A city pretty much at the centre of the travel world – for me at least. World renowned for being where East meets the West and straddling two continents. Offering some of the best street food in the world and super accessible from the majority of countries on Earth thanks to their acclaimed national airline. I am of course referring to the city of Istanbul.
Traveling to the city’s Ataturk Airport for a number of years as a transit passenger, it was finally time to step out of the airport and explore the best of what one of my favourite cities had to offer. Taking a Saturday morning flight on a sunny February day from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, we arrived in Istanbul in the late afternoon. It took over one hour to actually get out of the airport – most of this time spent in the visa queue/passport control.
I had not been to Turkey since they changed their visa process, but they now prefer travellers to get a visa prior to arrival, even for European/British passport holders. I had been used to getting my visa at passport control but now, getting the front of the 45 minute queue, I was advised I had to visit another area of the airport if I wished to collect my visa on arrival. I went and did this (where, evidently there was no queue as nobody was collecting on arrival anymore) and I paid £20 for the sticker. Alternatively, you can apply for a visa online and print this out ready for passport control. If you don’t have access to a printer, they even accept them on mobile devices for some nationalities. How times have changed.
Just like its airport, Istanbul is a pretty large city and you can walk for days so be prepared. A city built on seven hills, it is not long before this starts to show. With inclines likening steep hill hikes, combined with cobbles and cracked paving in places, comfortable shoes are a must. On our first day in the city we left our hotel around 10:30am and we did not return until almost 9pm. We walked around the city the WHOLE TIME, stopping for refreshments a few times throughout the day. Luckily for us it was a crisply bright, winter sun sort of day and was perfect for seeing the sites.
When walking gets too much to take, public transport in the city is a safe and reliable option. The trams in the city can get very full, and I mean London Underground style crammed, at busy times in the day. There is also an ultra modern subway system being developed in the city and with plans to stretch to more corners of the city in the coming years, the infrastructure development in Istanbul shows visitors just how seriously they take tourism. We took a couple of trains on our five day stay, one being from the airport into town which was of course quite crowded, and one being from the city out to a shopping mall on a really rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Travel cards for the subway system can be used by more than one person. This means that you can buy one card for up to three people and keep it topped up. One person goes through the barrier and passes the card back to the next person, who then goes through the barriers using the same card. Unlike many public transport systems you are not required to scan or tap a card at the end of your journey, which is why that system works so effectively. Train and tram travel in Istanbul is super cheap and a little over £30 lasted two of us, five days.
Taxis in Istanbul are also in abundant use. Some are older than others to say the least, but from our experiences they are generally trustworthy and pretty cheap. Typical rules apply; be careful where you flag them down and agree a price prior to getting in. We took a death cab style ride up one of the vertical hills on the evening that was my birthday – a journey which involved a driver that spoke no English, a cab that had no glass in the front windows, a GPS system that did not work, rolling backwards for a terrifying couple of seconds at the top of an incline because of a super dodgy brake system and needing to take a right turn up a street that turned out to be steps. Needless to say we got out of the cab before it turned right! Our taxi to the airport was a lot more relaxed and a whole lot more normal. We also took a taxi from the shopping mall, back into the city which was what you would consider an uneventful car ride as well.
Forget everything you think you know about Turkish food and kebabs. Turkish food is some of the best in the world (when done right) and has been ruined by the greasy visual of kebab shops and soggy donner meat in the UK. Kebab meat in Turkey is freshly grilled and served with lashings of flavouring in the form of herbs and spices from across the Mediterranean and around the Middle East. One of the best things we ate in the city was a quick bite we grabbed from a street vendor behind an Istanbul university. Some of the most succulent chicken pieces, served in soft white bread about the side of my head, cut in half and stuffed with Turkish salad. This alone makes me want to go back to Turkey tomorrow as it was one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, and it was literally about £2.
Quick Things To Note:
- Lots of places are cash only – try to have Turkish Lira to hand when exploring the city.
- When it rains, it pours. Take an umbrella. I have never been to Istanbul where I haven’t witnessed one of their tremendous downpours – even when just transiting through the airport.
- You can get 5* accommodation for 3* prices all across the city. We stayed in the five star hotel 10 Karakoy Istanbul and we paid under £50 a night. Located in one of the most vibrant districts of the city, this luxury, boutique hotel was exactly what we needed for my birthday celebrations and kept us within budget.
My final and most important tip for visiting Istanbul is DO NOT LISTEN TO PEOPLE THAT TELL YOU NOT TO GO. It is one of the cleanest, friendliest, most eclectic cities on Earth and should be visited by everyone at least once.