10 Things to Do and Places to See in Istanbul, Turkey
Welcome to one of my favorite cities on the globe! Istanbul is a sprawling, ancient metropolis that famously straddles the Bosphorus straight, the East and the West, and Europe and Asia. Once you arrive to this pulsating, exotic, exciting city that blends the best of the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, odds are your senses will be overwhelmed and your previous made plans will be thrown out the window! However, here are ten things you can't miss in the "Queen of Cities".
1. Hagia Sophia
What visit to Istanbul wouldn't be complete without an afternoon meandering the iconic Hagia Sophia? Originally an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, later converted to an Islamic mosque, and finally a museum, the cavernous interior of this architectural masterpiece is intricately decorated in Byzantine- and Ottoman-era art. You don't need to be an art or history buff to spend a few hours being awed by this masterpiece!
How to get there: Take the metro or light rail to Sultanahmet Station, walk to the middle of the square, and look up!
Entrance fee: ₺25/ €10/ $14
15 April- 1 October 9am-6pm
1 October- 15 April 9am-4pm
2. The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, rivals the Hagia Sophia in its architectural beauty and status as an icon of Istanbul. Indeed, no visit to Istanbul is complete without entering the mosque in between prayer times to walk the carpeted floors in your socks and marvel at the vaulted ceilings and candle-like lighting.
Need to know: Wear socks so you don't have to walk in your bare feet. All visitors should dress respectfully by covering their arms and legs, and women should remember to bring a scarf to cover their heads. If you don't have the proper clothing or head covering, you can borrow fabric at the entrance.
How to get there: Take the metro or light rail to the Sultanahmet station and walk just a few minutes to the mosque, opposite the Hagia Sophia at the Sultan Ahmet Square.
Entrance fee: Free, with an opportunity to leave a donation.
Hours: Mosque is open every day, but closes to visitors 5 times a day during prayer times. The best time to visit is during midmorning any day except Friday.
3. Topkapi Palace
Ever dreamed of wandering long corridors intricately decorated with mosaics to come out upon a courtyard housing a lush rose garden with a fountain as its centerpiece, while women of the harem strum out exotic melodies, belly dance, and feed each other the best of Ottoman gastronomic delights? Who hasn't, am I right?
This is exactly the type of scene that you'll be imagining when you explore the sprawling, seemingly infinite Topkapi Palace, the former residence of the great Ottoman Sultans in Istanbul. The palace complex is bafflingly huge and you'll need about half a day to fully appreciate the magic, artistry, and wealth of the sultans of long ago. Set aside enough time to see the living quarters, gardens, and attached museums showcasing such artifacts as bejeweled goblets and daggers.
When you've had your fill of daydreaming about the luxurious life of the royal families, admire the historic Korans, then follow the huddling crowds to view a few hairs from the beard of Muhammed himself.
How to get there: Take metro or light rail to Sultanahmet Station, walk path behind Hagia Sofia.
Entrance fee: Museum ₺40 / €11/ $11
Separate entrance fee for other areas of the palace- check the website for updated information.
Hours: October 30th - April 15th 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM
April 15th - October 30th 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM
4. The Grand Bazaar
A huge labyrinth of covered shops selling everything from kitschy fez hats to pre-Ottoman antiques imported from across Central Asia, a stop at the Grand Bazaar should be high on your priorities list when you are in Istanbul. Sure, it is mobbed by tourists and you might be paying twice as much as you'd pay in the small towns in other parts of Turkey, but the sheer quantity and variety of souvenirs available here guarantees you'll be able to find just the right gift or mantelpiece decoration.
Hours: Monday- Saturday 9am- 7 pm
Entrance Fee: Free
How to Get There: Take a tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci, or else walk about 15 minutes from the Hagia Sophia/Blue Mosque area.
Location of Grand Bazaar
5. The Basilica Cistern
Want to go deeper than the surface of Istanbul? Head underground, to the Basilica Cistern, Istanbul's largest underground water storage chamber. This eerie cavern underneath Istanbul's old city dates back to the 4th century and is said to have involved the hard labor of 7,000 Byzantine slaves. Walk along the wooden pathways that stretch above the water and admire the ancient columns that have been holding this chamber open for the past 1500 years. Bring a flashlight to spot unsettlingly large fish cruising among the stonework.
