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Istanbul-Some Reflections and Suggestions

Istanbul was a last minute thing for us, a Change of plans caused by our month long stay in an AirBnb in Bulgaria that went sour. (Story is posted on the forum) I take these kinds of occurrences as signs if you will. A sign that maybe something better is possible. So this is how we ended up on the Night Train To Istanbul from Sofia.

While I knew that the Sultahnamet District was touristy it also has the distinction of being the one place in Instanbul that puts you in walking distance to most of the major sights and that is why we chose it to stay there. I like to walk a city and in the case of Istanbul I was most interested in the historical center.

Sirkeci is fine if you like to walk uphill to everything (but at least it’s downhill to home) and it is extremely busy, chaotic and traffic choked much more so than Sultahnamet.

If you are on your way to Turkey or just Istanbul then please give serious consideration to reading almost anything by Orhan Pamuk before you go. If I was to read only one book by him about Istanbul it would be My Name Is Red Perhaps the best novel I have ever read and one so interesting in it’s construction and development that it pulls you in right away to an ancient murder mystery narrated turn by turn by a series of different narrators, it is a jewel for sure. The first chapter is narrated by a corpse at the bottom of a well...he was the victim. And it goes from there.

Istanbul is familiar to me from having lived in Egypt for two years in 1988 and ‘89. Turkish incorporates more than a few Arabic words, and shares Islam, some of the Food and the feel. So I felt at home really although the places and people are very different.

Be sure to visit the Blue Mosque and take time to read the panels in the courtyard that explain Islam. I have read the Q’uran (twice) and lived in Egypt, traveled throughout what we call “the Middle East and I still learned some things from this experience. Note: the interior of the Mosque is being renovated and is partially blocked from view but is still worth it. Please dress appropriately. If not you will be loaned things to cover up with at the entrance,

I found the Archeology Museum wonderful ( and it too is under renovation) especially the Museum of the Ancient Orient which is part of the larger Archeology Museum. Be prepared to be astounded if you are a lover of history and civilizations of the past.

My least favorite sight was Topkapi Palace. I made the mistake of going on a Sunday and it was mobbed. But the Kitchens of the Palace were to me the best and most informative. Culture is often accessed through food and manners and this is the place to see how those things changed over time. It is also the one place that can explain the downfall of this great ottoman culture most clearly. Any palace that had to have 1,300 workers in the kitchens just to feed the occupants of the palace and it’s visitors was a system that was doomed by it’s sheer weight. It is also evident that acquiring food alone was reason enough for the Ottoman Empire to expand into the fertile farmland of what is now the Ukraine and Crimea.

Hagia Sophia was a wonder and worth every minute spent in its vast breathtaking interior. Watch the movie that is played at the end of the entrance the left as you enter. And Be sure to go to the Gallery (a fairly easy climb)

Eating: Istanbul is a city for food. It is everywhere on every street and while Sultahnamet is touristy there are very good restaurants, kebab stalls and all other kinds of street food available here. We had a couple of favorites; we ate dinner twice at *Deraliye Ottoman Cuisine” and lunch 3 times at The Pudding Shop...not because it was famous as a hippie hangout in the 60’s but because the food was very good, it had the coldest beer in town and the friendliest staff. It was also a great bargain and close by.

Posted by
6696 posts

I wholeheartedly agree abut the Orhan Pamuk books, I have four of them on my bookshelf as we speak. Two other excellent ones are called Snow and Istanbul. It sounds like your stay in Istanbul was rather short - 3 days or so? Is that about right? I hope anyone who reads this realizes there is a huge part of Istanbul that is outside the (compact) main tourist quarter "Sultanahmet" - along the Golden Horn, up the Bosphorus, and the Asia side. Granted, although a majority of the blockbuster sites are in Sultanahmet, there are other areas well worth exploring if one has more time and inclination to see things that have more of a local flavor, many directly accessible by tram or ferry or even bus (I took one up to Ortakoy). I did have the benefit of over two weeks and several trips to see a lot those areas/ neighborhoods outside Sultanahmet that were a nice contrast (although some were quite conservative/ traditional) and had virtually no tourists there that I could spot. Taking a (local) ferry on the Bosphorus was one of my favorite experiences of all, as was Topkapi Palace and the other major museums, especially the Archeological Museum/ Tiled Kiosk, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, and Istanbul Modern. I loved the hilly neighborhoods of Beyoglu, Taksim area, and north of there along the Bosphorus (you can even visit Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence based on his book). The Eyup neighborhood was interesting too, as were several on the Asia side of the city. The many mosques spread throughout and bazaars (especially the smaller Arasta bazaar) were great to visit as well. Istanbul is definitely a city full of many contrasting layers - it's well worth extending your geographic focus beyond Sultanahmet and exploring as many corners as one can (and has interest to do).

