When cheap tickets hit my hotline bling, I always answer the call.
During my time living in Rome, I made sure that no day went to waste. Almost all of my free time was spent exploring obscure restaurants, hidden neighborhoods, and historical sites off the beaten path. Rome is MASSIVE though; after three months of exploring every cobbled crevice, I still felt like there was so much left to see. I had this radical idea that I would live a strictly Italian life for 90 days because, why not? Pizza everyday, that beautiful language, like a song, being sung to me daily…but that idea was dashed real quick when I saw the dizzyingly cheap inter-Europe flight prices.
Me trying to quickly scrounge together my coins
I kept finding myself on Google Flights dreaming up all the possibilities. A few days in Berlin spent partying in grandiose nightclubs? A retreat to Athens for a historical tour on the foundation of democracy? So many choices, so little time.
In the end, I randomly decided to book a trip to Istanbul. Mainly because the tickets were dirt cheap (approximately 60 euros roundtrip), and it didn’t seem like the typical major European cities I had heard about. I have to admit, at some point during my travels, some of the major European cities began to blur together like a weird jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces had the exact same image. Istanbul was mysterious, and a chance to break from the monotony. That intrigued me, so I bought my ticket, booked a cute little Airbnb in Taksim, and I was off on my first-ever solo trip to Istanbul!
Thinking of travelling to Istanbul for the first time? Whether you’re solo or fruitful with travel buddies, here are my top sights to see and things to do:
Not Taksim Square, but a random pretty building along the Bosphorous
When I got off the bus from the airport into the center of Istanbul, I was dropped off in a dizzying array of crowds, flashing lights, cars shooting by, and endless doner kebab stands (WIN). Hello, Taksim Square. My Airbnb was a little one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of the square so Taksim was always my starting point for the day. It’s basically a square where people meetup, hang out, or grab food. It reminds me of Union Square in San Francisco but with a Eurasian vibe. If you’re headed to Istanbul, especially solo, this is a great place to people watch, or, if you’re black, to be watched by people.
Cruise Down The Bosphorous River
I’m all for getting off the beaten path when travelling, so a tourist-y boat cruise isn’t usually my jam. However, the boat tour along the Bosphorous is a must while in Istanbul! The cruise takes you through both sides of the city (European and Asian), and you get to see all of the famous landmarks in just under two hours. I highly recommend doing the tour at night when everything is lit up. It’s gorgeous, and literally lit! Most of the boat companies are reputable and take walk-ups, however for the night cruise it’s likely that you’ll have to make a reservation. I took Sehir Hatlari tours and got lucky. I was able to walk-on the boat without a reservation since they had empty seats.
The craziness of it all
This is a super cool neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, a buzzing nightlife, and TOURISTS. TOURISTS EVERYWHERE! Istiklal street was absolutely packed with people so be prepared to hold tightly onto your belongings and cruise through the crowds. This is basically the Times Square of Istanbul, and, oh my word is that a KFC on the corner? Yup. Chain restaurants and big box shops are everywhere but this is another awesome place to be one with the pulse of the city.
So, I didn’t get the chance to go into Tokpapi Palace, but I did attempt it! It’s actually a funny story: I basically was stalked by some older man who eventually got me into a conversation and went on for at least an hour about all his womanly conquests. It ended with him propositioning me and when I politely turned him down (HELL NAH FOOL!) he tried to offer me a “job” to work for him in Istanbul. Don’t need any more details, buddy–hard pass. By the time I shook the creep off, the palace had closed up shop for the day 🙁 However, it was one of the original palaces of the Ottoman empire, and I’ve read that it was an absolute must-see. It’s a bummer that I missed out, but you definitely shouldn’t!
The place that everyone is going to tell you to see while you’re in Istanbul is Hagia Sophia, and for good reason. It’s both a museum and church, and is one of the most quintessential Turkish establishments I saw while in Istanbul. The architecture inside and out was breathtaking, and I learned so much about Turkish history just from the few hours I was there. What was most interesting to me about the Hagia Sophia was that it was originally a Christian church. It was considered to be the greatest church in the world, until a little building called St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome came along. It was then converted to a Mosque, and now it’s a beautiful museum in the heart of Sultahnamet. You cannot miss visiting this!
