Istanbul Turkey has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. The fascinating history of what was once Constantinople and its unique geographical location straddling both Europe and Asia has made it a top travel destination in the world. Finally, as of March 2022, I have managed to tick the city off my list as we took a 10-day trip to Istanbul Turkey.
Undeniably, the sights are magnificent in this city. My camera was having an absolute blast capturing the beauty of Istanbul’s every corner. There are many things I love, but there are also some parts that I find underwhelming in this city. I suppose a slightly mixed feeling is a fair way to describe our impression of the city. But overall, it’s still a great experience and Istanbul should no doubt be on everyone’s bucket list.
Getting Around Istanbul
- You can find free Wifi at the likes of McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King, etc. but they typically require sending a passcode to your mobile number and the registration process could be a little lengthy. From our experience, the Wifi speed isn’t particularly fast either.
- As a result, we find it a much better option to get a sim card there. We got ours from TurkCell for 330TL, which offers 20GB data. If you are getting it from the airport, it may be a little be pricier but, overall, it’s quite cheap.
- Istanbul generally has a pretty good transport network. If you are planning to use public transport, you will need to get an Istanbulkart. It works similarly to London’s Oyster Card where you simply need to top up before you go.
- Alternatively, Istanbul Passes are also available. If the ticket says 3 passes, that means you can use the card for three rides. You can share one card between multiple people. For instance, my husband and I bought one ticket that offers 2 passes and we could just tap the same card again to get through the gates instead of having to buy two separate tickets. Note that Istanbul Passes are not for top-ups. Once you’ve used up the passes, you will need to purchase a new pass to travel.
- Both Istanbulkart and Passes can be purchased at ticketing machines outside of bus/tram stations and ferry piers. But note that these machines only take cash so make sure you carry some with you!
- Taxi fare is very cheap in Istanbul so it’s a great way to get around the city.
- However, you may come across drivers trying to con you. Make sure your driver is using the meter and that the meter is starting from zero. We have had an instance where the driver has the cheek to start the meter at 65 Turkish liras and tried to make us pay 100 for a 30-lira ride!
- Another scenario is that many drivers will offer you a fixed price and not use the meter. It usually is a higher price than what it’s supposed to be. So, if you can, kindly ask them to use the meter unless you don’t mind paying the higher fare.
- The whole process of hailing a taxi could be rather stressful. There is no shortage of taxis in the city but many either won’t stop for you or would refuse to drive you to certain locations.
- Most taxis have card machines so you don’t have to always carry cash. Do note that there is a very small additional fee for paying by card though.
- Uber works in Istanbul. But unlike the typical Ubers, Istanbul’s Ubers are actually the city’s yellow taxis. Essentially, instead of someone’s car, the Uber app works as a taxi app.
- An alternative taxi app that’s commonly used in the city is BiTaksi.
Cash or Card?
- Cards are widely accepted across Istanbul with the exception of ticket machines and some small shops/eateries.
- However, some places may charge an additional fee for paying by card. So carrying cash is still handy.
- Tip: get a Revolut Card where you can exchange money into different currencies (Turkish liras included) to spend when travelling. You can also use the card to take cash out from local ATMs (charges may apply).
Where to Stay in Istanbul Turkey
We first stayed at Henna Hotel in the Sultanahmet area for a few days and then moved to an Airbnb in the Galata/Karakoy area. I picked the Sultanahmet area for our first few days because I wanted to be near the historical sights and Henna Hotel was the perfect hotel for it. It is a lovely affordable luxury boutique-style hotel and one of the more modern hotels in the area. All the major sites are pretty much just on our doorstep and the hotel has a gorgeous rooftop for an iconic Instagram photo. Click here to read about our detailed reviews for Henna Hotel Istanbul.
Apart from sights, the Sultanahmet area, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to offer and food is pretty poor there. The Galata/Karakoy area was a lot better to stay in as a whole. It is better in terms of better prices, and better food options, while also central enough for sightseeing. We have written up an article to explain the different areas to stay in Istanbul and hotel recommendations here.
Alternatively, you can use the booking.com search box below to find & book your stay!
What We Liked & Didn’t Like About Istanbul
Things we liked:
- Amazing sights, and plenty of history to explore & soak in.
- The city generally felt safe to walk around – suitable for solo female travellers as long as you have some commonsense precautions.
- Food prices are generally cheap. It’s great that we can freely order different dishes and also go out for dessert afterwards without breaking the bank.
- People tend to be quite friendly. Turkish people are known for its friendliness and hospitality. Compared to the likes of Antalya, people are little bit more closed off in a city like Istanbul, but we’ve still encountered some very lovely people.
Things we didn’t like
- The food scene in Istanbul was generally rather underwhelming.
