Istanbul is a city that you can spend days, weeks, or even months visiting. It has a special identity all its own and the heart of Istanbul can be felt pulsating all throughout the country.
If you are planning to visit one city in Turkey, Istanbul would be the best option, because it has so much to offer and has the most flight options to and from Ataturk International Airport.
Even if you plan to visit other cities in Turkey, Istanbul usually serves as the starting point. Like all major cities, beware of your surroundings (especially the chaotic driving) and keep an eye-out for scams and pick-pockets.
Basilica Cistern – Istanbul
Also known as Yerebatan Sarnici (Basilica Cistern), this is the largest cistern of hundreds found beneath the depths of the city and was built during the reign of Emperor Justinian in 532.
This makes for a great, underground tour and is right across the street from Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed. Be sure to find the two Medusa head statues inside.
Hagia Sophia – Meaning “Holy Wisdom,” Hagia Sophia is probably the most iconic image of the city. This splendid monument stretches back in time to the early years of the Byzantine Empire through to Ottoman times.
It is now a museum, but much of its history is still seen and felt inside. A truly majestic site that holds sacred importance for Christians and Muslims.
Sultan Ahmed Cami – Right across the walkway through the gardens is the glorious mosque or cami of Sultan Ahmed. Also known as the “Blue Mosque” for its blue tiles inside, this mosque was built between 1606 and 1619 during the rule of Ahmed I.
Unlike Hagia Sophia, Sultan Ahmed Cami is an active prayer site, but it is still open for visitors. Don’t plan to visit during prayer hours and even when you do enter outside of prayer hours there still may be people praying (they usually won’t pray close to the main tourist areas) so be respectful. Wear the proper attire and do not use flash photography.
Beylerbeyi Palace – Located on the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait (just north of the bridge) in the Beylerbeyi
neighborhood is the opulent palace. Built between 1861 and 1865, the Beylerbeyi Palace was commissioned by Sultan Abdulaziz to serve as a diplomatic meeting-place and summer residence.
You will be able to see the palace from the Bosphorus or you can take part in one of the ‘hop-on-hop-off’ tours and have a more intimate view of the estate. There is also a quaint café located in the garden.
The palace is not open for visitors on Monday or Thursday and times do vary according to season, so be sure to plan ahead.
Bosphorus Bridge –Istanbul
This is the first bridge built connecting the European side of Turkey (Ortakoy) to the Asian side (Beylerbeyi). The area surrounding the bridge, and most of the walkways along the Bosphorus in general are absolutely stunning.
There are numerous cafes and restaurants overlooking the Bosphorus, which make for the perfect date, night out with friends or casual stroll in the afternoon. Beautiful lights will be illuminating the Bosphorus, boats will be slowly passing by sending the gentle wake crashing against city walls and there are also many trendy drinking places.
Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the bridge, is famous for its more progressive vibe along with its popular cafes and produce market. It would be recommended to explore the neighborhoods on both the Asian and European sides.
Dolmabahce Palace – This extravagant palace is located in the Besiktas District on the European side of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus. The Dolmabahce Palace was used as the main administrative center during the last stages of the Ottoman Empire and was subsequently adopted and used by Ataturk. The design of the palace was meant to be a mix of European and Ottoman design and was meant to capture the attention of anyone who set eyes on it.
One look at Dolmabahce and you will know the architects succeeded in constructing something of extraordinary beauty. The palace is divided into three sections which consist of the Selamlik, the Harem and the Veliaht Dairesi. Depending on the time of day, you may choose to visit all of the sections or just certain ones. This is a must see site in Istanbul and brings thousands of tourists flocking to the entrance gates, so try to avoid weekends and holidays.
If you are visiting during peak season, try to arrive as early as possible avoiding the mid-day sun and larger crowds.
Emirgan Park – Istanbul
If you are looking for a tranquil spot to recharge the batteries and take in some fresh air, Emirgan Park is the ideal location. This historic urban park is located in the Sariyer District of Istanbul, which is a suburb, but still overlooks the Bosphorus.
Not only is Emirgan Park one of the most historic parks in the city, but it is also one of the largest consisting of large fountains, gardens, jogging and bike trails and wonderful picnic areas.
Galata, Galata Bridge & Galata Tower – Galata is located on the European side of the city just north of the Golden Horn, and like most of Istanbul, is a very colorful and historic district.
The Golden Horn is the estuary separating the old (north) and new (south) sections of European Istanbul, with the Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn at its mouth. This is considered to be the main or central part of Istanbul leading north to Istiklal Street and Taksim Square.
Galata Bridge has been romanticized as the ‘magical’ place to be during the late evening sunset. The radiance of color infiltrating the city, with the Galata Tower poking its head out to be noticed amongst the fighting seagulls, really does make for a ‘magical’ evening.
