Visiting Istanbul

Easily accessible from England, mainland Europe, and Israel, Istanbul is an attractive and beautiful city. Straddling Europe and Asia over the Bosphorus Strait, it’s a particularly interesting and exciting “east meets west” type of city. With so much to do and see in it, though, it can seem a little intimidating. To that end, I have compiled a short guide to the city which I would have found useful to have read over before my visit at the end of December 2017.

Istanbul's Topkapi Palace
Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace

Where to stay

Istanbul is a big city, but most of its “touristy” attractions are concentrated in the Sultanahmet district, which was the historic seat of the Ottoman Empire’s power. Sultanahmet is full of hotels varying in price and quality from grotty hostels to palatial five stars, as well as everything in between. I stayed at the very comfortable and reasonably priced Sultan’s Inn, which was located a ten minute walk from most of Sultanahmet’s main attractions. With English-speaking staff, Wi-Fi, private rooms, a free very good breakfast, and airport shuttle available at a surcharge, the Sultan’s Inn proved to be an excellent base for my travels. Bookings can either be made directly through its site, or AirBnB.

What to do

One of the best ways of enjoying Istanbul is by joining a guided tour around Sultanahmet. They can be booked at almost any of the city centre’s many tourist-oriented travel agencies, and should include the Blue Mosque, Agia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, and Grand Bazaar, as well as lunch. Prices start at around €70, but can be haggled down to around €50. The tour operator should pick you up from your hotel at around 0800 on the morning of your choosing, and bus you to the tour’s starting point. Given that entry prices for the city’s main attractions do mount up, visiting them in a single tour is a rather cost efficient way of sight-seeing.

If you prefer exploring museums at your own pace, though, the “Museum Pass İstanbul” will likely be a better option. A printed card that costs 85TL (approximately $23), it grants entry to five from the Hagia Sophia Museum, Topkapi Palace Museum and adjoining harem, Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Istanbul Mosaic Museum, Museum of Turkish and Sslamic Arts, Museum for the History of Science and Technology in Islam, Chora Museum, Galata Mevlevi House Museum, Yildiz Palace, Rumeli Hisar Museum, and Fethiye Museum within a five day period. It can be purchased online here.

Turkey is rightly famous for its markets, with the Grand Bazaar being best known. It is, however, very much a tourist trap full of salesmen offering overpriced rugs, backgammon sets, tea glasses, and Ottoman period costume photo studios. While fun to spend time haggling in, locals tend to do their own personal shopping in the streets between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar slightly further down the hill. These shops will sell many of the same items marketed as souvenirs in the Grand Bazaar, but at a lower price, and without the “hustle” associated with international tourists. Having said that, though, it is worth popping into one of the very many Turkish delight shops found there. Apart from an impressive selection of sweets, they tend to stock a large number of different herbal and natural teas, as well as whole spices.

Istanbul has a beautiful skyline, and one of the best ways to enjoy it is by taking a ferry between Eminönü near the Spice Bazaar, and Kadiköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. Kadiköy is famous for its food market, and far more residential than the European parts of the city I visited. Its trendy bars and restaurants seemed like the type of place well-heeled Istanbulites frequented, and I didn’t see a single tourist while in the neighbourhood.

Jewish Istanbul

The Ahrida Synagogue's unique bimah
The Ahrida Synagogue’s unique bimah

Istanbul has a rich and fascinating Jewish heritage, which is an absolute must while visiting the city. Approximately 16000 Jews still live in the city, worshipping in a number of beautiful and historic synagogues. However, due to the current security situation, visits must be booked well in advance through the office of the Turkish Chief Rabbi. Given the amount of bureaucracy one must navigate to visit these synagogues, as well as how spread out they are across the city, it is best to explore them with a tour guide. I used Alp from Istanbul Jewish Heritage Tours, and cannot recommend him enough. Knowledgeable and friendly, Alp took me to all of the city’s main synagogues, Galata, Ortakoy, and the old Jewish quarter of Balat. Istanbul Jewish Heritage Tours also process all the paperwork necessary for visiting these synagogues, making visiting them a far easier. While not cheap, a day with Alp would be very well spent, and is highly recommended.

Outside the Neve Shalom synagogue with Alp
Outside the Neve Shalom synagogue with Alp

Four of Istanbul’s main functioning synagogues are Etz Ahayim in Ortakoy, the Ashkenazi Synagogue and Neve Shalom in Galata, and Bet Avraam just behind the Sirkeci train station. The Ashkenazi Synagogue and Etz Ahayim offer weekday morning as well as Shabbat services, and a meaty Kosher restaurant supervised by the Turkish rabbinate operates in Ortakoy. Bet Avraam is the synagogue closest to Sultanahmet, and offered an extremely warm welcome when I visited them for Friday night and Shabbat morning services. Due to the current security situation, all visits must be booked in advance, are subject to airport-style security checks, and entry will almost certainly be denied unless you bring your passport with for identification purposes.

About the Author
Daniel J. Levy is a graduate of the University of Leeds and Oxford, where his academic research primarily focused on Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. He is the Founding Director and Lead Consultant of the Ortakoy Security Group, and has contributed editorial pieces to The Times of Israel, Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, and Israel Policy Exchange. In his free time, he enjoys reading, running, and cooking. He can be followed on Twitter @danielhalevy.
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