If there will be a moment when someone will tell me: “You can choose only one city where you will travel and that will be it until the rest of your life”. I would choose to travel to Istanbul, no matter how many times I will be there already. I don’t know why Istanbul touched my heart so much even before I went there. I’ve always had Istanbul on my bucket list. I was scared, that it will be just ruining the dreams I’ve had about it. But it turned out, that I fell in love with Istanbul even more. And I am sure, if you try some of the things we’ve done there, you will fall in love with Istanbul as well!
1. Travel to Istanbul during Ramadan period
I guess you will read dozens of articles, where people will tell you the opposite. We’ve bought our tickets to Istanbul exactly for the middle of Ramadan. For Muslims it is the month of fasting, praying, and reflecting. People in Istanbul can eat only after the sun goes down and they stop once it goes up.
Many people are writing, that everything is closed during the day because of that. Personally I didn’t feel that way, at least in more touristic parts of Istanbul. All the restaurants were open, as well as all the attractions. Probably you may find smaller local businesses closed. But nowadays fewer and fewer people are following these traditions. That’s true even more for Istanbul, as the most modern city in Turkey. Plus even if they do, they still remain their businesses open for the tourists.
What is good about traveling to Istanbul during Ramadan is that there are fewer tourists (since most are afraid of the facts I’ve mentioned). Plus you have an incredible opportunity to see the real culture of Turkish people. Every evening of Ramadan on big squares of Istanbul they put a stage, chairs, and tables all around. We lived near Taksim square and saw it several times. Anybody who wishes can get a seat (but warning: you have to stay in the line to get in, there is a limited amount of people). Usually, it was made for poor people or very religious. They sit all together and listen to the concert happening on the stage. And once the sun is down, everyone can start eating free food prepared by the city in advance on each table.
For us, it was miserable to watch from behind and learn about such Turkish traditions. The music from the stage was giving a special atmosphere and you felt like in the movie.
2. Check the main attractions of Istanbul, because they are really cool!
The main sights also give you a special atmosphere when backpacking in Istanbul. I definitely recommend going to the Blue Mosque (for free) and Hagia Sofia (around 13 euros). If you have more budget for attractions, of course, Topkapı palace (around 13 euros) is a must go. You will just go back in the time of Ottoman Sultans. And of course, the most famous – Grand Bazaar. Free to enter and steal some sweets “for trying”. Just be careful, during the day there can be long lines of tourists in front of the main attractions – especially at Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and the Topkapi Palace. We managed to get inside of these places just in the early morning, right after opening them.
There are many more palaces, mosques and other places to visit. We didn’t manage them all within our trip, but each one of them looks like a fairy tale. So make your research, choose the ones you liked the most and go there.
3. Try to stay at locals place or meet some local people
Turkish people are very friendly. But what I love in them the most is their brotherhood between each other. No matter where they are on the planet, if a Turkish guy meets another Turkish, they will do their best for each other. I’ve seen so many examples of that also here in Slovakia and also in Russia.
We’ve found a host on Couchsurfing, which turned out to be a great experience. Serdar was very kind to us. He showed us some hidden places to visit in Istanbul and to eat, also let us met with his friends and see the real-life of some Turks. He is the owner of Spa saloon, so he even arranged for us some procedures (mentioned in point 9). Our experience would be much different if we wouldn’t have him! For me, this is the best way how you can learn about a place and it’s culture and traditions.
4. Eat traditional Turkish breakfast in Istanbul
Not a big surprise, I’ve mentioned the Turkish breakfast already. To go to Istanbul and to not try the Turkish breakfast in a small cute restaurant is a crime! You can also check some tips in the mentioned article for the restaurants with good options. As I heard, you can find the best restaurants with Turkish breakfast in the districts called Karaköy and Beşiktaş. These are the districts of Istanbul, where the locals like to go for Turkish breakfasts during weekends. There is a chance that during the weekends there are more restaurants serving it but it was easy to find a Turkish breakfast also during weekdays. So far, Turkish breakfast is one of the best food experiences we have tried on our backpacking trips.
