If you’re in the midst of giving your best snort of indignation, stop right there. We’re not about to tell you the best way to fold your pants or explain to you the problems you might encounter if you put an AK47 in your hand luggage. We know you all know all that. Or at least we hope some of you know some of that. What we are going to tell you is why earplugs are an absolute must on a city break in Istanbul, regardless of where you stay.
We’ll tell you some other helpful stuff as well, but let’s start with the plugs. A quick glance at the history of Istanbul tells us that in 1453 a wave of Ottoman invaders swept into the city, dispelling the Christian Romans and bringing with them a new religion: Islam. With Islam came the ezan – the Muslim call to prayer – which is trumpeted five times a day from loudspeakers dotted all over the city. First call is just before sunrise. Enough said.
The arrival of Islam also meant the arrival of mosques, some of which, like the Blue Mosque and New Mosque, are now top attractions in Istanbul. Turkey is a tolerant country, meaning anyone can enter these beautiful buildings. But as a mark of respect women are asked to cover their hair and both sexes should cover their shoulders, upper arms and legs. At the more popular mosques head scarfs can be borrowed for free.
Outside of the mosques some local women choose to cover up, but this is a personal choice and by no means compulsory. On the other hand, outfits which are startlingly revealing are frowned upon, especially in the more conservative parts of the city, and could draw unwanted attention. (If you are adamant on turning heads, head down to the nightclubs that line the river, where such dress is generally accepted.) Local men tend to wear trousers or jeans throughout the year, with the correct belief that shorts only belong on the beach, so if you buck the trend you will stand out as a tourist. Unless, that is, you happen to find yourself on the sandy shores of one of the Princes’ Islands, which make for a popular day trip from Istanbul with both locals and visitors in the summer months.
Speaking of the weather, the city has a damp climate, with hot, humid summers and cool, rainy winters. At the peak of summer, in July and August, the temperatures average at just under 30°C, so we recommend packing sunglasses, sun cream and a sunhat – and mosquito repellent for the evenings. The mercury descends considerably in winter, with temperatures hitting an average of 6°C in January and February, the coldest months. It is important to take heed of the season and pack accordingly, because despite it sometimes seeming as though all the best things to do in Istanbul occur under some sort of ceiling, be it the underground vaults of the Basilica Cistern or the colossal dome of the Hagia Sofia, in reality you will find yourself spending much of your time outdoors and on foot.
Take the bazaars, for instance – an essential Istanbul experience. The two most famous – the Spice Bazaar and Grand Bazaar – are covered, but they are very much the exceptions to the rule. Another thing difficult to avoid is a Bosphorus river cruise (preferably at night), where you won’t be able to resist clambering out on deck for a better view, whatever the weather. And then there are the Istanbulites themselves, whose culture is so infused with al fresco dining, drinking, shopping and everything else, they seem completely oblivious of trivial things like what the sky’s doing.
As for being on foot much of the time, this is frankly unavoidable, particularly in districts like Sultanahmet, where you will be doing much of your sightseeing. This is Istanbul’s Old Town, as it were, and is characterised by steep hills webbed with cobbled streets, meaning flip-flops just aren’t going to cut it, gents. And ladies, think very, very carefully before stuffing the Louboutins in amongst all the cosmetics, which, by the way, you should definitely buy before coming because such things are inexplicably expensive once here.
As for accessories, we strongly recommend investing in a pair of binoculars. Three reasons. One: Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents, and there is something enchantingly satisfying about being able to lay your eyes on Asia while feeling Europe under your feet, or vice versa. Two: the entire city is draped over an oscillation of hills, meaning lots of fantastic vantage points. Three: there is no better and more effective way to appreciate the incredible craftsmanship and artwork in the higher reaches of buildings with monumentally high ceilings, of which in Istanbul there are quite a few. Of course, it goes without saying that you’ll also be needing a camera – just make sure you have a European-style (two pronged) adaptor so you can charge it.
Finally, there is a slim chance you might pick up some sort of stomach bug, particularly if you eat from street stalls. This should not deter you from tucking in to Istanbul street food because, to put it bluntly, it’s heaven on a plate, but it’s advisable to pack some anti-diarrhoea tablets and rehydration salts just in case. And on the subject of health, Turkey has no reciprocal health agreements with other countries, so health insurance is absolutely essential. Make sure you pack a copy of the relevant documents.
Alternatively, completely ignore everything we have just said and simply bring an empty bag, because this will allow maximum space to bring home all those lovely souvenirs.
Picture credits: Will Jones