Istanbul, a city full of history and great contrasts, with an incessant movement that can sometimes even seem chaotic. However, within this singular disorder, it is possible to appreciate hundreds of colors, aromas and sounds that awaken all the senses. Just by mentioning that in the past it was the capital of three great empires and currently 15 million people live here, it can give us a picture of the vibrant atmosphere of the city. Still, there is nothing better than see the magnificent of Istanbul with your own eyes. Let’s explore all it has to offer and realize how exotic the Turkish capital can be. Certainly, it will not disappoint you.
So that you can enjoy your trip to the maximum, I leave you the jewels of constantinople that you cannot miss walking through the city of Istanbul.
1. What to see in Istanbul: The Holy Sofia Mosque.
The Santa Madre Sofía Mosque is a monumental building that currently serves as a museum that you can enter and admire its incredible magnitude and beauty.
However, initially when it was built in 360, its original use was as an Orthodox patriarchal basilica. It was in 1453, after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire, that the old basilica was transformed into a Mosque. It continued with this function until 1935, at which time it was reopened as a museum.
During the conquest of Constantinople, the church was completely looted and many of its relics were stolen or destroyed. It is said that the moment Sultan Mehmed entered the church, he decided to transform it into a mosque since his idea was to convert the city to Islam. Thus, the Hagia Sophia church became the first mosque in Istanbul.
The church bells, altar, and pulpit were removed. During the Ottoman rule Islamic architectural details were added, such as the mihrab, the minbar and the four minarets. In addition, many of the mosaics, paintings, and images of the walls and ceilings were covered or rebuilt.
The name of Saint Sophia actually responds to Sophia, which in Latin means wisdom. So the name meant that the temple was dedicated to Saint Sophia, the personification of God’s wisdom.
The mosque is located at the highest point in Istanbul. It has four minarets and a dome of more than 30 meters in diameter at almost 57 meters high. It is worth clarifying that Santa Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years until the work of the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.
The interior is a 77 x 71 meter rectangle crowned by the immense dome. What is most striking is the gilded carved marble minbar and the huge decorative medallions with the names of great figures of Islam. In addition, on the two floors of the building you can find many mosaics representing the different imperial families and images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
Undoubtedly, for its magnitude and beauty, the Hagia Sophia mosque is one of the must-sees in Istanbul. The entrance time is from Monday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the entrance fee is € 15. I recommend you visit the museum very early and later the entrance line is very long, even more so in season.
2. What to see in Istanbul: The Blue Mosque.
Just in front of Hagia Sophia, as if balancing the square, is the Blue Mosque. Actually its name in Turkish is Sultanahmed Camii, which means Sultan Ahmed Mosque. It was him who sent the mosque to be built in 1606 as an offering to God Allah, although it was finally inaugurated in 1617 by Sultan Mustafa I.
There was some controversy with the construction of the Blue Mosque since it included six minarets, something that only Mecca in Saudi Arabia had until then. To avoid problems, Sultan Ahmed I himself financed the seventh minaret of Mecca, and thus end all discussion on it.
Although at first glance it may appear similar in size to Hagia Sophia, it is actually smaller. The central dome measures 23.5 meters in diameter with 43 meters high in the center. However, from afar you can already see the equally impressive architecture with its cascading domes and its six minarets.
The interior of the mosque is shaped like a 4-leaf clover, with a large central space and side galleries. The central space is covered by a large dome that rests on four huge pillars, each representing the prophet Muhammad and the four caliphs who accompanied him. However, the most impressive and what gives the mosque its name is its interior decoration. Almost three-quarters of the surface is covered in brilliant blue tiles, all from the city of Iznik (Nicea). In addition, the 260 stained glass windows and gold carved verses of the Koran accompany and enhance the beauty of the mosque.
Visiting the Blue Mosque is a free activity that can be done in Istanbul. The only thing to keep in mind is that from 30 minutes before the moments of prayer you cannot enter the premises. In addition, there is a certain dress code to be able to enter the mosque. No bare hair for women, and everyone should have their legs and shoulders covered.
