Turkey is a country like no other. It is a country that is part-Europe and part-Asia. A long time ago, Turkey was known as both Anatolia and Thrace. Anatolia is the Asian part of Turkey, or Asia Minor, and Thrace being the European part, or Ancient Greek. The people of the land were believed to have descended from the Turks of the Seljuk Empire (1037-1194). Not until 1923, via the Treaty of Lausanne, did people call this country the Republic of Turkey.
As confusing, colorful, and interesting as the country is, the capital city is just as interesting. Istanbul is in and of itself one of a kind as it is the only city to be located on two continents. And as unorthodox as that fact sounds, the city is kind of separated into two as well, the Old Istanbul and the New Istanbul. Both places have their own unique voice and beauty. Both have been influenced by two very diverse and contrasting Asian and European cultures for a very long time. One can only imagine what kinds of things or structures they will see when they take a tour in the old and new parts of town. Here are places and things that one can enjoy in the city of Istanbul.
Up in the northern part of Istanbul, above the Great Horn’s eastern side, there is a park worthy of a visit from tourists. In fact, it is specially made for tourists. So, if we are on our way to a vacation in Istanbul, this is as good a first stop as any.
The Miniaturk Museum is a park and a museum at the same time, it is a map of Turkey spread right in front of us. The place is over 19,500-square feet and features miniature models of historic and popular structures in all of Turkey. It’s like a tourist map or a guide for us, that’s why it’s smart to take a tour in Miniaturk first.
19 Istiklal Avenue
Not that far from Miniaturk is the very popular Istiklal Avenue. It is the heart of Istanbul, and people are drawn to this place as soon as they set foot in the city. It’s has everything, from nice boutiques to hookah, tea & coffee houses, from theaters to nightclubs. From local food to medicine, it’s Istanbul’s city center.
Most people walk in this place, enjoying the view and the ambiance. Some take the famous tram and experience a quick tour of Istiklal Avenue from a different view. The street is about a mile long and has bookstores, art galleries, music stores, and restaurants, too.
18 Galata Tower
This tower that was called Tower of Christ (Christea Turris) when it was made and it stood over everything in Istanbul. Built in 1348, it’s as tall as a nine-story building. The structure was modified to be used for spotting fires all over the city.
Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul. The vantage point from the top of this tower provides the person a full 360-degree view of the whole city. One will be able to see the beauty of Istanbul and even have a glimpse of Princes Islands at the right time of day. Be sure to take a tour of this place, it’s worth it.
17 Spice Bazaar
A bazaar is generally a place where goods are sold. Istanbul and Turkey take their bazaars seriously, as evidence by the presence of six major bazaars in Istanbul alone. One of these is the Spice Bazaar. Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, it is located in the neighborhood of Eminonu, just behind the Yeni Mosque.
It is second only to the most famous bazaar in Istanbul and was built a long time ago in 1660. It’s an L-shaped, closed market with six entrance doors and is the center for spice trade in the city. The Spice Bazaar is open from 9 am to 7 pm Mondays through Saturdays, it’s closed on holidays and closes earlier on Sundays.
16 Süleymaniye Mosque
Mimar Sinan was a chief architect and civil engineer in 15th century Ottoman. Often compared to Michelangelo, he was the creator and visionary of famous architectural classics such as the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, Turkey.
However, he will forever be known as the mind behind the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. The second largest mosque in Istanbul, and one of the most popular structures in the city, the Süleymaniye Mosque was more than just a place of worship. Inside the building was a hospital, schools, Turkish baths, and a big kitchen that serves the poor. If one is to visit any mosque in Istanbul, please make sure this one is on the list.
15 Basilica Cistern
If you’ve watched Tom Hanks in Inferno (the third installment of the Da Vinci Code film series) you’ve seen the Basilica Cistern. It’s like an underground cave filled with pillars everywhere. Istanbul has hundreds of cisterns, but the Basilica Cistern is the largest of all.
Built a long time ago in the 6th century, this cistern is near the Hagia Sophia, about 490 feet away from the famous structure. Cisterns were used like wells, they collect rainwater, then filter them for drinking and for other purposes. Today, the Basilica Cistern is one popular tourist spot that attracts people every day.