Eat A Fish Sandwich On The Galata Bridge
Local tip: head to the end of the Galata Bridge where all the boats are docked. There are a bunch of stands that sell freshly caught, lightly fried fish sandwiches from the river. It’s a great place to be in the presence of Turkish locals, people watch, and enjoy a bomb fish sandwich. The area can get a little sketchy at night so I wouldn’t advise being there past 10pm.
Get Pampered At A Hamam
When I posted on my Facebook that I was heading to Turkey for the weekend, a few of my European friends who had already been told me that I absolutely HAD to take a Turkish bath. Sure, why not! Your hamam experience can vary from spa-level luxurious to medieval primitive depending on what you’re looking for. I went for the latter option so I could experience a hamam like a local. The spa I went to, Cemberlitas, is separated by room for men and women. Inside is all marble and truly looks like you’ve been transported back in time. Once you enter, you’ll be told to strip naked and head into the room where you’ll get a wash and scrub. I took off my clothes and stood around like a loser for a little awhile, but after seeing the local Turkish women (big and small) unashamedly roaming the spa in all their glory, I had no more fear. The scrub and massage was a little on the rough side, but the overall experience was fabulous.
Take A Break With Turkish Tea (Or Wine!)
One part I conveniently left out of my Hamam tidbit is that I got COMPLETELY lost while trying to find it. I’m not talking a few streets off-course, no, I was so far gone that when I asked people if they had heard about the street it was on, they asked me if I was sure it was in Istanbul.
Thankfully, after my 38th wrong turn, I ran into a friendly guy who told me where to go. He owned a little Turkish restaurant on a usually bustling street that happened to be completely dead that day since the Bazaar was closed. Long story short, we chatted a bit and he brought out traditional Turkish wine and tea for us to enjoy. It was amazing! Tea in Turkey is absolutely central to their culture as it is a sign of friendship and hospitality. Their traditional tea is black but some people like to add sugar. Their wine also can’t be missed. There are a few varieties so I can’t make a specific recommendation, but that’s all the more reason to try as many as you can. No, im not recommending for you to get drunk off Turkish wine 😉 ;).You know what they say in Turkey (of course, you don’t), “Caysiz sohbet, aysiz gok yuzu gibidir.”
The Grand Bazaar
This maze of endless shops, stalls, and madness is a goldmine. If you’re a shopaholic in recovery, I pray for you and your wallet–may the force be with you. The thing I love most about this bazaar is that mostly everything is authentic and traditionally Turkish. They’re also haggle-friendly, so don’t be afraid to negotiate prices. I was able to score a gorgeous $400 leather bag with kilim fabric (traditional Turkish fabric) sewn over the front for $180! It’s a gorgeous, authentic bag that I’ll cherish forever. I’m an advanced level haggler, but don’t be shy to offer up a lower price.
Helpful Solo Travel Tips (especially for women):
- Although the social climate in Istanbul is a bit rocky, it’s still a generally safe place to tour around. Obviously, if anything or anyone seems suspicious or makes you feel uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation immediately.
- Avoid hanging out by yourself late at night n heavy populated areas like Taksim Square, Istiklal Street, Sultahnamet, and the Grand Bazaar. Pickpocketing is a huge problem in Europe, and women travelling alone can be easy targets.
- I hate to say it but try to avoid wearing outfits that can make you more susceptible to be targeted like high heels and short dresses. Those cobbled streets are no joke, and you want to stay as lowkey as possible!
- If you’re a black woman, be prepared to be stared at or openly drooled over. Black women, let alone black people, are not in abundance in Istanbul. Everyone will be friendly–just be prepared for the looks of bewilderment and amusement (and to be called Michelle Obama/Rihanna/Beyonce).
Are you travelling to Istanbul solo (or with friends)? What are your worries and things you’re excited about? Let’s chat in the comments!