Istanbul was an interesting place to visit.
If you need to get a tourist visa in your passport on arrival, note that you cannot do so with the border agents, there are little visa booths on either side of the massive passport control areas, so if you arrive at 2am like we did, be prepared that you might have to walk a good 500+m in the opposite direction to get your visa, if you happen to walk to the wrong one. They only accept cash, either in Turkish Lira or Euro, so make sure you have a little cash on hand for your visa if needed (there are ATM’s that you can get to as well if needed, but you will forfeit your space in the queue, if you haven’t sorted that before).
There is wifi available at the airport, but you need to either use one of the little kiosks (everyone mills around screens to register & get a code) or you can find an information booth & ask the person there if they can help you out. You only have access to the free wifi at the airport for about an hour apparently.
There are places to buy sim cards, as you come out of the baggage claim area & are making your way to the exits. Everyone will have left you alone, before this point, after this though, people start to approach you to ask if you want a taxi or whatever. They aren’t overly pushy and will generally ask once & leave you be, but I was definitely hounded a little more than G was, which humoured me (not really at 3am, I was in more of a please leave me alone mood & please, please, please stop asking the same question as I walk past every single booth). I really don’t cope well with red eye flights & definitely appreciate not being approached unless I approach you, when I feel like rubbish.
We read this article about sim cards, before we decided to buy ONE sim card at the airport. As mentioned in the article, they are super expensive there, compared to somewhere in the city, but having one card allowed us to get to our airbnb via an uber & also to find another sim card place closer to where were were staying.
Note: You will still pay more than a local for a sim card, that’s just the way of it, no matter which route you go, but at least outside of the airport the cost is a little easier to bear. We both ended up with Turkcell simcards, but I bought mine from an independant seller. I would suggest listening to your gut in terms of where you buy it from & not pay or leave the place where you buy it from, UNTIL it’s working correctly, which for us was about a 20-30 minute investment. There are lots of tales of tourists getting caught out so just be aware. I personally used google reviews to find the least offensive review & then bought from the shop next door.
Speaking of Google reviews, they will be helpful for some things & not for others. I also used Trip Advisor when I was looking for different places. You will be approached by some places to write reviews, and you will find that some of the reviews you sift through are not the most helpful, but sometimes you get lucky.
The Grand Bazaar is one of those places that you have to visit, but one needs to appreciate that it’s all very overpriced. Hardly anything is ticket priced, although there is a small section that has “fixed” prices. If you are looking for touristy geared stuff like the evil eyes that they have in the bazaar in excess, you could look at the prices that they have set there, to get a “benchmark” as to what might be more reasonable to pay. Note that prices vary too, I would get vastly different prices quoted to me than G. Pretty much everything is mass produced here, you won’t really find true artisan wares in the Grand Bazaar, which isn’t surprising really, but one cannot help but think how amazing it would be if you could find truely unique items here. The Grand Bazaar is a great place to hang out to get out of the rain, like we did, for a few hours, but we found it more of a once & done thing.
Oh, the security check on the way in, humoured us every time we went through a difference entrance. They don’t seem to serve much purpose, other than to look like there is some security in the Bazaar, even though the alerts were just ignored. Frankly, I felt like the riot police we saw frequently on the streets instilled more of a sense of security than any of the machines around the city did. I was definitely more aware of my surroundings & where everyone was, when I saw groups of riot police about.
We were staying very close to Hagia Sophia & The Blue Mosque so we visited both. Unfortunately, when we visited, both were having renovation works done within. The Blue Mosque had a lot of scaffolding both outside & in, you could wander in, but the scaffolding within it, made it really hard to see & appreciate the details inside that lead to it being called The Blue Mosque. Hagia Sophia we definitely saw more of inside, but the museum part that we were hoping to see more of, was closed due to restoration work as well. As a woman you aren’t allowed to go into some areas that are reserved for men, which greatly vexxed the youngest, but honestly it didn’t really seem like we missed out on much vs what G & L managed to see.
