Occupying an enviable position between Europe and Asia, with the Bosporus River meandering through it, Istanbul is a melting pot of all things history, culture and entertainment. Ravaged by wars and natural disasters for many years, Istanbul is now a cosmopolitan city with a heady concoction of modern day luxuries and glimpses of its volatile past.
Consequently, there is no dearth of sightseeing delights in this rich city, and with the Turkish Lira dropping to an all time low this year, tourism has increased manifold. If you’re headed to Istanbul anytime soon, this comprehensive list of things to do and places to see will guarantee some unique experiences on your holiday.
Places Of Worship
Hagia Sophia (Popular)
Possibly one of most famous mosques in the world, the Hagia Sophia is usually the first thing tourists see on their visit. With its four pillars and discernible dome, the mosque cum museum marks the confluence of Christian and Muslim religions. A landmark symbol of Istanbul’s skyline, Hagia Sophia blends beauty, history, luxury and religion together magnificently.
Blue Mosque (Recommended)
An architectural masterpiece, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque takes the name Blue Mosque from the azure tiles inlaid in its structure. Its six minarets pierce the similarly hued sky, best seen bright and early in the morning. Design junkies will especially like the intricate designs of the blue tiles that line the walls.
Perched on a hilltop, the formidable Suleymaniye Mosque is said to be watching over the city. Its staggering size is what appeals to visitors the most, as do the ornate interiors and general calm that pervades its open grounds. The mosque has stood the test of time, and is a symbol of Istanbul’s architecture and history.
Ortakoy Mosque (Offbeat)
Located right on the river bank on the European side of the city, the Ortakoy Mosque is a subtler version of Istanbul’s grander mosques. It is also said to have the best locale around, in the bustling Ortakoy village, home to numerous cafes, eateries, clubs and stores. After your visit, you can settle down on the riverbank with a cold Turkish ice cream or a hot cup of Turkish tea and watch the boats go by on the Bosporus.
Topkapi Palace (Popular)
The imposing entrance of the Topkapi Palace is only the first look at what is a multi-hued, ornate historical monument situated on a small hill. Home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the palace cum museum has four open-air courtyards, landscaped grounds and small exhibition centers where sacred texts, weaponry and other symbols of its rich history are on display. Thousands of tourists are said to visit the palace annually, so expect long queues during peak season.
A luxurious blend of numerous architectural styles, the Dolmabahce Palace was another administrative seat of the Ottoman Empire after the Topkapi Palace. Nothing about this palace is toned down – not the world’s largest crystal chandelier, or the 14 tons of gold leafing, or the handmade silk carpets. A visit to this palace will give you a taste of what Turkish luxury truly stands for.
A toned down version of the Dolmabahce Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace is also a riverside structure, but on the Asian side of the city. A pristine white marble exterior envelops a fountain, marble pool, manicured garden and many understated yet opulent rooms. Once the summer residence of the Sultans, the palace is now frequented for its beauty and grandeur.
Bosporus Bridge (Popular)
For a city split in two, especially between two continents, a connecting bridge can become quite a fanciful spot. Put yourself right in between Asia and Europe with a drive down the Bosporus Bridge, a suspension bridge that is the crowning glory of Istanbul. The LED lights come on at night, creating a visual spectacle for ardent photographers. Walking on the bridge is prohibited, but you can take a slow drive across it.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge
The Second Bosporus Bridge, as it’s commonly referred to, is another steel suspension motorway bridge in the main city. A little further from the Bosporus Bridge, this one was built to bear the traffic-increase in the city. From here, you can get some great photographs of not only the river and its studded banks, but also the twinkling Bosporus Bridge.
Finally, a bridge that allows you to walk across the Bosporus! This busy two-level bridge lacks the splendor of the two former bridges, but is a popular local attraction nevertheless. Besides the pedestrian walkways, there are pathways for automobiles as well as trams on the top level, and small eateries on the lower level. Vendors, shoe shiners and fishermen often line the edge of the top level, increasing the buzz on the bridge.
Basilica Cistern (Popular)
Venture into the underground mysteries of ancient Istanbul on your visit to the cool confines of the Basilica Cistern, right below bustling streets. The largest of its kind, this cave-like duct is like a hidden palatial world that was once a major water reservoir. Innumerable thick columns hold up the arched ceiling, as you walk below it on raised pathways with water underneath.
Fancy a 360-degree view of Istanbul? Ride the elevator up to Galata Tower, a brick structure that peeks over its surroundings. Once hailed the tallest structure in Istanbul, the tower has a balcony for visitors, which is said to offer the best view at sunset. The balcony can get crowded, so head there by late afternoon to grab a comfortable vantage spot.
Hippodrome Of Constantinople
An ancient sporting arena that once hosted chariot races, the Hippodrome is now an open public square and meeting spot. Architectural remnants of statues, staircases and galleries have been preserved, while certain areas have been landscaped to accommodate the crowds that gather here. It’s a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing.
