With all the well-deserved attention Istanbul receives, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the capital of Turkey. While Ankara takes the capital title, Istanbul is undoubtedly one of the best tourist destinations in Turkey. This beautiful transcontinental city – with one leg in Europe and the other in Asia – is the only one of its kind in the world.
The mix of East and West has created a very unique place indeed. Istanbul’s long and fascinating history, which reverberates throughout the city, somehow blends seamlessly with its modern persona, trendsetting locals, chic coffeehouses, cool bars and flashy shopping malls. The old with the new just works here, as you’ll soon discover.
Istanbul is a city of brilliant architecture, so step out on a tour of the city’s best buildings. First on your list should be Hagia Sophia, known for its striking design features, artistry and historical and religious significance. Once a basilica, then a mosque and now a museum, Hagia Sophia was built during the Byzantine reign and still stands as one of the most compelling tourist attractions in the world today.
Move on to Topkapi Palace, a former residence of the Ottoman sultans and their harems that, these days, offers a fascinating insight into the opulence and grandeur of court life. At one stage this extravagant complex was home to around 4,000 people, some of them never venturing past the gates. The dramatic tales of what went on inside the walls are intriguing to say the least.
Finally, make your way to the Blue Mosque. Famed for its blue-tiled interiors, the mosque dates back to 1609. This masterpiece of religious devotion is still used as a place of worship today, so you may see people in prayer during your visit.
Eat and Drink
There is no doubt that Istanbul serves up some of the best food in Turkey – from quaint and traditional Ottoman-style restaurants to international fine dining and delicious local street food in between. You’ll find plenty of restaurants on the main tourist strip of Sultanahmet, but it’s worth venturing further afield to join the locals for better flavours and better value. Be sure to stop at one of the fresh juice stands around the city for a welcome refreshment when you’re on your feet all day exploring.
Istanbul has a great nightlife scene, whether you’re into rooftop bars, high-octane clubs, or a casual drink and banter at a lively meyhane (tavern). For dining and partying options near the beach, head to the seaside village of Ortakoy. For festive vibes closer to the city Beyoglu is the place to be.
Where to Stay
You’ll be spoiled for options when it comes to accommodation in Istanbul. Your choice will simply come down to the vibe you’re looking for. Sultanahmet is ideal if you want to be within easy walking distance of a number of major attractions, while Beyoglu offers cool neighbourhoods, excellent restaurants, charming cafés and prime nightlife. If you want to experience the luxury that Istanbul is famous for, check into one of the up-market hotels along the Bosphorus Strait where you’ll pay big money for gorgeous views of the water and the city.
It is impossible to talk about shopping in Istanbul without mentioning the magnificent, world-famous Grand Bazaar. Spread across a whopping 61 streets, this historic marketplace is home to more than 3,000 covered shops. You’ll need hours to explore the maze of fashion, jewellery, ceramics, carpets and textiles the Grand Bazaar is famous for. The Spice Bazaar is also a great sensory experience, while fashionistas will enjoy the shopping district of Nisantasi for international and local labels.
Istanbul Like a Local
Seek out an historic hammam (Turkish bath) around town for a traditional bathing experience, scrub and massage in beautiful surrounds. Although many hotels have their own Turkish bath service, there’s nothing quite like an authentic hammam in a communal setting to make you feel like a true Istanbul local.