The Professional Traveller • Jul 27, 2020
In November 2020 I booked an Istanbul city break. It somewhere I had wanted to visit for many years. I was visiting Baku and the cheapest way to fly to Baku was to fly to Istanbul first.
Here is my review of how I travelled, what I did and what it was like to visit Istanbul as a solo female traveller.
Getting To Istanbul From Inverness
I booked my outward and return flights with British Airways from Inverness to Istanbul.
I booked them about 5 or 6 months in advance. In that time period British Airways cancelled the return leg of the flight from Istanbul to London as they stopped operating that flight.
They were unwilling to rebook me onto another flight to Kiev as they said they could only rebook to my orginal destination. As such I got refunded, which took many months, and I then booked my own flights from Istanbul to Kiev, then Kiev to Riga. I stayed one night in Riga and then flew home to London. The change in flights added about £150 to the cost of my trip.
Flying from Inverness to Istanbul with British Airways meant that my luggage was checked through all the way from Inverness which was helpful. As always Inverness Airport was nice and friendly and I enjoyed visiting the lounge before I flew.
The British Airways flight landed at Heathrow Terminal 5 which is a nice new terminal with nice facilities. There was plenty of time for me to enjoy a Wagamama Vegatsu Curry before heading to join my flight to Istanbul.
The British Airways flight to Istanbul was full and as always I had pre-booked an aisle seat. In the middle seat was a man who was travelling with a colleague who was across the aisle from me.
The man next to me then tried to persuade me to move seats, I told him I didn’t want to move seats as I always book and aisle seat. He was not happy about that. I put my headphones in for take off as normal but could hear the man and his colleague saying how silly it was that I wouldn’t move and they proceeded to lean over and talk across me.
When the seatbelt sign went off I got up to speak to the crew and asked if I could move. They found me a new aisle seat next to a lovely Indian couple. I moved but after a few minutes the crew asked me to move again. It turned out they had gone back to speak to the man and he was rude to them so they upgraded me to business class.
I then spent a very lovely 3 hours or so enjoying a nice meal and drinks in a big comfy seat. It was a pleasant surprise after being made to feel so uncomfortable by the man and his colleague.
Arriving At Istanbul Airport (Ataturk) – Airport Code IST
I flew in to the new Istanbul Airport which is absolutely massive. It was very quiet at the airport partly because it wasn’t at capacity, and partly because it was still being finished.
It was a very long walk to get through passport control and security to the main hall but I enjoyed the walk after sitting on the plane. The passport check was quite quick, despite getting stuck behind a family who had some issues with their passports.
Everything was straightforward and I emerged into the main arrivals hall quickly.
Getting from Istanbul Airport to Taksim Square
Firstly when I arrived at Istanbul airport I followed the signs for the ‘Transportation’ level which is downstairs. This is where the buses, taxis etc go from and it is very clearly signed. I used the ticket machine to get an Istanbul Kart. This is not an Istanbul tourist pass but a transportation card which allows ticketless travel on the buses.
There is a Kart machine on the transportation level to buy the card. You pay for the card itself which is about 7 or 8 Turkish Lira (about 90p). You can then add credit to the card at the same time so if you put in a 20 Lira note you would have 12 lira credit on your card if it cost 8 lira.
It took a little bit of working out to get through the steps in the machine, it was a bit like a brain training challenge but I got there in the end. You then swipe your card over the ticket machine when you enter the bus to pay for your fare.
I took the IST19 Havaist shuttle bus from the transportation level to Taksim Square. It cost 18 Turkish Lira (approx £2.50) which I had already put on my card. The luggage was loaded and I was given a receipt.
The bus was quite busy and it had free wifi but I couldn’t connect as it said you needed a Turkish phone number. It took about 1 hour and 20 minutes to get to Taksim and dropped off at a small side street right beside Taksim Square.
It was much cheaper than a car transfer and I then just had a short walk through Taksim to my accommodation, the Suitel Bosphorus Taksim.
There is a tram line planned from Istanbul airport to the city but it has not been completed as of November 2019 so buses or cars seemed to be the only option.