14 Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace was the most important building in Istanbul from the 14th century to the 17th century. It was built for Mehmed the Conqueror in 1459. The palace was converted into a museum in the late 1920s and was then declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site about thirty-three years ago.
Today, it is one of the biggest museums in Istanbul, showcasing artifacts and historical Ottoman weapons, clothing, and relics. The outside of the palace is amazing enough, the building is a sight to behold, one of the places that we should not miss when visiting Istanbul, just expect a lot of other tourists there, too.
13 Dolmabahçe Palace
If Topkapi is too crowded for your taste, if you feel you won’t enjoy the Topkapi Palace with all the competing tourists wanting to enjoy and experience Istanbul and Turkish culture, don’t worry. There is still the Dolmabahçe Palace.
This other palace is just as fascinating as the Topkapi Palace, with less hassle and more elbow room. A younger palace compared to Topkapi, the Dolmabahçe was constructed in the 1840s and finished in 1856. It is not only younger but a modern palace version for the growing taste of the Sultan, Abdülmecid I. It is also the largest palace in all of Turkey.
12 Bosphorus Cruise
That body of water in the middle of Istanbul is not a river, nor is it a lake, it’s actually a strait. It’s probably the most important and most significant strait in the world. It serves as a border between Europe and Asia.
It is used for international navigation and connects the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. People can also take some time in their busy tourist days, sit back and relax by taking a Bosphorus cruise. You can choose from different types of cruises. They have the regular Bosphorus cruise, city tours, night tours, and even private tours. Packages start from 30 Turkish lira.
11 Hagia Sophia
Ever since 1935, the Hagia Sophia has been a museum. It was an architectural wonder, a standing structure that’s a perfect example of Byzantine architecture. It was first constructed as a church in 537 AD, then converted to a mosque in 1453.
The building had numerous reconstructions and repairs throughout the years and with the aid of the World Monuments Fund (WMF) the Hagia Sophia was restored to WMF standards in 2006. Now it is open to the public, another tourist attraction among the many historical and cultural structures in Istanbul. Take a gander at the huge dome, an architectural wonder. It is 141 feet wide and is 213 feet above the floor. Wow.
10 Blue Mosque
There are Blue Mosques in the Netherlands, Armenia, and Iran. But there is only one Sultan Ahmed Mosque in the world, but it’s also popularly called the Blue Mosque. As if the Hagia Sophia is not enough of a visual wonder, the Blue Mosque stands next to it.
Visiting this place is like hitting two birds with one stone. Gawk at the Hagia Sophia, then drop your jaw at Sultan Ahmed Mosque seconds later. It’s a mind-blowing visual treat. Unlike the other mosques in this article, the Blue Mosque still serves as a place of worship, so be careful to follow rules if you plan on going inside.
9 Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is probably one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the world. It is over half a millennia old and still one of the most visited markets in Turkey. Locals and tourists flock the place to find good products and a nice bargain, too.
Contrary to what some say, this place is not a tourist trap. All one needs is a very good set of bargaining and haggling skills. More a town than a marketplace, the Grand Bazaar has about 5,000 shops. It also has more than 60 restaurants, more than 10 mosques, and about 20 fountains in it. Famous products sold in the bazaar are different kinds of souvenirs, carpets, ceramics, and jewelry.
8 Local Markets, Hookah, and Turkish Coffee
Pazars, or markets, are a true Turkish cultural immersion. From the items they sell, to the location of the local markets, to the interaction with the owners. Take a rest from all that walking around and try Turkish coffee. Intricately prepared, like no other coffee in the world, Turkish coffee has that rich, pure, and earthy taste.
Definitely one of the most delicious Turkish coffee cups you will ever taste, its best to enjoy it in the land where it came from. Shisha, or waterpipe, smoking a hookah is a nice pastime, an activity so cool, even non-smokers will give it a try.