Posted by
546 posts

I was there for five nights. And you are right there is much more to see. But in a short time you have to concentrate on what interests you the most and for me that was mostly contained in the old quarter of Sultahnamet.

Also while I was there it was over 90 every day and poured down rain in the afternoon at least once everyday. When it's like this I tend to do one or two big sights and retire to a cold glass of white wine or a beer and watch the world go by.

I could have gone on about many more things but the post was already at 100% of the allowed length. So I spared the readers any further burden.

Posted by
1913 posts

Thanks Agnes for the recs as I'm headed to Turkey in October. Arriving almost 4 days before my RS tour begins. My friend and I want to hire a private guide for perhaps half a day to orient ourselves. We plan to do some of the activities you mention and explore neighborhoods off the beaten path.

Also, I put My Name is Red on hold at my local library as I have been wanting to read a novel by Pamuk but did not know which one to start with. Also, just put Snow and Istanbul on my library hold account.

Really excited!

Posted by
546 posts

I’d like to add just a bit of context here. Sultahnamet and the peninsula it sits on has been the center of pre Roman, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. While “touristy” there is a very good reason for that...This is where most of the history lies. The iconic sights. And for more than a millennium the center of power of great empires.

It is all too easy to dismiss this “touristy” area as “The Beaten Track” But there is a REASON it is well trodden. History.

So dont buy into the idea that this is just a touristy area that has nothing to offer. It is here that it all started.

Turkey is a modern, vibrant energetic country with many sights and areas to visit. Istanbul is the cultural, artistic, and intellectual capital of this country. If you have the time, explore further afield for sure. I wish I had the time to do so. But do not dismiss Sultahnamet as simply “Touristy”. That would be a grave mistake.

Posted by
6696 posts

I don't recall saying that Sultanahmet is somehow overrated (in fact, it's pretty damn amazing and chock full of sites packed into a small area) - you must be reading more into it that what I wrote. All I said is that, if you have the extra time and inclination (obviously not if you're there for 3-5 days), it's worth venturing to other parts of this humungous 13+ million city as well. The American guidebooks (including Rick's own book) don't cover much outside of Sultanahmet, expect for the Chora Church and the old walls. If you're pressed for time, obviously prioritize Sultanahmet because it's second to none. If you're the type of tourist like me who loves cities in general (even the mundane parts, or parts that don't appeal to an average tourist), then take the time to explore the nooks and crannies. The only warning I would give is that it's very hilly in places, the streets in are not straight or intersecting in old neighborhoods, it's easy to get lost or turned around if you're directionally-challenged, and as a solo woman you may feel uncomfortable at times because all you'll see is men (sitting outside smoking, playing backgammon, etc.) and you'll get the point that there is a much greater separation of the sexes and reinforcement of gender roles in traditional parts of the city. In other parts of the city, you won't experience this at all. It's a complicated mix but that's because many people from the rural Anatolia now live in the city and they bring stricter norms with them. In general, people are helpful but there are many, many of them outside the tourism sector that won't be able to communicate with you in English at all (I've experienced this as well).

You won't see this in Sultanahmet, but certain neighborhoods and sites offer another glimpse into Istanbul and its history due to the people who once lived there (Greek, Armenian, Jewish - all gone now). I say the more slivers you can see and can put together, the better. Going on a local ferry is really rewarding, I'd highly recommend it even though several ferries are packaged just for tourists (and priced accordingly).

Phanar Greek Orthodox College in Fener neighborhood - oldest surviving Greek Orthodox School (established in 1454)

Church of St. Stephen and the Bulgars - Fener (Bulgarian Christian Orthodox Church)

Along the Golden Horn

Bosphorus and Asia side

Posted by
222 posts

We are planning to visit next may-june. May I inquire what time of year you went that was over 90 with daily rain? I recognize that one year does not predict another, and I know Europe is having a massive heatwave just now, but I am flexible on my dates and would rather not have excessive heat.
Thanks for your lovely and thoughtful commentary. I will reference it often!

Posted by
546 posts

@Kaye Hi, I just left Istanbul three days ago. The daily rain was reall just the downpour from a thunderstorm but very heavy. We just took shelter in the resataurant in the Topkapi palace which overlooks the Bosporus and ate lunch till it ended. It did rain most of one day but lightly and cleared up.