- As mentioned, hailing down taxis are STRESSFUL. One would think they would be more organised for such a big tourist city. But the reality is that it was absolute chaos.
- Again, as mentioned – taxi cons. You already know the story from the beginning of this post!
- Some roads are not that easy to walk on. You may encounter some uneven surfaces, or most likely facing steep slopes with little to no support/stairs. I’m sure summer is fine but if you were visiting during wet snowy days as we did, it was quite a mission to get around.
What to See & Do in Istanbul (Our Itinerary)
This is a very spread out itinerary because (1) we wanted to chill and not rush our trip, (2) the weather was pretty brutal during the whole trip and there’s only this much we could do under heavy blizzards and unwalkable conditions. Typically, for 10 days in Istanbul, you can totally include a Bosphorus Boat Tour as well as day trips to Princes Islands, Bursa, etc.
The 10 days do not count the day we landed in Istanbul as we arrived late at night. We merely had a late dinner and a very short walk around the hotel area before calling it a day.
After a late-ish breakfast at our hotel, we started heading out to see the historical sights which are just within a few steps from our door. First up, we visited the most iconic sight of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia. It is truly a magnificent sight and one that would steal your breath away. Entry to Hagia Sophia is free. As it is a mosque, it is required to dress modestly and, for females, to cover your hair. It is also required to remove your shoes when stepping inside the carpeted areas of the mosque.
Once a Constantinople patriarchal cathedral of the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans took over. It served as the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years and has been an architectural & cultural icon of the Byzantines. When Ataturk formed modern Turkey, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum but, in 2020, it has returned its status to a mosque. Today, it is considered one of the world’s greatest architectural works and is accepted as the 8th wonder of the world.
The building exudes a fascinating blend of Christianity and Islam. Upon entry, you’d see golden Christian mosaics at the top of the door archway, but as you head down inside the mosque, you’d be greeted with a sumptuous interior with tall domes supported by grand arches, chandeliers hanging down and stunning Islamic calligraphic panes covering over the previous Christian arts.
Turkish Delight & Sahlep at Aya Sofya Delights
Coming out from Hagia Sophia, we came across Aya Sofya Delights and tried out some Turkish delights. Prior to visiting Istanbul, we’ve only known Turkish Delights in the form of small candied cubes. However, not exclusive just to this shop, these Turkish Delights come in the form of big long chunks and many different flavours. We definitely enjoyed these rolled Turkish Delights a lot more than the small cubes. Our favourite flavours include Chocolate Hazelnut, Pistachio, Pomegranate, and Coconut. Allegedly, the Turkish president regular pops by to get his Turkish Delight fix after praying Jummah in Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque! We enjoyed them so much that we decided to buy some as souvenirs for our families.
It didn’t just stop at Turkish Delights. We had a lovely chat with one of the owners and he introduced us to Sahlep, which is a drink we immediately loved. Sahlep is essentially hot milk that is thickened with orchid tubers flour and is typically topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon. It’s a super warming drink that’s perfect for cold wintery days. Given how freezing cold the weather was during our visit, it became our go-to drink to stay warm!
The Blue Mosque
After hanging around the square for a little, we went to check out the Blue Mosque which is right next to Hagia Sophia. Outside the mosque, there are plenty of exhibitions educating people about Islam. Whether you are Muslim or not, it’s a great read to reflect on and learn about the religion.
Unfortunately, during our visit, there was construction work going on at the Blue Mosque so we didn’t get to see much inside. You may wonder that it’s not very blue on the outside, so why is it called the Blue Mosque? It’s called the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik ceramic tiles used for decorating the interior, which we only had a glimpse of but didn’t have the luck to see in its full grandeur. The mosque was built to rival the neighbouring Hagia Sophia, with a massive courtyard that’s deemed as the biggest of all Ottoman mosques, six minarets, and elegant domes. However, it’s hard to beat the interior architectural wonders of Hagia Sophia.
Entry to the Blue Mosque is free. Again, since it’s a mosque, make sure you dress modestly and, for women, cover your hair before entering. Shoes are required to be taken off when entering.
When in Turkey, getting a doner wrap is a must, right? Tempting wheels of meat doner kebabs are available every few steps across the city and are no doubt the number one signature of the country’s cuisine. However, oddly enough, we’ve learnt from this trip that Istanbul doesn’t offer spectacular doner wraps or Turkish meat grills overall! This wrap we got at Sultanahmet wasn’t awful per se, but it was rather underwhelming and plain in flavour. We’ve come to realise that London’s doner wraps are actually quite good compared to what we’ve got from Istanbul. If you fancy a wrap on the go in Istanbul, interestingly, we discovered a little later that fish wraps/sandwiches are better in this city!
