JOIN US IN AN INTERVIEW WITH AMNA ALSAMARAI FROM ISTANBUL, TURKEY!
Amna AlSamarai is an electronic engineer based in Istanbul. She left her career to follow her passion of exploring new places. She believes “Istanbul has its own magic” and that’s why she established her project Safrago to help people know Turkey better. She currently provides tourism consultancy for anyone wanting to visit Turkey. Read about all her experiences in her blog.
Home to hamams, aroma of nargile, call of muezzins, lokums, Turkish coffee/tea and exotic spices, Istanbul, also called Constantinople in the olden times after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is the tourist capital of Turkey. It has served as the capital of four great empires: Byzantine, Roman, Latin and Ottoman empire. It is Turkey’s largest city with over 15 million people. Built on seven hills like the city of Rome with a mosque on each, Istanbul is the only city in the world with one leg in Asia and the other in Europe.
In addition to its strategic location at the meeting point of continents of Asia and Europe, Istanbul is a melting pot which combines east with west and modernity with traditions. The city fell under the rule of over 120 emperors and sultans in the last 1600 years. It is a favourite among locals and tourists for its scenic beauty, rich architectural and cultural heritage and the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus Strait is the link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and divides the city, separating Europe from Asia.
When is the best time to visit Istanbul?
All the time, you can find beauty in each season !
In Istanbul there are historical churches, Ottoman mosques, museums and palaces along with modern shopping malls, cafes and restaurants that are spread in all areas. No matter what’s the weather like outside you have pretty much to do and spend time indoors, hopping in from one attraction to the other. However, if you love beaches, I advise you to visit Istanbul in the months of July and August, when the temperature ranges between 32-35 degree celsius. There are many beaches in Istanbul, suitable for swimming and equipped with all kind of services. Some of them are free for public (Florya on the European side of the city, the Caddebostan area on the Asian side and Kilyos on the Black Sea coast) while others can be used at a cost not exceeding $ 15, the reason being they are private and offer more activities/services. A few popular ones are Caddebostan, Burc, True Blue, Dalia, Golden Beach Club, Solar Beach Turban Yolu 4 Kilyos, Uzunya Beach club and Suade Club, on The Bosphorus.
But if you are a fan of photography, I advise you to visit Istanbul in Spring, when the Tulip Flower Festival (March and April) takes place with 30 million tulips blooming in the parks of the city. As a matter of fact, it was Istanbul where tulips first originated and were then distributed to other European countries like Austria, Belgium, Netherlands etc. It might be surprising for you that tulip flowers from Istanbul lead to a tulip craze in the Dutch Golden age when people bought villages in exchange of a rare tulip bulb. Tulips have such a strong connection with Istanbul that you will spot Turkish tea traditionally offered only in little tulip–shaped glasses.
Fall in Istanbul is no less beautiful, as the bright autumnal colors can be seen everywhere. The fall season begins in Istanbul from the end of October to mid-December. As for Winters, it is suitable for the ones who do not mind walking around the city in rainy weather or sitting back and enjoying the cold. The winter season starts from mid-December to the end of February.
Which is the most convenient and favored transport of Istanbul?
Istanbul is one of the best places for its public transportation. There are metros, trams, trains, buses, taxis, funiculars, bikes and ferries.
Metro in Istanbul is the third oldest subway in the world after London Tube and New York subway. It has six lines (M1a Yenikapi-Ataturk Airport, M1b YeniKapi- Kirazli, M2 Yenikapi- Haciosma, M3 Kirazli-Metrokent, M4 Kadikoy-Tavsantepe, M5 Uskudar-Cekmekoy, M6 Levent- Bogazici Universitesi). M1 connects the airport with the centre of Istanbul. Most used metro lines by the tourists are M1a and M2. Open 6 am until 12 midnight, frequency – less than 10 minutes.
Trams have three lines – T1 (Bagcilar – Kabataş),T3 (Kadıköy – Moda) and T4 (Topkapi – Habibler). T1 is what you are looking for as it crosses most points of interest. Open 6 am until 12 midnight, frequency – less than 10 minutes.
There is also Marmaray suburban rail that allows the connection between the Asian and European side via a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus. It joins the stations at Halkalı, Kazlıçeşme, Yenikapı and Sirkeci in Europe with the stations at Üsküdar, Ayrılık Çeşmesi and other stations in Asia all the way to Gebze.
There are two kind of buses, public and private, both are fairly difficult to use. Public buses have a IETT logo on them. Check out their website to know more.
Funiculars have two lines and connect the lower part of the city with Taksim Square and its surroundings. Open 6 am until 12 midnight, frequency – less than 10 minutes.
