We have just left Istanbul after 9 days in Turkey. We travelled for 6 days before flying back to Istanbul for our last 3 days. As suggested, it was a good way of preparing ourselves for the culture shift. While we felt like visitors while travelling, in Istanbul we felt like tourists because we tended to spend our days in the tourist areas. I wanted to share some things that we learnt that might be helpful for other travellers.
All of the main sites are very close and you can walk to them all. What we discovered is that most of them are on the T1 tramline, which is very easy to use. Because Istanbul is built on hills, the tram ride home was often very much appreciated. The T1 line runs on the right hand side of Sultanahmet Square when you are facing the Blue Mosque. Up the hill it takes you to the Grand Bazaar. Coming back down, at the square, you can visit the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and Topkapi Palace as well as the Cistern across the tram line. Back onto the tram, you travel down the hill to Eminonu, where you find the Spice Bazaar to the left and the waterfront to the right. This is the spot where the Galata Bridge starts.
Walk under the bridge to find the Turyol ferries. For 12TL you can have a 90 minute boat ride up the Bosphorous. Stay on the tram to cross the Bridge, get off at the next stop and across the road to the left, is the Funicular station which will take you up the hill to the Galata Tower.
To use the tram, you must buy an Istanbulkart, from a vendor on the street. You can read the word on his booth. We paid 20TL to start with and used it for both of us. You lay the card on the card reader to pass through onto the station and it tells you how much money you have left on it. We found the screen difficult to read in the sun but we think it was about 2TL for each trip, approximately and you can go as far as you want once you are on the tram. We needed to recharge twice I think. The recharge booths are at the stations. You lay your card on the reader, enter 10TL or more and the card is recharged. The trams seem to come every 5 minutes or so.
The mosques are all free to enter. We waited about 30 minutes to go into the Blue Mosque on Saturday morning. It's very beautiful but we found that Suleymaniye Mosque was very similar and virtually empty. We walked straight into Aya Sofya on Sunday and Topkapi Palace on Monday. We had no waiting here, but there were many tour groups outside when we were finished.
We decided not to buy the Museum card, but they can be bought at the ticket booths at each site for 85TL. You buy the tickets at a different spot to the entry gates so if you have the card, you just walk straight up to the gates.
We made a trip to see the Chora Church but only about a third of it is open to see, so it was not good value.
We had 3 instances of scamming. The first was receiving change for a 5TL note instead of 10. We were given the correct change when we asked for it. After that we started to say, "I'm giving you a 10TL note". Next we were charged an exhorbitant amount for 2 coffees near the Galata tower. We learnt to say, "how much?" before we sat down. Lastly, on the Galata bridge we were charged for bread and dip that was placed on the table. Because they had often been provided free in other places, we had eaten it and were forced to pay. It just pays to be careful. This is a touristy place after all, like any other.
It is very, very hot in Istanbul at present. Water is very cheap, 1TL, as well as freshly squeezed orange juice for the same price, which can be bought anywhere on the street.
Sultanahmet Square is filled with thousands of people each night as they come out with their families to break their fast during Ramadan. There is a wonderful atmosphere, very safe. It feels like a festival with a great party atmosphere. What is especially pleasant is the absence of any alcohol or intoxicated people. Great opportunities for photos of this glittering city.
Istanbul is a very clean place. There are garbage collectors working all the time. In the evenings they push around their carts and ask people for their bags of rubbish. They are always sweeping and picking up rubbish. What is especially amazing is the cleanliness of the city first thing in the morning after thousands of people have been in the square the night before.
Turkish people appear to be very easy going. No one seems to get annoyed by anything, even the cars pushing in and out of the traffic. In the city itself, they mostly ignored us, unless, of course, they were sales men. We just said, "no thanks",and kept walking.
By the way, the traffic is madness. You learn to push through the people and cars, crossing roads wherever you can. Don't expect cars to stop for you on pedestrian crossings.
Istanbul is a wonderful place and I hope that some of the things I learnt are helpful to you.