Dessert Break at Hafiz Mustafa
We kept walking down the street into the Fatih area and the weather, unfortunately, turned unpleasant so we popped into one of the Hafiz Mustafa branches. Having heard some raving reviews for their Caramel Milk Cake, this was high up on my food list for Istanbul. The milk cake was decent but unfortunately didn’t wow me or impressed me much. Perhaps I was just unlucky that I got a mediocre slice as the cake tasted overcooked. We also tried the Kunefe, which required a little bit of a wait but was freshly hot out of the oven and decently delicious.
A few more steps away, we arrived at the Grand Bazaar. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is actually one of the biggest and oldest covered markets in the world. Hence it’s such a popular tourist destination and a major landmark of Istanbul. The number of shops in the bazaar is endless. You can find anything from Turkish teas, confectionery & Turkish delights, to clothes and shoes, as well as lamps & souvenirs. Expect a bit of haggling as it’s pretty much unavoidable. We did end up buying some Turkish teas to take home to enjoy, which are priced by weight. As for clothes, shoes, and bags – they are all fake brands at the bazaar.
Dinner at Nusr-et
They say it’s cheaper to fly to Istanbul to dine at Salt Bae’s Nusr-et restaurant than it is to pay the infamously extortionate prices in London. Well, maybe…but also not really as it’s not that cheap, to be honest. It is the more affordable one compared to its other international branches, but the bill still rounded up to £73 total for the two of us – so not exactly cheap and actually expensive for Turkey’s standard. But it was a very dissatisfying £73 as the food was poor. Simply put, it was dry and tasteless. They do give you a little flamboyant chopping and salt sprinkling “spectacle”, but the poor quality and lack of flavour just weren’t worth it. Read our full review for Nusr-et Istanbul here.
The next day, we planned to visit the Topkapi Palace in the morning but it was closed for a political event so we returned to our hotel for a leisurely breakfast and enjoyed some rooftop views before heading out again. We really wanted to visit the Basilica Cistern as well but it was unfortunately closed for renovations.
Finally, Topkapi Palace was open again in the afternoon. It costs 285 Turkish liras to enter the Palace Museum and the Harem, which I would highly recommend you to check out. Otherwise, it’s 250 Turkish liras just for entry to the Palace Museum. A free audio guide is included in either ticket.
The palace was beautiful as it demonstrated the fine heights of Byzantine architecture. It was once the residence of the Ottoman sultans and is home to an extensive collection of Holy Relics, royal treasures, and imperial archives. We’ve spent hours just walking around, admiring the museum collections, and getting lost in history. The palace also presents breathtaking views across the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn with the Galata Tower in view.
As mentioned, I’d highly recommend visiting the Harem as well. The Harem is where the sultan’s mother, wives, and concubines resided. Gorgeous architecture and showstopping rooms aside, it also showcased an interesting history of the Black Eunuchs where, if you look closely, will find plenty of African influences in some of the chambers.
Overall, the Topkapi Palace is such a fascinating place to visit and there’s just so much to soak in. Whether you’re into architecture or history, it’s got plenty to offer. The 4 hours spent literally just flew by and we had a great time there!
Dinner at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi
Translating as “historical Sultanahmet meatballs”, it is said that this is the very place where Turkish kofte is invented. Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi has been in business since 1920 and through people’s recommendation, it’s the only place actually worth visiting in the Sultanahmet area. Only two main dishes are present on the menu, i.e. the kofte and lamb shish, as well as a couple of side dish options. Overall, the meat quality was fresh and better than other restaurants we tried in Sultanahmet. However, the dishes definitely still lacked a touch of spices. Better but still underwhelming is our verdict. It’s still a decent try that’s cheap and convenient as it’s practically just next to all the Sultanahmet historical sights.
Desserts at Hafiz Mustafa (again)
It was snowing and slippery, so we popped into Hafiz Mustafa, which is just next door, for some desserts and tea till the snow stops. This time around, we tried the Baklava Ice Cream Sandwich and were immediately in love. Apart from cheap prices, the best thing about Hafiz Mustafa is how it opens late into the night which is perfect for post-dinner desserts and tea. Moreover, it’s practically everywhere across the city so it’s a very convenient pick! We just sat down to enjoy our desserts &teas and chatted the night away before finally heading back to the hotel to call it a day.
Karakoy & Galata Bridge
After a late breakfast at the hotel, we checked out from Henna Hotel and moved to our Airbnb in Galata for the remaining days of our trip. It wasn’t ready yet when we arrived at the Airbnb so we dropped our bags and then just hung around Karakoy and the Galata Bridge area.
The Galata Bridge connects the Old City at Eminonu and Karakoy of modern European Istanbul. We didn’t find it particularly poetic per se but as a fun fact, Galata Bridge has been featured plenty of times in various literature. There are a number of restaurants underneath the bridge – however, they’re mostly tourist traps.
