The City of Two Continents – Touropia Travel

As a young girl with big travel dreams, I saw pictures of the Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, never thinking I would one day make it to this far-off land. But two decades and one wildly ambitious road trip later, I finally made it to Istanbul.

Yet, after many days on the road, discovering the open spaces and rural wonders of Turkey, Istanbul delivered a full sensory overload that I was ill-prepared for. I am no stranger to big cities, having conquered the likes of Saigon and Bangkok, but Istanbul came with its own set of challenges that regular walking-on-sunshine bloggers don’t tell you about.

I’m not here to spread doom and gloom either! Istanbul is a remarkable city if you go in with the right set of tools. So, soak in a few reality check tips and get ready to explore one of the most enchanting cities in the world!

Taming the Transport Beast

Metro Bridge

Istanbul’s bustling streets can be overwhelming, with cars driving recklessly and pedestrians swarming from every angle. The city is nearly impossible to navigate during peak hours with traffic almost at a standstill. This is your call to embrace the city’s efficient public transport system as your trusty steed.

Opt for the Istanbulkart, your golden ticket to navigating buses, trams, ferries, and metros hassle-free. It is a physical card that you can buy at the kiosks close to metro and tram stations and it costs around $2. You can preload it with money or buy a set amount of trips, although preloading works out a little cheaper. But at only $0.50 a ride, this won’t break the bank.

Istanbul Tram

When my time came to buy an Istanbulkart, a small meltdown ensued. Suffering from hostel bed-related back problems and landing a machine that simply did not want to cooperate made this a nearly impossible task. But once I managed to get my card loaded, the tram system became my new best friend.

Pro Tip: Taxi scams in Istanbul are unlike anything I have seen before. They charge exorbitant fees to unsuspecting tourists to take you only a kilometer or so to your destination. Istanbul is a very walkable city once you are in the main tourist area and for everything else, you should opt for the metro or trams. Avoid taxis like a two-day-old kebab.

How To Eat Like a Sultan

Turkish Breakfast

Speaking of kebabs, what should you eat and what should you avoid in Istanbul’s food scene? You should prepare your taste buds for a culinary odyssey unlike any other but there are a few things that you should know.

The highlight of my day was usually the Turkish breakfast. Instead of breakfast for dinner like in the West, the Turks prefer to highlight savory favorites at breakfast and I wasn’t mad at it. These buffet-style setups bring everything from fresh veggies to mezze like feta and olives, scrambled tomato and eggs (menemen), sausages, breads, and even French fries. Try and book at least one Turkish breakfast at one of the river-side restaurants like Oba Sultan Café Restaurant or Lokma Restaurant.

On the dinner side, classics like Köfte (meatballs) and Lahmacun (Turkish Pizza) are a given but try to avoid Doner kebabs. This isn’t such a sacrilegious statement as you might think. If you are used to overstuffed, juicy doners from your favorite corner shop, the ones in Turkey will be a big disappointment.

You get a few slices of meat and sad lettuce and tomato, it’s not a vibe. This is your time to explore less famous dishes like pide (flatbread), Beyran Çorbası (lamb soup), or my personal favorite, Hunkar Begendi. The latter is also known as “Sultan’s Delight” so you know you are in for something special.

Pro Tip: When you sit down at a restaurant, think twice before accepting the bread and water. It is automatically brought to your table but you will be charged for it. Rather save your appetite for the real food!

Turkish Delights

Turkish Delights

When it comes to the sweet stuff, you can rarely go wrong. The most famous baklava shop in the city is Karaköy Güllüoğlu but this is the Prada of dessert shops. It’s gaudy and overpriced and you will be much better off finding a tucked-away spot. It’s syrup and pastry, not much can go wrong.

You should also steer clear of the Turkish Delight shops inside the Grand Bazaar. They look like something out of Willy Wonka but they are much pricier than the stores on the outside. But the world of lokum is a sweet rabbit hole that I will happily fall down.

Forget about the generic pink and white squares that you might initially think of. The true jewel of Turkish sweets is the colorful rolls of nougat, ganache, and the magical gummy substance that brings it all together.

Tourist Cards: Worth It?