Standing tall in Sultanahmet Square and adorning the Hippodrome is the Egyptian Obelisk – all 65 feet of it in glistening pink granite. The well maintained structure has clear pictograms on all four sides depicting a monumental battle victory from history. You can see the elaborately carved marble base up close and also enjoy street performances that often liven up the atmosphere of the square.
Walls Of Constantinople
The ancient city of Constantinople had many stone walls stretching for miles, but wars and natural disasters have only left about 5.5 km of this stretch that once served as an impenetrable shield during wars. Nevertheless, the wall, with its many gates is a fascinating structure to see.
Valens Aqueduct (Recommended)
Resembling a towering two-level horizontal wall of arches, the Valens Aqueduct was once a structure of utmost importance to transport water to the Byzantium city of Constantinople. The stone and brick structure is not operational anymore, but offers a beautiful sight for vehicles passing through its lower arches on Ataturk Boulevard.
Maiden’s Tower (Offbeat)
Steeped in history and backed by many legends, Maiden’s Tower is a beautiful structure bobbing in a small islet in the Bosporus off the Asian side of Istanbul. Currently housing a high-end restaurant, the tower offers striking views of the Bosporus as well as that of the city, especially at night. Prior booking for the restaurant as well as shuttle boats is required.
Grand Bazaar (Recommended)
No mention of Istanbul is complete without the Grand Bazaar. A covered shopping arcade spread across alleyways bursting with wares on both sides, the 15th century marketplace is a maze of about 4000 shops selling mosaic glass lanterns, carpets, spices, confectionary, and local finds like evil-eye adornments, Turkish towels and olive oil soaps. Keep your bags empty; you’re not leaving here empty-handed!
One step into Istanbul’s Spice Market and you’re ambushed by a wave of sights and smells emanating from the mounds of spices, both Turkish and otherwise. Besides heady flavor enhancers, you can stock up on fruity teas, dry fruits, oriental body oils, Turkish Delight and Baklava. The best part is that they let you can taste the goods on sale!
Istiklal Avenue (Popular)
Istanbul’s famous entertainment and shopping street, Istiklal Avenue is a shopper’s haunt for local and international brands. From clothing to books, you’ll find a lot of unique items here to take back home with you. Be sure to check the narrow side streets as well. You can wind up your evening with a stiff drink at one of its many fun pub joints.
Abdi Ipekci Caddesi
If high-end labels are on your mind, make your way to the Abdi Ipecsi Street for its glittering stores and luxury labels. The neighborhood is quite elegant, with shopping brands to match. Besides global giants like Louis Vuitton and Cartier, you’ll find some exquisite boutiques by local designers. The neighboring Tesvikiye Caddesi has the slightly inexpensive global brands, if you’re on the lookout for fashion that’s easy on the pocket.
Istanbul Archaeology Museums
A collective of three buildings – Archaeology Museum, Ancient Orient Museum and Islamic Art Museum – this brilliant complex offers a comprehensive look at Turkey’s deep and sometimes dark history. Statues, exhibits and paintings from the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman civilizations are rare and exquisite enough to satisfy the inquisitiveness of all kinds of history buffs.
The dusty red exterior of the Kariye Museum and Chora Church is testimony to Istanbul’s ravaged past. Originally only a holy church, this structure now houses a beautiful museum that takes visitors through its journey via striking frescoes and mosaics. Design and history lovers can get their creative fix here.
Istanbul Modern (Recommended)
Istanbul is quite a melting pot of cultures, and this translates heavily into creative, contemporary and modern art. Istanbul Modern gives visitors a glimpse into the creative minds of today and their interpretations via photos, videos, technology, 3D visuals and installations. In the last 15 years, this private museum has become quite a hub for new and established artists, and has hosted some incredible exhibitions that appeal to art aficionados as well as novices.
A newbie on the museum front, Pera is just about 15 years old, but its exquisite collection doesn’t disappoint. High profile permanent and temporary exhibitions are regularly held at this museum cum cultural centre, besides a handful of film and lecture programs. Pera is also home to the famous Turkish painting ‘The Tortoise Trainer’ by Osman Hamdi Bey, a big draw for art lovers.
Museum of Innocence (Offbeat)
The Museum of Innocence was once just a figment of prominent Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s imagination, but it’s managed to go from paper to real life in a matter of years. You can find objects from Pamuk’s novel of the same name, besides symbols of 1970s Istanbul in which Pamuk grew up. Situated on a quiet street in a quaint 19th century building, the museum is unlike any other you may have seen before.
