Istanbul is famous for its historic buildings and magnificent Ottoman palaces, and there is plenty to do besides marvelling at architecture as well. If you’re planning a city break to Istanbul and you’re not sure where to start, we’ve put together a manageable agenda of not-to-miss sights and best places to grab a bite – as well as some top tips to help you breeze through the city like a local. For an authentic place to stay on your trip, check out our range of Istanbul apartments.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
So called for its interior of thousands of dazzling blue tiles, Istanbul’s most famous attraction, the Blue Mosque can be found on Sultanahmet Square. The mosque is still a place of prayer, so be sure to cover up (arms, neckline and legs) appropriately when you visit. A good time to go is Sunday morning, between 7am and 12.30pm, when the mosque opens but before the bulk of the crowds arrive.
The Süleymaniye Mosque
If you want to skip the crowds of the Blue Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque is lesser known but equally impressive. More than just a place of worship, it’s a complex of buildings containing a hospital, a school and kitchens.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)
Another architectural wonder and one of the world’s most iconic buildings, the Hagia Sophia was a church in the Constantine Empire, a mosque in Ottoman Empire, and now it’s a museum. The building itself is most famous for its Byzantine mosaic interior and for its impressive domes, and is often compared to the Alhambra in Spain. Climb up the spiral ramp to get to the gallery – the most beautiful part of the building and if you want to skip the queues, take a tour for YTL30. If you’re visiting around lunch time, the Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi a few doors down is well-priced and always packed – popular with the local Turks.
Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan)
Open daily 9am-6.30pm; YTL10/£3.50
The Basilica Cistern is a remarkable piece of Byzantine engineering – an ancient underground water cistern, once used for transporting drinking water from Bulgaria to Istanbul. With columns recycled from the ruins of other buildings, and decorated with carved Medusa heads, it’s no wonder this atmospheric site has been used as a popular location for spectacular action films such as James Bond’s From Russia with Love. The combination of still pools of water, dimmed coloured lighting and classical music give the cistern at once both a romantic and slightly creepy feel.
Open 9am-4.30pm, closed Mon/Thur; YTL20/£7
The Dolmabahce Palace (boasting the second largest chandelier in the world) is said to have all the opulence of Topkapi, but with the added benefit of a free harem tour – and comparably fewer crowds. The palace is the site of Turkey’s transition from Empire to Republic.
Boat Cruise down the Bosphorus Strait
One much-recommended Istanbul activity is to take a ferry ride along the Bosphorus. It’s a good way to get a feel for the city’s culture and the reason for its prestige throughout the centuries. There are two options:
- Take a half-day cruise from the Eminönü dock that takes you the full length of the water way and down to the mouth of the Black Sea – a nice option if the weather is good, and you have the time, or
- Opt for the less expensive one hour ferry from the landing behind the Ortaköy mosque, that will talk you half-way up the strait.
The Grand Bazaar is a must-visit when in Istanbul. A maze of alleyways laden with stalls, it can be quite overwhelming but a fantastic experience. Despite being a popular location for tourists, the locals most definitely still shop here. Browse an array of Ottoman carpets, hundreds of handmade gifts and trinkets and drink tea with the shopkeepers as you bargain. Our advice: come with a limited amount of money to spend and a list of specific things in mind, and stick to it.
The Spice Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar is located opposite the ferry docks and is essentially a spice, nut and dried fruit version of the Grand Bazaar – a great place to pick up some fresh ingredients for dinner, and flavoursome treats for afterwards.
Walking across the Galata bridge will give you a great insight into Turkish culture – street vendors and fishermen line the streets either side and locals flock the bridge night and day. We recommend walking the bridge in the sunset for some spectacular views down the river.
Located along the banks of the Bosphorus, and one of the largest parks in Istanbul, Emirgan is a beautiful spot of calm in the city centre.
Istiklal Caddesi Avenue
This is the beating heart of the city – stretching 1.4km, from the main square of Taksim, to the historic Galata, the street is lined with cafes, shops, restaurants, bars and art galleries and Ottoman-era buildings. For a good walking tour of Istanbul, we recommend taking a hike from the Eminonu ferry port, across Galata Bridge, heading towards the Tower, then continue north to Istiklal Caddesi street.
Ride the Funicular
If you feel like you’ve done enough walking already, then riding the funicular railway will give you a good rest from Istanbul’s hills, providing a great insight into the history’s past – the Tünel line is the second oldest underground metro line in the world.
