See Zagreb and Istanbul (On A South African Budget)

Combine the gorgeous cities of Zagreb and Istanbul for a whirlwind European experience. The magical Croatian capital is an underappreciated European wonderland, while the bustling east-meets-west metropolis of Istanbul will leave you enthralled and breathless.

You might have noticed that Turkish airlines is offering some insanely cheap flights to Istanbul and the rest of Europe lately. If you haven’t, you’ve been missing out on some amazing travel opportunities.

As South Africans, it can be hard to stomach the price of travelling through Europe, especially when you’re talking about cities like London, Vienna and Paris; they’re all beautiful, but not the most rand-friendly getaways. Luckily for us there’s now a way for you to travel to Europe and see not one but two cities, all while keeping to a tight budget, thanks to Turkish Airlines’ Touristanbul initiative,

Here’s how to do it!


Book with Travelstart to get Turkish airlines flights from Johannesburg to Croatia at R8,259 return for loads of dates in 2019. You’ll stop over in Istanbul, where you can take advantage of the TourIstanbul programme, which you can read about here. Who knows, maybe you’ll even get to experience the impressive newly-opened Istanbul airport, set to be the biggest airport in the world upon completion. Yep, even bigger than JFK or Heathrow!

Depending on layover time, some economy passengers are entitled to a night in a four star hotel in the city. If you’re not there overnight but have a good few hours to kill, there’s the option of a layover tour where you can see the sights and sounds of Istanbul. If you qualify for the layover, you’ll likely be put up for the night in the area of Sultanahmet or Beyoglu, two of the best-located neighbourhoods of Istanbul. All of this is free and comes as part of your airfare. During the tour, for example, you’ll even get free entrance to the major sights such as Hagia Sophia as well as a free meal.

If you want longer in Istanbul, you can also opt to spend a night or two there on the inbound or outbound journey by purchasing a multi-city ticket, which Travelstart can help you with.

What to Do In Istanbul

Istanbul is a sightseer’s dream, and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a short stay in the city. Here are some of the most popular places to visit. Most of the mosques and palaces are closed on Tuesdays, while the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

The Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya

Probably Istanbul’s most famous sight. A huge, majestic temple set against the Istanbul skyline, it’s hard to miss the red walls of what was the world’s biggest church for nearly a thousand years before being converted into a mosque. Hagia Sophia is now a museum detailing the incredible history of the mosque, where you can still marvel at the original carvings and portraits, huge monuments and intricate golden ceilings.

Istanbul/Ayasofya at night

Istanbul at Night
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi palace was the home of generations of Ottoman Sultans and their wives for nearly four hundred years, and became a museum in 1924. Manicured green courtyards, a glittering treasury featuring the crown jewels of the empire, collections of art, ornate Turkish baths and intricately tiled rooms make it a must-see in Istanbul. Walk to the end and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over the Sea of Marmara as well as the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn. Eat your heart out, Buckingham Palace!

The Blue Mosque

One of the few sites that is free to visit. Similar in style to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque isn’t one of the biggest but it is one of the most detailed and beautiful. Currently, there’s a lot of restoration going on which for some people can detract from the experience, but it’s still worth visiting.  It’s worth noting that you need to bring a scarf if you’re a woman as it’s an active mosque and requires your hair to be covered.

Grand Bazaar

A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a must-do for bargain hunters in Istanbul. Contrary to popular belief, the Grand Bazaar isn’t just one big tourist trap. Plenty of locals do their shopping there buying everything from carpets and leather goods to everyday items like spices, cooking ware and a multitude of other things. There’s around five thousand shops under the roof of the grand bazaar, so it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything you couldn’t find here. If you want to bring home souvenirs, jewellery or even a gorgeous leather bag, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go. Be sure to take note of where you entered the Grand Bazaar – it’s a crowded maze of stalls, smells, and sounds; ‘organised chaos’ is a gentle way of describing it! Remember that negotiating on price is expected, so don’t be shy!

