Istanbul – My First Time Visitor’s To Do List

The office. Wednesday afternoon. 16:34. The winter sun is sinking low. My phone muttered something about a new message. I reached lazily for it, most of my attention still on my monitor. “Hi Rowena – we’re going to be in Istanbul for 2 days… Wanted to know what you might recommend as MUST see.” Instantly, I was leaving Johannesburg on a night flight bound for Turkey. The memories of that evening, almost four years ago, and the anticipation of a bucket list item (mostly C.S. Lewis’ fault, but that’s another story!) about to be fulfilled, came flooding back.

That holiday was pre-ongracerow.com days, but despite the lack of written evidence at the time, I will still wax lyrical about its awesomeness, given the opportunity! On the back of that Wednesday afternoon message, I thought it a fitting time to float what, from my very limited experience back in 2010, would be my top 10 to dos for first time visitors to Istanbul who perhaps only have a day or two to spend there.

I should warn you that I’m an incurable romantic with wanderlust, so it may be prudent to take any gushing recommendations I may make with a pinch of salt! I have, however, attempted to provide my reasons for suggesting each of the things on my list: if they resonate with you, do the thing; if they don’t, drop it.

So, here they are, in descending order:

1. Cruise the Bosphorus
Do. It. No excuses. No regrets. Really. If you have time for nothing else, carve out the three-ish hours for this. Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus which connects the Sea of Marmara (Afrikaans readers may well correctly guess the meaning of the name: “Sea of Marble”) with the Black Sea and forms the dividing line between Europe and Asia.

Mosques & Minarets from the Bosphorus

Why? Personally, I don’t think there’s a better way to soak up as much of this incredible city in the same amount of time. From the water, you’ll get to see towers, bridges, a multitude of different mosques with their minarets punctuating the skyline, museums, universities, neighbourhoods of the rich and poor, palaces, homes, fortresses, apartments and people. You’ll catch glimpses of present, everyday life in this place steeped in ancient history. You’ll have the extraordinary ability to observe both the European and Asian sides of the city at the same time. You’ll enjoy the experience of being on a waterway of huge historic and strategic significance, [hopefully] with the sun on your skin and the wind in your hair! And you’ll be provided with LOADS of awesome photo opps, too 🙂

2. Eat and drink like a local
Ditch the cereal and dive into bread, cheeses, olives and cucumber for breakfast. Enjoy a little cup (or few!) of A-MAZING Turkish coffee. Buy simit (a sesame-covered ring of bread) from a street vendor. Drink a steaming glass of sweet çay (Turkish tea). Savour real lokum (Turkish Delight). You don’t like Turkish Delight? I think you should see someone about that. Seriously, make the appointment – I’ll give you a moment… Treat yourself to a cone of enthralling dondurma (Turkish ice cream) from one of the equally enthralling ice cream sellers. Try ayran (a yogurt drink with salt added). Dine on a doner kebab. Raise a toast to Turkey with ice cold rakı a.k.a. “lion’s milk” (a cloudy-coloured, alcoholic drink flavoured with aniseed).
Why? To me, part of the allure of travel is the opportunity to immerse oneself in a different culture, a different lifestyle. Granted, this is challenging when you have only a couple of hours or days to spare, but sampling the local food and drink is perhaps one of the easiest ways to do so because it can be combined with other activities and can often be experienced on the go. An added benefit is the interaction with the local vendors themselves.

3. [Window] shop the Grand Bazaar
This covered market is anything but subtle: expect huge, crowded, colourful and loud. If it’s not really your thing, at least go to see it and then move on, or just use it as an opportunity to grab some lunch. If you are totally into retail therapy, be prepared to kiss a couple of hours or more goodbye! There is definitely loads of touristy stuff to navigate, and it won’t be as reasonable as other places in Turkey, but it probably has the widest selection and is particularly useful if you need to grab a couple of mementos or stock up on lokum and halva before heading home. Leather goods, carpets and jewellery abound but be sure to check their authenticity. Expect to barter for the best deals. Entering into a negotiation for a carpet or leather item may even earn you a complimentary glass of apple çay!
Why? I realise that shopping isn’t everyone’s cup of (Turkish) coffee, but recommend a visit to the Grand Bazaar simply for its ability to assault the senses and its history, which dates back to the mid-1400s. So why does it make the number three position on my list? Because of its experiential value and the exposure it provides to the people, a culture and a way of doing business. As already alluded to, it may also simply be a way of sampling some local fare while absorbing a little more of the sights and sounds of the city.