3. What to see in Istanbul: The Basilica Cistern.
The Basilica Cistern is an ancient water reserve built under the city of Istanbul. In reality Yerebatan Sarayi “Submerged Palace” in Turkish, is the largest cistern of the 60 that existed in the city.
The name is due to the fact that the cistern was found in the underground wells of an ancient basilica very close to the Hagia Sophia mosque. The objective of the cistern was to maintain water tanks so that the city had reserves in case of being attacked. In particular, the Basilica Cistern was built to supply the Byzantine Palace in the time of Justinian I (527-565).
The cistern measures 143 by 65 meters capable of holding 80,000 m3 of water. The interior has 336 marble columns 9 meters high, arranged in 12 rows of 28 columns each. The water in the cistern comes from the forests of Belgrade, located 19 kilometers north of the city, through the aqueduct built by the same emperor Justinian.
In particular, there are two columns that are its bases have blocks carved with the face of Medusa. Nobody know about its origins, although the blocks are said to be oriented sideways and upside down in order to remove the powers of Medusa’s gaze.
The entrance time to The Basilica Cistern is Monday to Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The entrance fee is 20 TL, approximately € 3.
4. What to see in Istanbul: The Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is an incredible maze of hallways full of shops where one can get lost for hours. It is undoubtedly one of the essential places to see in Istanbul.
Walking through its streets, perceiving its colors, smells, movement and dynamism, is like walking through a small representation of what life in the city is. The bazaar has 45 thousand square meters where more than 3,600 stores are located. Distributed in 64 streets where approximately 20 thousand people work, gives us an idea of the magnitude. Walking its streets you can find shops for lamps, carpets, jewelry, clothing, souvenirs, cafes, Turkish baths and even mosques.
The origin of the Grand Bazaar dates back to the 15th century when Mehmed II built the ancient bazaar (Eski Bedesten) near his palace. Over time, around this building, different artisan workshops were installed, forming union streets. A long time later these streets were covered and the entire complex was walled.
Touring the bazaar is a free activity that we can do in Istanbul from Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Of course, to visit the bazaar you have to be prepared so that the sellers do not want to convince you to buy everything. And if your idea is to actually buy something, keep in mind that it is almost mandatory to haggle over prices first.
5. What to see in Istanbul: The Topkapi Palace.
In 1465, after the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmed inaugurated Topkapi Palace as his personal residence and that of his Harem. For several centuries the Palace was the government center of the Ottoman Empire and the residence of all the sultans until 1853. It was the Sultan Abdulmecid who decided to transfer his residence to the Dolmabahçe Palace, a more modern and western-looking building.
The Topkapi Palace is a complex of 700,000 square meters in which there are several buildings surrounded by four courtyards. Among the most important points to see in the palace are the Harem, the Treasury and the rooms that surround the Iftariye canopy.
The Harem is the place where the sultan and his family resided. The word Harem in Arabic means “forbidden” since only some people could enter this place; the sultans, the sultan’s wives, their children, the sultan’s mother, the concubines and the maids. Attention, to access the Harem it is necessary to purchase a separate entrance.
The Treasury is another of the places to see in the palace. In this building you can see some of the most expensive objects in the world, such as “the diamond of the spoon” or “the Topkapi dagger”. Turkish say that only 10% of the actual Treasury that exists in Topkapi can be seen.
To enter the Palace it is necessary to buy the ticket that costs 60 TL (approximately € 10), and for the Harem it is another 35 TL (€ 5 more). The hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Tuesday. It is advisable to go very early and visit the Harem and the treasures first as many people come to the place as the hours go by.
6. What to see in Istanbul: The Galata Tower.
Visiting the Galata Tower is another must-see in Istanbul. From the top of the tower you can get one of the best views of the city next to the Golden Horn.
The Galata Tower is said to be one of the oldest in the world because it is known that since the 5th century, in this same place, there was an old wooden tower. However, the first stone Galata tower called Christea Turris was built by the Genoveses in 1348 as part of a fortification system to protect the city. Through the centuries the tower had many functions, it started as a lighthouse, then a military tower, it was transformed into an astronomical observatory and finally a fire watch tower.
