If there is a real unique city in the world that you want to visit, then it definitely should be Istanbul. Where else could you literally cross continents?
This city is extremely huge, it takes hours to go from one end to the other. It consists of several separate districts which look so different at times, they look as literal cities. It’s one of the most amazing cities in the world with tons of things to see and do and it should definitely be included on your bucket list.
Formerly called Constantinople, back in the day, it used to be the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire. For almost a thousand years until 1453, it was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, which point on it became the leading Caliphate of the Islamic world for several centuries.
Today, Istanbul is one of the oldest, most historical cities in the world, housing historical memories from the very beginning of time.
Being of utmost importance for both the Orthodox Christian and the Islamic World and being the hub of multiple conquering Turkish empires. Istanbul is a real melting pot of races and cultures living together. This is all the result of the very active historical role Turkey has always played in world history and its very unique geographic location which connects the country both with Europe and with Asia.
The city is divided into 3 large regions by the Bosporus strait which also divides Europe and Asia. Istanbul has 8 key areas:
- New City
- Golden Horn
- Princes Islands
- Asian side
- Western Suburbs
Out of these districts, tourists mainly visit 3: Sultanahmet, Galata and the New City. The first two districts house the largest number of historical sites and are part of the Old City Centre, alongside the historical districts of Beyoglu and Taksim.
The New City districts where the modern parts and all the main shopping streets are located include the districts of Elmadag, Etiler and Nisantasi. This modern part of the city is often featured in the modern Turkish TV series too.
Galata Tower one highly treasured trademark building of Istanbul
♦ The best time to visit:as the summertime is pretty hot in the city and the winter is rainy, the best time to visit Istanbul is generally from April to early June and from September to early November. Due to the Mediterranean climate and closeness of the sea it often rains, therefore pack a portable umbrella. Also, the city is so huge, it often presents with micro climates at one part or in one district.
♦ Travel requirements: Visitors to Turkey mostly require a tourist visa which can either be bought at your country’s consulate, but if you forget it, you can also obtain it upon arrival. The price of the tourist visa is generally USD 20 and it’s normally valid for 90 days.
♦ The best places to visit
With the city being so large and so historical, enlisting every single place and site to visit will result in a long list, so I will do my best to be as short and informational as possible.
1. Galata Tower ( Galata Saray)
It is one of the landmark buildings of Istanbul and with all the good reasons. When you are in Istanbul, you just have to visit the famous Galata Tower and if possible also climb on top of it to catch some of the most beautiful views to the whole city. The tower is 67 m (219 feet) high so, you are ensured your view will be as beautiful as it gets.
Galata Tower was built in 1348 and it’s among the oldest towers which still stand both in Europe and Asia. Of course, it’s been well taken care of, looks beautiful and it’s located in one of the most beautiful, historical districts, with hilly narrow streets with cobblestones, romantic cafés and great restaurants.
The tower itself houses a café a restaurant and also a night club. And climb is not meant literally, as there is a built-in elevator, letting guests go up to the top.
2. The Blue Mosque
Another landmark building of Istanbul with its beautiful form, its lovely minarets is one of the most beautiful examples of medieval Turkish-Moorish architecture. It was built in the 17th century and it’s among the largest mosques of the city.
If you are a non-Muslim you are lucky, because certain parts of the mosque can be visited by non-Muslims as well, although the visiting hours are carefully orchestrated around prayer times, when the mosque is open only for those arriving for the prayer.
The mosque includes a whopping amount of 20,000 ceramic tiles featuring classic Turkish decoration elements in a beautiful way and its stained glass windows also look amazing! Be careful though as the Blue Mosque is often confused with the similarly large and beautiful Suleymaniye Mosque and with the Hagia Sophia for looking quite similar and with all of them being iconic landmarks of Istanbul. Being marked by four high standing minarets means for a mosque that it was built by a Sultan.
3. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia, although looks perfectly like a Muslim mosque, was not intended to be one. It was originally built as an Orthodox church and was later modified to become a mosque. It’s one of the oldest buildings of the city a real landmark which was built back in 537!
