Istanbul is currently number one on TripAdvisor’s “Top 25 Destinations in the World”, so our expectations were high for our first visit to Turkey’s largest city. Sometimes it’s hard for a destination to live up to the hype but in Istanbul we weren’t disappointed. Modern and ancient, European and Asian—it is a completely unique place in the world.
Istanbul is exotic but we felt safe, and it has great tourist infrastructure. The sights and experience below are all within walking distance of each other, or easily accessible with public transit. There is such an abundance of things to see and do, that no matter how much time you have, it will not be enough. To get you started, here are 10 things you will love about Istanbul:
1. Turkish Hospitality
“Come in, sit down, have some tea…you are at home now.” said our host as we arrived at the Oba Hotel in the Sultanahmet District. Throughout our stay Turkish hospitality was outstanding…and often involved tea.
The Oba Hotel is a boutique hotel in a former mansion, walking distance to many of the major sites, yet in a calm historic neighbourhood. Our host was also able to book our Bosphorus cruise for us cheaper than we could on our own.
Oh, and if you want to remember how to say “thank you” in Turkish, just say “tea, sugar, a dream” (teşekkür ederim).
2. The Hagia Sophia
A definite must-see—Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD, and is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. For nearly a thousand years it was the world’s largest cathedral, then was a mosque, and now is a museum. We spent hours inside and it was a highlight of our trip. See more about the Hagia Sophia here.
3. The Blue Mosque
Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this is another must-see for it’s impressive domed interior, beautiful tiles and stained glass windows. It can be visited in about an hour as there is limited access to non-muslims. (dress modestly, bring socks as you must remove your shoes, women bring a scarf to cover hair)
4. Take a Bosphorus Cruise
Istanbul occupies a unique place on the Bosphorus strait, which forms part of the boundary between Europe and Asia. I highly recommend taking one of the Bosphorus cruises to see beautiful views of the city from the water, and colourful mansions and summer cottages on the waterfront. We actually got a cheaper rate by booking through our hotel.
If you don’t take one of the tourist cruises, you can still view the city from the water by taking one of the frequent, inexpensive ferries from the European to the Asian side.
5. Topkapi Palace
This fifteenth century palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years. There is much to see here with the palace itself, great views of the Bosphorus, and displays of Ottoman treasures and jewelry. There is an extra fee to visit the Harem, but worth seeing in my opinion.
6. Basilica Cistern
For a unique experience, go see the Basilica Cistern, which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. Don’t miss the two Medusa heads. (How did they end up there?) It looks like a movie set, and in fact was a location for the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.
7. Visit a Haman (Turkish bath)
I saw this on a list of “things to do before you die”, so we went way out of our comfort zone, and got scrubbed (and I mean scrubbed!) from head to toe (literally) at a historic haman. Definitely a unique and Turkish experience.
8. Strolling through Taksim Square
This is modern Istanbul, where locals gather for both celebrations and demonstrations. Off the main square is a pedestrian street with numerous shops, restaurants, and street performers.
9. Bargaining in the Grand Bazaar
Touristy for sure, but still a must see for it’s size, colour and atmosphere. We found the merchants to be persuasive, but friendly and with a sense of humour. The area just outside the Grand Bazaar is also fascinating, with delivery men carrying heavy loads of merchandise to the shops on the steep streets, and others carrying trays of tea to seal the deal. Also be sure to check out the spice market near the New Mosque for Turkish delight, gold and jewelry, dried fruits and nuts, and of course, spices.
10. Eating Turkish Food
I loved the food in Turkey! There is great street food and fast food, including simit (a bagel-like chewy bread covered with sesame seeds), doner kebab, pide (Turkish pizza), and fresh squeezed pomegranate juice. The meals we ate were all delicious, well-presented and good value, with tasty meats, fish and vegetables including eggplant, peppers, and other local produce. For dessert there is heavenly pistachio baklava, and to bring home for gifts, Turkish Delight.
If you go
Istanbul is a very hilly city, so wear comfortable shoes. Consider the hotel location if walking steep hills are a problem. Hotels closer to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are at the top of the hill and won’t require quite as much hill walking as the hotels close to the water. However, you will be rewarded if you don’t mind the hills, as those areas have a more calm and authentic Istanbul neighbourhood feel.
Have you been to Istanbul?
I would love to hear your favorite Istanbul experience. Tea, sugar, a dream!
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