As for the Karakoy area, it’s an up-and-coming area in Istanbul and still kind of in the works. You can find a cobbled street filled with small shops and restaurants, and if you go further, it’ll take you to the Galataport mall and Bosphorus Strait.
It was an uphill walk up to the famous Istiklal Street, which is essentially the main shopping street in Istanbul and leads all the way up to Taksim Square. A vintage tram runs along the street that takes you to the famous Taksim Square. If you want to avoid that uphill walk, there’s a funicular – The Tunnel – running from Karakoy to bring you up the slope.
Istiklal Street translates as ‘Independence Avenue’ and has been the city’s famous main street throughout history. It is a vibrant pedestrian street filled with shops and restaurants, including all your international high street brands like H&M, Zara, etc. We popped into a few shops to check out the prices in Istanbul and did a bit of window shopping.
Turkish Coffee at Mandabatmaz
What’s also along Istiklal Street is this renowned Turkish coffee spot. When in Turkey, Turkish coffee is a must and there’s no better place to try it than Mandabatmaz. The brewmaster at Mandabatmaz claims that the secret lies in the hand – all from the gentle flick and swirl from the wrist to make that perfect cup of coffee. They also get freshly ground coffee that’s roasted exclusively just for them and not sold commercially elsewhere. The coffee was impressively smooth to taste, strong and rich in flavour but not once leaving any bitter aftertaste. I had it with one sugar, which was just right for me.
After the coffee, we continued to walk and pop into shops here and there. We did reach Taksim Square but the weather took a turn and it was a blizzard so we didn’t get a good look at the square. We grabbed a quick fast food bite and returned to our Airbnb to call it a day as the weather was just impossible.
Now that we’re in the Galata area, of course, we had to see the Galata Tower. The walk towards the Galata Tower can be quite a steep one so make sure you wear comfortable shoes. It costs 100 Turkish liras to enter and go up to the top of the tower. An elevator will take you up to the 6th floor and then it’s two storeys of stairs to get to the very top. A narrow balcony on the top floor will give you a panoramic view of the whole city of Istanbul. There used to be a cafe up there but it no longer exists.
Apart from beautiful bird’s eye views, there are some exhibitions on the lower floors to walk you through the history of the Galata Tower and the Genoese colonisation during the Byzantine Empire. It was the tallest building in Constantinople then and was built as a watchtower as part of the Walls of Galata. Its original name was “Christea Turris”, which translates into the “Tower of Christ”.
We returned to the Karakoy area after visiting the Galata Tower and popped into Galata Simicisi for a quick bite. When in Turkey, you can find Simit bread everywhere but our AirBnB host recommended us Galata Simicisi, which is a small humble local bakery in the area. Plain simit aside, you can find them in the form of sandwiches, nicely layered with some fresh tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. To be honest, I couldn’t taste much difference compared to other stalls but you generally can’t go wrong with a simit. Do note that it’s a cash-only shop so remember to carry some with you.
Galataport & Bosphorus Strait
From there, we decided to walk to our next sight and that means walking through the Galataport & Bosphorus Strait. Galataport is a new mall in the area as part of Karakoy’s development project. It’s very modern and already got plenty of shops and restaurants there. There are benches by the cruise ports where you can enjoy the panoramic views of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn.
After passing the Galataport and continuing along the Bosphorus Strait, we’ve arrived at the famous Dolmabche Palace. If lavish palaces are your thing, then you must not miss out on this. Built during the 19th century, the Dolmabche Palace is considered one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. It served as a home to the late sultans and founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk.
Those intricately designed gates facing the Bosphorus have become a famous photo spot today and are quite impressive sights. Photos are not allowed inside the palace but you can expect some exceptionally grand and impressive architectural work. The palace very much has a distinct European touch to it and its gold-lined rooms reminded me of the Palace of Versailles in Paris and hints of Venice’s Doges Palace. The amount of gold, diamonds, and crystal housed in the Dolmabche Palace is blindingly flashy and certainly reflects how wealthy the Ottomans were.
Personally, we both enjoyed the Topkapi Palace more as there’s more history and character to it. But without a doubt, it’s still a stunning sight to visit.
The original plan was to keep walking along the Bosphorus Strait to reach Ortakoy. However, the weather took a bad turn again and it wouldn’t make sense to stay out there in the windy snow for the Instagram-famous photo spot. We decided that it was best to drop it and head back towards Galataport, which is a lot easier for finding food and close to our Airbnb, in case the weather got even worse.
Dinner at Sait
We stayed at Galataport for a little bit to escape the rain and ended up at Sait restaurant for dinner. Sait is a seafood restaurant, with very nice interiors and ambience. They told us they would be shutting early due to the heavy snow so I don’t know if this impacted what we were offered as food options. But basically, there wasn’t a menu to read from. Instead, we were asked to take a look at the seafood counter & salad display and pick what we want.
