“If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
My hometown of Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents; it’s the perfect blend of both Asia and Europe, with an Asian side that’s full of ethnic vibes and exotic, colorful bazaars and a European side that’s newer, more modern and hip.
During its more than 2,000-year history, Istanbul has been the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Now Turkey’s most important city from a cultural and economic perspective, it’s also the fifth-largest city in the world by population. It’s a city that offers something unlike anything I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world, and I’m excited to share my favorite places and bits of travel wisdom with you, below.
- Public transportation is the cheapest way to get around Istanbul. Buses and metro have extensive routes.
- Be sure to take the ferry while crossing between Asia and Europe. Not only will you avoid the traffic, but you’ll also experience amazing views of the city from the Marmara Sea. In fact, these ferry rides paired with Turkish tea and Turkish simit (a kind of bread similar to a bagel or a pretzel) are a must try!
- Taxis are an option if you’re short on time. While a little bit more expensive than public transportation, taxis in Turkey are cheaper compared to taxi fares in the U.S.
WHAT TO SEE
The iconic Bosphorus Bridge that flows through the middle of the city brings Asia and Europe together. As soon as I see the bridge, I know that I’m home.
In Sultanahmet district, you’ll find the can’t-miss sights of Istanbul, including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Yerebatan Cistern.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) is named for its 20,000 richly hued, Iznik tiles that were hand crafted by the Ottoman Empire’s best artisans. Admire the shimmering blue tiles, the stained glass windows and Muslims praying.
A tip: Go at 8am to avoid the crowds. The entrance is free, but make sure you are dressed appropriately (modest and conservative with easily removable shoes) when you visit. Also, keep in mind that it is closed for tourists during the praying hours.
The biggest dome in the world is the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) and it’s the perfect fusion of Islam and Christianity. The cathedral was built when Istanbul was known as Constantinople, so you can see and learn a lot about Istanbul’s history here.
When Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. But because of Islam’s respect for other religions, the Ottomans did not entirely destroy the Christian paintings and mosaics. They covered them with only stucco. This ancient cathedral was transformed into a museum and you can visit it any day. It’s an interesting mix of both religions.
The cobbled Sogukçesme Street is lined with 19th century Ottoman row houses and sandwiched between the Hagia Sophia and the exterior courtyard walls of Topkapi Palace.
A tip: This is a popular street on which to snap great photos!
The Topkapi Palace will give you a glimpse into the life and mystique of the Sultans and their harems, including the notorious 85-karat Kasikci Diamond which is the biggest diamond in the world.
Built in 1465, this is one of the oldest palaces in the world and was used as a government center and residency for 400 years by Ottoman Sultans and their dynasty. Be sure to spend at least 3-4 hours here wandering the party rooms, the bedrooms of the wives and concubines, and the praying rooms.
A tip: Nearby, there is also a wonderful hill where you can see the Bosporus, Marmara Sea, Golden Horn and other highlights of the city.
The Yerebatan Cistern is a cool, underground venue that was built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Here you’ll spot ancient fortress walls, Byzantine basilicas, celebrated shrines, Christian relics and peristyle courtyards. Try to catch a concert or film screening, too!
The charming little tower known as Maiden’s Tower is located on a small island in the middle of the sea. It was built by Byzantine General Alcibiades in 408AD to control the Persian ships entering the Bosphorus. It’s a symbol of the city that everybody wants to take a picture in front of.
The construction of Dolmabahce Palace cost the Ottoman Empire 35 tons of gold, making it its largest and most exclusive palace. Be sure to see the bohemian crystal chandelier in the ceremony hall and the deluxe treasures of the Ottomans including different kinds of gold art, paintings and carpets.
One of the things you have to experience in Istanbul are the world-famous Turkish baths called hammams. Make sure you visit a traditional, old bath like Çemberlitas, Süleymaniye or Haseki Hürrem Sultan.
The Galata Bridge is an important symbol of Istanbul and has an important place in the daily life of the city, as well as in its literature and popular culture. With restaurants, cafes and hookah lounges underneath and the tram and pedestrian traffic passing above, the bridge offers a splendid view of the city, particularly in the evening.
A tip: I recommend getting fish and bread at the end of the bridge. Fresh, cooked in front of you is a must in this area, along with the sunset.
The views from the Galata Tower are incredible. It’s one of the few places in Istanbul that gives you a 360 degree view of the city. This touristy area is a fashionable, bohemian zone with lots of trendy boutiques.
Located at the edge of the Bosphorus, the Ortakoy Mosque (Grand Imperial Mosque) is the first baroque designed mosque in the world. You’ve probably seen a photo of this mosque with the Bosphorus Bridge in the background. Don’t forget to explore the Ortakoy area surrounding the mosque, which is one of my favorite neighborhoods.