4. Take a guided tour of Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe was home to a number of sultans and (after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) the occasional residence of Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey.
Why? With its rich, lavish, intricate décor, Dolmabahçe is, to me, quintessentially Turkish in many respects. It provides fascinating insights into Ottoman life (of the sultans, at least) and is, I believe, well worth the visit. The tour through the palace was professional and informative, with loads of interesting morsels thrown in. An added bonus: you get to wear shower caps on your feet – pink ones 😉

5. See the city at night
Consider going out on the town in the evening – the city is super-stunning and has an awesome atmosphere at night. Think about dining at a restaurant on Ortakoy, Istanbul’s vibey, trendy, artisty district on the banks of the Bosphorus, or wandering Sultanahmet…
Why? Nighttime transforms a city and reveals facets one doesn’t always notice during the day. Gain a different perspective. Get to know Istanbul in her evening dress. Walk her streets. People watch. Eat. Besides, who can resist the twinkle of lights under a canopy of velvety darkness?

6. Get your awe on at the Hagia Sophia
Commissioned by Justinian way back in the middle of the first millennia A.D. this architectural marvel was initially a church and later a mosque. Today she’s a museum pregnant with history. She still carries within her frescoes of remarkable beauty. Her walls whisper stories collected over the centuries. It’s worth either doing research beforehand or enlisting someone who can explain her history and buildings. Then stay a while. Pray a while. Let the Divine Wisdom to whom the building was originally dedicated speak to your spirit.
Why? The Hagia Sophia is a superb example of Byzantine architecture. She oozes history (I know I go on about this; to be truthful, I loathed history at school, but am mesmerised by it now!). Some extraordinary artwork adorns her walls and deserves to be seen. She lends herself to reflection and story.

7. Spot the differences at Topkapı Palace
Topkapı Palace provides a fascinating contrast to Dolmabahçe. It preceded Dolmabahçe as residence of the sultans and the differences in architecture and décor are immediately apparent. With a treasury, libraries, an arsenal, a mint, a bakery, a hospital, stables and places of worship, Topkapı is more a complex than simply a palace. Also, unlike Dolmabahçe, you’re free to meander through several of the rooms, some of them now filled with various relics.
Why? Topkapı adds another dimension to the portrait of the sultans and their way of life. The relics, too, add colour to old tales of mystery and somehow manage to transport you back in time. The complex incorporates beautifully kept gardens and I found a little tranquil space within the walls of the Enderûn Library. Sort of “surrounded” on three sides by the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea respectively, Topkapı also offers some gorgeous views over the water.

8. Experience the blues at Sultan Ahmet Mosque
The majestic Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque derives its tourist name from the myriad of predominantly blue tiles that cover much of its interior.
Why? From an architectural perspective, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is a building of great beauty. Inside, it is breathtaking and the detail on the Iznik tiles is astounding. As with so many buildings in Istanbul, history abounds, both of the mosque itself and the young Sultan Ahmet I who initiated its construction.

9. Go underground in the Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern was developed in the Byzantine era to provide the city with water, particularly when it was under siege. It includes 336 columns, which, along with their capitals were apparently salvaged from temples. Perhaps most significantly, the bases for 2 of the columns feature Medusa heads unceremoniously planted in the water, one upside down and the other sideways!

Basilica Cistern

Why? The cistern is thought to have been built round 540 A.D. For its time, it’s an astounding feat of engineering and architecture and, with its impressive columns and vaulted, arched roof, all atmospherically lit, one could be forgiven for thinking it more fitting as a medieval banqueting hall (minus the water, of course!). There is, in fact, a café down there now which must surely be one of the more peculiar settings for a cuppa! Water level marks on the walls still bear witness to the massive amount of water once held here. A two-for-one bargain: you get to see fishies!

10. Rebuild the hippodrome
If memory serves me correctly, if you’re standing with your back to the Hagia Sophia, facing the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, just to the right of the mosque is the old hippodrome. Consider grabbing yourself some dondurma from a nearby vendor and then wandering around it. There’s not much left there now, except for the obelisks, Serpentine Column and Constantine Column, and the considerably younger German Fountain, but picture it in its heyday, able to hold 100,000 people trying to make themselves heard above the pounding hooves of chariot races and the cries of rival factions…

Egyptian Obelisk in the Hippodrome

Why? It’s in Sultanahmet with the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque and the Basilica Cistern, and doesn’t cost a thing, so why not pay it some attention? I know it’s perhaps not visually impressive any longer but the history of the hippodrome, as well as that of the various columns which remain, is almost the stuff of legend. For some reason, if it were reconstructed in a movie, we’d likely be fascinated by it. But this is real. It was here. And you’re standing in it. Not many have that privilege. So rebuild it yourself. Revisit it. And treasure the moment.

I have purposefully omitted detailed descriptions from this list. Discovering them for yourself is part of the joy of the journey, and not the intention of this particular piece.

I am well aware that we all experience things differently and so would love to hear your views. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with? What would your list include?

I look forward to hearing from you!