7 Turkish Street Food
While roaming the streets and soaking in the culture of the city, try out these four popular Turkish street foods. Simit is like a pretzel, a cheap kind of pastry covered in sesame seeds. Enjoy it with jam, cream cheese, or just plain. A must try is dondurma or Turkish ice cream. It’s just like any other ice cream, except for its texture, chewiness, and it does not melt quickly.
The vendors are kind of like street performers, too, performing dessert-defying acrobatics with the ice cream, the cones, and their paddles. Gözleme is like a soft white bread sandwich. You can pick your fillings from cheese, meat, vegetables, then they seal it and cook it over a griddle. Kumpir is a baked potato popular in the streets of Istanbul. Mixed with the usual cheese and butter, and an assortment of popular kumpir ingredients only the streets of Istanbul can pull off.
6 Turkish Bath
After a long day of exploring and trying new things, a nice way of ending your day is going to a hammam. Hamams are the Turkish equivalent of a spa. It’s an establishment offering Turkish baths to its patrons. Walk into a steamy room with hot marble all around wearing nothing but a cotton cloth, and the soft sound of running water in the background.
Relax like that for a few minutes, then follow it up with a soapy and foamy body scrub coupled with a sultan’s massage, sure to leave your skin smooth, and your nerves calm and relaxed. A good hamam is located in Sultanahmet Square, the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam.
5 Archaeology Museum
Ever wondered where Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus is? It’s in Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum. With other major tourist attractions right in the city of Istanbul, it’s easy to overlook the Archaeology Museum. But don’t make the same mistake some tourists have made in the past, an afternoon in the museum might be just worth the time.
Aside from the famed sarcophagus, one can also see the Tiled Pavilion, the Karaman Mihrab, and the oldest surviving peace treaty in the world, the Treaty of Kadesh. It’s a family museum too, having a children’s section and all. Watch children go crazy inside the scale model of the Trojan Horse.
4 Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts
Ibrahim Pasa was the most talented Grand Vizier of Süleyman and he had a palace that is now Istanbul’s Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. Located right next to the Hippodrome (another tourist attraction you should visit), the museum houses about 40,000 items, from calligraphy relics to artwork.
A building with several rooms and a central garden courtyard, it showcases artifacts from different eras and generations. From the early writings of nomadic Turkish groups to contemporary Islamic art. Check out the Islamic art section, the ethnography section, and do not miss the collection of Anatolian carpets, said to be one of the best collections of carpets on Earth.
3 Kariye Museum
The Kariye Museum is also known as the Chora Church. It was a Greek Orthodox church with a Byzantine architectural design. It was converted to a mosque in the 16th century and then to a museum in 1948. It is located in the west side of the Edirnekapi district, some kilometers away and between the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and the Palace of the Porphyrogenitus.
If you like mosaics and frescoes, take a look inside and be pleased. It is the kind of church and building that transports a person back in time, an amazing cultural and historic attraction that is worth any tourist’s time.
2 Turkish Restaurants
For a unique dining experience in the city, try out these restaurants. For a taste and a journey of Istanbul through one’s palate, Ciya is one of the best tour guides. They have arguably the best kebab in the city, and are considerably less expensive than hotel restaurants.
For a specialization in Ottoman cuisine, dine in Asitane restaurant. They offer cuisines nearly lost from generations ago. Restaurants 360 Istanbul and Kiz Kulesi offer not just great food but also amazing dining experiences. In 360 Istanbul, experience modern architecture on top of a building together with Turkish meze cuisine. Kiz Kulesi or Maiden’s Tower is a tower in the middle of the Bosphorus that offers lunch and dinner and an amazing view of the city and its wonderful landmarks.
1 The Amazing Nightlife
One might think that a city in the middle of Asia and Europe, one that is rich in mosques, temples, and museums, might not be one for nightlife and clubs. But it would be wrong to assume that. As a matter of fact, club and nightlife experts all over the world declare that Istanbul could compete in terms of nightlife with any other city.
Clubs on rooftops with a very nice view of the city places with amazing music and wonderful people, good food and a nice time are here. Swing by these places for a night to remember in Istanbul: Luzia, Ruby, Mini Müzikhol, Klein, Reina, and Indigo.