Hotel in Istanbul
I stayed at the Suitel Bosphorus Taksim, located just off Taksim Square. For my Istanbul city break I wanted to be somewhere centrally located and Taksim Square had good transport connections so it suited me well. See my Suitel Bosphorus Taksim review for more details.
The bus dropped off at the corner of Taksim Square by a hotel.
The square is large and there was a huge mosque being built in one corner. By the time I arrived it was dark and the square was busy with an antiques fair and lots of people walking about. I felt fairly comfortable walking to my hotel but I did get a few looks from men.
I had planned a number of visits during my Istanbul city break but because I found sleeping so difficult at the hotel I didn’t make it out of bed very early in the morning.
I also didn’t feel comfortable being out after dark, except close to the hotel so this meant I only had about 6 or 7 hours to explore each day.
Day 2 – Istanbul City Break
Seeing Local Life, Visiting the Haggia Sophia & Walking Back
Getting Around Istanbul on the Metro
I took the Metro from Taksim Square to Sultanhamet which took a bit of working out. There was a connection which involved going from the Metro to an overland line which ran down to Sultanhamet Square. The metro was very noisy and the tram was very crowded so I was quite glad to get off into the fresh air of the square.
One of the stations I used was the University stop. This was extremely busy and involved taking a lift which I absolutely hated because it was so busy.
A young girl let me get on the lift but the lift was overweight. The young men in the lift shouted at her and made her get out. It made me feel really uncomfortable and actually I wish I had stepped off the lift too but for some reason I didn’t feel able to do that. It was a brief and unpleasant insight into what daily life must be like for girls and women in Istanbul.
I decided to book a guided tour to the Haggia Sophia – partly because it saved the need to queue but also so I could get an introduction into the history of the place. I booked the tour on the Tiqets app on my phone which was with the Big Bus Company and then met the guide by the big bus near the square.
There was a quick security check before going into Haggia Sophia and there we got an overview of the building from the guide. The information was relevant and interesting and it was a good way to get more information on the highlights.
At the end of the tour we were free to explore on our own. There is a lovely gallery area which you can reach by walking up a series of ramps. This gives a great view down into the main area of the Haggia Sophia.
There is some beautiful detail in the building at that level and some great views of the stained glass windows.
I decided to enjoy a cup of tea sitting beside the Haggia Sophia. There is a small cafe, bookshop and toilets beside the main complex. It was nice to sit and people watch for a little while.
I especially enjoyed watching a Tour Manager try to locate some American guests that had got lost in the complex and was glad I wasn’t having to do the same thing!
The Haggia Sophia is not a mosque so there is no need to wear a head covering – it is now a museum.
I had looked at visited the Basilica Cistern as it looked pretty stunning. This is located very close to the Haggia Sophia on the inside of the bend in the road. There is a small building that is the entrance. However, the queues were really long so I didn’t go in after all.
Returning to Taksim Square
After exploring the area a bit more I decided to get the tram back to Taksim but every tram from Sultanhamet was full. I decided to walk back to the underground Metro station. On the way back I passed the Grand Bazaar and although I was keen to go in I didn’t feel comfortable enough going in on my own, so I will visit it another time probably with a guide.
The walk back to the tram station was probably about 45 minutes to an hour and it was a great way to see a bit more of local life.
Day 3 – Istanbul City Break
Bosphorus Breakfast, A Beautiful Palace, A Boat Ride & A Funicular Finish
I decided to visit Dolmabahce Palace as it was close to the hotel so I could walk to it. Walking down to it wasn’t that easy and several men approached me on the way. I have no idea what they said but it was a little unnerving.
Before going into the Palace I had breakfast at a cafe which looked right over the Bosphorus. It was lovely to have some toast and coffee watching the boats shuttle backwards and forwards. It was a lovely warm and sunny day and I finally felt like I was enjoying my visit to Istanbul.
The cafe was located at the rear of a car park just by a roundabout. I had a table right by the waters edge. The waiter was very friendly and helpful and spoke English which was good too. I got a receipt and then paid at the cash desk on the way out.
