Istanbul. The rarest of cities spanning two continents- Europe and Asia. This land is replete with architectural marvel, a fantastic nightlife and mouthwatering cuisines for gluttons. This vast city is a perfect blend of traditional and trendy, antiquated and advanced.
Istanbul is split into 3 segments:
The monumental Sultanahmet on one side of the Golden Horn
The lively European area of Beyoglu on the other side of the Golden Horn
The Asian side divided by the rest of Istanbul by Bosphorus
Every segment displays singularity in character. So you won’t feel like you are seeing the same things over and over.
Istanbul won over Rome and Milan in 2014 in the list of world’s top city-break destinations. This place is so homely and comfortable that many tourists often end up settling here permanently.
Let’s take a look at why this city endears the visitors so intensely.
Istanbul’s Points of Interest
The Historical Face of Istanbul- The Sultanahmet
Istanbul was formerly the city of Constantinople in the ancient times. And if you’ve paid a little bit of attention in the History class (and napped a little less), you would have definitely heard this name. Constantinople was the Capital of both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Hence, it has a lot of stories to tell. There are umpteen museums and palaces that sing the poems on the Ottoman rulers.
Here’s a list of Things to do in the Sultanahmet, that is the ancient Istanbul:
Visit the Museum of Hagia Sophia
1000 year old Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sophia, dates back to 537 AD, when it was built as a Church. This magnificent 43 meter wide dome, 65 meter above your head was then converted into a Mosque in 1453 AD and finally, in 1935, into a Museum.
Hagia Sophia is a masterstroke of the incredible Byzantine architecture. The museum’s gallery holds breathtaking Christian mosaics which are as old as the 12th century, coupled with gorgeous Islamic calligraphy.
Marvel at the grandeur of the Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Sarayi was home to the Ottoman Sultans for more than three centuries between 1465 and 1856. This palace’s marvelous architecture, well-trimmed courtyards and manicured pavilions make it a top Istanbul Attraction.
When in Topkapi Sarayi, visit the Harem, a cage of Sultan’s women, the Weaponry Room showcasing many one-of-a-kind weapons along with other Ottoman craftsmanship, and the Treasury that stores the crown jewels. There’s a Sacred Trusts Exhibit, displaying world-class antiques as the Staff of Moses and a Bear Hair of Prophet Mohammad. Take a stroll at the end of the gardens to get a splendid view of the Seas of Marmara.
Pay you prayers at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque
The Blue Mosque gets its name from the blue Iznik tiles that ornate this place. Sultan Ahmed wanted to build a monument as grand and gorgeous as Aya Sophia, and came pretty close.
The Blue Mosque is a free-to-visit site, unlike Hagia Sophia. You need to be very particular about your dress-up, make sure you wear fully covered clothes (women even need to wear a head scarf). This is an active mosque and hence, is closed for the non-worshipers around all the five prayers.
Check out the gigantic Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The Archaeological Museums house more than a million relics and antiquities. The topmost attraction here is the Sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, besides the Athena Temple from Assoss. Then there is a Museum of Ancient Orient and another one of Turkish Ceramics.
Stroll through the beautiful cobbled Hidden Streets of Istanbul
Sogük Çesme Sokak, or Istanbul’s Hidden Streets stretch between the Topkapi Palace and the Gulhane Park. The historic wooden Ottoman houses frilled along the cobblestone streets surely take you back in time.
Appraise the Medusa Heads at the Basilica Cistern
Edging the Sultanahmet Square is the Basilica Cistern, standing opposite to Hagia Sophia. This cavernous Cistern hidden in the Basement was originally built to store water for the palace and other influential buildings in the area.
Go to the Grand Bazaar on a shopping spree
Kalpali Çarsi, or the Grand Bazaar, is a labyrinth of streets and passages. Every streets and area exhibits and sells a specific product or service; like the carpet sellers in one area and goldsmiths in another. Handicrafts, leather works, ceramics and brass items- all are worth your time and money.
All this shopping ans walking is sure to wear you off. So head on to the Fes Cafe for a snack-break. This place serves world-class refreshments. From here, the Süleymaniye Museum is just a 10 minute walk.
Head on to the largest mosque in Istanbul- Süleymaniye Mosque
This Mosque was designed by the most eminent Architect in the history of Ottoman rule- Mimar Sinan. This mosque is gigantic enough to be seen from a distance.
The two mausoleums here store the tombs of Sultan Suleiman 1 and his family.
Visit the other side of the mosque to get a panoramic view of the Bosphorus.
Take Home some spices for a better cooking, from the Spice Market
Near the metaphorically New Mosque is the Spice Market. These covered alleyways attract the best chefs across the globe to get a fine collection of spices, fragrances and dry fruits.
Stationed outside the market are cheese, meat and nuts.
Gawk at the frescoes of the Chora Museum
The Church of the holy Savior in Chora is situated 20 minutes away from Sultanahmet, near the old walls of the city. It is home to magnificent frescoes and mosaics which are as old as 14th century.
Cruise on the Bosphorus Waterway
Whether you take a 2 hour cruise or a full day one, that takes you to the mouth of the Black Sea, Bosphorus are totally worth your time. Bosphorus divides Istanbul’s European and Asian faces.
The Ticket office is close to the Galata Bridge.
Have a Gala Time in the European Istanbul
This contemporary side of Istanbul is a lot of fun. Though there are a few epic touristy sites to check out here as well, but the air has a unique European charm to it.
Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace situated on the banks of Bosphorus
Dolmabahce Palace held the privilege of being the Presidential Palace of Istanbul under the reign of Ataturk. Located right on the banks of Bosphorus, its location catalyses its charm. The statuesque palace is all about crystal mirrors, sublime baths and gorgeous glass decorations.