The tower is located on the top of Galata Hill, and added to its height of 61 meters, they allow us to have a beautiful 360 view of the city at almost 100 meters high. Also, something curious about the tower is its walls. Its thickness decreases as it increases. The base wall is 3.7 meters while the top is only 20 centimeters.
There are many stories and legends that include the tower. For example, it is said that in 1638 Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi put eagle wings on his back and flew from the Galata Tower. Also according to another Roman legend, if a man and a woman who had never been to the tower before visited it together, then they would end up getting married.
You can go up to the Galata Tower every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The entrance fee is 25 TL (approximately € 4).
7. What to see in Istanbul: Taksim Square and Istiklal Pedestrian Avenue.
Located on the European side of Istanbul, Taksim Square is the preferred place for Turks to hold all kinds of celebrations, demonstrations and social events.
The name taksim, which in Turkish means “distribution”, regards to its origins when the square was the end point for the main aqueducts from northern Istanbul and branched out to other parts of the city.
In the square is the Monument to the Republic that commemorates the fifth anniversary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Today, in the plaza and its surroundings, there is an atmosphere of constant movement. The number of shops, restaurants, businesses of all kinds and luxury hotels found in the neighboring streets transformed the square into an unmissable visit to Istanbul.
Furthermore, one of the most famous avenues in the city starts precisely from Taksim Square. It is Istiklal Caddesi, a beautiful pedestrian street like Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna or Strøget in Copenhagen. The Istiklal Caddesi is full of restaurants and shops of the most recognized brands. You can also enjoy the street using the old tram. This traditional tram runs from Taksim Square to the Tünel Funicular station (The Tünel funicular is the second oldest suburban transport in the world behind the London underground).
8. What to see in Istanbul: The Spice Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar, or also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, is one of the oldest markets in Istanbul. The origin of the Bazaar dates back to 1663 and its main objective was to economically maintain the New Mosque, which was built at the same time just next to the market.
The name of the Egyptian Bazaar is due to the fact that formerly Istanbul was the end of the silk route from Egypt. On the other hand, the spices that arrived from India and Southeast Asia to Egypt, were also transferred by the Mediterranean Sea to Istanbul. Once in the city, and in the bazaar, the products were distributed throughout Europe.
The Egyptian Bazaar is L-shaped and can access to it through any of its 6 entrance doors. It is a market where the senses awaken to enjoy the colors and aromas of the place. This bazaar is a typical place to buy traditional products such as sweets, nuts or spices.
9. What to see in Istanbul: Take a boat trip on the Bosphorus.
One of the essential activities to do in Istanbul is to take a boat trip on the Bosphorus.
The Bosporus is a strait that connects two seas, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. On each side of the Bosporus is a different continent, on one side Europe and on the other Asia. The total length of the strait is 30 kilometers and the width ranges from 700 meters to almost 4 kilometers.
Navigating this strait that separates the city between Asia and Europe is a beautiful walk. During the tour you usually visit several palaces such as Beylerbeyi, Ciragan and Dolmabahçe. Also you can see the maidens tower and some mosques like Solimán or Ortaköy.
Many companies offer short cruises that allow you to see the city from a different perspective. Perhaps you can take the walk having a typical Turkish tea at sunset, or dining on a delicious meal. Whatever the time, taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus is a unique experience.
Excursions not to miss from Istanbul.
Some of the ideal destinations that you should not miss when traveling to Turkey are Cappadocia, Ankara or Ephesus.
Cappadocia in the Anatolian region is one of the best destinations in Turkey. Visiting its valleys with the rock chimneys seems like a movie landscape. Even, you can sleep in a mountain cave or flying over Cappadocia at sunrise in a hot air balloon. This are extraordinary experiences you must do in Cappadocia.
From Istanbul you can take a 1 hour flight to Kayseri, Nevşehir and Cappadocia. Also there is a cheaper option travelling by bus for 10 hours (good for making intermediate stops and seeing other cities).