The Dolmabahce Palace was a really interesting visit. I bought a ticket for the Palace and the Harem.
Included in the entrance ticket, but overlooked by many, was the fact that an audio guide was included. This was collected from a little office inside the main entrance. A deposit was needed which could be cash or your passport.
I chose cash preferrring to keep my passport on me. The audio guide was fantastic and packed with really interesting information about all aspects of life in the palace, alongwith the more traditional information about where things came from. (The chandeliers which are stunning came from the UK!).
The palace is ornate and it felt a bit overwhelming by the end of the tour – the fact that so few people had so much wealth and lived such an opulent lifestyle. I felt this particularly after visiting the harem and learning about the hierarchy and structures.
There was a cute little gift shop at the exit of the main palace, before the harem part of the visit and I got a cool little mouse mat that is like a Turkish carpet. No doubt made in China but it was fun.
The cafe in the grounds of the palace wasn’t open so after exiting the palace I headed for the cafeteria which was just by the edge of the sea and before you exited the main gates. It was very busy and the service was a little chaotic but it was nice to sit under the trees and enjoy the view.
I was delighted to be able to enjoy a Sherbet – a very sweet non alcoholic drink that I had heard about but never tried.
Super Cheap Ferry Ride
After my visit I decided to take a different route back to the hotel and walked along the shore to the ferry terminal. I made up my mind I would take a ferry across the Bosphorus Strait and come back again.
There was a ferry that ran across the strait from Kabatas which was a 10 minute walk or so along from the Palace.
I bought a return ticket and it was something like a £1 and boarded quite an old ferry and sat back and enjoyed the view and the fresh breeze.
On each trip there was a guy selling refreshments which was interesting, he had a tray full of goods which he carried round the ferry, although unfortunately no one seemed to be buying anything.
Fun Funicular Ride
I then took the funicular from the shore up to Taksim Square. It was clean and I could use my metro card to pay for the fare so it was very cheap. I particularly loved the sign that said no ‘mansplaining’!
After returning to the square I decided to head for Burger King, not because I particularly like Burger King but because it has a lovely terrace with a great view over the square. After a bit of a mix up when I was ordering I headed up the tiny set of stairs to the terrace and enjoyed a great spot of people watching.
I then had a wander around the local area exploring the shops before heading back before it got too late.
Day 4 – Istanbul City Break
The Best Breakfast, Getting Intimate with a Stranger & Another Airport
Yigit Soframe Gozlem Beautiful Breakfast
I decided to make my way over to the area of the Aga Hamami Baths to make sure I could find it and then have breakfast nearby. Having eventually found the baths I decided to head to a little coffee bar for breakfast nearby. Oh my goodness it was amazing.
It was called Yigit Soframe Gozlem and I had the most amazing breakfast spread.
Eggs, jam, breads, coffee, fruits, nuts and more all served in cute little dishes. I was able to enjoy a soya coffee as the waiter spoke better English than me and I enjoyed sitting watching local life happen nearby. There was an antique shop across the road that was just opening up.
This little cafe was one of the highlights of my visit – not just because the food was great but because I felt I had finally experienced the Istanbul I was looking for.
Interestingly there was a local guide having coffee there with an American girl and he was telling her that this was the real Istanbul – how right he was.
I had prebooked a visit to the oldest Turkish baths in Istanbul, the Aga Hamami. The website was very easy to use and I got a prompt confirmation back of my booking. I booked the full package including a face mask which was 300 Turkish Lire (it was about £35 pounds in total).
The entrance to the Aga Hamami was discrete and down a short flight of steps. I had actually walked past it a couple of times and not noticed it.
On entering the main door at the lower level there was a lovely room with little cubicles around the side, a small fountain and people in various stages of the baths process.
The welcome at the Turkish baths was warm and friendly. I was greeted by name and paid for my experience. I was given instructions on where to get changed and given slip on slippers and a towel.
I have to say I made a huge mistake and hadn’t taken a swimming costume and initally I made the mistake of stripping off completely so there was only a towel covering me.
When I got into the steam room where you spend about 30 minutes warming up everyone else was in swimming costumes so headed back upstairs and put on my undies and then went back in feeling a bit more relaxed.