Istanbul is a hotbed of sights to see. You can probably ramble off five attractions before even researching the city. My biggest piece of advice is that you should consider buying either the Istanbul Tourist Pass, the Istanbul Museum Pass, or the Turkey Museum Pass.

These cards aren’t usually worth it in my opinion but there is simply too much to see and do in Istanbul to try and pay for everything separately.

Choosing your card depends on your situation entirely. The Istanbul Tourist Card is available from 1 to 10-day passes and ranges from $120 to $260. This includes dozens of guided tours and activities like a segue tour, a whirling dervish ticket, and a dinner cruise. If you have enough days in Istanbul, this can be more than worth it if you book in advance.

treasures in Istanbul

The Turkish Museum Pass was my gateway to the country but I visited almost every major point of interest so my ticket paid for itself after just a day or two. The Istanbul Museum Pass costs around $100 so you need to visit at least five museums to make it worth it. These tickets all last 15 days so you have more time to make the most of them.

Pro Tip: If you buy a tourist card, you should check which activities need a prior reservation. This is immensely popular and you can’t just show up at the door of a show or experience hoping to get in.

What Is A “Must See” in Istanbul


It’s easy to just list all the top attractions in Istanbul like the Hagia Sofia and the Grand Bazaar but do you really know what to expect?

When it comes to shopping, the outside of the Grand Bazaar has far better deals and it is 10 times more sprawling. The interior isn’t actually all that big and the prices are often set in stone.


With some expert bargaining genes on my side, I tracked down a lamp merchant who took me to his dusty storeroom where I assembled my own Turkish lamp in the exact style I wanted and at half the price of inside the bazaar.


The Egyptian Spice bazaar is also a sight to behold but the teas and treats on the outside are much cheaper and you won’t get told off if you try a free sample and don’t purchase something.

Topkapi Palace is another fascinating attraction but it is worth upgrading your ticket to include the Harem and Hagia Irene. While the palace complex is attractive in itself, the harem is simply spectacular with its intricate tilework and lavish interiors.

The treasures in Istanbul aren’t all above ground either. The Basilica Cistern is a borderline divine experience and dates back to 532 A.D. but the Tünel is also a fun experience that few people know of. It is the second oldest underground train in the world and will take you between Karaköy and Beyoğlu in only 90 seconds, saving you a trek up the hill.

sightseeing boat

Pro Tip: Corny as it might be, it is great fun taking a sightseeing boat along the Bosphorus. I simply rocked up to the cheapest one and took a seat on the top deck. The views are great and you can take your own snacks on board for the ride.

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Where to Stay in Istanbul

Istanbul straddles two continents and offers contrasting experiences on its European and Asian sides. The European side boasts a rich collection of history, with iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. Here, winding streets lead to centuries-old bazaars where the echoes of ancient civilizations still resonate.

On the other hand, the Asian side of Istanbul offers a vibrant and contemporary atmosphere, with bustling neighborhoods like Kadikoy and Moda serving as hubs for nightlife and entertainment. Istanbul is one of the few places I have been where I will absolutely recommend staying in the main tourist area. This is mostly because of the sheer size of the city. For a taste of history, I would opt for Sultanahmet or Beyoglu on the European side, while those eager for lively evenings might choose Kadikoy or Besiktas on the Asian side.

Pro Tip: Each side of Istanbul offers its own unique charm and you should also consider spending a few days on either side of the Bosphorus if you have time on your side.

Cultural Etiquette In Istanbul

Cultural Etiquette

For the most part, I found Istanbul to be quite safe and welcoming, but there is a big focus on tourism in the city and you will never feel completely lost while you move in the Old Town Area. However, it is still important to embrace local customs with respect and courtesy.

Dress modestly when visiting mosques and religious sites, covering shoulders and knees out of reverence. Women should also cover their heads and I found it best to always have a scarf in my bag to throw on should I stumble into an unexpected Mosque.


Practice basic Turkish phrases like “Merhaba” (hello) and “Teşekkür ederim” (thank you) to forge genuine connections with locals. Above all, approach each encounter with an open heart and a willingness to learn – the greatest souvenir of all.

Pro Tip: If you forget a head covering, there are vending machines at most major attractions that sell disposable ones.

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