I would think May will be pretty nice weather.

I write as I travel. I am gone for four months on this trip so I couldn’t possibly wait till I got home to post anything of use.

And Thanks for the kind words.

@Agnes my comments were not aimed at anyone specifically, after re-reading the posts (all of them) I felt a misleading impression was being left about Sultahnamet...not intentionally mind you but still there so I just wanted to make clear Sultahnamet’s importance.

Posted by
224 posts

I just want to say thank you to the posters. I have always wanted to visit Istanbul and this thread is rich in information. It's inspiring me to begin planning a trip in 2019 or 2020.

Posted by
6696 posts

I would also highly recommend this fictional book that describes what life was like in the Ottoman Empire when different groups lived together. Around the time that Turkey became "Turkey", many minorities who made their home there were expelled. Everyone probably knows about the Armenians, but there were lots of Greeks living along the coastal cities/towns in places like Izmir, etc who also had to leave.

"Birds Without Wings" - Loius de Bernieres

And obviously anything you can read about Mustafa Kemal Atatürk beforehand will help you understand why his photo and bust is almost everywhere you look in Turkey - he is revered as the founder of the Turkish state and he looms large.

Posted by
25 posts

I am looking to go on vacatoin and Turkey has always been at the top of my list. However, the state dept suggests this is not a good time. I am a single woman and travel alone always. I see that you all are from the US and it seems that you did not experience any problems.. would you consider this a safe place to travel? Including Bodrum, Cappadocia and other things in September possibly?. Just wondering about security as a solo traveler

Posted by
1009 posts

Safe is a relative term. No one can say what will happen in a couple months. Istanbul has had it's share of female tourists. My suggestion is go but act confident, don't smile at everyone-Turkish men seem to take this as an invitation and judge your surroundings. I was with my family but I went out several times by myself to sightsee and other than some touts trying to get me into their shops, nothing bad happened.

I would also encourage people to go to the Blue Mosque during afternoon prayers as the workers will give non-Muslim an interesting insight and lesson into Islam, ie why they pray at certain times, what the pillars of Islam are, etc. It was very informative and there are tea and cookies after which you can tour the Blue Mosque.

Posted by
1925 posts

Agnes, I agree with all you say about the Sultahnamet district along with the advice to explore other aspects of this wonderful city and it's surroundings. We took the Rick Steves week's City tour of Istanbul; sadly, I don't think it is offered anymore. I had originally fallen in love with the city when we spent a few days there pre-Villages of Turkey tour, also sadly no longer offered. I do wish more travelers would explore this amazing city and equally interesting, fascinating and amazing country. As for weather, it was Fall both times and the weather was pleasant with little to no rain. Both times we had native Turkish guides for our tours, through the group previously mentioned. On the Istanbul tour, we happened to be visiting the St. George's Cathedral, which we were told is the seat of the Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Upon entering, we were told we just might want to stay around as the Patriarch himself would soon be visiting and had requested to with meet us. He was wonderfully approachable and outgoing, and spoke with us using his excellent English. This was one of the highlights of my travels over the years and I treasure the photo taken of him with our tour group. Arthur, we spent a lot of time at the Pudding Shop. Great photos, great staff and we loved the food-oh, and yes, the cold beer. I am old enough to know about the Beat/Hippie exodus through this iconic restaurant so it was fun spending time there.

Posted by
14267 posts

I've been to Istanbul twice, first 5 years ago in late October and back this year at the end of June. While weather for any short period of time is no more than anecdotal, in late October I don't remember any hot days, but I didn't need a jacket either. In June, the temps were somewhat warmer, but not more than about 30.

As a single retired woman, I was very comfortable everywhere in Istanbul's center. Like Arthur, I found the Middle Eastern influences very familiar and "homey". One thing I really appreciated is that the call of the muezzin is not overly loud and very pleasant. Here in Israel, it is often blasted out. What surprised me was how Westernized Istanbul is compared to Jerusalem's markets, streets, and shops. It's a fascinating blend of East meeting West.

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1 posts

I am visiting Istanbul currently. I came here Oct.30th and will be leaving for Rome Dec. 1. Warnng to seniors BE CAREFUL. The roads, entries are uneven. I have pictures reflecting 8-9 different levels of roadways/pathways in a short distance, No one is trying to set you up for failure, it's simply the way things are. My husband fell and injured himself week one, and I fell at Topkapi palace the next week, receiving a bone bruise, much pain but still remained in awe of this beautiful city. I want you to be encouraged to visit but very careful when walking, so much beauty I forgot my limits.