The bridge itself lies above many cafes and shops, connecting the districts of Eminonu and Beyoglu. The bridge also gives local fisherman a convenient spot to catch a nice meal for dinner. The Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower dating back to around 1340 and was the built by the Genoese.
It was the tallest building in Istanbul for centuries. There is an observation deck offering incredible panorama views and a restaurant and café inside, although the cost of entrance is highly questionable.
Taksim Square – This is the symbolic heart of Istanbul of with the Monument of the Republic, which was built in 1928 (five years after independence of 1923). It has also been the site of political protests over the years, most recently in 2013 with the Gezi protests.
Aside from the symbolic importance of this location, Taksim Square has everything to offer from hundreds of restaurants and shops, to theatres and old mosques and churches.
When you stand at the main square and look towards the shopping area, you will literally witness a sea of people as wide as the Bosphorus if you are here during the evening or weekend. Peruse the many intertwining streets and enjoy the evening and night life which will last until all hours of the morning.
The New Mosque – Or Yeni Cami, is an imperial mosque situated at the southern end of the Galata Bridge in the Eminonu quarter of the city. The name is a bit misleading, because the mosque is over 400 years old dating back to the late 16th century. Many feel that the mosque is similar to both the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed) and the Suleymaniye Mosque in design style, but it is also said to have been built during a declining period in architecture.
Nonetheless, the interior is well-known for its Iznik tiles and gold leaf decorations, while the exterior is distinguished by two large minarets and 66 domes.
Eyup Sultan Mosque (located next to Galata and Golden Horn) – This is very sacred mosque for Muslims, deemed the fourth holy site for pilgrimage behind Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, because it is the believed burial location of Ebu Eyup el-Ensari (the close friend of Prophet Muhammad).
He died during the Arabic siege of the city, somewhere between 674 and 678. The site of his death subsequently became a holy and symbolic location throughout the Ottoman Empire that remains today. As aforementioned, pay special attention to Islamic customs when visiting and try to avoid visiting during Islamic holidays or holy days.
Süleymaniye Mosque – Commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent between 1550 and 1557, Suleymaniye Mosque was designed by the most famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan (his tomb is located in the complex). This is one of the most famous sites in all of Istanbul and is distinguished by four minarets, which signify the fact that Suleyman the Magnificent was the fourth Ottoman ruler of Istanbul.
The simplistic elegance of the interior décor coupled with the famous Iznik tiling, leaves a long lasting impression on visitors. The surrounding area has a very ‘Ottoman’ feel and the view from the terraced gardens behind the mosque captures the beauty of the Golden Horn.
Grand Bazaar – Dating back to around 1460 during the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, a small warehouse gradually transformed itself into the world famous Grand Bazaar. Located in the heart of Old Town, this market and surrounding area can feel overwhelming at times.
It is important to keep in mind that many of the merchants and shopkeepers can be quite aggressive or they will try to start small talk to try to lure you into buying something.
Therefore, make sure you know what you are looking for beforehand and don’t allow yourself to be pressured into buying something. Be respectful, but don’t be gullible. The Grand Bazaar truly is an amazing site with so many hidden walkways and shops around every corner. Even if you are not intent on purchasing something, take a stroll through this historic bazaar and enjoy some local delicacies and tea or coffee.
Nuruosmaniye Mosque – Located in the Fatih District in close proximity to the entrance of the Grand Bazaar, is theNuruosmaniye Mosque.
The mosque was first commissioned by Sultan Mahmut I around 1748 and was finished his brother, Sultan Osman III, in 1755. The name of the mosque means ‘The Light of Osman,’ in reverence to Sultan Osman III (it is also known to be the most illuminated mosques from the many windows) and is said to be one of the finest examples of the Ottoman Baroque style.
Topkapı Palace – This is the famous palace that housed Ottoman Sultans and royalty for close to 400 years between 1465 and 1856. Topkapi became a World Heritage Site in 1985 and the only question is what took so long? There is nothing like this anywhere on the planet and also contains Muhammed’s cloak and sword. The palace has everything from breathtaking views and holy relics, to elaborate concubines, exquisite fountains and famous artwork.
The list can go on and on. Depending on your level of interest, you could literally spend the entire day inside, so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to take everything in.
Rumelihisari – This fortress is located in the Sariyer District at the narrowest point of the Bosphorus. Rumelihisari was strategically built in this location by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 before his siege on the city. This allowed him to have total control of shipping supplies passing through the straight. You will see this historic
fortress as you make your way towards Fatih Bridge. The fortress is open for visitation weekdays excluding Wednesday.