5. And some other traditional Turkish food
Turkish cuisine is quite popular worldwide. We mostly know it for some kebabs or coffee. But in Istanbul, there is much more than that. From the salty Turkish dishes give a try for Köfte (Turk’s meatballs), Mantı (Turkish ravioli), Lahmacun: (Turkish style pizza) and Pide (something a bit similar, a boat made from dough with some filling inside), Sarma/Dolma (wrapped in a vine leaves) and my favorite Simit (Turkish pretzel). For sweet go with Kunefe, Baklava, Halva, or Lokum. And of course, not only coffee but also Turkish tea is a huge tradition there and you have to taste it yourself.
And don’t forget about two must-have sweets in Istanbul: Turkish ice-cream and fresh orange juice. Ice cream has a completely different taste there. It became a huge attraction when those funny dressed guys are playing with your ice cream, before giving it to you. And oranges in Turkey have a completely different taste from what we’ve used to have in Russia or Slovakia. So the juice is just delicious.
6. Take a boat/ferry trip in Istanbul from Europe to Asia
Ferry life in Istanbul is another topic to discuss. Robo could spend hours going on such ferries and watching people’s life. Creepy, but incredible. How the old man tore out some specific things from many different newspapers. How the guy on the bar (yes, there was even a bar) was bringing a coffee to your late lunch on the ferry. How some other guy was running all around the ferry with Turkish pretzels on their head for sale. Or how some man was selling whatever he found in his house because those things didn’t make any sense to buy. How some family just suddenly started a concert in the middle of the ferry. Or how locals still enjoy the views from the ferry, even though they travel like that every day.
Ferries in Istanbul are a part of the city transportation in the same way as buses or the metro. The ferries have their own timetable and strict routes to go on and harbors in each part of the city. Just be careful, except for ferries there are also several companies operating boats on the Bosphorus. Those boats are always much more expensive than the ferries that are part of city transportation.
7. Chill on the riverside of Istanbul
We didn’t spend much of time on the Asian part of Istanbul. But I still liked the atmosphere there a lot. There is a very cute long seaside (Bosphorus), where you can walk along, enjoy the views with some ice cream in your hand. The seaside is really long there so we managed to walk just the part in the Moda district. Then go and get yourself a coffee in Walter’s coffee which is basically a Breaking Bad-Themed Coffee Shop in Istanbul.
8. Travel to Prince Islands and have the whole day on the bike there
Trust me, it will be the best decision you’ve ever made. Büyükada is the most popular from Prince Islands and it’s easy to get there by a ferry from the European part of Istanbul. Around 40 minutes and you are at Adalar ferry station, which is the main harbor for ferries on Büyükada. For around 5-10 euros you can get a decent bike for the whole day. It depends on the fact of how good you can bargain. And you are good to go! Go all over the island, there are many hidden spots around and very beautiful nature. The best is, that there are no cars allowed on this island! So it can be a perfect relaxation from Istanbul noise. Just there are a lot of horses.
9. Try the real Turkish hammam
We did that for free because of our amazing host. He works in Zen Spa (a small promotion), but there are millions of other places in Istanbul you can go for it. I definitely recommend checking the comments in advance, so you can choose a good place.
10. Walk all over İstiklal Avenue in Istanbul there and back to feel the atmosphere
We loved that street! It is quite busy, especially during the evenings, but trust me, you will feel all the Istanbul there. Various of different restaurants, small shops, bars. A lot of times some life music played by street artists. A little cute tram going through the whole street. Small hidden jams and spots where you can go.
11. And don’t forget to turn on the small streets from there
Well, on the İstiklal street things might be a little bit more expensive. But in total Istanbul is a pretty cheap destination for most Europeans. And it was interesting to realize, that even in the heart of the city you can find some decent food for a very cheap price. For that, you just have to turn from the main street into some small streets and explore. It might be just a few hundred meters until you find something good and much cheaper than it would be on İstiklal.
Let your dreams always come true. Go for the places you were craving to visit even if you don’t have any decent reason for it. Trust me, you will learn about it much more during your trip.
Share with us in the comment what is your desired city to travel. And if you’ve visited Istanbul, share your experiences and tips as well!