What to visit in Istanbul?
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Connected to the two worlds of West and East and nestled on the banks of the Bosphorus Istanbul is a mix of cultures and traditions. Breath-taking architecture, magical landscapes with domes and tips of its minarets, precious mosques and harem, expanses of tulips, flocks of seagulls, cats, spicy food and its arabesque charm will make you feel like in a novel from the book One Thousand and One Nights. Discover with us the unique beauty of this metropolis that will make your journey a wonderful adventure!
Discover with us:
What not to miss?
Hagia Sophia Basilica
Considered the jewel of the Turkish city and a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, it guards an ancient history that makes it famous. From the largest Christian monument in the world, later transformed into a mosque, and until 2020 it has been a large museum. With amazing interiors, the sun shining through the windows will make you feel as if you are in a large Arabian lamp, a large dome with gold decorations and Byzantine mosaics that make it fascinating. Today, it has been re-designated as a mosque, which opens every day except winter Mondays and on religious holidays. Above all, you will only be able to enter when prayer is not taking place.
Evocative and mystical place of prayer, the Blue Mosque is spectacular. Featuring six minarets rising towards the sky, they create a bluish harmony where the blue colour of the sky combines with the elegant and imposing exterior. Internally, the entire holy place is covered in Iznik ceramic tiles with a mixture of colours between green, turquoise, blue, red yellow and white. The atmosphere becomes almost surreal during the Ramadan period when the mosque is adorned with lots of bright gold lamps embellished with gems.
Turkey's oldest museum is located behind the Hagia Sophia. For centuries it represented the centre of Ottoman power as it was the official residence of the sultans. Moreover, its strategic location allowed it to control maritime traffic. Consisting of a labyrinth of buildings, kiosks, corridors, belvederes and gardens, its main attraction is undoubtedly the Harem luxurious flats reserved for the sultan's family. Only a few rooms can be visited, including the library of Ahmet III, the gardens, the court of the eunuchs and, above all, the Treasury Room.
Tips for you: the places described above really have a very high number of people visiting them. To avoid finding yourself in huge queues and wasting entire days in line, we advise you to leave early in the morning. Moreover, we advise you to read below "what to be aware of" concerning clothing.
To get in touch with a truly cosmopolitan culture full of traditions, a trip to the Grand Bazaar is a must. Paths and passages full of colours, scents, and merchandise of all kinds from carpets, fabrics, souvenirs and more, where the magic word is haggling! Located in the Kapalıçarşı district, it is a covered market that also has cafés and street food stalls if you get hungry.
And if you like these kinds of places, there is also the Spice Market located near the Eminönü harbour opposite the Galata Bridge, which we will mention later.
What else to visit?
Situated in the district of Beyoglu, Galata Kulesi is a tower designed by Genoese merchants that became the first prison and then a fire lookout point. It is open to the public. A lift takes you to the penultimate floor, where a staircase leads to the rooftop terrace. At sunset, the colours of the sky mingle with the view of the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. Taking the same name is the Galata Koprusu, which is a bridge connecting the Galata and Eminönü districts. You may find it pleasant to stroll along this passage with several restaurants where you can have a drink and enjoy snacks.
Not far from Topkapi Palace is the Museum of Archaeology where the famous Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great is kept. Rich in artefacts, from Sumerian to Greek to Egyptian, Hellenistic sarcophagi, carved Roman, numerous marble tombs and Egyptian tombs. The visit takes at least two hours with explanations about the city and the history it is steeped in.
Fener and Balat are the most historically rich and fascinating areas on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Each with different characteristics rich in architecture, religious monuments and gastronomic delicacies. Fener the historic Greek quarter characterised by narrow streets, ups and downs, and colourful Ottoman houses with bizarre shapes. On the other side, Balat is the historic Jewish quarter, where some houses are dilapidated but overall, the quarter is very picturesque with its colourful houses and small cafés. So many colours and so many photo opportunities. Moreover, when you reach the top of Balat, you enter a park from which you can admire a breath-taking view of the entire Golden Horn. If you hear of the Fatih district, it is none other than the one that encompasses Galata Bridge, Sultanahmet, Gülhane Park and Hagia Sophia.
How to travel there?
Unless you are travelling on a cruise, the most common way to get to Istanbul is by plane. The main airport of the city is the Istanbul Airport (IST) which is approximately 50 kilometres from the centre. In this case, you will have to make a few trips by bus to reach the city centre. Regular buses operate daily, 24 hours a day.