A tip: Kumpir is a popular food you have to try here. House Café at Ortakoy is one my recent favorites.
Built in Ottoman Padishah Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s reign in 1452 in order to control the Bosphorus, the Rumelian Castle Fortress (Rumeli Hisari) is located on the European shore of the Bosphorus and in the northernmost district of Istanbul.
Enjoy the Bosporus’s wonderful view, especially in the springtime. Walk through the inside of the castle and take a picture with beautiful blooming flowers.
Take the Bosphorus cruise to the Black Sea: Whether you choose the Southern or Northern route, you’ll see unbelievable views of the city from the water including most of the attractions listed above and many more. It generally takes an hour and a half, starts either on Sirkeci (close to Sultanahmet) or Ortakoy.
NEIGHBORHOODS TO EXPLORE
Taksim (Istiklal Caddesi) is the most vivid neighborhood in Istanbul. Istiklal Caddesi is a very long street where you can see many different types of stores, old buildings, restaurants, business centers, street musicians and street vendors. Try to find the French Street, which is a very charming street filled with nice restaurants and winehouses.
When you return to Istiklal and keep going through the end, you will come to another historical area called Tunel & Asmalimescit. Bars, restaurants, concert venues and bookstores are the highlights of this area. Some restaurant and bar suggestions are: Babylon, Vida Pera, Nu Teras.
On both sides of the Bosphorus Strait are a growing number of art galleries, cultural centers, food stands, restaurants and unique shops.
Two must see museums are the Istanbul Modern at Tophane and Sabanci Museum at Emirgan. Istanbul Modern is very close to Taksim. The museum cafe is one of my favorite spots in Istanbul with an amazing view. Sabanci Museum at Emirgan has a great view also and it’s very close to Rumeli Hisari.
PLACES TO SHOP
The Grand Bazaar used to be the center of Ottoman commerce. It lays on 80 streets and houses 4,000 merchants selling silk, Turkish carpets, dazzling gemstones, lush fabrics and glittering treasures and trinkets.
According to rumors, this is the first shopping mall in the world. It is very big, so make sure you always stay with a friend. You can find everything here, from clothes and jewelry to souvenirs and food.
The Spice Bazaar smells so good that you won’t want to leave. From tea and spices to sweet desserts, you will find them all here. Merchants are extremely friendly and they will give you a lot of things to taste, but still — make sure you bargain with them before you buy anything. It is a Turkish habit.
If you’d like to do some shopping outside of the bazaars, strut along the posh streets and alleyways of Nisantasi, a 15-20 minute walk from Taksim Square. Lots of shops and fancy restaurants in the area, including Kanyon, Istinye Park, and Trump Tower.
- Cihangir is a 5-10 minute walk from Taksim Square, and is known as the arts district of Istanbul. You’ll see many renown artists and writers hanging out here and working in this area.
- Bagdat Avenue is the most popular attraction for shopping and dining on the Anatolia side.
WHERE TO STAY
Four Seasons Hotel At The Bospherous: Trendy, modern and luxurious hotel with stunning views across the Bospherous strait.
Empress Zoe: A charming old Turkish style boutique hotel on a private archeological garden that borders the ruins of an ancient Turkish Bath House built in 1483. Very close to the blue mosque.
A’jia Hotel: A traditional Ottoman mansion that jewels the Asian shores of the Bosphorus.
WHERE TO EAT
Leb-i Derya: Try traditional Turkish mezes paired with Turkish raki. We call this the lion’s milk since it looks like milk, but is actually a very strong, alcoholic drink. There are thousands of tavernas in Turkey, but whichever one you choose, be sure to try a sip.
360Istanbul: Located on the top floor of a historic building in Taksim, this place offers stunning views over the city. A little pricey, it’s but worth stopping by, even for drinks.
Get traditional Turkish breakfast at the Kale Café at Rumeli Hisari.
Get baklava at Karakoy Gulluoglu, one of the best baklava spots in Istanbul.
Try Turkish manti at Casita Cafe in Bebek. There are buses from Taksim to Bebek, but you can take a cab for 15-20TL if it is not rush hour.
Giritli: Food is local and cheap gypsy bands will play loudly as you gaze downstream into the shimmering Sea of Marmara.
For a fancy restaurant & club with an amazing night view of Bosphorus also try Reina, located in Ortakoy, on the banks of the Bosphorus with three restaurants on its terraces.
Have you been to Istanbul? What did you enjoy most while there?
Images via Morgan Ashley Photography