It was intended to be the base of the Orthodox Patriarch (who is the leader of the Orthodox Church). Later, it was modified to become a Christian church and finally it became a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. It was closed down in 1931 due to the Turkish Revolution which ended with the complete re-establishing of the Turkish political system alongside Muslim religion in Turkey.
It remained closed until 1935 and ever since it serves no religious reasons, it’s a Museum housing tons of historical treasures by being such treasure in itself. Its building is one of the largest still existing examples of Byzantine architecture. Check out its amazing mosaics on the top floors. Hagia Sophia is just a few minutes’ walk away from the Blue Mosque.
4. The Grand Bazaar
Being pretty close to both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, a visit to the Grand Bazaar can be cosily implemented in your sightseeing and in fact it’s a very important landmark for all those, who would like to explore Turkish culture and artefacts.
5. Topkapi Saray ( Palace)
Topkapi Harem, one of the most beautiful buildings of the palace complex/museum
It’s a huge palace which served as the seat and home of many sultans of several empires and it’s a must visit for everyone who would like to learn more about Istanbul’s culture.
It was built by the Ottoman Empire and it serves as a museum. It doesn’t only reveal lush, lovely gardens and great examples of Moorish architecture it also offers a breath-taking view to the Bosporus. You ought to check out the Harem which is one of the most beautifully decorated buildings out of all.
6. The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan)
This site has only recently been talked about but since its reveal, more and more tourists are visiting it. Surprisingly it’s one of the most astonishing places you can get to visit even if you are not particularly interested in history. Built back in the Byzantine times this cistern was responsible to provide drinking water to the citizens of Istanbul. It’s a place that’s spooky and romantic in the same time. Its underground system is supported by 336 columns.
Things to do in Istanbul
1. Start your sightseeing tour from the Hippodrome:
this is an obelisk raised by the Romans back in 200 AD and its great location makes it a great starting point for sightseeing tours.
2. Visit a Hamam
The classic Turkish bath is so old that Europeans in fact learned the act of bathing well after the Turkish. The originally Turkish Hamam has been well used by the whole Islamic world since the 1400s. And in Istanbul you can get to find some of the most beautiful examples to classic Turkish Hamam. Check out Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam.
Traditional hamam with the trademark rooftop holes to let light in and some steam out
3. Shop in the Grand Bazaar
Stuffed with lovely souvenirs and lots of beautiful garments, spices and everything you can imagine, this is one of the best places for shopping souvenirs.
4. Visit the Gold Market
Located nearby the Grand Bazaar, the Gold Market is one of the most visited sites of Istanbul for its good quality and relatively cheap golden jewellery. It’s also the first dedicated gold market ever.
5. Eat out
Turkey is world famous for its great cuisine therefore check out some of the downtown restaurants and try some of the specialties offered there. You won’t get disappointed.
6. Drink Turkish coffee
Turkish coffee is cooked in a very unique way. Not many people are aware that Europe took the art of making and drinking coffee from the Turkish. If you are a fan of coffee don’t miss out visiting a Turkish café.
7. Try the locally-made ice cream
Ice cream stalls are a unique experience and a spectacle in themselves and the Turkish ice cream has a very unique gum-like density to it. It’s worth tasting.
8. Check out French Street(Fransiz Sokagi)
One of the most beautiful and pleasant streets in the Old town which is scattered with cafés, restaurants, music and has a rich night life. It’s now one of the hottest destinations both for locals and tourists.
Expert Advice on visiting:
- The public transportation system is very confusing. If you don’t want to get lost find an accommodation near the downtown area so that you can walk to most popular sites.
- Avoid taxis as they very badly overcharge. Choose the yellow dolmuş minivans which take people along certain routes and are much cheaper.
- Haggle as much as you can or at least pre-arrange price before you get in a taxi or buy any goods.
- Buy an Istanbulkart as it’s the easiest way to pay for museums and public transportation all around the city.
- Go on a boat tour, it’s one of the best tours offering a fantastic view of the whole city.
- The city is mainly Muslim, but they respect other cultures greatly. I’d suggest females to visit Istanbul with friends and not alone.
- There are language barriers but lots of locals can speak a little English or German.
- It’s not the city to visit with smaller kids as there is a lack of entertainment for them.