Bosporus Dinner Cruise
Sail along the soft currents of the Bosporus Strait that puts you bang in the middle of two continents. Allow yourself to be off the location grid for four hours, with twinkling city lights and looming monuments to guide the way. Dinner cruises are held on large yachts, which slowly sail past prominent sights, including lavish homes and brightly lit nightclubs along the banks. A multi-course Turkish spread is offered on board, along with folk performances and music.
Taksim Square (Popular)
One of the most popular entertainment areas in the city, Taksim Square is a busy public square that extends to a walking street. Find yourself mesmerized by the fashionably dressed locals, tourists spilling out of street cafes and restaurants and flashy disco lights. You’ll find street musicians every few paces and friendly locals quite willing to help direct you to the best party joints. The neighboring Istiklal Street is equally lively, and you can easily hop between the two on a night out.
Unlike the jumble of bars and clubs in Taksim Square, Ortakoy has a handful of options that tip the price scale a bit. Turkey’s most prominent citizens and personalities from around the globe come here to party, so expect to pay more than usual for your food and drinks. Clubs like Sortie, Anjelique and Supper Club are extremely popular. During the day, the quaint villages along the river banks are worth a visit.
Whirling Dervish Show (Offbeat)
Mystical poets or Sufis (dervishes) seek conversations with God through music, chanting, prayers and a unique whirling dance. A common sight in Turkey, dervishes put up regular performances for tourists at various venues across the city. The enamoring dance is quite a humbling experience and an insight into the spiritual side of the Turkish. The Hodjapasha is a popular cultural venue that regularly hosts these evening performances, besides traditional Turkish dances and belly dance shows.
A huge park known primarily for its floral arrangements, Emirgan Park sits on a sloped hill with a small tea joint right at the top. You can stroll along the pathways lined on both sides with flowers, or simply admire the artificial waterfalls and abundant flora and fauna.
Yildiz Park (Popular)
Originally a hunting ground, the Yildiz Park was re-landscaped into the magnificent green jungle it is today. It’s the perfect place for family picnics or simply some peace and quiet after a hectic day of sightseeing. A river runs through it, with wooden crossover bridges, and it also has waterfalls, walkways, playgrounds and tiny cafes.
Belgrad Forest (Recommended)
Take a short drive out of the city for a hiking trip in the wooded stretch of the Belgrad Forest. A thriving ground for varied plant and animal species, the forest has walking, jogging and cycling tracks, a central lake, shaded picnic spots and even a small cafe. The dense vegetation transports you to the tranquility and earthiness of the natural world and is a great escape from the more urban areas of Istanbul.
Miniaturk Park (Offbeat)
As the name suggests, this park is a miniature version of Turkey, complete with shrunken versions of the airport, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, among other popular landmarks from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. There are over 100 scaled-down models, intricately detailed and easily comparable with the life size versions.
An archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, the Princes’ Islands or Adalar is a popular getaway for locals, to leave the bustling city behind. Four of the nine small islands are open to the public, each with its own history and vibe. Devoid of motor vehicles, the island can be covered either by horse carriage or rented bicycles, or simply on foot. Walking through the narrow, peaceful streets with colonial-style homes and cottages on either side is a serene experience.
Scrub Your Weariness Away At A Traditional Hamam (Offbeat)
Venturing into a steamy Turkish bath, while leaving your inhibitions behind, is an experience you shouldn’t miss. The therapeutic session is usually held inside the Sultan’s traditional bathing room, usually laid in marble and tiles with huge overhead domes. There are separate chambers for men and women, but it can be slightly daunting to have to walk in topless. Take a few minutes to get comfortable, just as everyone else around you will be. Pay a little more to have an attendant scrub you clean, which is quite a common practice. Leave a tip.
Tuck Into Sweet And Savory Turkish Delicacies (Recommended)
Turkey is synonymous with food; everywhere you go, you’ll see the locals gathering over meals, street food carts selling mouth watering treats and food bazaars selling extraordinary ingredients. To eat in the company of locals, head to the street carts selling Simit (sesame covered pretzel) Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels), Balil Ekmek (fish sandwich) or Kimpir (baked potato with toppings). Wash it all down with some Turkish tea or Ayran (yoghurt drink).
If you’re dining at a restaurant, you can try the Mezze (cold appetizer), Doner (meat sandwich), Lahmacun (Turkish pizza) or Kofte (meatballs). For dessert, besides the Baklava and Turkish Delight, you can try some creamy Turkish ice cream or the one-of-a-kind Tavuk Gogsu (chicken breast pudding).
Puff Away At A Hookah Bar (Offbeat)
Call it what you want – Hookah, Shisha or the local Nargile – but the experience of smoking the Turkish water pipe is mandatory when you’re in Istanbul. Best experienced in the company of locals, with some piping hot tea, the 400-year-old tradition is largely considered a relaxing activity by natives. There are hookah parlors offering unique flavors almost everywhere in the city, but the area of Tophane is considered a Hookah hub.
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