Going up and down the very tiny and steep flight of stairs with the hotel type slippers was a little unnerving. Someone had asked if they could wear their own shoes for the stairs because he had big feet and the steps were tiny and he was told it was safer to wear the slippers, which I thought was funny.
I was surprised that the steam room was mixed sex and the men had their scrub downs performed in this room on top of the heated slab.
It’s not the most elegant of experiences so I was glad that ladies had a private room. In the centre of a room was a really hot marble raised area where you could sit or lie for extra heat. I chose to sit around the edge at one of the smaller areas. There were taps with little dishes where you could get cold water and throw it over yourself. After 30 minutes I was very warm and relieved when I was told it was my time for a scrub.
I then went into a little side room and met an older lady. She asked me if I wanted her to wear clothes or not. I chose clothes and I could see she was a little disappointed.
The clothes were actually a bikini and I am glad I did choose that option otherwise there would have been some very awkward skin on skin contact!
I was asked to lay on a slab which I did and then my towel was removed. I had taken my bra off as requested but left my knickers on.
She clearly wasn’t keen on my full M&S lace knickers so she hoiked them up giving me a very friendly but definite wedgie. It was an unnerving experience.
By now I was so far out of my comfort zone that I had started to see the funny side of the experience and I just let myself relax into it and not worry about what was going on. The scrub was amazing and whilst it wasn’t particularly relaxing, apart from the soap suds, I certainly felt clean by the end of it. The lady showed me how much stuff came off my skin and I have to say it was quite disgusting.
After my scrub I headed upstairs for a lounger and waited for my oil massage. I was taken into a small room on the first floor where there was the obligatory CD of supposedly relaxing music playing.
However, there seemed to be a fault with the CD player and it just repeated the same track. After a couple of minutes I stopped noticing though as I was relaxed from having oil poured over me.
The massage was firm but not hard or sore and it felt nice to relax after a couple of busy days and such a bumpy start to my visit to Istanbul. I felt like I was experiencing something historic taking the Turkish bath.
At the end of the bath I was given a face mask and told to apply it and then leave it on for a certain amount of time and then wash it off at a basin in a small corner room. Inbetween I laid on one of the loungers near the changing rooms and lockers and had a job to stay awake if I am honest.
Having washed up at the end I got changed and headed down the very tiny and steep stairs again and enjoyed a little cup of tea in the main entrance area. It was nice to see other guests coming in, mainly tourists, and the people who had been in the baths when I was there finished up also so it was a nice shared experience amongst strangers.
At the end of the visit I emerged back out onto the streets of Istanbul feeling that only on the last day I had found what I was looking for and feeling a little sad to be leaving. However, I had decided to check out of my hotel a night early and head for the Sabiha airport so I collected my things from my hotel room, checked out and then headed swiftly for my bus.
Getting from Taksim Square to Sabiha Gokcen Airport
Istanbul (Taksim Square) to Sabiha Gokcen Airport
Having used the Havaist buses I decided to use them again to transfer from Taksim Square to Sabiha Gokcen airport.
Given I was staying close to Taksim Square it was an easy walk to the bus pickup. The lugagge was loaded and I was given a receipt and I then used my Istanbul Kart to pay for the fare.
The cost was 30 Turkish Lira (approximately £4). Again the bus was quite busy and it took about 1 hour and 30 minutes to reach the airport. As with the previous bus I wasn’t able to connect to the internet on the bus because it said I need a Turkish phone number. I preferred looking at the views anyway!
Sabiha Gokcen Airport Hotel
I stayed at the Sabiha Gokcen Airport Hotel, right next to the airport terminal and connected by a handy shuttle bus.
Is it safe to travel to Istanbul?
This is a great question and I have to say that this is one of the few places I have visited in the world where I have not felt comfortable walking around at night. I was approached by a number of men which I found quite intimidating.
As someone who likes to explore on foot it made exploring very difficult and it became more about dodging men than enjoying what I was looking at. I kept exploring during the hours of dusk to a minimum and felt this impacted on my stay.
Is Istanbul a good place to visit?
