Istanbul really is a place like no other. Spanning over two continents, the city’s exceptionally unique position is just one of the many ways Istanbul brims with juxtapositions. Although Turkey’s most-visited city exudes an eclectic modernity, the country’s deep-rooted history, culture and tradition still remains undeniable prevalent. One minute, you can be perusing European designer handbags on the high street and the next you’ll be amongst a wild flurry of colourful rugs and insistent vendors at a marketplace. Walking down the street, you can pass by the sleek glass facade of a towering high-rise on the same stretch of road as a thousand-year-old stone wall. Even the spirituality of Istanbul comes with its contrasts. The largely Muslim city is a cornucopia of exquisite mosques, with calls to prayer filling the air at every street corner. Yet, Istanbul still remains home to one of the world’s largest cathedrals (now turned museum), the Hagia Sophia, which reflects the city’s era of Orthodox Christianity. These rich contrasts are just one of the many things that make Istanbul such a fascinating place to see!With so much to see and do in this bustling and vibrant city, Istanbul has quickly become one of my favourite places to explore. I’ve narrowed down the list to my top ten things to do when visiting Istanbul!
1. Take a Ferry Ride down the Bosphorus
After spending days exploring the this sprawling city, I came to the conclusion that Istanbul is best appreciated from the river. TURYOL run ferry services costing only 12TL for an hour and a half guided tours along the Bophorus. I really didn’t realize how massive Istanbul was before going on this cruise. It was a great opportunity to see parts of the city of Istanbul I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I would definitely recommend doing the cruise at sunset- it adds that extra bit of magic to the whole experience!
2. Catch the Tram at Taksim Square
To experience the true heart of Istanbul’s modernity, head to Taksim Square. Now a major tourist hotspot, you’ll find a plethora of restaurants and cafes, hotels and high-end shops in the area to keep you entertained. If you want to kick it old-school, catch the nostalgic tram from Taksim down Istiklal. The tram runs down an insanely busy street, which means the Tram Driver spends the whole time tooting to trying to get oblivious tourists off the tracks. When we rode the tram he even let us have a go at honking the horn! Make sure you also wander down Istiklal Street in the evening, when the area transforms into a lively hub of restaurants, bars and street performers- it’s an Istanbul must-do!
3. Explore Istanbul’s most incredible monuments
The Blue Mosque
Possibly one of the most incredible buildings I’ve ever entered, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque as it is commonly known, is truly a sight to behold. This grand mosque is made up of five main domes and six slender minarets and the interior has been decorated with over 20,000 handmade tiles which are coloured blue. When visiting the Blue Mosque, you are given scarves to cover your head, but I suggest dressing modestly for your visit.
This incredible underground cistern is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The cistern, which was originally built in 532 to bring drinking water into Istanbul, was constructed using 336 columns, mostly salvaged from ruined temples. Be sure to check out the column with a magnificent-looking Medusa head on its end.
The Hagia Sophia reveals a timeline to Istanbul’s religious history. Formerly an Orthodox Cathedral from 532 to 1453, the building was then converted into a Mosque, until it became secularized in 1931 and turned into a museum. It is still technically considered to be the world’s second largest cathedral, and is a stunning display of giant domes and intricate mosaics.( Although half the building was covered by scaffolding during my visit)
Home to generations of Sultans and their wives, Topkapi Palace provides a fascinating look into the history of royals in Turkey. There is a lot to explore on the premises, including a treasury for the crown jewels.
5. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
The most-visited tourist attraction in the whole city, the Grand Bazaar is place you simply must experience during a stay in Istanbul. A never-ending hive of activity, you’ll find this marketplace overflowing with insistent locals selling everything from exquisite hand-embodied rugs to intricate silver jewelry to dazzling lanterns in every color of the rainbow. Shop owners seem to beckon from every direction, luring many in with cups of warm apple tea and samples of their delicious Turkish delight. Getting lost in this unique maze of Turkish goods may be a sensory overload, but it is an enchanting one at that.
4. Eat seafood under the Galata Bridge
If you want to eat dinner in Istanbul with a unique view, you can’t beat a seafood dinner under the Galata Bridge. Here, you’ll find a throng of slightly overpriced seafood restaurants that aren’t afraid to hassle you to get you through their doors. Skip these establishments and head straight to a local vendor, grab a fish sandwich, and enjoy unbeatable views over the shimmering Bosphorus river.