Where to stay – Istanbul

For first time visitors to Istanbul, Sultanahmet is the best area to base yourself. Though it quietens down at night, it’s close to all of the major attractions and means you can easily walk around between them. It’s also easy to navigate and has plenty of public transport options nearby including trams and metro stations.

If you’ve visited before or are visiting for a long period, you may want to consider Beyoglu, a more local neighbourhood with plenty of nightlife and restaurants. It’s across the river, meaning a tram ride is necessary to reach Sultanahmet for sightseeing. It’s R6 or so for a ride on the tram, but they can get crowded in peak times.

What To Do In Zagreb

Taste wine

Set in a 200 year old cellar near the Zagreb Cathedral is Bornstein, the city’s oldest wine bar. Inside it houses a small wine shop as well as a little bar; a tasting there is special experience thanks to the passionate and knowledgeable owners. Croatian wine is some of the best and cheapest on offer in Europe, and their red varietals are especially good. You can opt for ‘the usuals’ like merlot or a good cabernet sauvignon, or you can go for the local varieties…who knows, maybe you’ll discover the Croatian version of South Africa’s pinotage.

Take Photos From The Zagreb Skyscraper

Based just off the main square of Ban Jelacic, the Zagreb Skyscraper offers a bar and restaurant with 360 degree panoramic views from the city’s tallest building. Take the ride up to the top floor and walk around, taking in the sights of the business district to the bottom, the beautiful old town, the lower town and main square and the residential suburbs. From the Skyscraper you have unobstructed views of St Mark’s Square and the Zagreb Cathedral.

Visit a Museum

Zagreb has more museums per capita than anywhere else in the world; and they’re not just boring, stuffy museums either. There’s the world-famous museum of broken relationships, as well as the kid-friendly museum of illusions.

Day trip to Plitvice

Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of Croatia’s most beautiful places and – dare we say it – one of the most beautiful places in the world. A huge national park full of waterfalls, forests and wooden bridges linking bright turquoise and emerald lakes and streams, it’s stunning in every season. In winter, the water often freezes over to create waterfalls that are frozen in time, as if someone had simply wandered in and pressed the pause button. In autumn you’ll see the lakes contrasted against shades of red, yellow and orange hues and in spring and summer, there’s brilliant sunshine and gorgeously clear waters, making it beautiful for hiking. Plitvice is an absolute wonderland only two hours from Zagreb, and is definitely a one of Croatia’s must-do’s.


Plitvice Lakes, two hours outside Zagreb
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

Day Trip to Lake Bled, Slovenia

Yep, that’s right! If you’re feeling ambitious you can even fit in a third European country on your trip! The atmospheric capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana is only a two-hour drive from Zagreb. It’s then a short drive on to Lake Bled, which is one of the most picturesque places you’ll ever see in your life, particularly when the mountains develop snowy peaks in the winter months.

Where to stay – Zagreb

The best area to stay in Zagreb is Donji Grad, or Lower Town. Bed and Breakfast or traditional guesthouses are more limited than apartments, but there are a few around such as Regal Residence, right in the pedestrian zone of Zagreb.

Otherwise, there are a selection of good three, four and five star hotels; Jagerhorn Hotel is a good three-star option in a convenient area, but Esplanade Hotel is a fantastic deal for the five-star luxury that it offers. Plus, the spread at breakfast is so enticing (think bottomless champagne, endless smoked salmon and freshly squeezed orange juice) that you’ll probably not need to eat again until dinner! Or if you prefer the comforts of home, you can choose one of the many apartments on offer in the centre. Some are tiny bachelor flats, others are huge and luxurious modern penthouses.

zagreb esplanade hotel

Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb
Photo credit: @pencilandpolaroid via Instagram

If you really want to cut costs or are travelling alone and fancy meeting new people there’s an abundance of hostels in Zagreb; a great option is Taban hostel which sits right at the top of the vibrant Tkalčićeva street.

Have you visited Turkey or Croatia recently? Share your experiences in the comments section below!


All information on this blog page was correct at the time of publishing and may change at any time without prior notice. Travelstart will not be held liable for loss or inconvenience resulting from the use of out-dated or incorrectly noted information.

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