Istanbul has always been on my list of destinations to visit. Everything from the people, to the sights, to the food just seemed so interesting and mesmerizing to me.
In February, 2015, I finally made my first trip to Turkey. I was a little bit nervous, a little bit excited, but most of all was not exactly sure what to expect.
Here are a few things I learned from my first trip to Istanbul, Turkey.
Visiting a mosque was a great learning experience
Touring one of Istanbul’s many great mosques is a great way to learn about Islam and the history of Istanbul and Turkey. Without getting political or religious, many Westerners, including myself, do not have a great understanding of the Muslim faith.
Religion aside, some of the mosques in Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque, are some of the most beautiful and architecturally magnificent buildings you will ever see.
Don’t miss the Hagia Sophia which dates back to 537. Over the years the Hagia Sophia has been a church, mosque, and now museum.
The food was amazing
Not surprisingly, Turkey, at the crossroads of the east and the west, has a rich and multi-ethnic cuisine. Food in Turkey is a melting pot of Asia, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East.
Restaurants in Istanbul, known as lokanta, serve all sorts of cuisine including kebabs, pide, all sorts of cheeses, breads, olives, eggplant dishes, and dried fruits such as dates.
One of my favorite meals in Istanbul was at Sultanahmet Köftecisi. This restaurant has been serving a simple meatball dish for almost 100 years. The meat cooked here was extremely juicy and cooked perfectly right at the front of the restaurant. The smells are just amazing.
Locals were extremely friendly
Before my trip to Istanbul, I was told by many that Turkish people can be unfriendly or try to rip you off.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Not once did I encounter a rude or unfriendly person. All the restaurants I visited, including ones that mainly served locals, were friendly and honest.
Public transportation can get you to most places in the city
The center of old town Istanbul is easily walkable, but rest assured that you can easily get around the city by tram, metro, bus, or ferry.
The inexpensive and convenient tram is perfect for tourists. The tram passes by many tourist attractions as it cuts through the old town, across the Golden Horn, and into the New District.
If the tram isn’t good enough, you also have the underground metro, light rail, funicular, ferry, sea bus, and hop-on, hop-off bus to get your around town.
You can take a day trip to Asia
Istanbul is situated at the crossroads of the west and the east. To the west is Europe, to the east is Asia.
Most of the major historic sites in Istanbul are located on the European side of the city. Across the Bospherus is the modern and progressive Asian Istanbul.
If you want to explore this area, you can take a ferry from the Old Town near Galata Bridge to Kadıköy. Kadıköy is a modern city of over one million people that features many western style residential and commercial buildings and shopping malls. The ferry is worth is just for the views.
If you have to use a public restroom, be prepared to pay
This might seem awkward to some, but if you need to use the restroom in public places of Istanbul, then be prepared to pay 1-2 Turkish Liras.
Some of these restrooms are better supplied than others, so you may want to carry toilet paper or tissues with you just to be safe.
Also keep in mind that not all the pluming in Turkey is modern. I won’t get into details, but I am pretty sure you can figure out what the small trashcan next to a toilet is used for.
If you don’t want to pay to use the restroom, use free ones inside museums or restaurants.
Most Turkish people speak English
It may come as a surprise to Americans, but many people in other countries speak at least some sort of English. English is an international language.
From hotels, to restaurants, to tourists sites, most people in Istanbul speak English.
Even when people did not speak English, they at least understood enough to try to help.
Alcohol isn’t sold everywhere in Istanbul
Near a mosque, school, or place of worship? Don’t expect to find alcohol being sold.
Most stores and restaurants around Sultanahmet, the old town of Istanbul, do not serve alcohol. You will have to venture a little further away from the old town if you want to find it.
You will need a visa to enter Turkey if you are a tourist
If you want to enter Turkey at a tourist, you will need to purchase a tourist visa. You can purchase a visa either with a credit card online or with cash at your port of entry in Turkey.
If you wish to purchase a visa online, you can do that by visiting https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/.
For United States citizens, visas are valid for 180 days from the date of purchase which allows you to stay in the country 90 days. The cost is $20.
You can enjoy a fish sandwich cooked straight off a boat
For one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals in Istanbul, head over to the boats docked near the Galata Bridge. In the waters of the Golden Horn, you will find small boats frying up quick and cheap fish sandwiches.
Fresh uskumru (mackerel) is grilled in sunflower oil on flat metal grills on rocking boats. The grilled fish is placed inside freshly baked Turkish bread, similar to French bread, and topped with sliced onions.
With sandwich in hand, grab a seat at one of the small seats just in front of the boats or on one of the nearby concrete steps busy with locals.
Watch out for the seagulls flying above. One of them decided to target my camera.