Istanbul is one of the most dynamic, beautiful and exciting cities in the world. You could easily spend weeks there and still not see everything. Located on both sides of the Bosporus Straight (which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara), the city of Istanbul is split across two continents—Europe and Asia. Known by many names over the centuries—Byzantium, Constantinople, and since 1930, Istanbul—this intoxicating city offers a multitude of cultural, religious, and historic sights. I was really surprised at how modern and clean it was for a city so large. Plus, the people are extremely friendly and are more than happy to practice their English with you. I was fortunate to visit last year, when Istanbul had the distinction of being the European Capital of Culture. Someday I hope to return and experience more of its exotic charm. So, without further ado, here’s my list of the top 10 things to do in Istanbul, Turkey:
Strategically perched on a hill overlooking the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara, Topkapı Palace was constructed between 1466 and 1478 for Sultan Mehmet II and served as the residence for the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years. The sprawling palace consists of several interlinking courtyards surrounded by opulent buildings, each with its own special purpose. Definitely check out the luxurious Harem, where the Sultan lived with his many wives and mistresses. Also, don’t miss the Imperial Treasury with its vast array of exquisite jewels, including the 86-carat Spoon Maker’s diamond and the infamous Topkapı Dagger. There are also various royal thrones, weapons, and plunder of the Ottoman Empire on exhibition. Some incredible historical artifacts are also on display including a mantle, tooth and hairs from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as one of St. John the Baptist’s hands! Spectacular views of the sparkling Bosporus, and the ships lining up to enter it, can be had from the restaurant and outside terrace. [Tram: Gülhane or Sultanahmet. Open Monday, Wednesday to Sunday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.]
2) Visit the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya)
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without seeing the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia. Consecrated in 537 CE as an Eastern Orthodox church, it was the largest building in the world for nearly a thousand years. Then, in 1453, it was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople. Fortunately, they plastered over the Christian mosaics and iconography, which preserved these valuable works of art for centuries. In 1931 the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum and remains one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world. [Tram: Sultanahmet; Open Tuesday - Sunday 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.]
3) Cruise along the Bosporus
Board a ferry at the terminal adjacent to the Galata Bridge (in Eminönü) and cruise up the strait toward the Black Sea. The ferry chugs along the waterway, passing beautiful mansions, the much-photographed Ortaköy Mosque, and the Rumeli Hisari fortress until it passes beneath the Bosporus Bridge, which links the two continents together. Another option is to cross over to the Asian side and explore a bit, relax, or grab some Turkish ice cream. Then, buy a round-trip loop around the Bosporus (starting in Asia) for a fraction of the price of the cruises being sold on the European side.
4) Visit the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii)
Nicknamed the Blue Mosque for the beautiful colored tiles lining its interior (hence the origin of the word “turquoise”), the Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I is one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever seen. Set opposite the Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet Square, the Blue Mosque is an actual working mosque. Five times a day you’ll hear the melodious call to prayer being broadcast from speakers on the minarets. Visitors enter from a courtyard on the side, where they must remove their shoes and can only enter during non-worship hours. Gigantic chandeliers are suspended all the way to the floor above the red-carpeted prayer area. Remember to be respectful as this is a place of worship. [By tram: Sultanahmet; Admittance is free, but a donation is always appreciated. Dress code: no shorts and women must cover bare shoulders. Open May to October, 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. & November – April, 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.]
Once the largest covered marketplace in the world, the Grand Bazaar first opened in 1461. It currently has over 4000 shops, selling everything from Oriental rugs and antiquities, to hookahs, jewelry, souvenirs and ceramics. It’s customary to haggle for the best price, usually close to half of what the initial offer is. I’m not kidding when I say you’ll get lost in there—it’s a veritable labyrinth. If you find something you like, buy it because you’ll never find the same vendor again. [Tram: exit at the Çarşıkapı stop; Free admission.]