My recommendation to not complicate yourself and not miss the sunrise balloon flight in Cappadocia is to hire an all-inclusive tour from Istanbul with everything organized. (buy here)
What to eat in Istanbul Turkey?
On any trip to another culture it is always interesting to try local food. That is why, below I leave you the typical dishes that you can find in Istanbul and surely throughout Turkey.
It is perhaps the best known and ordered Turkish typical dish worldwide, but be aware that there are different presentations. Döner kebab, in particular is with lamb, beef or chicken meat that has been roasted vertically on a rotating axis.
Döner means ‘something that rotates’ and kebab, roasted meat.
Testi Kebab is a quite tasty stew based on lamb meat, which is cooked in a clay pot on charcoal embers. The pot is covered with bread dough that is cooked up there. Kuzu Tandir, is kebab-style lamb meat, but served with pilav rice, fried potatoes and tomato with peppers.
Most typical Turkish meals are accompanied by a yogurt drink “Ayran” that helps to digest food better. It is a yogurt drink based on sheep’s milk that has a thick and slightly acidic flavor.
Also known as Turkish pizza, it is a boat-shaped loaf filled with minced meat, cheese, and peppers. Some can also be made with spinach and cheese.
It is like a pizza flavored with minced meat, salad, and lemon juice on bread. Sometimes can be wrapped, folded in half, or separated to eat.
As for fish Istanbul is a very good city to eat fresh and cheap fish. The most traditional is the Balik ekmek. A fried mackerel fish sandwich with lettuce and onion salad. Really a delicacy and a very cheap meal to eat in Istanbul.
Lökum or Turkish Delight.
They are the traditional Turkish sweets, a kind of firm texture jellies with dried fruits. Inside they can be filled with hazelnuts, pistachios or walnuts, and are cut into cubes and coated with powdered sugar. They are generally consumed as a dessert or as a sweet detail along with coffee.
A sweet puff pastry filled with walnuts or pistachios and dipped in honey syrup. The most traditional is with pistachios.
Cay or Turkish tea.
Turkish tea is surely the most viewed drink in Istanbul. It is a black tea (although the color is reddish) prepared in a particular way. Most of the time it is served in very common small clear glass cups and never mix it with milk!!!
It is a traditional drink in Turkey and they drink it at any time of the day. It is very cheap and you can buy it in most restaurantes and bars. Very good option to stop for a few minutes to take a Cay and rest from walking.
Where to stay in Istanbul?
The Turkish capital is a huge city and it can sometimes be a bit overwhelming to choose where to stay in Istanbul. However, the best areas to stay are three:
In the Sultanahmet Square neighborhood you will find a great offer and variety of accommodation for all kinds of budgets. This is the best place for sightseeing the city. It is very close to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Cistern and the Grand Bazaar. But it is also close to the Galata Bridge and all its attractions around it. Also in the surroundings there are many options to eat and shops to buy everything.
My recommendations with excellent scores, very good location, at low cost, breakfast included and incredible terrace are: Agora guesthouse and Hotel Bizim.
2. Karakoy or Galata Tower.
The neighborhood around the Galata Tower is a very good option to stay in Istanbul since it is very close to the tower and the Galata Bridge. During the day you can cross the other side of the Golden Horn to visit the main attractions of Istanbul. While at night, you can enjoy the bohemian and lively atmosphere, full of bars, restaurants, shops and entertainment options.
The recommended ones for the Torre Gálata area are: Mesto Galata and Meroddi La Porta Hotel.
The Taksim Square neighborhood is where the big hotels of the main chains are located. There is a great offer of restaurants, bars and cafes, ideal if you want to go out at night. Also this area connects most of the important tourist spots by using the metro. In addition, the buses that connect with Istanbul International Airport and Sabiha Gökçen airports depart and arrive from here.
The options are many in this area, but the recommended ones are: Mukarnas Taksim Hotel and Ayramin Hotel Taksim.
I hope this post “What to see in Istanbul. The city between two continents” has been helpful in planning your trip to the wonderful city of Istanbul. If you have any questions or you think there is something to include, leave a comment. I will gladly reply. Happy journey!