Istanbul is a city that is often described as a gateway between two continents. It is steeped in both European and Asian culture, and this can be felt all around the city. In recent years, the series Ertugrul has also brought Turkish culture to the mainstream as people are mesmerised and fascinated by the rich and pompous history of this popular holiday destination.
Istanbul is a beautiful city that can leave you feeling like you have stepped into the perfect photograph. From the grounds of the Topkapi Museum to the breathtaking site of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul is filled with delights for all the senses. It is easy to fill your days here with unique experiences which you will want to undertake time and time again.
Read on for the 10 best things to see and do in Istanbul for an unforgettable and enriching experience in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
1. Enjoy a Turkish bath (Hamam)
For a truly relaxing holiday, you have to indulge in a traditional Turkish bath. Generally, after a relaxing soak and steam, you will scrubbed top to toe. You will then be feeling pristine before you enjoy an amazing massage at expert hands. The whole process will leave you feeling exhilarated and sleepy all at once. It is an experience of the royals and will leave you wanting to come back for more before your holiday is up.
2. Visit The Blue Mosque
As one of the most iconic buildings in the world, the Blue Mosque is a perfect representation of the stunning Ottoman architecture that echoes everywhere the empire stretched to. Its official name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque due to the colour of the gorgeous tiles which grace its interior. It still operates as a mosque, and while tourists are welcomed, they are expected to dress modestly. The mosque is spectacular to set eyes on from afar and is even more beautiful close-up. It is a great place to take memorable pictures that will make the perfect postcards.
3. Enjoy a Bosporus boat cruise
The stunningly blue waters of the Bosporus are best enjoyed on one of the day or night cruises that take you from one side of Istanbul to the other. It is a great way of enjoying spectacular views of the coast, and the sunset is particularly mesmerising behind the enchanting skyline of the city. Most boats have lower decks which are enclosed which may be more suitable if you’re a little seasick, and upper decks which are open. Tour guides are also on hand to point out the various landmarks and points of interest that can be spotted from the water.
4. Explore the Grand Bazaar
The historical Grand Bazaar is located at the site where merchants used to gather from differing continents to trade and exchange goods. With over 5000 shops over tens of streets, the Grand Bazaar offers an unequalled shopping experience. You can spend a whole day here, and return again and again since there is ample to discover, explore and haggle for. From handcrafted jewellery and traditional clothes to spices, scents and lanterns, the Grand Bazaar is a thrilling and exciting place to immerse yourself in the local culture and history.
5. Visit the Hagia Sophia Museum
Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It has had a tumultuous history reflected in the fact that it was a church for over 900 years. It was then a mosque for nearly 500 years after the conquest of the city. For the last eight decades, however, it has been a museum which has been frequented by visitors of all faiths from far and wide. The beautiful mosaics, awe-inspiring calligraphy and colourful tiles all draw visitors through its doors every day.
6. See the Basilica Cistern
Just a few minutes walk from the Blue Mosque is the incredible underground structure of the Basilica Cistern (also called Yerebatan Cistern). It was built in 532 and is the largest of the remaining Byzantine cisterns in Istanbul. The most awe-inspiring aspect of the structure is the 336 columns with which it was made. Many of these were in fact from ruined temples and have beautifully carved details. This cistern can hold up to 100,000 tons of water. It is a great place to escape to on a hot day in the city and during the week can be particularly calm and serene. The symmetry and the enormity of the structure are particularly beautiful to witness in person.
7. Enjoy views from the Galata Tower
The Galata Tower offers the perfect opportunity to take in panoramic views of the city. At nine stories high, it stands supreme among nearby buildings. The restaurant cafe offers a perfect selection of delicious food at any time of day. There is also a bustling square at the bottom of the tower where you can enjoy some sweet treats with aromatic Turkish coffee.
8. Visit the Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace once served as the primary administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. After the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, it was transformed into the Topkapi museum which has seen visitors from far around the globe. There are long queues for tickets every day, therefore it is worth going early.
The gardens of the museum are in themselves worth visiting. The lush greenery and sunny weather make for the perfect picnic spot for most of the year. Inside the various chambers of the palace, you can see beautiful thrones, swords and even old handwritten manuscripts that demonstrate the ancient art of calligraphy. There are also many religious tourists that make their way to Topkapi to behold some holy relics dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Tourists are expected to dress modestly to enter this particular chamber.
9. See the Ortaköy Mosque
This beautiful mosque is yet another example of the Ottoman empire’s glorious architecture. Located just before the Bosphorus bridge it is spectacularly picturesque. It’s beautifully crafted ornamental exterior contrasts with its plainer and calmer interior. The bridge and the mosque together is often used to demonstrate the modern and traditional identities of Istanbul.
10. Indulge in delicious Turkish cuisine
The cuisine of any place is a great way to discover the many layers of culture a country has to offer. Istanbul is no different and has many popular, mouthwatering dishes that any traveller should enjoy. Among must-try dishes is the doner, which is essentially a meat sandwich with delicious sauces and salad. It is available widely around the city, as well as in takeaway like places which can help keep a traveller’s budget down. Kebabs (or Kebaps) are also popular. This succulent meat is served with an array of cooling salads and yoghurt which is particularly divine with fresh bread.
For vegetarians, Menemen is a dish of spiced vegetables with scrambled eggs. It can be scooped up with hot bread or simply eaten with a spoon. Kumpir are also a must try. This delicious potato is the Turkish version of the British ‘jacket potato’. With its baked crispy skin and cheesy smooth interior, it is served with an array of toppings like sweetcorn, pickles and salad.
Any meal can be rounded off with aromatic Turkish tea served in beautiful glasses. For coffee lovers, Turkish coffee is also best sampled in its home country. The thick, rich and beautifully smooth coffee can be a perfect way to start or even end the day.
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