Istanbul had been a bucket list destination for a long time for us, having an intimate relationship with Turkey over the years there always felt like there was something missing having never been to the cultural capital of a country we love. Despite the political climate in Turkey Istanbul is still a safe, fascinating and impressive city to visit. Many people had told us of their love for this bustling and gigantic metropolis before, but after a week here we truly knew why it had stolen their hearts…and felt the same way. We were blown away by the impressive history around each corner, the never ending energy, the friendly locals, diverse sights, stunning architecture and modern attitude.
Originally built as a church in 532 and 537 and transformed into a Mosque when the Ottoman empire conquered Constantinople it functioned as an islamic place of worship between 29 May 1453 until 1931. Upon the end of the Ottoman rule and the start of the Ataturk era of the Republic of Turkey it became a museum on 1 February 1935. It’s a must visit on any Istanbul itinerary and probably one of the first places you will head to!
Today this museum is one of the most impressive sights in the city and an item on almost all of our bucket lists. This magnificent cauldron of emotion tells the tale of the history of Istanbul and Turkey through its ancient walls that have bared witness to the many changes, eras, regimes and rulers of this grand city.
Visiting this historic site, the world’s largest cathedral for over 1000 years, was an absolute highlight of our time in Istanbul and of course, is something not to be missed.
Read more here: The magical Hagia Sophia
The Blue Mosque
Otherwise known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque this religious site is a place of pilgrimage for followers of Islam around the world and an icon of the city and country as a whole. Constructed from 1609 and 1616 it is considered to be the last great Mosque of the Classical period and many of its features were inspired by the nearby Hagia Sophia. Its characteristic six minarets were reputed to be a mistake and caused controversy after it was said they were intended to replicate those of the Masjid al-Ḥarām in Mecca.
Unlike the Hagia Sophia the Blue Mosque is a functioning Islamic centre of religion. This means that it is free to visit and also that Muslim customs are applicable to those who enter its holy walls. This might seems like a bit of a chore, but donning a hijab, robes and a skirt for the men is one reason this stands out as an intense and fascinating cultural experience.
Visiting the Blue Mosque really did surpass our expectations and allowed us to see inside the world of the true culture of Istanbul and Islam.
Read more here: The mysterious Blue Mosque
This UNESCO world heritage site was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years of their 624 year reign of the empire. Constructed in the mid-15th century it includes a hamman, library, treasury, mint and hundreds of ornate rooms and chambers.
In 1924 it officially became a museum and is considered to be one of the finest examples of an Ottoman palace in the world and displays many priceless artefact from this era including jewels, robes, weapons, shields Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals.
Basilica Cistern below Istanbul
Hidden below the streets just outside the walls of the Hagia Sophia it would be easy to forget that this impressive and atmospheric structure even exists. It is in fact one of hundreds of ancient cisterns that lie forgotten underneath what was the city of Constantinople when they were constructed. This particular example was built in the 6th century during the Byzantine era.
History tell us that above the spot where the cistern was constructed stood a magnificent basilica which includes gardens and a commercial, legal and artistic centre built during the early Roman age. The cistern was built by over 7,000 slaves, many of whom perished during construction, to provide a water filtration system to the Great Palace of Constantinople and even provided water for Topkapi palace.
Today this mysterious cavern is open to the public as a dark and damp looked back into the history of the workings of this amazing city. Down here the shallow and low lit fish filled ponds that reflect the forest of 336 marble columns creates an eerie atmosphere down here. In the heat of the summer sun of Istanbul this cathedral-sized reservoir is also a great way to escape the oppressive heat and see one of the most underrated sights of the city. Capable of holding 80,000 cubic meters of water and mystery surrounds the two medusa statues that appear at odd angles at the bottom of two of the column bases.
Take some time out of chaotic Istanbul on the Princes Islands
Istanbul is a large and overwhelming city, as much as we loved the chaotic nature of this buzzing city we also needed an escape. We took the ferry 2 hours over to the wonderful Princes Islands in the sea of Marmara just a few KM down the Bosphorus from the city centre.
We visited the largest of the group called Büyükada where we took in the traditional wooden houses and the traffic free streets filled with colourful flowers, horses and carts and numerous cats. Fancy going to the beach whilst you’re in Istanbul, well head over to these idyllic islands and bring your swimsuit!
Read more here: The beautiful Princes Islands
Look out over Istanbul on the Galata Tower
Dominating the skyline of the Galata/ Karakoy district of the city, and viewable from the window of our amazing hostel, this iconic medieval stone tower is a landmark of the city. The panoramic platform at the top of the cone capped tower allows a vista of the historic areas of the city as well as a unique restaurant. At 219ft tall and 115ft above sea level it was the tallest building in Istanbul when constructed in 1348 A.D
Built as the Tower of Christ by the Genoese colony is Constantinople to replace an earlier Byzantine tower called the Great Tower. The original building controlled the sea chain that closed the entrance to the Golden Horn alongside one on the opposite side destroyed in 1203. The Ottomans used the tower as an observation deck to spot fires across the city. Nowadays tourists flock to take in the best panoramic of Istanbul!
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
Often sighted at the worlds first shopping mall it is one of the worlds largest covered markets with over 4,000 shops within its maze like interior. The first incarnation of the Grand Bazaar began in the winter of 1455/56 after the Ottoman conquest of the city. The markets grew and grew over the years and although they follow a rectangular plan, consisting of domed brick bays and impressively historic architecture it is easy to get lost within. The layout of the confusing interior consists of “streets”, each one selling different good. From jewellery to clothing, fabrics, carpets, leather goods, lanterns and of course Turkish tea shops.