Other attractions here are the epic Baccarat Staircase and the grandiose chandelier in the Ceremonial Hall.
Splurge out in the Nişantaşı area of Istanbul
For Shopaholics, the most important Istanbul attraction is the neighborhood of Nişantaşı. Besides being a highly fashionable street, this area also houses many nice cafes and alluring art galleries. The popular restaurant Kantin is in the same locality.
World famous brands like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Lauduree, etc., are on the Abdi Ipeksi lane.
Get a photo at the Independence Monument in Taksim Square
The contemporary and vibrant vicinity of Taksim is located in the European part of Istanbul. The place is lined with amazing restros and bars, and many fast-food joints like the Burger King. Top brands like Grand Hyatt Istanbul and Ceylan Intercontinental are in this very neighborhood.
Taksim Square is located at one end of the Istiklal Cadessi. The southern end of this Square holds the Independence Monument of Ataturk. The area is also visited for its fairly good connectivity via public transport.
Check out the Galata Bridge and Tower
Galata Bridge is a mecca for fishermen, who line up on both sides of this bridge. On the lower level are a number of seafood restaurants. Nearby, the Galata Tower rises like a beacon. On the left of this bridge is the Karakoy Fish Market. Visiting this rambling street is a unique experience in itself.
The Galata Tower is said to be as old as the 6thcentury. But its restoration in the 1960s has given it a newfangled look. The 360 degree vista from the roof of the Galata Tower is absolutely mesmerizing. After dusk, the whole city gets lit up like thousands of stars on earth. There’s a rooftop restaurant and a nightclub too here.
Pray at the Grand Imperial mosque, in front of the Bosphorus Bridge
Ortakoy, or the Grand Imperial Mosque is an easy walk from the main Tram station at Kabatas. This Mosque has a pride of a place in front of the Bosphorus Bridge.
Ortakoy has some really nice shopping and cafe options.
Have a break from site-seeing at the Rainbow Stairs
As you walk up from the Istanbul Modern up to the Dolmabahce Palace, on the other side of the road are beautifully painted steps that extend between Findikli and Cihanger.
It is a nice place to click or two with your folks.
Istanbul Modern is the ‘place to be’ for art buffs
The renovated Dockland warehouse displays contemporary Turkish artists, photographers and sculptors, with ships stationing next door. This cafe has amazing views of the Bosphorus from its balcony.
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If you are a gourmand, The Asian side of Istanbul calls you!
The Asian face of Istanbul is all for food and leisure lovers. After a great deal of exploration, people often visit this side for a laid-back fun time.
This neighborhood has a plethora of food markets and restaurants to fill your tummy. The legendary Hamam is best found in this area as well.
Experience Hamam to rejuvenate your body and soul
Everyone goes for a vacation to get a break from the monotony. And what better way to rejuvenate your body and soul than get a nice scrub at the Hamam.
After a long day of walking and exploring so many museums and palaces, lying on a hot marble in a peaceful room hearing nothing but running water. You get a brisk scrub all over, followed by a soothing massage and you are all set!
Among the many Hamams, Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam are the most popular.
Ramble along the Kadiköy Daily Market
You can take a Ferry to Kadikoy or use the recently built Marmaray Tunnel. In any case, it’s going to be a joyride. Kadikoy has a vibrant market with beautifully stacked fruits and veggies. There are abundant fishermen trying to get max bucks for their stuff. Not to mention Spices; Istanbul is all about spices. There are also hordes of nuts and sweet sellers.
All in all, it’s a wonderful experience for people who believe in traveling the world like a local.
Have a cup of the Turkish Beverages
The thick, black, unfiltered coffee is not everyone’s caprice. Istanbul’s most famous Mandabatmaz truly stands up to its name. Mandabatmaz means that even a water buffalo doesn’t sink in. That’s how thick it is!
Non coffee drinkers have the option of Turkish Chai (Tea) as well.
Try out the unique cuisines at Ciya Sofrasi
This place serves delicious Anatolian cuisine. You will find some of the most delicious and unique dishes here, thanks to its chef who believes in hunting the traditional recipes down.
Ciya Sofrasi’s menu changes with every season as their modus operandi is established on serving fresh food.
Try a Rooftop Bar to get tipsy
Hit a rooftop bar around dusk and witness a gorgeous sunset. Istanbul has many places that offer a spectacular view from their balcony. Like Mikla at Marmara Peru Hotel, 360 in Istiklal Cadessi and Leb-i-Deyra.
Visit the Princess Islands
The sea of Marmara has a group of 9 beautiful islands called the Princess Islands. The place is located about 20 kms south of the city, and is a perfect getaway from the hustle-bustle of Istanbul.
Of these, Buyukada is the largest and the best of all. The best part, it’s a no-automobile area. So get set for a retro horse carriage ride through lush pine forests and traditional wooden houses.
Visit the Asian Markets to get everything you need
Markets in this Asian neighborhood sell everything from food to apparels, to home appliances. There are separate markets for each day. But if your stay includes a Sunday, head on to Kastamonu and Tarlabasi market. These authentic local markets will give you a real taste of how the locals live and shop here.
Istanbul is al about food! Try the baked potato dish Kumpir, or the sesame covered pretzels found on every alternate stall. Then there is Borek, a flaky dough for a Turkish pastry. And don’t miss out the epic Baklava, a layered pastry sweetened with honey, which has placed itself on international menus.
Istanbul is an omnipotent land, and the abundant supply of Hukkah makes it a haven for the youngsters. It has well preserved its Asian and European blend. So you get to see the culture of two continents in one trip.
But make sure you plan a long vacation here. No use coming back home dissatisfied!