The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality has launched a rent bike service called İSBIKE which has a total of 142 bike rental stations throughout the city. It’s cheap and easy to rent. You can either directly rent it from kiosks in parks or you can rent it through a subscription system using the İSBIKE application, which is available for download on Google Play and App Store. The fee ($9.71) can be paid using a credit card. The fee is blocked for each bike, but not withdrawn, once you return the bike, you’ll be charged on an hourly basis from the initial amount.
Ferries conveniently transfers you between the Asian and Euporean sides of Istanbul. There are a number of docks on both the sides. On the Asian side, the main docks are Üsküdar (in the north) and Kadıköy (in the south) while on the European side, it’s Eminönü (to the south of the Galata bridge) and Beşiktaş (between the two bridges on the Bosphorus).
There are two airports in Istanbul, Sabiha Gökçen airport (named after Turkey’s first female fighter pilot) in Kurtkoy in the Asian side and Istanbul Airport in the European side. The Istanbul airport started operation by the end of 2018 and will be the biggest airport in whole of Europe when its fully complete. There are buses from each of these airports to the city center and to the suburbs.
What are the top three must visit places in Istanbul?
It’s difficult to mention only 3 places in a city full of historical and nature sightseeing. But here I will mention the most famous landmarks –
Hagia Sophia Museum is the former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman imperial mosque and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Built in AD 360 at the beginning of the Middle Ages, it was famous in particular for its massive dome. Before the completion of the Seville Cathedral, Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world for nine centuries. Hagia Sophia and its design was an inspiration for other mosques such as the Blue Mosque of Istanbul and Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
The Galata Tower, formerly called Christea Turris by the Genoese, is a nine storey medieval stone tower in the Galata/Karaköy quarter of Istanbul, Turkey. It’s the most prominent landmark of Istanbul. It is said that Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi attached wings to his arms and flew from the Galata tower over the Bosphorus, all the way to Uskudar. Initially used as a lighthouse Galata was changed into a dungeon during the Ottoman rule and is now used as an observatory for a panoramic view of the city. The upper floors of the Galata Tower in Istanbul are home to a restaurant and one of the city’s most popular nightclubs.
Grandbazaar is the largest and oldest market in the world with over 60 streets, a few thousand stores and 22 gates. Each street used to specialise in selling one product. You can’t really find that division any more but still there are streets selling carpets, jewellery, leather goods etc. Historic sprawling network of indoor souks & market streets peddling leather, jewelry & gifts.
There are also many other places that must not be missed like –
Basilica Cistern, the largest of all the cisterns that lay beneath the city of Istanbul, is only 150 metres south-west of Hagia Sophia museum and is a popular tourist attraction.
The Blue Mosque or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is located just across the street from the Hagia Sophia. It stands on top of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. It is the only one in Istanbul with six minarets, the maximum number allowed. Inside it is decorated with blue tiles and numerous carpets.
Taksim Square. Taksim in Turkish means ‘distribution’. During the Ottoman Empire this square was the main point where water was collected from the north of the city and distributed to the other districts. Taksim Square is situated in the European part of Istanbul and is the heart of the city. Flanked with bars, night clubs, restaurants and movie theatres, it is the modern city center of Istanbul. Next to Taksim is Istiklal Cad, a popular street and Beyoglu which is mostly a residential area but one of the most important tourist points with many boutiques, art galleries, theaters, cafes, bars, pubs.
Maiden’s Tower is an artistic monument built on a small island in the middle of the Bosphorus in the Byzantine era. The tower is an inseparable part of the city’s skyline and has several historical legends associated with it. The island has a museum, a restaurant with a 360 degree view ( Kizkulesi ) and a romantic cafe on it. To reach there get to the port of Üsküdar and head west along the seaside until you see the tower, then just take the next boat to the island. From Istanbul’s Kabatas district in every evening in summer, between 8:00-9:15 pm, there is special boat service for Kiz Kulesi. This service is free of charge for both way for evening patrons.
Istanbul is known for its stunning Ottoman summer palaces and royal residences by the Bosphorus. Which ones would you say must be visited?
Topkapi palace, formerly one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans was later transformed into a museum. The building was used for four centuries and it is where the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond is kept which is one of the largest diamonds in the world. Now it houses artifacts depicting the history of the Ottoman Empire. Also, Gulhane park is one of the beautiful landscaped gardens of the Topkapi palace. Visit Gulhane park for tulips (only in season) and panoramic view of the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn and the İstanbul Strait.
