Overall Experience: An urban blend of east and west, Istanbul is a perfect combination of ancient and modern life. It seems like every corner has historical significance to some faction of civilization. It’s insane to comprehend the centuries of life that happened here! Zapping back to the present, I found Istanbul offers pleasant conversation with its friendly citizens, modern amenities with public transportation, traditional relaxation techniques with the Turkish Bath, and culinary delights ranging from strong, thick coffee to spicy stews.
I didn’t know what to expect from this city but now I know it’s somewhere I will always return to and there will still be surprises in store.
Istanbul Ataturk Airport
Just under 10 hours from DC, the overnight Turkish Airlines flight delivered us into Istanbul in the late afternoon. Anxious to tour the city, we purchased our visa in advance at e-Visa for $20 a pop. It took less than 15 minutes and we avoided waiting in an extra line to get through customs.
Finding a taxi at the airport can be a little chaotic. I pulled up Uber and found a car for 100TL (about $16). While I was waiting for the car, a man with a badge approached me and told me Uber was illegal in Istanbul and a cab would be 170TL to get to our hotel. Since I already had a much cheaper price, I thought this guy was trying to rip me off so I walked away and proceeded to get the Uber I ordered and had no issues. It took about 25 minutes to get to the old city.
However, I later googled if Uber was in fact illegal and found this surprising article. I used the ride share app throughout my stay and didn’t have any problems. Every ride was a van with seats facing each other and little mini fridges filled with water. Use at your own risk but it seems the only problem is grabbing rides from the airport.
Istanbul is ginormous! It’s home to 15 million people and 594 square miles (For comparison, NYC has 8.5 million residents and is 302 sq miles). There is a ton to see and do here! We focused most of our time in the Sultanahmet district and aimed to visit the most renowned sites. It’s a highly walkable city so we plotted our route and were able to get to mostly everything on foot. Istanbul is hilly and narrow so watch for cars, trams and the adorable street kitties.
Things to Do:
Its massive dome was an architectural marvel when it was constructed in the beginning of the middle ages. The centuries and volume of history contained in one building is staggering. It started in Constantinople as a church, was burned down by rioters, rebuilt, converted into a mosque. Today, it serves as a museum in Istanbul and a testament to passing time and the controlling kingdoms.
Entering the cavernous Hagia Sophia museum, you immediately turn your head up to see the opulent dome. Make sure to head to the second floor gallery to check out the Loggia of the Empress, where the Empress and her ladies watched the activities down below; the solid marble door, where important meetings were held; and the mosaics, picturing different religious and important figures. It’s open 7 days a week and costs 40TL to enter. It’s a must see when in the city!
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque was constructed in the early 1600s and sits directly across the Hagia Sophia, amplifying the skyline with its six skinny minarets. As you enter the complex, you walk into the expansive courtyard with marble archways giving you an idea of the massive size of the place. It’s nicknamed the Blue Mosque because of the hand painted blue tiles on the interior. When we visited, much of the interior was under construction but the intricate designs are exquisite. You will find yourself staring at the walls and ceilings taken in by the shimmery artistic works while your feet are massaged by the soft carpet.
This is a popular site to visit in Istanbul so while it was crowded the line moved swiftly. As this is an active place of worship, try to time your visit to avoid prayer times and Fridays, make sure to be respectful while taking pictures and exploring. There are also strict rules on what to wear; no bare legs or arms and women must wear a head scarf. Additionally, you’ll take off your shoes and carry them in a provided plastic bag. Don’t worry if you forget, they have complimentary cover ups to borrow. Finally, the Blue Mosque is free to visit but you can make a donation on the way out.
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