Istanbul had been one of the places I had dreamed about visiting and I have to say I was hugely disappointed. I should preface my comments by saying that I arrived in Istanbul totally exhausted having worked pretty much continuously for 2 months.
I was then not able to get much sleep at the hotel in Istanbul which impacted on my ability to enjoy what I was doing. That said I was still disappointed. I found it extremely congested and busy which was OK but the constant beeping of horns was tiresome, the noise was relentless.
I found it difficult to enjoy the visit because of the unwanted attention of men. I had wanted to visit the Grand Bazaar but decided I couldn’t face going in on my own after my experiences in the streets.
The main tram line down to the Blue Mosque area was extremely busy and crowded, so much so I decided to walk back to get the underground to Taksim. I also witnessed women being degraded and treated unfairly by men.
On the whole Istanbul was a lot more conservative and a lot less cosmopolitan than I expected it to be. I did however find a lovely cafe in a tiny street in the old part of Taksim and enjoyed a fabulous breakfast before I went to the oldest Hamman in the city and had the works. I also enjoyed having a cup of tea looking out over the Bosphorus and crossing it a couple of times on the ferry. I won’t be rushing to go back.
Do you need a visa to travel to Istanbul?
Yes you do need a visa to visit Turkey but it is very easy to do via the evisa website. The official Turkish website is www.evisa.gov.tr and you can download the visa electronically too. I had no issues going into the country with the evisa. The visa is valid for up to 90 days. Please note there are different rules for passengers on cruise ships who may not need a visa depending on the length of the visit.
I found the weather in Istanbul to be pleasant (however I do live in the North of Scotland so anything over 15 degrees Celsius is summer like!).
It was warm during the day so I didn’t need a coat. However, it was a little cooler in the evenings which just required an extra layer.
Accuweather is a great website for weather forecasts. Istanbul is here.
Istanbul Guides and Blogs
Find more Istanbul travel guides and blogs here
Istanbul Airport FAQs
Is Istanbul airport the same as Ataturk Airport?
Istanbul Airport (code IST) is the new airport which replaced Ataturk. Ataturk closed in April 2019. The new Istanbul Airport is supposedly the biggest airport in the world!
How many airport are there in Istanbul?
There are two (2). Istanbul which has the airport code IST and Sabiha Gokcen which has the airport code SAW. They are both some distance from Istanbul itself and quite some distance from each other.
How far is Istanbul airport from Istanbul city centre?
It is quite a long way – 54km officially. The airport site says it takes about 1 hour to reach the centre of Istanbul but it is probably wise to allow some time for congestion – Istanbul is a very congested city.
How far is Sabiha airport from Istanbul city?
Sabiha is 43km from Istanbul city centre and again it would be wise to allow time for traffic and congestion, rather than the 1 hour or so it says to travel.
Find hotel deals for Istanbul right here!
Check Flights to Istanbul
Istanbul Trip Costings
- Flight from Inverness to Istanbul via London Heathrow £134 including checked luggage
- Suitel Bosphorus 4 night stay £118
- ISG Airport Hotel £40
- Baku 3 night stay £74
- Opera Hotel Riga £36
- Istanbul to Baku flight with Buta Airways £30 including charge for checked luggage
- Baku to Kiev flight with Buta Airways £45 including charge for checked luggage
- Kiev to London flight with Wizz Air £60
- Flight from London Gatwick to Inverness with Easyjet £50
- Total Trip Price £587
This trips was originally lower, however British Airways cancelled flight from Kiev to London which required a reroute to get home via Riga and another over night. Also I checked out of the Bosphorus Suitel one night early so this was an additional cost.
Hotel Reviewer Series
- Sabiha Gokcen Airport Hotel, Istanbul
- Suitel Bosphorus Taksim, Istanbul
- Courtyard by Marriott, Inverness
- Village Hotel, Aberdeen
- Gatwick Airport Hotels, London Gatwick
- Ibis, Birmingham Airport
- Ibis Birmingham, City Centre, New Street
If you are interested in how to find the cheapest hotel deals then check out my guide to cheap hotels booking