Visit a Turkish Bath (Hammam)
Visiting a Hammam is a truly unforgettable experience, providing a brilliant insight into Turkish culture. With so many dotted around the city, which should you visit? Çemberlitaş Hamamı is all about the classic hamam experience. Sentinus Wellness & Spa at the Hilton Istanbul Bosphorus provides more of a pampering experience with over 50 different treatments. If you’re looking for more information, check out Lonely Planet’s guide to Istanbul’s Hamman. We recommend opting for the body scrub and massage.
Hodjapasha Dance Theatre is the place go to place for ‘Whirling Dervish’ and belly dance performances – for the latter we recommend the energetic istanbulin show that will get you wanting to jump up and join in.
- Nardis – situated in Galata, and owned by jazz guitarist Önder Focan
- Nublu – with a sister branch in New York this cool cat jazz bar is run by saxophonist İlhan Erșahin
- Kadife Sokak – found in Kadıköy sits on the Asian side of the river and is a grittier and cheaper alternative to the trendy tourist bars of the city
- Babylon – still considered Istanbul’s best live-music venue
- Dogzstar – a small neighborhood club in Beyoklu with a relaxed vibe and renowned DJ
- The Nu Club – an intimate basement club, popular with the locals
- Akbiyik Caddesi – known as the “Avenue of the White Moustache” famous for its after dark scene, here you will find Riddim – a great place for cheap drinks with a cool vibe
- Ghetto – with a great selection of contemporary music and set in a converted Bakery, Ghetto is where the cool kids go
- Mikla, X Bar and Leb-i Derya – three of the best rooftop bars in the city district of Bey.
- Lades Restaurant – Turkish omelettes and excellent soups
- Istanbul Modern Restaurant – Turkish pizza and pasta, and excellent views
- Kantin – Great selection of Mezes
- Hacibabarest – with a peaceful terrace with views of the Greek Orthodox church
- Çiya Sofrasi – one of Istanbul’s most acclaimed eateries, on the Asian side
- Cinaralti Cafe – sea-view cafe
- Antiochia – at once both smart and rustic, with an extensive menu
- Tarihi Karakoy Balik Lokantasi – small fresh fish restaurant
- Mikla Restaurant in Hotel Marmara Pera – view over the rooftops
- Meze by the Lemon Tree – a popular chain, great for entertainment
- Hamdi Restaurant – situated by the Süleymaniye Mosque, with a great view
- Albura Kathisma – great food with a maze of dimly lit vaults and dank underground tunnels beneath, which formed part of the Magnaura (senate building) during the Byzantine era, lie beneath (ask the waiters for a tour)
- Cankurtaran Caddesi – near the Blue Mosque – great for seafood
- Get your a visa sorted online before you go
- Remember to pack some ‘cover up clothing’ for visits to the mosque that can cover your neck, arms and legs
- Print off a map you can use to navigate the city by foot (perhaps even a separate map for the bazaar)
- Take a bus from the airport – €10 for groups of four or more
- Never take advice strangers in the street about which bars to check out, and beware of friendly ‘guides’ – this is often a tourist trap
- Don’t acceptt a shoe shine – even if it seems its being offered for free!
- Taxis: Only take official taxis – yellow, with a taksi sign on the roof, a meter built in (newer ones have them integrated in the mirror) and affiliation with a taxi stand, airport, or hotel painted on their doors. Always insist to use the meter (this should read gündüz or the ‘daytime’ code ‘1’, to indicated they are charging you the right fee) and make sure you carry small change. If the taxi driver tells you they have none, say you’ll wait in the taxi while they change the money in a shop nearby
- The ‘official’ prices here have almost always been artificially inflated to allow for a bargaining margin - 20% to 30% is the rule of thumb.Shopping here involves many aspects of Ottoman etiquette – you will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up how trustworthy the shopkeeper is. He, in turn, will drink tea, exchange polite greetings and size up how gullible you are. to get a good bargain: don’t be worried about telling them “I have done my research”
- Be wary of traffic, since cars have the right of way
- Avoid restaurants that don’t provide menus, as these can be pricey
- Pick up a travel card at a newsstand which can be used on trams, the metro, buses and ferries across the Bosphorus.
For more top tips check out: http://www.wittistanbul.com/magazine/istanbul-taxi-fares-every-tourist-ought-to-know//
If you’re looking for somewhere more authentic to stay in the capital, take a look at our range of apartments in Istanbul.