Both mosques offer head coverings/ scarves for women to wear that might have need (for free). I asked at both places (and more than one person, as we were making our way in) & was dismissed as needing one, as I was told that the hat that I was wearing was more than adequate, which confused and humoured me. perhaps it was my short hair too, so I didn’t need to have a scarf, as my hat covered it? There were other women who seemed to do fine with a hoodie over their head too, so it seems that as long as your head is covered & you are respectful, you do not necessarily need a special scarf. I would however make sure to ask if you are unsure, even if you get told once that you are ok, I always checked 2 or 3 times. Both mosques were “free” to go into. There are security checks at both & make sure that you wear socks, as you need to take off your shoes to go inside. I had read that there is a smell of sweat & feet & was not disappointed, but it really wasn’t that bad. It might be a little more intense in warmer weather though.
Basilica Cistern is located to the left of Hagia Sophia (when you are facing the entrance of Hagia Sophia) and across the road. In the summer, you might want to book tickets in advance & there is a QR code posted outside that you can use or you can buy them here, but at the time that were were there (December) it isn’t exactly the high season, so the wait wasn’t too arduous to get in. Once we were past security (more of a formality) we were able to buy tickets immediately, no wait. Note that if you are a foreigner, that kids 6 or above pay the same price as a (foreign) adult, this is the same for most things in Istanbul. I highly recommend a visit to the Basilica Cistern, even in the off season it was very popular. It would be a lovely place to escape to in the warmer weather, and any wet weather, as we did. The lighting changes throughout & there are some lovely art installations that really add to the experience. The kids are huge Mythology fans, so they loved the Medusa columns, as well as a Medusa art installation they had.
Topkapi Palace Museum is a must see as well. I highly recommend a full day to visit. Opening hours vary to what you see online, but getting there earlier in the day to avoid too many of the crowds, especially if you are going to be there in the high season is worthwhile. There are lots of places were you can buy tickets online, but to get the official ones onsite, it isn’t that arduous. When you first enter, you immediately go through a security check (it’s the typical security check you will see here, only there are armed guards at this entrance). Once you are past security, walk up the path a little & off to the right you will find little kiosks that you can buy your entrance tickets for the palace. Again, don’t bother to look for cheaper tickets for kids, that isn’t a thing here. You can only buy up to 4 tickets at a time, so if there are more than 4 of you, you will need to run through another transaction. Your ticket price includes a free audio guide, so once you get to the audio guide kiosk show them your ticket & leave them a piece of ID (any photo ID works), they will give you a card to give back to them to get your ID when you return with the guides, so keep that safe & you are good to go.
There are some places to get food (at a premium) if you have need, but you cannot have food or drink in any of the buildings. The weird thing we noted was the number of signs that say “No Camera’s”, but the staff there just tell you to take pictures, if you are unsure, just ask. No smoking signs seem to be something people ignore too, so don’t be surprised if someone lights up next to a no smoking sign, this is just the way of it. Not saying you should do it, but it happens.
That about sums of some of the highlights for us.
We did actually plan to see more whilst were in Istanbul (something I didn’t mention that we did a drive-by of part of Theodosian’s walls), but ended up quite sick. In part we think it was due to the mothballs in the place that we were staying in, it was incredibly bad. It seems like it might be a thing though to use mothballs as a way to mask other smells, which was enlightening. We all lost some weight. I went down at least one size, which is why you always bring a belt (it’s not just to add one more piece of clothing on you to have to whip off at the airport line), I learned that from 6 months travel in Asia over a decade ago. 😆
As a last note if you have any dietary restrictions like I do (all dairy, gluten, eggs & peanuts), I would recommend bringing whatever breads, flours or whatever else you might like to have with you. In fact this comes recommended by locals too. Unlike other places, like Poland, who had my bread at the small corner stores, you will not find much here that is gluten, dairy, egg or peanut free at a larger supermarket like shop, let alone corner store, that isn’t plain produce. For me, that meant there weren’t any substitutes available for flours, pasta, cereal, bread, milk, margarine etc. I thought that I would be fine with rice for a week, but for some reason the rice that we got didn’t cook properly no matter what we did, so choking that back was not as pleasant as I imagined. Perhaps you will find nicer rice if you happen to be there though (I might suggest getting a smaller bag than what we did). 🙃
If you are like the rest of my family & don’t have any food restrictions, I hear that the doner kebabs are really tasty, as are some of the breads. The Baklava is a bit sweet though, so only have one, or they might make you feel a little sick. 🙂