6. Delight your senses at the Spice Market
Similar to the Grand Bazaar, the spice market will overwhelm your senses from the moment you walk in. If it’s a taste of Turkey you are after, you’ve come to the right place! Here, you can purchase just about every spice under the sun, alongside delicious teas, dried fruits, nuts, candy, baklava and of course, Turkish Delight. It is the perfect spot to purchase cheap, easy and edible souvenirs. Plus- the vendors love to give out samples to lure you in, and let’s be honest- who doesn’t love free samples?
7. Visit a traditional Turkish Bathhouse
To truly immerse yourself in the culture of a country you sometimes have to get out of your comfort zone, and visiting one of Istanbul’s Hamams is the perfect way to do this. Hamams have been a Turkish tradition for thousands of years, used as both a place to socialize and a place to cleanse. Most bathhouses are separated by gender, and yes, it is normal for everyone to be walking around naked, or at least topless. A traditional Hamam experience involves transitioning through different rooms of varying temperatures, including a hot steam room and cold and hot pools. Once you reach the end, you generally receive a brisk scrub down by an attendant. Yep, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t forget in a hurry (plus, you’ll never feel cleaner)! If you are still hesitant about visiting a Hamam, check out Lonely Planet’s Guide to Istanbul’s Bathhouses.
8. Sample some of Istanbul’s finest street food
Kumpir (Baked Potato)
Kumpir is a very popular street food in Istanbul and is definitely worth sampling. A giant potato is baked, cut down the middle, then the soft insides are mixed with a generous lathering of butter and cheese, then is finished off with an endless mirage of toppings.
Corn on the cob
You can’t walk far in Istanbul without seeing the billowing smoke of a roadside vendor and the scent of freshly cooked corn. A street food classic, these vendors really know how to perfectly grill corn on the cob. It’s a perfect snack to have on-the-go… Just remember your toothpick!
Possibly one of the easiest fast foods to find in Turkey, Gözleme is a favourite among locals. Similar to a crepe, this savouryTurkish flatbread is made from hand-rolled dough and is filled with various toppings, such as cheese, meat, vegetables or potatoes, then is sealed and cooked over a griddle.
Another very popular street food, Simit lies somewhere between a pretzel and a bagel. The cheapest snack you’ll find on the streets, these circular bread are typically encrusted with sesame seeds and can be eaten plain or with preserves like jam, cream cheese or for an extra special treat, Nutella.
Dondurma (Turkish Icecream)
It may look like normal ice cream, and it may even taste like normal ice cream, but Dondurma has a texture unlike any other ice cream in the world. The ingredients used make it resistant to melting and impart a sort of chewiness to the consistency. Dondurma vendors are known for putting on spectacular shows, spinning around giant masses of ice cream on long paddles and playfully flipping customer’s cones upside down. For more, check out my post on 14 foods you must try in Turkey!
9. Drink Turkish Apple Tea with a shop owner
Tea (or çay) is a very big part of Turkish hospitality and you will find it in virtually every café, restaurant and house you go to. Along with regular cay, Turkish Apple Tea is a popular specialty and is a very sweet, delicious drink that resembles warm apple juice. Often, shopkeepers will offer tea to customers, a sign of friendship and hospitality. Make sure you say yes to the offer- doing so will give reveal to you the warmth and kindness of the Turkish people and allow you to gain a glimpse in to one of Turkey’s strongest traditions.
10. Get lost in the backstreets of Istanbul
Once you’ve ticked off your Istanbul tourist bucket list, it’s time to go a little deeper with this city. Make your way out of the touristy areas and instead, go and explore the local neighbourhoods dotted around the city. Here, you’ll be able to get a taste of genuine day-to-day life in Istanbul.
Here is a little collection of photos from my wanderings through Istanbul:
If I can leave you with a piece of advice it’s this- when visiting Istanbul, try let go of any pre-conceived ideas, expectations or plans. Instead, allow yourself to get lost in this unique and wondrous city and fully immerse yourself in the rich Turkish culture. In the end, isn’t this the essence of what travel is all about?
Have anything to add to this list of 10 things to do when visiting Istanbul? I’d love to hear in the comments below!