Toward the back, as if the dimly lit underground aquarium weren't spooky enough, you'll find a mysterious upside-down Medusa head the size of a small man, and you can wonder, along with the rest of the visitors, what strange misdeeds went on down here over the years.
Hours: Monday- Sunday, 9am-5:30pm
Entrance Fee: ₺10/ €3 /$3
How to get there: Take the metro or light rail to Sultan Ahmet. Facing the Hagia Sophia from Sultan Ahmed square, walk left down Yerebatan Cd. for half a block, and the entrance will be on your left.
6. The Spice Bazaar
It makes sense that Istanbul, the gateway between the East and the West and a key player in the Silk Road trading route, would be known for its large and intoxicating spice bazaar. Get lost in alleyways that snake past dozens of spice vendors peddling their wares out of burlap sacks. Feast your eyes on world's freshest and most colorful selection of saffron, cardamom, and turmeric, then follow your nose to find freshly roasted Turkish coffee and end your journey on a sweet note with Turkish delights, known in these parts as Lokum.
Ask around for the best spices for fish, meats, sauces, or pastries, and be sure to load up on bulk spices at a bargain price to give to your foodie friends back home.
Hours: Monday-Saturday 8am- 7pm, Sundays 10am to 6pm.
Entrance Fee: Free!
How to get there: Located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district. Get off the tram at the Eminönü stop, and get ready to walk!
7. Eat Turkish Food!
Admittedly, Turkish food deserves its own website (or at least its own article), but let's just sum it up in a few sentences here. Turkish cuisine is, in my opinion, one of the tastiest in the world. Combining elements of Mediterranean, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern cooking, you get something that seems to be influenced by everyone else yet is really a separate category on its own.
Turkish food is the beating heart and loving soul of Turkish culture, and in Istanbul, you can find restaurants that represent each region in the country, as well as snacks, meals, and street food that are unique to this delicious city.
8. Taksim Square
You'll surely hear the words "Taksim Square" within a day or two of arriving to Istanbul. It's a large, open space where Istanbul's hip young crowds gather to spend a lazy afternoon. If the concrete jungle feeling of the square doesn't pique your interest for long, you can stroll along the major shopping boulevards in the area and drop into one of the district's many restaurants and cafes.
Stop to gander at the Monument of the Republic, established after Turkish independence in 1923, taste some street food, then find a smaller, nicer, less crowded square in the neighborhoods nearby and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine with some of Istanbul's most amicable and laid-back residents.
How to get there: The easiest way is to take the tram to Kabatas, then take the metro up to Taksim. Its also possible to walk from Sultanahmet to Taksim, but I don't recommend doing this without a good map.
Entrance Fee: Free!
Hours: No operating hours. Best times to go are in the afternoons, especially Friday and Saturday nights when families, youngsters, and senior citizens are all out to see and be seen.
9. Cruise the Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is the strait which, arguably, made Istanbul rich and famous. A boat ride is recommended for many reasons: you can see cruise and fishing boats, and it is a unique and exciting way to get a stellar vista of Istanbul's rockstar skyline. There are many commercial boat tours that will take you for a ride, but I recommend the public ferry. Not only will you get a great chance to mingle with everyday commuters from all walks of life, but it is also the cheapest way to get this million-dollar view.
How to get there: You have many options! If you opt for the public ferry, take the commuter ferry at the Bogaz Iskelesi near the Galata bridge in the Eminonu district of the Old Town. You can go all the way down to Anadolu Karvagi, where you can dock for three hours, giving you enough time to have lunch at a fresh seafood restaurant, then check out the castle at the top of the hill.
Hours: Check with the ferry office
Cost: Check with the ferry office, but when I went it was ₺25/ €7/ $7
10. Meet Some Turks!
Your visit to Istanbul will be full of history, culture, art, and delicious food. However, the crown jewel in your trip will be the phenomenal Istanbulites. The residents of this throbbing metropolis are at once cosmopolitan and fiercely proud of their heritage and traditions. Whatever the ethnic or geographic origin of the citizens of Istanbul, you will find that they are for the most part kind, social, educated, welcoming, and a whole lot of fun to be with. As always, the people you meet will be the most memorable part of your experience in Istanbul.
How to get there: Walk, talk, smile, and learn a few words of Turkish!
Hours: All hours of the day and night
Cost: A little bit of time, effort, and openness.