When I first considered Istanbul as a holiday destination, I thought about eating kebab, sampling Turkish delights and watching belly dancers. When I arrived in Istanbul, I realised that there was so much more to see and do. Below are my top things to do in Istanbul from the architectural wonders of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, to the beauty of the Bosphorus to the chaos of the Grand Bazaar, there’s something for everyone and believe me, you would not want to miss any of it! I’ve included some handy tips for you too, so let me know what you think!
The Hagia Sophia is an interesting building because it was once a church, converted into a mosque and now stands as a museum. The Hagia Sophia is stunning to look at from outside but the real charm can be found inside.
When the church was converted into a mosque all remnants of the church were covered with plaster. When the church was turned into a museum, the plaster was removed. You can see the biblical statues (that signifies remnants of a church), in the vicinity of the platform used by the muezzin who leads and recites prayers in a mosque. There is even a point in the mosque where you can stand and see one side as a complete church and the other side as a complete mosque.
Tip: If you want tickets, you will need to queue as early as possible. The lines are long and not everyone obtains entry before closure. The Hagia Sophia is extremely close to the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern so try to see them on the same day. We purchased a tour to see all 3 which is much more expensive but acts as a “skip the line” tour, as tour groups get priority access.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque was one of my favourite places to wander around during the day and especially at night. Rick and I would sit at the breakfast table of our hotel and stare at the top of the Blue Mosque as we sipped on pomegranate juice and tucked into our mediterranean breakfast. I also stood on front of the Blue Mosque many times trying to figure out why it was called the “Blue” Mosque, so it all came into fruition when I saw the interior.
While the exterior of the Blue Mosque holds much appeal, it is the interior that will leave you stunned. The interior is made up of tens of thousands of hand-made ceramic tiles mostly in the colour blue. The arabic writing looks like pieces of art that sit upon the tiles and is a beautiful site to see.
The Basilica Cistern once acted as a water filtration system for the palaces of Constantinople/Istanbul. As we entered the Basilica Cistern, it seemed like we were entering an underground realm held up by romanesque pillars and inhabited by mysterious sea creatures. Well, it is similar to that…except that the pillars are lit with incandescent mood lighting and the sea creatures are colourful fish that swim in the still waters of the Basilica Cistern. This is one of my favourite places nonetheless and definitely not to be missed.
The Topkapi Palace is a beautiful palace once resident to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultans reigned in the Topkapi Palace for over 600 years until the revolution so it was interesting to see what was left of their rule.
We visited the Topkapi Palace in such pleasant conditions that we spent most of our time wandering around the gardens enjoying the flowers in bloom. We then spent some time in the Harem, which is the place where the reigning Sultan once lived with his concubines and their children. Here we learnt about a time long forgotten, where the concubines would poison each others children to ensure that theirs would be next in line for the throne.
Tip: I enjoyed the Topkapi Palace because I love history and Palaces. If you expect to see a well-preserved Palace, then this may not be for you as you may need a little bit of imagination when you view some of these rooms. The Topkapi Palace also contains historical artifacts that are significant to the muslim religion so try to get an audio guide or read up about it before you visit the Palace. I did not do much research so I spent a lot of time asking questions (something I deeply regret).
Cross the Galata Bridge to Taksim
For a change of scenery, we crossed the Galata Bridge to Taksim. The Galata Bridge itself is a flurry of activity as we spotted rows of fishermen casting their fishing lines into the sea. Taksim has an energy that can only be experienced than explained.
As we walked along the windy, cobble-stoned roads, we saw men making and selling fresh pomegranate juice and smelt the aroma of freshly cooked chestnuts. Then as we walked past the Galata Towers and towards Taksim Square we saw a lively area full of locals going about their business. I loved walking past the prayer areas during the call to prayer and past the shops making fresh pide bread. You can spend your time doing nothing but feel like you’ve done everything! Just wander around and you will feel like a local in no time.
The Bosphorus Cruise cannot be missed! We spent a beautiful day on the Bosphorus (the Istanbul Straight) which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and also forms the boundary between the Asia and Europe side of Istanbul. When you are sailing on the Bosphorus you’re physically sailing between two continents!
Tip: The Bosphorus Cruise was included with our tour, but you can pay less by turning up to the pier and buying a ticket for as little as 12 to 25 TL depending on your selected times.
Spice Bazaar and The Grand Bazaar
What can I say about the Spice Bazaar and The Grand Bazaar? I ate my favourite Turkish Delights and baklava from these two Bazaars. I also experienced a mad rush that made me feel like I was amongst cattle being herded into hallways full of people yelling out prices and “China/Japanese/Spice girls. Where are you from lady?”…
But all that aside, the Spice Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar are a must see in Istanbul purely to play on your senses. There are so many spices, teas and Turkish treats that you will beam with happiness and sample until your heart’s content. I was once not a fan of Turkish delights until I sampled the “real” Turkish delights at the Spice Bazaar. These Turkish Delights were made of honey and nuts (unlike the cheap sugar-filled variety we eat in Australia) and could make a grown women (me) giggle with anticipation! I even have 1 kg of Turkish delights (all eaten now) to prove it!
Tip: Try before you buy. Also, the prices are heavily inflated as they expect you to haggle. When you haggle, start off with 25% of their requested price and move your way up to 50% of their price.
Finally, I could not mention Istanbul without talking about food! Not only did I eat a ridiculous amount of baklava and Turkish delights, but I also consumed many delicious adana kebabs, koftes, seafood dishes, breads, apple teas and pastries! Here is a selection of some of my favourites.
What do you think of Istanbul?
Related links (where I got my inspiration from):
- 20 great things to do in Istanbul
- Top 10: Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey
- Top 10 things in Istanbul
- Read my previous posts about eating fish by the Galata Bridge and my First Turkish Ice-cream Experience