually get there.
What are the travel documents needed?
International travelers need to possess a valid passport, along with a Turkish visa. Travelers, at times, are also permitted to purchase a Turkish visa upon their arrival. However, you are advised to contact the Turkish embassy in your country to know more about the visa-on-arrival provision, and whether you are entitled to avail it. Alongside, you must also purchase travel insurance that will last you for the duration of your stay. To do so, you may speak to any travel agent in your city.
The currency in Turkey is called the Turkish Lira. 1 TL converts to approximately 0.49 USD, though the exchange rates constantly fluctuate. US dollars and Euros are fairly easy to exchange all over the country, but it is safest to do so only at a bank. ATM kiosks can be found across the city, so withdrawing cash will not be a hassle. Prominent credit cards are accepted at most establishments in Istanbul.
What is the best time to travel to Istanbul?
As with every popular holiday destination, Istanbul too sees a high influx of tourists around late spring and summer. So, depending upon your budget, you may wish to visit the city during the peak season (July to August); although the sweltering humidity might be bothersome. Fall and early winter (September to November) is a great time to be here as well, both in terms of weather and budget.
As far as your journey is concerned, booking your flight tickets in advance will help you snag a good deal. However, there also are certain travel portals which offer last-minute discounts on plane tickets. Travel agents may also help you get low-cost tickets since they tend to book in bulk.
How to get there?
Several international carriers have scheduled flights to Istanbul. The city is serviced by two airports―Atatürk International on the European side, and the Sabiha Gökçen International on the Asian side. Once you land here, you can avail taxis, Havaş shuttle buses, or have your hotel arrange your transportation to reach the city center.
How is the internal transportation like?
In a single word―it's complicated. Istanbul is served by a decent network of trains, buses, trams, taxis, and ferries.
The bus system here is very reliable. The major bus stands are at Taksim Square, Beşiktaş, Aksaray, Rüstempaşa (Eminönü), Kadıköy and Üsküdar, and most services run between 6.30am and 11.30pm.
The tram network is fairly decent and affordable as well. Trams run on various routes around the city every five minutes from 6 a.m. to midnight.
Ferries are an excellent way to cruise the Bosphorus river, and to view the city's gorgeous skyline. The Boğaz Hattı dock has the Eminönü-Kavaklar Boğaziçi Özel Gezi Seferleri ferry operating every morning, and is favored by most tourists. There are private boat tours available as well.
Taxis are a bit expensive, especially if you encounter a driver who is determined to fleece you. Always ensure and insist that the taxi meter is running, and pay accordingly. A regular rate is levied during daytime, and you'll see the gündüz sign flash, indicating the same. Taxis charge 50% higher from midnight to 6 a.m., indicated by the gece sign when the meter starts.
The Istanbulkart travel card is recommended for those who intend to use a lot of public transport. You can buy this card from the airport at a fee of 10 TL, and top it up at various centers around the city. This pass is valid for boarding buses, subway trains, commuter trains, ferryboats and trams operated by the Metropolitan Municipality.
Where to stay?
Just like the transportation system, the staying options in Istanbul are limitless, and cater to every budget. So, there's everything from 5-star luxury―Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul | Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1 , Sultanahmet-Eminönü, 34110 Istanbul, to budget hostels like Big Apple Hostel | Cankurtaran Mah. Akbiyik Cad. Bayram Firini Sok. No:12 Sultanahmet, Fatih, Istanbul 34122, to boutique hotels like the Witt Istanbul Hotel | Defterdar Yokuşu 26 Cihangir Beyoğlu. The best way to find the perfect accommodation would be to consult your travel agent or log on to any travel portal like Expedia or Hotels.
Anything else to be kept in mind?
If you're apprehensive about the country's collective mindset as an Islamic nation, you have nothing to worry about. Citizens of Istanbul are fairly broad-minded and sartorially forward. Packing for your trip should be fairly simple, and you just need to take stuff according to the weather. Keep in mind, though, that you need to adhere to a conservative dress code while visiting any religious place in the city. Walking along the city's cobbled paths will require comfortable footwear.
Places to Visit
And we're finally on to the best part where we give you a sneak peek about what awaits you in Istanbul. Featured below are a few prominent landmarks of this beautiful city; though keep in mind that there are several other interesting places to visit when you're here.
Aya Sofya/Hagia Sophia | Sultanahmet
What used to be a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, and then an Imperial mosque, is now a museum dedicated to Turkish art and history. And the best part is that you don't even need to set foot in the building, as its Byzantine architectural design is sure to knock your breath off from a distance. Located in the Sultanahmet corridor, this structure has become the ubiquitous symbol of Turkey, and also happens to be one of the most visited museums in the world.
Sultan Ahmed Mosque | Sultanahmet
Also known as the Blue Mosque owing to the color of its roof tiles, the Sultan Ahmed mosque is a rare instance of a mosque with six minarets, instead of the usual four. Visitors coming to this mosque are awed by its sheer size and opulence, and not to mention, its architectural perfection. In recent times, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Blue Mosque in 2006 was welcomed by followers of both faiths.
Maiden's Tower | Üsküdar Salacak Mevkii, 34668 Üsküdar, Istanbul
Located on an island in the middle of the Bosphorus river, the Maiden's Tower has all the necessary qualification to be Istanbul's premier hotspot for romance. A short boat ride from Üsküdar will bring you to this tower. Come here in the evening to see the sun go down on the Bosphorus, and watch the city light up in the night. The views from the top of the tower are guaranteed to be mesmerizing.
Dolmabahçe Palace | Vişnezade Mh., 34357 Beşiktaş/Istanbul Province
'Ornate' is the word that best describes this palace that is sure to wow you with its grandiose design. The palace stands as a testimony of the Ottoman empire's final bastion―this is the very place where President Atatürk passed away in 1938. You'll have to join a guided tour to enter the palace, before which you'll have to buy an entry ticket. The lines usually get endless during peak season, and the wait for the tickets can be very tiresome.
Grand Bazaar | Beyazit/Istanbul Province
A must-visit marketplace for everyone coming to the city, this is where you can find the gorgeously intricate Ottoman lamps and rugs, as well as encounter hawkers selling fake Rolexes. With around 3000 shops spread over 61 streets, this is one of the world's oldest and largest markets. You'll find everything here, be it spices, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and nick-knacks, but it is the extraordinary experience of being here is what will remain in your memory for a long time to come.
Bosphorus River Cruise
A nighttime cruise on the Bosphorus is the best way to experience the city in its glowing grandeur. The lofty silhouettes of Istanbul's most famous landmarks make for some fancy viewing as you gape in admiration at the bridges that transverse the river. Beautiful is surely an understatement.
The Istanbul Specials
And finally, we've profiled two of Istanbul's distinct features. One, its omnipresent feline citizens; and two, the delicious Turkish flavored tea. It is quite apparent that the people of Istanbul love their cats, as you'll find them everywhere―what's more, they are well-fed, loved, and quite happy to call this city their home. The other prime identity of the city is their tea which is served in little tulip-shaped glasses, accompanied by a bowl of sugar cubes. While coffee drinkers in Istanbul are abundant, it is the tea that holds its charm over everything else.
Of course, this was just a rather miniscule sample of Istanbul, for the rest is up to you to explore when you arrive. To be frank, it would be hard to do justice to a city so beautiful, in a matter of a few days. You definitely don't need us to tell you that multiple trips to Istanbul are in order.