6) Witness the Whirling Dervishes
A dervish is someone who practices Sufism, the 700-year old mystical Mevlevi sect of Islam. During their ceremonies devotees whirl, or spin around and around, in a trance-like state, ostensibly getting closer to God with their movements. They wear long flowing cloaks, representing burial shrouds, and tall wool hats that symbolize their ego’s tombstone. Their religion is one based on love and passion for the divine. They believe that through music, meditation, chanting, and dance, spiritual enlightenment can be attained. There are only a couple of places to see the Dervishes, and you’ll need a reservation because they only perform at certain times of the month. Here’s the one we went to: http://www.emav.org/en. Click here to read my earlier story about the whirling dervishes and to see a video of them in action!
7) Discover the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici)
Built by Emperor Justinian in 532 CE, this enormous “sunken” underground cistern is right in the heart of Sultanahmet, across from the Hagia Sophia. Its entrance is unassuming; you’d probably never even know it was there if it weren’t for the inconspicuous sign and line of people to get in. It’s no wonder that it was “lost” until the 16th century. However, the interior is a real marvel—a gigantic subterranean chamber with 336 marble pillars supporting the roof. The bottom of the 2.5-acre cistern is flooded with water (it can hold up to 21 million gallons) and everything is illuminated with red lights, creating a really eerie atmosphere. Visitors wind their way between the columns along a wooden walkway, right above the water line. Don’t miss the two giant, marble Medusa heads located in the back corner. One is upside down and the other is turned on its side. To this day it remains a mystery why they are even there. [10 TL Yerebatan Cad., Sultanahmet, 9:00 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.]
8)Cross the Galata Bridge to Taksim Square
For a contrast to Old Istanbul, take the Tram across the Galata Bridge and then ride the underground funicular [Tünel] up to Taksim Square. This modern side of Istanbul is a hub of activity that pulses with energy. Most of the high-end Western hotel chains are located here, as well as numerous restaurants, nightclubs, and shopping areas. At the eastern end of the plaza is the Atatürk Cultural Centre, which houses the Turkish state ballet and opera, and on the western end is the Republic Monument, commemorating Turkey’s Independence and revolutionary heroes. Taksim Square is a great place to enjoy some (extremely strong) Turkish coffee or tea, eat döner kebab, and top it all of with some Turkish Delight.
9) Check out the Egyptian Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı)
Located adjacent to the Galata Bridge in Eminönü, the Egyptian Bazaar, also called the Spice Market, is a feast for the senses. Paprika, saffron, coriander, cumin, and pretty much every spice you can imagine are piled high in displays. You’ll also find a wide assortment of teas, Turkish Delight (lokum), and dried fruit and nuts like dates, figs and pistachios as well. The Spice Bazaar is the second largest covered shopping area in Istanbul, after the Grand Bazaar, and is definitely worth checking out too. It’s adjacent to the Yeni Mosque, also known as the New Mosque. [Open daily between 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. Free admittance.]
10) Visit a hamam
For a truly authenticTurkish experience, visit a hamam, also known as a Turkish Bath. After you pay the admittance fee, you are escorted to a changing area (there are separate areas for men and women) where you step out of your street clothes and then wrap a traditional cotton cloth called a peştamal around your waist. Next, you enter the hamam, which is basically a very hot steam room. It has a domed ceiling and a large, heated marble platform called a sıcaklık in the center. You lay on the hot sıcaklık for about twenty minutes, allowing your muscles to relax. Once you’re all sweaty, the attendant comes over and scrubs all of your dead skin off with a loofah-like mitt, hot water, and soap. Then you’ll be doused with buckets of cold water. Finally, he/she kneads, stretches, and pummels your body from head to toe. I went to the historic Çemberlitaş Hamamı, which was built back in 1584. It’s located near the Grand Bazaar and is very popular with tourists. Visiting a hamam is the best way I can think of to finish your visit to Turkey. I can’t tell you how clean and relaxed I felt on my flight back home. It was pure bliss. [Tram: Çemberlitaş; http://www.cemberlitashamami.com ]
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Have you been to Istanbul, Turkey? What are your favorite sights? Feel free to add to my list in the comments section below! Here’s a slideshow of some of my favorite photos:
Michael Figueiredo is a freelance travel writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he’s not gallivanting around the world, he’s enjoying the laid-back lifestyle and perfect weather of Southern California. So far he’s visited forty countries and territories on five continents. His goal is to see at least one new country every year! . Read more from this author