Anyhow, we ended up getting some calamari, oysters and sun-dried tomatoes to start, and then a whole seabass to share which comes with potatoes and grilled onions as well. The seafood quality was great and we enjoyed our food overall. Again, perhaps it’s the early closing, we did get the impression of wanting us to leave even though it was still early in the night.
After we left, we were greeted with heavy and thick snow (that explains why the staff were so keen to leave I suppose!). We managed to trot back to our AirBnB with a few snow fights in between and called it a day.
Breakfast at Yigit Sofram
You may have started to pick up that we haven’t been particularly impressed with the food in Istanbul so far. But Yigit Sofram is one of the few that I’ve enjoyed thoroughly and would definitely recommend a visit. Go hungry as they offer you quite a spread for breakfast and the food is delicious. Their homemade Bazlama bread, especially, was a delight and paired so well either with sweet or savoury foods. I originally ordered the Sujuk Menemen but there was a little mix-up and I ended up with Sujuk & Eggs instead. It’s okay though as the food was delicious! The dish comes together with bread, cheese, tomatoes & olives, Bazlama bread and jam, and Turkish tea. Additionally, I’ve also tried out their hot milk & honey, and that was exactly the hug in a mug I needed. Read my full review of Yigit Sofram Istanbul here.
St. Anthony of Padua Church
Returning to Istiklal Street, we came across the St. Anthony of Padua Church and popped in there for a little visit. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in Istanbul and was originally built in 1725 by the local Italian community. The original church was later demolished and replaced with what we see now. It’s not a huge church per se, but it’s got quite beautiful architecture (a little Venetian perhaps?) and a Neo-Gothic interior. It’s a quaint little escape from the usual hustle and bustle of Istiklal Street.
Sahlep & Desserts at Vitavien
After coming out of the Padua Church, we grabbed a quick doner wrap at Patsosis and sat down at Vitavien for a warming cup of Sahlep and desserts. Vitavien has multiple branches across Istanbul and we think they’re the most consistent spot for a good cup of Sahlep. They just make it good and the quality is consistent across every branch we popped by. Anyway, as for actual desserts, we tried the Baklava Ice Cream Sandwich and a plate of waffles. Both were okay but nothing particularly impressive.
Without the blizzard, we managed to have a much better look at Taksim Square. The Republic Monument stands right at the centre of the square which commemorates the 5th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 following the Turkish War of Independence. There isn’t much around Taksim Square though so it’s more of a landmark point rather than somewhere with activities to do.
Taksim Square Mosque
Right next to Taksim Square is the gorgeous Taksim Square Mosque. It is a very modern mosque as construction only started in 2017 and was inaugurated in 2021. Before any construction work began, the mosque has already come with quite some controversy for decades until President Erdogan initiated the project.
Taksim Square is widely seen as a symbol of the secular Turkish Republic and the public has been against adding any religious tone to it. Many protests have happened over the years over this controversial topic of building a mosque in Taksim Square and a wider agenda of the redevelopment of the area and/or anti-government movements. From a tourist point of perspective, it’s a beautiful mosque and it’s lovely to have a prayer place right by the iconic square.
Dinner at CZN Burak / Medenyetler Sofrasi
At some point, in some way, you must have at least seen a video of mister Burak himself prepping up a massive feast of Turkish grills and dishes with that big smile on his face. Viral internet sensation aside, CZN Burak is a name that has popped up multiple times from your recommendations so we decided to give it a visit. We visited the branch nearby Taksim Square, which goes by the name Medeniyetler Sofrası. The food certainly has a little theatrical element to it as dishes come in like a mini fire show. Every night there’s a little music and dancing at the restaurant too. We ordered the Lamb Benen Casserole and a Lamb Shank Kebse – both were spectacular upon serving but the flavours were more just average, unfortunately. It was slightly better than some other meat dishes we’ve tried at other restaurants but still nothing impressive.
Baklava at Mado
After dinner, we strolled down Istiklal Street and ended up popping into Mado for a baklava treat and hot chocolate. There are plenty of baklava flavours to choose from and, after a long thought, I went with a classic pistachio baklava. The baklava didn’t disappoint as it was beautifully crispy and syrupy to taste. The hot chocolate was rich and delightful too!
A very satisfying treat later, we descended downhill back to our Airbnb at Karakoy to call it a day.