Alternatively, another airport that you can consider is Sabiha Gökçen approximately 40 kilometres from the centre. Public transport is one option, mainly the line (E3) that leaves more or less every hour until 2 a.m. For example, Taksim Square is connected to Sabiha Gökçen Airport by the HAVABÜS shuttle service.
You can also take the train since any stations are present in the different parts of the city as Haydarpaşa in the Asian part and Sirkeci in the European part.
An alternative would be to reach the city by car via Budapest and Bucharest or Belgrade and Sofia.
When to travel there?
The best time to visit Istanbul is during the intermediate seasons: during spring, from April to the end of June, the weather is mild and pleasant with some sudden rainfall. Above all, the city is very lively due to the events held during this period. If you are looking for less chaos, November to February is characterised by low tourist numbers.
Istanbul is a cheap city so eating, sleeping and getting around will not be a big expense for you. For a meal in a cheap restaurant, it is 60TL which corresponds to about 4 euros, while in an average restaurant around 18 euros.
Concerning the accommodation, hotels can range from 32 to 118 euros per night, while most vacation rentals will cost 126 to 376 per night for the entire home.
As for transportation, you can get around the city, using the metro, buses and trams. The metro, tram and bus ticket are a token you buy before boarding and costs 4TL, which is equivalent to about 24 cents. There is also a card that allows you to travel by bus, metro, tram, ferry and funicular that you can buy at any station.
What to be aware of?
Being a big city, we advise you to watch out for pickpockets and be careful with your personal belongings. In short, the basic precautions to be observed in any metropolis. Furthermore, being a city with strong religious ties, in some places, it would be appropriate not to wear a certain type of clothing such as miniskirts, shorts, low-cut necklines, half-sleeved shirts and so on. For example, in sacred places, you must enter barefoot and with shoulders and knees strictly covered. Many times women are also obliged to cover their heads.
What to eat?
Perfect for breakfast, these are bagels similar to sesame bagels to accompany çay (classic
tea), or a fresh pomegranate juice called nar suyu. You can taste it from one of the many street vendors you find around the city, otherwise, at Simit Sarayi, bagel shops are scattered around the city.
Street food is almost a must in Istanbul, which is why one of the dishes you should try is the kebap (in Turkish is spelt with a final p, kebab is in Arabic): this is roasted meat served on a plate in a restaurant or even on the street in a roll kebap. This can be accompanied by salad and vegetables. Depending on how you order it, the price varies - for the main course around 83 TL (5-6€) and street food around 50 TL (2-3€). A famous chain of kebap restaurants is Kasap Doner or Ali Usta.
Taking the form of a large boat, it’s a baked bread stuffed with a variety of toppings such as cheese, sausage, spiced meat eggs and spinach. Toppings can be ground meat, diced meat, pastrami, and sujuk but also a sweet version made with tahini and sugar. We point you to two names where you could eat it: Fatih Damak Pide and Pide Ban.
If you want to discover more on the gastronomy of turkey, check our article on the blog about food in Turkey and follow @thewalkingparrot to be always updated.
Lale Festival (April)
The passion for tulips started during the Ottoman period and now they are one of the national symbols. This event transforms the city into a colourful bud, where parks, avenues, and alleys become a large flower meadow. A lot of places to take pictures with beautiful creations as background. We recommend visiting the Emirgan Park where waterfalls, animals and ponds enrich the environment, which becomes wonderful during the festival.
International Istanbul Film Festival (April)
Festival dedicated to the theme of cinema and film art featuring different competitions at many levels (international, and national) with a variety of guests, creators and world-famous actors. If you are a film fan and love to follow film trends, this event is perfect for you.
International Jazz Festival (July)
If you are more into music, perhaps the event for you is this one dedicated to Jazz but also several other genres like rock, pop, and world music. Lots of activities and guests come together to create an international event. Taking music out of the context and playing in the oldest or most unusual places in the city: in the streets of Istanbul, even on trams and ferries, music plays, meeting everyone who wants to have fun.
Biennal of Istanbul (September - November)
For fans of pure art, there is an event for you too! The Istanbul biennial dedicated to visual arts has a rich programme of meetings, seminars, panel discussions, conferences, and workshops with contemporary artists bringing together the culture of different countries in the international arena.
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