Istanbul City Guide: Top Things To Do
Istanbul has gone through a few hardships of late but it’s an amazing city to explore that is buzzing with culture and flavours making a visit to this beautiful capital city of Turkey most enjoyable.
Istanbul exists over Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus strait and connected by two suspension bridges.
The European side of Istanbul is considered the old city because of its historical significance and you’ll find most of the famous tourist attractions here. The Asian side is more residential, with high street shopping, markets and nightlife.
Here are just 10 of the many top things to do in Istanbul:
Places of Worship:
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and over 2,000 Mosques
As of 2000 there were 2691 mosques, 123 churches and 20 Synagogues in Istanbul. When you’re off exploring the city it is almost impossible not to see one, even if you don’t you will hear prayers being recited and played over loudspeakers from the mosques.
Probably the most famous mosque is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of the interior. It looks amazing from the outside, and the inside, well, we couldn’t tell you because we never made it in, so don’t be like us and ensure to do the following and let us know what it was like.
- Check prayer times. Islamic prayer times are based on the movement of the sun so can vary. The mosque is closed during this time
- Dress appropriately
- Get there early and be prepared to queue
Okay, so we may have not made it inside the Blue Mosque but we did get to experience a mosque, well sort of. Hagia Sophia which faces the Blue Mosque on the other side of Sultanahmet Park was a former church, later a mosque and now a museum and a prime example of Byzantine architecture. Both are part of the UNESECO World Heritage site of Historic Areas of Istanbul.
The museum is decorated with marble pillars and impressive Christian mosaics which were once covered up with plaster but have since been restored. Don’t forget to look up at the impressive dome and reflective light. Tickets are 9.30€.
Medusa and the Basilica Cistern
If you need a break from the heat, take a journey underground to explore the largest ancient cistern which lies beneath the city. The site is beautifully lit up but what probably attracts the most attention are the carved heads of Medusa; a girl whose hair was converted into snakes by Athena through an act of jealously. Basilica Cistern is just across the road from Hagia Sophia and the entrance fee is around 6.25€.
Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice
I’ve been to so many markets in my lifetime that the novelty has worn off somewhat, however if you’re a fan then you should consider visiting either (or both) the Spice Bazaar or Grand Bazaar.
The Spice Bazaar is the largest centre for the spice trade in Istanbul, and as the name suggests it sells spices, as well as sweets, dried fruits, and nuts. It’s a wonderful place for foodies full of vibrant smells and colours.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city and sells mainly souvenirs, jewellery, furniture, clothing and leather goods and some foods such as tea. It’s not exactly authentic with most stalls geared towards tourists, but at least the banter from the stall owners and their inventive ways of getting your attention can be entertaining.
The Tulips of Istanbul at Emirgan Park
The tulip is my most favourite flower of them all, so I was very excited to be in Istanbul during the blooming season (end of March – Mid April). The tulip actually originated in Turkey and is the country’s traditional flower.
The government plants millions all around the city, so you can view them pretty much everywhere, but an excellent place to have a walk around and see tulips in all their glory is Emirgan Park.
Even if you’re not there during tulip season Emirgan Park is definitely worth a stroll, there are plenty of other species of plants, two ponds, picnic tables and a cafe and restaurant.
Sweating it Out at Cagaloglu Hamami
This historical and beautiful hamam was built in 1741 during the Ottoman Empire and has been in business for over 300 years. We’ve been to a few spas around the world and were excited to have an experience in a traditional old building which is what drew us to Cagaloglu; you can’t get any older than this!
There are separate baths for men and women and you can have the option of a full wash and scrub or do it yourself which costs 30€. I’ve got sensitive skin so I’m glad I opted for the DIY, from what I saw the wash service looked rough and rigorous, which I’m sure is the point although I don’t think my skin would have been able to handle it.
The rooms are huge with tall ceilings, wash basins for cooling off and marble stages in the centre for lying on. It was truly relaxing and we felt fantastic upon leaving where we saw pictures and names of many celebrities who had been cleansed there including Florence Nightingale, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tony Curtis.
Cruising the Bosphorus to Kadikoy Food Heaven
Taking a local ferry is a great way to take in the sights of both sides of Istanbul. To get from Old Istanbul in Europe to the popular area of Kadikoy in Asia takes only 15 minutes costing around 1€, much cheaper and authentic than the tourist boats that will cost 5 times as much or more.
It’s a nice ferry ride too taking only 15 minutes. Once at Kadikoy there are many shops and bars to explore, plus some excellent food to grab at Kadikoy market – reputed to have the best food and produce in all of Istanbul. There is also a beautiful promenade in Kadikoy to walk along with many photo opportunities or just time to take in the beauty and culture of Istanbul.
Midye Dolma: The Illegal Treat
At Kadikoy market we experienced the delicious and illegal street food: Midye Dolma. They are mussels stuffed with rice and seasoned with spices and a squeeze of lemon, and they taste AMAZING!
The legitimacy of where the fish are sourced from and also the risk of food poisoning are what taint these tasty morsels. We ate them from two market stalls and didn’t have any problems, however if you do have a sensitive stomach there are restaurants which also sell them.
Layers and layers of rich sweetness
The baklava in Istanbul is the best we’ve ever tried and is a great gift to take back home. You can buy it much cheaper from outside the bazaars and the shopkeepers are always really generous with their samples so you can try before you buy to ensure that it’s fresh.
It was a hit with my colleagues back in London too! There are loads of places selling baklava, so as with deciding on all food places, go to one which is busy with locals.
Home Style Cooking with Turkish Flavours
If you’re into cooking (and eating) then we highly recommend Turkish Flavours. It’s run by Selin, a born and bred Turkish Istanbulite who invites you into her beautiful home to cook delicious homemade Turkish recipes.
We were a class of 6 and we all got to make various dishes under Selin’s instruction. The menu changes depending on seasonality and food intolerances. We made 7 different dishes and then had a sit down lunch with wine included. Steve was star pupil, where as I probably got an A for effort.
Pricing has changed somewhat since we were there however you’re now offered not only a cooking class but also a tasting session, ferry rides and transportation from and to the ferry pier on the Asian side for 110€.
Check out Selin’s tips on where to eat in Istanbul.
Unwind the Turkish way at a Shisha Cafe
Shisha is a popular pastime in Turkey and you’ll be able to smell the fruity smoke in many cafe’s around Istanbul. It’s a nice way to relax at the end of a busy day and there are loads of different flavours you can try such as apple, mint and banana, and you can even mix flavours.
I don’t mean to be a kill joy, but just because it’s fruity, doesn’t mean it’s good for you; according to research carried out by the world health organisation, the volume of smoke inhaled in an hour long-shisha session is said to be the equivalent of smoking 100-200 cigarettes.
Istanbul being in the west of Turkey is far away from the current troubles near the Syrian border. If you’re planning to travel around Turkey and in particular to the east, check out the latest travel advice.