Istanbul, Turkey: What to do

The one where I was banned from traveling…


…because they felt it wasn’t safe. As I’ve mentioned, my former boyfriend and I work for the US Army. Before we travel to another country, we have to put in a pass for vacation and specify the country we will be traveling to. For safety reasons, there are some places that we can not visit  (i.e. Iraq, Iran, Syria) due to recent political entanglements and proximity to neighboring “no-fly zone” countries. Long story short, our pass was denied for Istanbul, Turkey and despite our booked flights, hotels, and tours the Army did not approve of our trip.


Luckily for me, I’m an adult fully capable of making my own decisions so I decided to go anyways. That being said, the following weekend would lead to a slew of “praying for you” and “you’re crazy” messages from my loved ones around the world. The most frequent question I got was, “Is it safe?” Unfortunately, there is no black and white answer that exists. Instead, I invite you to read my story and look at some basic facts that may help you in making your decision on future travel plans to Turkey.


Let’s start with the facts…

Turkey is a country that is split between two continents. Separated by the Turkish Straight, Istanbul is located on both the European continent and the Asian continent. Turkey is a democratic, secular, unitary, constitutional republic with a diverse cultural heritage. The vast majority of the population is Sunni Muslim and practice prayer in Mosques. Having a long timeline filled with history, Turkish tourism has experienced a huge growth within the last 20 years. In addition to the beautiful city of Istanbul, Turkey offers two out of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and 51 historic archaeological sites and historic urban centers. It’s no wonder that it’s the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world.


Although Turkey is a predominately Muslim country, it’s important to remember that not all Muslim countries are created equal. Comparing Turkey to one of its neighboring countries would be like comparing the US to one of our neighboring countries. Different governments, different histories, different customs.


During my visit, I never felt afraid or taken advantage of. To the best of my abilities, I tried to respect the status quo dress code of turkey. Typically the men wear parents and a t-shirt while the women wear pants, a longer tunic, and a pashmina. However, there was never an issue of my western clothing other than when entering a Mosque to which I either came prepared or borrowed the necessary items from the Mosque. Not to mention, that shopping for a pashmina at the grand bazaar was a lot of fun! Of course, whilst traveling in any country you should always be aware of your surroundings and try to travel with a companion when you can. It’s important to beware of people trying to take advantage of you. I met two wonderful ladies from Ireland who had taken a taxi and been charged double the price because of their gender. Make sure you set a price with your taxi driver before the destination and inform him that you will only pay the agreed amount. If you still feel unsure about it take public transportation! It’s not as unmanageable as you’d think and I find that many people are willing to help if you ask.


Now on to the fun stuff…


From the airport, we took a taxi and arrived at our hotel in the old town. The old town is where you’ll find the more historical sites like our first stop to the…


Hagia Sophia – This former mosque turned museum is the epitome of Byzantine architecture. Inside you will find mosaics, marble pillars, and a breathtaking dome in the center. Believe it or not, this famous mosque was originally constructed and used as a church. However, during the Ottoman Empire, the country went through a series of changes and decided that a mosque was more suitable. You are encouraged to wear the traditional dress, however, it is not strictly enforced. Just across the street, you will find the equally famous…


Blue Mosque – You will be required to follow the dress code. Luckily, the mosque carries shawls and scarfs that you may use for your visit. This mosque is still active and has a small area where you may take pictures. The larger area is for prayer and is open to all who practice. Just be sure to check the daily schedule because the mosque closes for a prayer service every few hours. Fun fact: The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more popularly known as the blue mosque, gets its nickname from the several thousand of adorning blue tiles on the interior. Certainly a must see. Now just 500 feet southwest of the Hagia Sophia you will find the…


Basilica Cistern – Built in the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire Justinian, this enlarged water filtration system was used to supply water to the great palace of Constantinople, buildings on the first hill, and the Topkapi Palace. Although almost empty now, the cistern can hold 100,000 tons of water and is also home the mysterious Medusa columns. Although no one is quite sure how or why they are there the conspiracy theories are enough to keep the history buff in your life puzzling for hours. On a side note, you have to look hard for this exhibit since it’s entirely underground and the entrance is a small building that can be hidden by large crowds. The next site you’ll find if you keep heading down south from the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica…topkapi-6.jpg

Topkapi Palace – What was once one of the major residences of the Ottoman Empire Sultans for almost 400 years is now a UNESCO world heritage site, museum, and a huge insight into history and life during this 624-year reign. Containing important relics such as porcelain, weapons, shields, armor, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, royal jewels, and Muhammed’s cloak and sword. If you fancy a more completed and modern palace and your time is limited be sure to take a trip to see…Dolmabahçe Palace -08 130501

Dolmabahçe Palace – Located in the Beşiktaş district on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait, this palace served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856. The palace layout and décor reflect the increasing influence of European styles and standards on Ottoman Culture and is decorated predominately with gold and crystal. It is also home to the world’s largest Bohemian Crystal Chandelier with 750 lamps and weighing at about 4.5 tons. The gates, fountains, and gardens alone will surely have you feeling like Royalty. If you look across the Bosphorus strait you can see the Asian side but if you want a better view try taking a…bosphorus-tour-istanbul-01.jpg

Cruise Trip – Just a cruise during the day will allow you to see all the sights Istanbul has to offer. However, if you’d like dinner and a show you must try a dinner cruise! You’ll be able to enjoy a traditional Turkish meal followed by cocktails under the Bosphorus bridge accompanied by traditional Turkish dancing and music. You’ll achieve amazing pictures and have lots of laughs. If you get seasick but still want amazing pictures be sure to check out a…6915_hamdi-restaurant-eminonu.jpg

Rooftop Restaraunt – Try a famous clay pot kebab and get great views of old town. There are tons of options to choose from in the old town! A mixed meze plate, Turkish tea, and baklava are a must! If you like the tea as much as I did pick up some over at the…


The Grand Bazaar – One of the largest and oldest covered markets with 61 streets and over 3,000 shops. With everything from pottery to pashminas to spices to leather products, the Bazaar is a shoppers heaven. You will certainly find souvenirs for the whole family.


Finally, to finish off the trip we missed our flight because Turkish airlines require you to check in an hour before your flight and we arrived 55 minutes before our flight …moral of the story, make sure you check in for your flight an hour before or else you’ll be forced to buy new tickets to a different airport before you have to be back at work the next day for the trip you “didn’t” take. Apologize for the lack of pictures as well…the laptop and phone died within the same week….and thus lost all of my turkey photos 🙁 Guess I’ll just have to return!


Other notable mentions-

  1. Try some Turkish delight. A sweet traditional Turkish treat.

2. Take a visit to the spice bazaar and explore the Asian side of Turkey.

3. Gülhane Park.


Have any other great things to do in Istanbul? Leave a message in the comments below!


Happy Traveling,

City Girl Riss












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