There is something very romantic about Istanbul. As someone who has never been to a Muslim country, I found the call to prayer, which happens five times a day, very soothing. The city is straddled between Europe and Asia (locals differentiate parts of the city by the “Asian side” and the “European side”) and has a very rich history. Istanbul was enchanting – delectable food, terrible traffic, overwhelming heat, crowds that would make Times Square jealous, smells of spice and sweets, and the very hospitable locals. Overall, if Istanbul is not on your list of must see places, it should be. This was the cultural part of our honeymoon, so we tried to see as many sites as possible. For the first two days, we hired a tour guide who brought us around the city and helped us cut some of the long lines that queue up at the famous landmarks. Overall, I highly suggest it, as it helped us learn to navigate the city quite well for our remaining three days.
We stayed at the Hotel EDITION, which is in new Europe. The hotel was modern and beautiful, and closely located to a train station. Those who stay there should not miss the spa, which has a sauna, steam room, and cold room (a room filled with snow and ice). We really enjoyed the Hotel EDITION and would certainly stay there again (especially because the staff was so accommodating) but we found ourselves in the Karaköy district, a recently trendy district, for food and drinks.
My new hubby described his traditional hamam experience as being “inside of a warm cloud” (his quote, not mine -- although I wish I could take credit for it). We both went to the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam for a traditional Turkish bath. Built in the 16th century for the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, this bathhouse is very luxurious (and somewhat pricey, but totally worth it). We both had a fantastic experience. [Note to readers: Be sure to read the reviews on TA before going. While this hamam is the best, it’s not for those who are bashful.] It truly was one of the best and one of the most unique spa experiences of my life. I wish I had real pictures of the hamam, but I tried to be as true to the experience as possible -- one exception was my selfie before the hamam (in the women's locker room) and K and I's selfie after…I couldn't help myself!
MARKETS (SPICE AND GRAND BAZAAR)
The Spice Market is a must see for foodies! Just walking through the small market (compared to the Grand Bazaar) was intoxicating. The city scents are abundant and the energy is electric. Unlike the Grand Bazaar, which is mostly full of tourists, locals frequent the Spice Market. The sheer size of the Grand Bazaar makes it something to marvel at -- and possibly makes you eager to purchase a rug, dainty jewelry, or some Turkish ceramics. Get some spices at Hayma, where Martha Stewart bought an ample supply of saffron.
I loved Topkapi Palace! Beware because the lines are very long, so make sure to get there when they open. The entry fee is also quite steep, which means locals come to rest on the outside lawn area and listen to the green parrots (more about that here). We found the kitchen, armory and clothing exhibits to be really interesting. The jewels and Holy Relics were most popular so to avoid standing in line, K and I kind of breezed past these two. [Note to reader: Another interesting history lesson on Topkapi Palace here.]
This is where a lot of the riots started in 2013. There are great bars and restaurants in this area and it’s just cool to see a piece of modern-day history.
MOSQUES (SÜLEYMANIYE AND BLUE)
The Süleymaniye Mosque was absolutely stunning and not crowded. The story behind this place (here) makes it even better. I would most definitely visit Süleymaniye and have a traditional Turkish bean lunch afterwards at Kanaat Lokantasi. We loved the outside of the Blue Mosque, but inside was a meld of modern and throwback – one area of the Mosque is for those who are praying and the other part is for tourists taking photos. It’s quite jarring in a way, but also a very interesting juxtaposition.
BASILICA CISTERN (UNDERGROUND CISTERN)
Stunning architecturally. It’s constantly under renovation – think La Sagrada Família – so just be prepared for that. The artwork and history are also fascinating. Really a gem and a can’t miss.
As you explore the city, make sure to take a scarf with you and wear longer pants / bring layers. For quite a few of the exhibits / places we visited, I needed to don a ḥijāb so having a scarf handy was very helpful. This scarf below was a gift from one of my best friends -- so fancy!
Several of our friends were generous enough to give us their agenda and recommendations, so those are also included below. I also heavily trolled TA for places to visit and eat!
Definitely eat by the Bosphorus or cruise the Bosphorus during the day or for dinner.
Visit Su'ada, a mini island with a social club for sun bathing and just getting out of the city.
We’ll definitely be back! With the awesome food and great culture, Turkey should be on everyone’s travel list.