Breakfast at Lades Menemen
If you research food places in Istanbul, you’re highly likely to have seen Lades being mentioned many times across both online articles and travel books being the go-to place for an authentic Turkish Menemen. The humble breakfast restaurant is tucked away in a small quiet street from Istiklal Street. I went with the Sujuk Menemen, which I’d say was average. It’s not bad but it definitely needed quite a bit more seasoning. A few shakes of salt and pepper later, the dish finally tasted a tad bit nicer but it’s not wowing. Their Turkish coffee, unfortunately, tasted rather grainy so I was not the biggest fan of it. My breakfast, Sujuk Menemen + Turkish Coffee, costs a total of 60 Turkish liras.
A little less popular compared to the Blue Mosque, but Suleiyamen Mosque is an absolutely stunning place that trumps the former in my opinion. The imperial mosque is perched high up on the third hill of Istanbul, towering over the Golden Horn. Whilst not the largest, it is definitely considered one of the grandest and most beautiful Ottoman mosques. It boasts 4 minarets to represent the four sultans of the city and 10 balconies to represent the 10th sultan after the establishment of the Ottoman Empire.
It is a slight uphill climb and some rainbow stairs to reach the mosque complex. Outside the mosque are the tombs of Suleyman and his wife. The other side of the mosque complex also presents a still-functioning Hammam. I think its interior takes inspiration from the grandeur of Hagia Sophia but in a simpler and more humble way. There’s an unpretentious simplicity to it but no short of intricacies and breathtaking beauty. Once again, as this is a mosque, please dress modestly and, for women, cover your hair upon visiting and remove your shoes before entering the mosque.
Spice Bazaar – the Suleymaniye Mosque is pretty much next to Istanbul’s famous Spice Bazaar. It would certainly make sense to visit either before or after Suleymaniye Mosque. Our original plan is to visit after but bad weather conditions meant a change in plans and we ended up skipping it for the day. Though keep reading on because we managed to make an unplanned visit later in the trip.
Dinner at Mikla
Crossing the Galata Bridge back to the modern side of European Istanbul, we started another uphill walk again to have dinner at one of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants, Mikla. Located on the rooftop of the Mamara Pera Hotel, not only does Mikla offers an exquisite fine-dining experience but also stunning views for days.
We went with the three-course menu and were also fed with plenty of little small tasting dishes throughout that definitely stole the show. The best part is that the restaurant is highly affordable for fine dining. A three-course menu costs 850 Turkish liras per person, and it’s 1,200 liras for the six-course tasting menu. Read our full review for Mikla Restaurant here.
Breakfast at Ugrak Baba Borekcisi
I stumbled across this small humble little shop near our Airbnb that comes with great reviews for their Turkish Boreks. I had the Potato Borek and got myself a Turkish tea as well. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t catch them fresh out of the oven, I didn’t find it stellar but it was an okay munch. It was a super cheap breakfast though (21 Turkish liras total) so can’t complain much!
Stuffed Mussels at Midyeci Ahmet
Did you know that stuffed mussels are a very popular street food dish in Istanbul? There are plenty of stalls selling them, especially on the Asian side. We came across Midyeci Ahmet at the Karakoy pier and tried out a few before we hopped onto the ferry to see Anatolian Istanbul. With a squeeze of lemon, these stuffed mussels were quite a delightful bite! We opted for spicy flavours – it wasn’t particularly spicy per se but definitely gave a little piquant tingle to the palate.
Ferry Ride to Uskudar
Next, we purchased an Istanbul pass (or you can use the Istanbulkart) to hop on the ferry to Uskudar, which is on the Asian side of Istanbul. Since the weather was holding up nicely, we took a seat outside and enjoyed the lovely views on the Bosphorus. Along the way, we get to spot the Maiden Tower before the ferry eventually stopped at Uskudar pier.
It’s a little outside of the city centre but it was worth the little journey up to visit the Camlica Mosque, i.e. Turkey’s largest mosque. After a quick bite near Uskudar pier, we grabbed a taxi to get to Camlica. Perched high up on Camlica Hill, the mosque offers some pretty stunning views of the city. Apart from the mosque, the complex also houses an art gallery, cafe, library, and conference hall. The courtyard was unfortunately closed during our visit but the grandeur of the mosque has been a magnificent enough sight to see. After we left Istanbul, we found out they’ve also opened an interactive Islamic Museum there which adds to more reason to visit!
Dinner at Zeynel Kebap
After coming back down to Uskudar, the original plan was to take a walk along the promenade toward Nakkaştepe National Garden for some good views of the Bosphorus Bridge. However, we were quite tired after the long struggle of getting a taxi ride and decided to return to the pier and grab some dinner before heading back. You can read more about Nakkaştepe National Garden here in this article instead.