Dolmabahce palace is sure to catch your attention while taking a tour on the Bosphorus. A luxurious palace oozing architectural finesse, Dolmabahce palace is a masterpiece that must be visited if time permits. Opening hours are Tuesday-Wednesday and Friday-Sunday between 9am-4pm. The Sultan and his family earlier lived at the Topkapı Palace, but as the medieval Topkapı was lacking in contemporary style, luxury, and comfort, as compared to the palaces of the European monarchs, Abdülmecid decided to build a new palace.
What are the best day trips for nature, culture and history from Istanbul?
Büyükada ( 2 h away ) is the largest of the nine so-called Princes’ Islands, located just off the coast of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. It welcomes its visitors with a very enjoyable atmosphere. It owes its name to the fact that during the Byzantine period the imperial family and disgraced aristocrats were exiled in the monasteries on the islands. They then became the favorite weekend destination of the Ottoman aristocracy, and even today you will find many Victorian style villas. There are no cars on this island, and transportation is either on foot or by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage (Hantour).
Sile ( 1 h 30 mins away ) is located 70 km from Uskudar. It is known for its lighthouse which is the largest in Turkey, fish and cotton cloth called Sile Bezi which is so popular among the women that a Sile Bezi festival is held every year between July-August. Many Turks own weekend houses in Sile for its beautiful setting by the scenic Goksu River. When there, swim in the Black Sea, take a boat ride in the Goksu river, laze on the beaches, breathe in the beautiful nature and devour the freshly caught fish in meals. Only 25 kms away from Sile is the resort town of Agva located between rivers Goksu and Yesilcay. It is known for its breathtaking natural landscape.
Kocaeli ( 1 h 30 mins away ) is a small city known for its mountains and beautiful nature. One of the most famous tourist areas in it is Maşukiye, which contains forests and waterfalls. In addition to some activities such as horse riding and driving jeeps or ATV in forests and zip lines, there are also many restaurants serving traditional Turkish cuisine amidst nature.
What is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Istanbul?
Eid al-fitir, Eid al-adha, Republic day and memory of 15th July martyrs. There are no distinctive manifestations of New Year’s celebrations in Istanbul. Churches and some buildings are decorated with Christmas decorations and prayers are held in churches as they are open to visitors (also tourists these days). As for the displays of fireworks at the beginning of the New Year, they are few and very limited. It is held in some cafes and nightclubs overlooking the Bosphorus.
What is the most loved local food of Istanbul?
Turkish cuisine is known for its varied flavours and mouth watering dishes. You will be spoilt for choice. My favourite Turkish foods are: Manti, Kofte, Adana Kebab (Spicy) or Urfa Kabab. For desserts try – Kunafe, Baklava, Irmik Dondurma. You can try all of these dishes in local restaurants which serve traditional food.
Also, these are the absolute must try Turkish street food – Simit, Kumpair, Medya Dolma, Balik Ekmek.
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, it is obvious to feel a little lost while deciding hotels for a sojourn. Where would you suggest to stay in Istanbul?
I would suggest staying in one of city centre hotels like Sultanahmed, Gulhane, Sishane, Karakoy. And if you want to stay in apartments you can opt for one of Istanbul’s Airbnb apartments in areas like Sultanahmet, Sisli, Sishane, Nisantasi, Beyoglu and Taksim. In these areas you will find incredible views and nice apartments for a reasonable price. Also all the public transports are easily available in these areas.
Where to head for shopping in Istanbul? Which is the local craft or souvenir of Istanbul?
Grand Bazaar or “kapalı çarşı” is the biggest bazaar in Istanbul and the world. It contains more than 4000 shops where many of them sell handmade products like; turkish kilim rugs, patchwork or vintage overdyed carpets, Turkish ionic ceramic plates, wooden art, bags, shoes, scarves, accessories, silver and gold jewelry etc. Also there are shops for turkish sweets and spices. It’s so large place may you spend one day there. There are historical cafes and restaurants also.
Egyptian Market or Mısır Çarşısı is Istanbul’s major spice market. It is located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district and is the most famous bazaar after the Grand bazaar. Shop for spices, lokums, dried fruit and nuts when there.
Which are the best streets of Istanbul worthy of taking a stroll on?
All the streets of Istanbul are beautiful of taking a stroll on, and each street is characterized by the designs of its homes or shops that are different from the other, but my recommendation are:
Çırağan Cad (avenue) is located between Beşiktaş and Ortakoy on the European shore of the Bosporus. On its both sides is Yildiz park (In this park you can find the palace of the last Ottoman Sultan “Abdulhameed II” ). Also on this street you can find the renowned Four seasons Boshporus Hotel and the Çırağan Palace, a former Ottoman palace which is now a five-star hotel in the Kempinski Hotels chain. The street is covered with trees and decorated with paintings which speaks a great deal about Turkish history.
