Our two-week family vacation began in Istanbul – a city of great divide, 23 million people, and more traffic than on an L.A. freeway. Like any other ancient city, the bones of its history outshine even the most modern of architecture – the lush landscaping creating a seam that brings it together.
When my family and I landed at Istanbul’s airport and drove off in our taxis to the hotel, I couldn’t help but notice the ancient walls, lined with gardens, flowers, and lush trees. With so much conflict still in istanbul today, the Turks still take pride in the beauty they have created around them.
My family and I stayed at the Radisson Blu – a chic hotel right along the Bosphorus. It’s in an interesting section of town that not only houses some great hotels but also many areas that are “to be desired”. It feels as though you are in the heart of the city where their social and religious caste systems collide.
So, within an hour of my family and I checking into our hotel, we were off to sight see for a few hours.
Traveling by Taxi – Lessons Learned
If you have never been to Istanbul, here’s your best tip: To go 6 miles, leave two hours ahead – particularly from 2pm-on. Now granted, they were in the middle of Ramadan, which means that traffic was unusually crazy for an extended period of time but from what I understand, traffic can always be this bad. The second best tip, make sure to build in time to look for a taxi – at least 30 minutes. I say this because taxi drivers come in all shapes, sizes, and moods. For the most part, they hate Americans and in many cases, women (I’ll get to that point later). One taxi driver might accept 25 Turkish Lira while the other might insist on 75 Turkish Lira for going the same distance. One might be a calm, happy driver and the other might be a crazy lunatic. Sure, it sounds like a familiar scenario with half of the over-populated cities in the U.S. however, in all the cities, in all of the countries I’ve been to so far, Istanbul has some of the craziest, unsafest taxi drivers in the world. In the short 36 hours I had been there, we had two drivers threaten us, one get rear-ended, and one get so lost that he had to use my phone to call another driver, to find out how to get to our destination. Thankfully, Uber started up there two weeks ago.
Transportation aside, it was thrilling to be in this city and take in one of the most famous sights in the city – Topkapi. The palace, once home to Sultan Abdulmecid, is located at the Istanbul Peninsula between Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Its sweeping views were a peaceful site – traffic seeming to be miles away with not a horn to be heard. Its grounds were just as breathtaking – each building on the property ornately decorated to celebrate some aspect of their culture. From the bris room (yes there is such a thing), to the turban room, and the harem room, not one corner went untouched without an intricately hand-painted tile or 14K gold molding.
Since we got to the palace a bit late in the day, we were only able to see this and nothing else. Had there been more time, we would have walked across the plaza to the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – both of which I recommend, if you have 4-5 hours of sight-seeing time.
Attire for Topkapi (and other religious sights)
You might be wondering about attire here, as it seems that this is such a transitional city. While the palace does not require a head scarf, long pants, or shoulders covered, the Haggia Sophia and the Blue Mosque will. Make sure to always bring a light sweater and scarf with you just in case. I wore a maxi skirt and tank top but made sure to bring a 3/4 sleeve cardigan and scarf with me. The other thing I’d highly recommend is to not show cleavage or wear anything too short. There was one unfortunate incident where a man came up to our cab and made the signal to ask “how much” to one of our family members. While it was an isolated incident, they do this to disrespect you, as traditional Islamic custom (which 90% of Istanbul is Islamic) forbids women exposing anything other than their eyes and hands. While our incident might seem harmless because we were locked in a cab, it might not be so harmless, walking down the street. This also goes for riding in the front of a taxi cab if you’re a woman. While they might never argue with you on this, it is to be remembered that no matter how progressive a foreign city might be becoming, there are still unspoken customs you shouldn’t argue. Thus, just be careful where you walk/visit.
While all of this sounds so unpleasant and a bit scary, I’d like to turn your attention to the best part of my time in Istanbul – the nightlife. If there is one thing I love about a European city, it’s what happens when the sun goes down and 10pm hits.
I was lucky to have a friend in town, from Istanbul, that could join us for dinner and some of us for drinks later, giving us a great snapshot of what a typical Friday night is like. To make things simple, we walked the half block to The House Cafe from our hotel. It’s a huge outdoor, trendy restaurant that overlooks the Bosphorus. With house music playing, wine flowing, the sun going down, and a slight breeze in the air, what was a crazy day, turned into the perfect night. Note that everything on the menu is good there. I’m not a fan of seafood but my friend’s Sea Bass salad was incredible. Sea Bass is very popular in Istanbul, as they catch it right from the Bosphorus.
After dinner, most of my family retired back to the hotel while a few of us stayed out. My friend first took us to Lucca – a trendy restaurant/bar that the “who’s who” of Istanbul society goes to. It’s there I got my first glimpse of the “other side” of the city. Just like any young, urban culture, traditional societal rules need not apply. Everyone is dressed in trendy, nightlife clothing with the likes of Tom Ford, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Prada spotted in every which direction. Young couples were openly showing affection for one another while others were having fun conversation, sipping impeccably-made drinks. It’s the type of place you start your night at before moving onto the “main events”.
Our next (and final) stop of the evening was to the incredibly fabulous and upscale Sunset Grill & Bar, overlooking the Bosphorus and much of Istanbul. Now granted, my friend knows me well. I love trendy, hip bars that are reserved for the highly sophisticated. The experience is an unparalleled treat to the senses. Upon arriving to the outdoor bar area, overlooking the Istanbul skyline, you realize you are surrounded by beauty – beautiful people, perfect house music, incredible lighting and decor, and of course, perfect cocktails. It’s something myself and my friends crave in nightlife. The wine and cocktails are flowing, laughter is abundant, and so is the energy. At 1am, while everyone was just getting started, we had to head back, to be well-rested for the start of the rest of our trip.
Below is my full list of tips and suggestions for visiting Istanbul. I’m eager to go back again.
- I didn’t user Uber but I’d recommend trying it. At least you know what you’re about to spend on transportation to and from your destination(s).
- If you do go for a taxi, remember 2 hours transport time for each direction (if 5 miles or more) and at least 30 minutes to find a cab (unless you don’t care on price or temperament of the taxi driver).
- When visiting historic/religious sites, women should wear a maxi dress, skirt, or long pants. Always carry a cardigan that covers your shoulders and a head scarf.
- Pick pocketers are everywhere, so be cautious and aware.
- Like any other European city, meals are much later. An early dinner is at 9pm with the average being around 11pm. Nightlife goes all night.
- If you go during the last week in June, it’s Ramadan, so traffic will have unusual hours and so will dining times.
- Most places accept both Turkish Lira and Euros.
- There is a 100% tax on non-Turkish alcohol. We stuck with mainly Turkish white wine, which was amazing. It was about 120 Turkish Lira a bottle – not bad in USD!
- Attire for trendy, evening places is upscale/trendy. I wore skinny jeans, heels, and a flowy tank – slightly casual by their standards.
- Hotel Radisson Blu is all around a great hotel – I highly suggest it.
- The House Cafe had incredible food. Although I’m not a big seafood fan, my friend’s grilled seabass salad was amazing. My vegetable risotto was equally as good.
- I highly suggest Lucca if you can get in for at least drinks
- Definitely go to Sunset Grill & Bar for dinner and drinks – 10:30/11pm being the optimal time for dinner.