- Written by Dan
Istanbul Travel Insights
By Mercedes Marks / Photo by Asim Bharwani
Travel advice covering the basics when preparing to travel to Istanbul.
When To Go
Istanbul is beautiful all year round, but it really comes to life in the spring, when the tulips are in bloom. Although the flowers are commonly associated with Holland, they are native to Turkey, and April is when Istanbul likes to celebrate their national floral pride with the Istanbul Tulip Festival.
In the summertime, Istanbul can get very crowded, and very humid. Winter is better for crowd control, but prepare for chilly rains.
There are direct flights to the Istanbul Ataturk Airport from most major Canadian cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. A plane ticket will cost you anywhere from $900 - 1400 CDN, but deals often pop up online. Remember to clear your cache when refreshing cheap ticket websites, or airfares may rise!
Once in Istanbul, it is required to purchase a tourist Visa. These are bought upon arrival, before going through immigration, and will run you about $60 CDN. Make sure you have the cash available before your plane takes off: ATMs at the Istanbul airports often run out of international bills!
Istanbul’s public transportation system is extremely efficient. There is a local bus system that runs from 6:30 AM to 11:30 PM daily and costs 1.30 YTL (Turkish Lira) per fare, as well as a light rail system and the Bosphorus ferry. Most city bus officials will speak at least a little bit of English.
Taxis are plentiful in Istanbul, but be wary of any driver who suggests a flat rate or does not have an electronic meter. If either of these things are the case, it is advisable to just turn down the ride.
What To Do
Up the Bosphorus River
There are lots of ways to explore the magnificent Bosphorus River, although private and unlicensed boat tours can become quite pricey.
A paid cruise tour is nice because they cater to tourists, are available in many languages, and offer informative historical context as they move along, but can be pricy, since you are paying for a higher end service. A more budget conscious traveller might consider hopping a conventional local ferry or sea bus; it’s less anecdotal, but has all the same sights as a tour or a cruise!
Marvel at the Whirling Dervish
The Whirling Dervish is a holy dance that traces its roots back to the Ottoman Empire. It’s also a spectacular visual event and performances can be found throughout the city. A must see for anybody who is curious about mysticism – UNESCO has even named the ceremony a masterpiece of intangible heritage!
Visit the Pierre Loti Cafe
The Pierre Loti Cafe is famous. It is named after a French novelist and naval officer of the same name whose novel “Aziyade” was inspired by his love of Istanbul. The Pierre Loti Cafe is known for its spectacular view and 19th century decor.
It’s not the easiest spot to get to though, so if you are just looking for a quick cup of tea, there are probably simpler options available. But for an afternoon of soaking in the view and reminiscing in the beauty of Istanbul, there is no better spot.
The Pierre Loti Cafe can be reached by taking the 39, 55T, or 99A buses to the Eyup mosque and from there, taking a short climb on foot or by cable car. The cafe is open from 8:00 AM to midnight daily, and it should be noted that credit cards are not accepted.
Istanbul loves a good festival, and when the weather warms, they take every opportunity to throw one. In the spring there is the Istanbul Tulip Festival, the International Istanbul Music Festival (some of the 2013 headliners include cellist Gautier Capuçon and violin virtuoso Shlomo Mintz), and the International Istanbul Film Festival (the widest showcase of Turkish cinema in the country.)
When summer hits, there’s the Istanbul Jazz Festival, which this year is due to feature headliners like Alicia Keys, and the raucous Rock’n Coke, an outdoor music festival sponsored by Coca-Cola that has drawn performances from Iggy and the Stooges, the Dead Kennedys, 50 Cent, and Muse.
Of course, many of these festivals are quite popular, so check ahead and consider getting tickets in advance!
Scope Out a Real Hamam
Turkey is famous for its hamams, or bathhouses, and Istanbul is home to some of the best. Visit a hamam to be steamed, cleaned, and massaged, and steep yourself in a true historical tradition. Some local hamams, like the Cemberlitas Hamam, can be dated as far back as the 16th century!
Whether you choose a the full traditional service, or just go with the parts that appeal to you, like an exfoliation or a hot massage, a visit to a hamam is a sure way to feel luxurious and culturally immersed for a day.