We weren’t too fussy at this point and just popped into Zeynel Kebap restaurant without thinking too much about where to eat. It’s a super casual spot that serves traditional Turkish grills and such. I had the Pistachio Kebab while the other half had an Adana Kebab. Both were somewhat decent given the cheap prices but it’s nothing special. You do get a nice-ish little sea view so I suppose there isn’t much to complain about. It’s nothing stellar at all but passable for a no-frills cheap & quick meal.
Dessert at Bagdat Ocakbasi
Before leaving Uskudar, we both fancied some kunefe and ended up popping into Bagdat Ocakbasi, which is just around the corner from Zeynel Kebap. There is indeed a Hafiz Mustafa not too far away but, surprisingly, it was the other half who suggested we just try out Bagdat Ocakbasi as somewhere different. Or it could be simply because he couldn’t be bothered to cross the road to head to Hafiz Mustafa – who knows haha!
Anyhow, we ordered a mix kunefe – so a quarter of each flavour that’s available. There are cheese-based kunefe and also cream-based kunefe, and then there are some topped with mixed nuts. Personally, I wasn’t the biggest fan of them but they were something different and an interesting try.
A little side story of the night…
Our server was an Afghan refugee who we ended up having a long chat with for the night. He shared with us his story of having to leave behind his mother and fiance to flee Afghanistan, trekking across Iran and finally arriving in Turkey. This isn’t where he wanted to stop but, unfortunately, he was detailed at the Turkish borders and eventually had to settle with refugee status in Turkey. However, life had not been any better in Istanbul as he shared horrific stories of how Turkish officials have treated him and other refugees, the unlivable conditions, the lack of freedom, and the constant daily reminders of how “the likes of him” are unwanted in the country.
It was rather disappointing that even in a Muslim country, such issues still remain, if not worse. Not that the story dampened our moods but it did give us lots to ponder and reflect on during our ride back to European Istanbul. This is a reminder of how fortunate we are to be able to travel freely, be within arm’s reach of our loved ones, and have a place we can call home.
Breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi
Another day, another hunt for good breakfast spots. I stumbled across Van Kahvalti Evi and what a delightful find it’s been! Despite the limited English, the staff were incredibly friendly which made my day. I had the Sujuk Menemen – it was saucy and delicious, and they’ve added an extra touch of cheese in there as well which I enjoyed. The staff kindly offered me some freshly baked homemade sweet bread and they were no doubt a delightful munch. I decided to get some Salami Gozleme for takeaway at the end of my breakfast but those unfortunately slightly felt short compared to what I enjoyed on site. But overall, it’s still an enjoyable spot!
Grilled Mackerel Wrap at Meshur Balik Eyyup
Remember we said we haven’t been impressed with meat doner wraps in Istanbul? Well, the interesting thing we discovered is that the fish wraps were no doubt better! Look out for Balik Ekmek, which is a Turkish mackerel sandwich. Usually, you’d find it in the form of a sandwich but we came across Meshur Balik Eyyup right by the Karakoy pier who makes it in the form of a wrap. We couldn’t resist that little street-side grilling action and grabbed one to try. It was a refreshing burst of flavour and we particularly enjoyed the extra sprinkling of seasoning over the wrap itself which added a great palatable punch of flavours.
We headed back to the Asian side of Istanbul for the day but this time at Kadikoy, an area that’s known as the hip area of Anatolian Istanbul. Arriving at Kadikoy, you can immediately feel the young, buzzing atmosphere and almost a hippy vibe from some areas. There are plenty around Kadikoy, including the Moda district, plenty of mini bazaars, restaurants & cafes, shops (including a street that’s all dedicated to wedding dresses), etc. They also have their own version of “Istiklal Street”, named Bahariye Street, that comes with a vintage tram as well. Food prices on the Asian side of Istanbul are certainly noticeably a little cheaper, which is excellent news. It is home to some of the best recommended Istanbul casual food places such as Kadikoy Tatuni, Ciya Sofrasi, etc. Click here to read more about Best Istanbul Food & Restaurants.
However, one thing we didn’t like as much about Kadikoy is the huge bar culture. There was a street, in particular, that really reminded us of pubs and bars in Soho.
Dinner at Pide Sun
Strolling up and down the area later, the original plan was to visit Ciya Sofrasi, but it was too crowded on that day. Instead, we ended up at Pide Sun for a Turkish pide for dinner. The pide was okay but the flavours weren’t as rich as I hoped and just really lacked oomph. Overall, it was an okay spot to pop by but not one we’d particularly rush back for.
More Stuffed Mussels
One thing you’d notice about Kadikoy is that there are stuffed mussels stalls on nearly every corner. Having enjoyed our bite from Midyeci Ahmet just the day before, we were more than happy to try out a few more here at Kadikoy. They all tasted as good as one another and were a delightful bite.