Today the bazaar is a major tourist draw and fun if taken in the right mindset. The good in here will usually be a little more expensive that those on the stalls on the street between here and the Spice market. But its the experience that is the most important thing. Listen to the shouts, the bartering and the bustle of this enormous old market and enjoy the traditional surroundings, maybe even buy a thing or two!
Visit the impressive but quieter Suleymaniye Mosque
Located on the third Hill of Istanbul the Suleymaniye Mosque has many similarities to the Blue Mosque which sits across the peninsular from it. Despite being the largest Mosque in Istanbul it is often ignored for its more famous neighbours. But that is what makes it a joy to visit.
Gone are the crowds of tourists, the lines to get inside and the blocked off sections on the main prayer area. Here dress code is more relaxed (you still have to wear a skirt and headscarf but they are available at the door). Constructed between 1550 and 1557 the much quieter interior allowed us to stay alongside a local Muslim woman and observe prayers. An experience that will stay with us forever.
Watch the sunset on Galata Bridge
Spanning the Golden Horn this famous bridge was our first real sight of this magnificent city. A bridge has stood here from the 6th century in various forms over the years and has been a way to connect both areas of the European side of Istanbul. The first on this particular spot was the “Cisr-i Cedid”, constructed in 1845. The bridge is a symbolic connection between the traditional parts of Istanbul that house the palaces and religious buildings to that that housed the modern traders who where mostly non religious. Today it is a great way to take in the panoramic of the city down the Bosphorus and at sunset is the perfect place to watch the golden hues of the day cast a memorable silhouette of the many minarets.
Cross from Europe to Asia and explore Kadikoy
One of the most memorable trips to take in Istanbul is that of sailing from Europe over to the Asian mainland on the Anatolian side of the city. This short trip seems to personify the romance of travel and especially that of taking this traditional method of transport over this legendary body of water. Not only is the crossing itself memorable but the district of Kadikoy offers a much more subdued look into local life in Istanbul.
Read more here: Crossing the Bosphorus
Take in the street art of Karakoy
The area around the Galata tower known as Karakoy is not only a historic haven but also home to the growing alternative and bohemian scene in the city. Here you will find many small bars, local shops selling handmade goods and a thriving street art scene. Wandering around these lively cobbled streets allows you to see the modern side to this city so often only seen for its ancient wonders. The young crowd that hangs around this region are also friendly and a great way to get to know the lesser known secrets of Istanbul.
Take in the smells of the Spice Market
The Spice Bazaar might be less well known than the Grand Bazaar just a few streets away in the Fatih district. The Spice Bazaar has a total of 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight and other sweets, jewellery, souvenirs, and dried fruits and nuts.
It is a wonderful place to take in the irresistible scents of the various spices and the glorious tastes of the different flavours of the many Turkish Delights on offer. The market is often known as the “Egyptian Bazaar” as it was built using money from the Ottoman state of Egypt in 1660. It is also built in the foundations of the New Mosque (which is actually pretty old!)
Stroll down İstiklal Avenue
Translated into “Independence street” it is the most famous avenue in Istanbul and runs down from Taskim square towards the Galata tower. Today it is the main pedestrian street of the city housing many of the large shops, malls and restaurants. However if shopping isn’t your thing then you can still take in some amazing examples of architecture from the late Ottoman period built in the styles of Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau and Renaissance revival.
The street is also home to the historic Galatasaray squares, home to the second oldest secondary school in Turkey. Today the street is the bustling centre of the city often filled with hundred of people and with historic trams trundling along its length several times a day.
So much else to do!
Istanbul really is a huge and diverse city, even though this list is longer than most I do for other cities it is also just the tips of the Iceberg. There are many other amazing Mosque to visit for example, some such as “The New Mosque” is actually older than the Blue Mosque. There are also several beautiful smaller ones which are often almost empty when others have a snake like queue outside.
Other ideas include:
Dolmabahce Palace, Besiktas area, Chora Church, Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Ortakoy Mosque, Maiden’s Tower, Rustem Pashem Mosque… to name just a few!
There are also many areas to explore around the Suleymaniye Mosque that include many traditional houses and shrines.
How to get around Istanbul
There is no getting around it, Istanbul is HUGE! In the more macro sense it is a wonderful city to explore area by area on foot, but getting between those areas will require public transport. But luckily the city is very well connected.
The Istanbul public transport system includes buses, metrobuses, subway trains, suburban trains, trams, funiculars, cablecars, ferries, fast ferries, seabuses and seataxis.
You can buy rides with tokens much like in Kiev or in the past in NYC. These charge around 4TL per ride on each method of transport.
If you will be using the public transport system a lot you can buy a ISTANBULKART, this is a prepaid card much like the Oyster card in London. This costs 10TL as a deposit for the card (which is refundable when the card is returned) and offers a cheaper rate for rides on all the cities methods of transport, for example a single ride is usually 2.30TL.
The main bus stations and airports are all very well connected to the public transport system of the city. Often you may have to change lines or methods of transport because it can be quite a distance to travel and even means going across continents!! Even from one of the main bus stations we had to change line 3 times!! But there is usually always a way!
Have you ever been to Istanbul?
Is it safe to visit Turkey? See our post here: Visiting Turkey in the current climate