If you like to stroll along the Bosphorus, head to Street Yahya Kemal Cd. where the Rumeli Hisari castle is located.
Istiklal Cad (avenue) is the most famous street in Istanbul. It’s located between Taksim Square and Sishane. It is full of shops, cafes, restaurants and vintage trams which are the only permitted vehicle there besides official cars. Most of Istanbul’s nightlife venues can be found here, in Taksim Square or Beyoğlu.
Can you suggest a place from where one can get the best view of Istanbul?
Like I said before, Galata Tower is an old historical landmark in Istanbul which was earlier used for the surveillance of the Harbor in the Golden Horn now serves as an observatory with a 360-degree viewing gallery.
Around the Süleymaniye Mosque, an Ottoman imperial mosque located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, there are many cafes which has a beautiful view of the mosque and Golden Horn. Suleymaniye Mosque cafes is one among them which offers great view of the city.
Çamlıca hill is a hill in Üsküdar district of Istanbul. Situated on the Asian part of the city at 268 m above sea level, Çamlıca Hill has a panoramic view of the southern part of Bosphorus and the mouth of Golden Horn.
Would you suggest any shows in Istanbul to drama, music or art lovers?
Istanbul Bosphorus Dinner Cruise and Turkish Night Show – Cruise the Bosphorus and experience Istanbul by night while enjoying a sumptuous Turkish meal, music, belly/folk dance and culture. It’s available all the days except the days of worst weather.
Dervish Show – A dervish is a Muslim of particular religious order known for his worship rituals which requires him to spin frantically causing his clothing to fan out in a circle. You can see a Dervish Show at Istanbul’s first Sufi lodge, Galata Mevlevihanesi every Sunday at 5pm OR in Sirkeci Train Station on every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:30pm OR at a hamam converted into a cultural and performance centre, Hodjapasha on every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 7pm.
Turkish belly dancing can also be experienced at Hodjapasha Cultural Centre.
Where can one spot street art in your city?
Since the start of the vibrant street art festival, Mural Istanbul in 2012, the city has been flooded with visionary art in Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood. Every year between August and September, local and international artists join hands to create masterpieces which has given Istanbul global recognition for street arts. You can see there works from Turkish artists like Lakormis, WICX, Esk Reyn, Furkan ‘Nuka’ Birgün, and Canavar.
Would you recommend any local apps for food, transport or hidden gems in Istanbul?
For food, Zomato is my favorite app to check the restaurant menu, prices, reviews and also to make a reservation.
To use the public transportation conveniently I recommend to use Google map or Trafi. They are the best apps to know the shortest route and fastest route to reach to.
To rent a Taxi, I recommend to do it by iTakxi application. This service is provided and monitored by the Istanbul Municipality, and therefore, the percentage of passenger fraud is low.
To know more about Istanbul, check out the official website of the city HowToIstanbul.
Do you want to give any suggestion to tourists coming to Istanbul?
In Istanbul, at most places it is possible to pay with a credit card, so I do not recommend carrying a large amount of cash while touring the city, especially when using public transport.
Foreign currency exchange should be done in commercial areas (like Laleli, Beyazit) or from banks, not in tourist areas (like Taksim or Sultanahmet) because of the big difference in the exchange rate.
Carry a scarf to cover your head inside the mosques.
Things to know :
Visa : Turkish government has changed their visa policies. Tourists that in the past had to apply for the visa at the Turkish Embassy can do it online now. On the Turkish Visa website you can check all the rules, the fees and how to get your visa on arrival.
Official Airlines : Turkish Airlines and Pegasus. You might get great deals in Pegasus which is the Turkish low-cost airline. But remember cheap flights equals strict baggage rules.
UNESCO Listed Sites : Historic Areas of Istanbul is divided into four zones. The Sultanahmet Archaeological Park, Zeyrek Mosque Complex, The Süleymaniye Mosque Complex and The Istanbul City Walls World Heritage Site.
Tourist Card : Buy an Istanbul Card (Istanbulkart). It is sold at kiosks all over the city, just look for the sign Istanbulkart or Akbil. One Istanbulkart can be used by up to 5 people. It is accepted in all public transports even on the boats.
Tap water : Tap water in Turkey is safe for cleaning purposes but not safe for drinking in general.
Drones : Flying drones is legal in Turkey. Here are the requirements you need to fulfill.