Desserts at Cafer Erol
Last but not least, we ended our trip to Kadikoy with desserts at Cafe Erol. They are a Turkish confectionery with a fair bit of history. Their first shop is in Eminonu, followed by Beyoglu and Kadikoy. The ground floor was almost like a maze of candies but upstairs is a nice relaxing cafe area where you can sit down and enjoy some hot drinks and desserts. We had a Sutlac (Turkish rice pudding) and a Muhallebi (Middle Eastern milk pudding) – the former won our preference more.
After desserts, we headed back to Kadikoy pier and got a direct ferry ride back to Karakoy.
Breakfast at Mum’s Cafe
We’re approaching our final days in Istanbul now and for our 9th day, I decided to try out something more local to our Airbnb and visited Mum’s Cafe. The restaurant has a very European feel and it almost felt like I was in Paris. Its menu is very European-centric as well, featuring the likes of pancakes, French toast, artisanal sandwiches, etc. I ended up getting the Breakfast Sando, which was essentially like an egg & ham sandwich using their homemade milk bread. It’s decent but nothing too special. Nonetheless, I did very much enjoy their Turkish coffee which was incredibly smooth to taste!
Dessert at Istanbul Baking Company
The Istanbul Baking Company located at the JW Marriott Hotel Karakoy. The neon lights saying “don’t touch my cookie” were exactly how it caught my attention. There are plenty of pastries and cakes available at the shop and I ended up treating myself to a Tiramisu. It was super cute to look at and tasted great too. It’s non-alcoholic obviously!
Fener & Balat
The original plan was to then visit Fener & Balat, which is the UNESCO Heritage Greek and Jewish area of Istanbul. However, we eventually had to give up after having no luck spending a whole hour out in the cold just to try to hail a taxi to take us there. We literally tried from Karakoy – no luck there – then walked across the Galata Bridge to Eminonu hoping it would be easier there. Yet it’s even worse as it’s a lot more chaotic on the Eminonu side.
We missed out on the Spice Bazaar when visiting Suleymaniye Mosque earlier in the trip. Now with plans to Fener & Balat cancelled, we’ve found a bit of spare time on our hands. Since we’re already by Eminonu, it’s literally just across the road to pop into the Spice Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar is also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. Till today, it remains the centre of the spice trade. As you would expect from its name, the bazaar is full of spice shops as well as teas and sweets shops. It’s less hectic than the Grand Bazaar but, as expected, you still have to face plenty of haggling. Once you show a small sign of interest, the haggling would begin.
Dinner at Chuck Burger
Chuck Burger is nearby our Airbnb and one we’ve been pondering about visiting. Our early impressions of meat dishes in Istanbul haven’t been too great so we kind of held off from getting burgers. But the day came when the other half was just craving a burger and we wanted to just chill near where we were staying for our last night. So we stepped into Chuck Burger and, thankfully, it did not disappoint!
We were so pleased to find that the burger was well-seasoned and saucy, with a nice crust over the patty, and was flavoursome to taste. All in all, it was very enjoyable!
Desserts at Karakoy Gulluglu
Karakoy Gulluglu is one of the most famous baklava place in Istanbul. It’s been around since 1949 and have been following the same traditions at the very same spot today. The way it operates is almost a canteen-style eatery. Each station specialises in a different type of baklava. You grab a tray and order from the station(s) you like, then head to the counter to pay and find your own seats. We went to get the triangular-shaped baklava and then popped to the ice cream station to turn it into a baklava ice cream sandwich! It was quite a beauty to both look and taste. I’d say Hafiz Mustafa does it better when it comes to the overall bakalava ice cream sandwich creation, but the baklava itself at Karakoy Gulluglu was an impeccably beautiful affair. For drinks, we each grabbed a sahlep to warm ourselves up from the frosty night.
Brunch at Tükkan
The original plan was to walk to Beyoglu for brunch but the unpredicted snowy conditions meant we’re probably better off staying away from any slippery slopes. So instead, we popped into the nearest brunch restaurant by our Airbnb, which happens to be Tükkan, after checking out and leaving our luggage.
We enjoyed a big portion of the “Cooked & Hot” breakfast, which is essentially a fry-up including scrambled egg, pepperoni-halloumi skewer, sausage, smoked meat, baby potatoes, and served with toasted sourdough bread (108 TLR). It was perfectly hearty and satisfying – a lovely breakfast dish that definitely hit the spot. As the snow persisted outside, we just chilled at the restaurant for a few hours and they kindly served us some free Turkish tea throughout.
Before our car came to pick us up to the airport, we did one last stroll around the area and popped into a few shops at Galataport (we mostly only checked out the part next to the JW Marriott section). Lucky enough for us, really heavy snow started to hit right after we got into the car. At that point, we just felt relief that we’re nicely tucked in the car instead of dealing more snowy roads and ending our 10-day Istanbul trip nicely.