I was lucky enough to spend a week in Istanbul visiting a friend. I got to see the city from a local‘s perspective as well as being a tourist and visiting the obvious sights. There is nothing like local knowledge to add a great deal of value to your holiday and Lucy took time out to show me around. These are what I think are the main highlights of what to do in Istanbul, especially if you are visiting for the first time.
One of the age-old questions is where is Istanbul? Is it Asia or Europe? The Bosporus Straits divide the two continents and if you ask a local they will tell you it’s part of both continents. The city is in a unique position and all it takes is a ferry trip to see the differences. It is a city of contrasts, rooted in tradition and culture which still forms part of daily life in the city.
What to do in Istanbul
Many of the sights are centred around the Sultanahmet area which is the city’s historic quarter. They are all easily accessible. The traffic in the city is manic so I used public transport which is cheap and very efficient.
I wanted to see the Hagia Sophia for ages so this was my starting point. This beautiful monument has a fascinating checkered past. It was originally an Orthodox cathedral, then a mosque and finally, it became a museum in 1931. Here’s a more detailed guide with tips and some fun facts for you to plan your visit.
The Basilica Cistern
I had seen the cisterns in so many movies that I just had to visit them and see for myself what the fuss was about. They were built in the 4th century and used as a water storage system for the Great Palace and later the Topkapi Palace. Locally they are known as Yerebatan Sarayi (meaning Sunken Palace). They were forgotten about for many years and rediscovered in 1545 by Petrus Gyllius.
This cistern is about the size of a cathedral and is 143m long and 65m wide. It can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters (or 17.5 million gallons) of water.
When you consider how old it is and the incredible feat of engineering you can’t help but be impressed. Towards the far side of the cistern are 2 carvings of the head of Medusa. One is on its side, the other is upside down to remove her power. Nobody knows why they are there or where they came from so you can use your imagination and make up an intriguing story.
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii or Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is known by a number of names so don’t get confused.
There are about 20 000 handmade blue ceramic Iznik tiles with floral designs on them so once you are inside it is easy to see where the name came from.
For the most impressive view of the mosque enter from the west side or the Hippodrome area. Remember that is still in use as a place of worship and is closed to visitors during the time of prayer. If you can, avoid visiting on a Friday as it is closed for 2 hours from midday. You need to dress accordingly so I always carry a wrap with me, but failing that there are robes available for you to use to enter the mosque.
Topkapi Palace Museum
The palace perches on the top of a hill overlooking the city and was home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire. It was built in 1461 and was in use until 1853 when the Sultan moved his retinue to the Dolmabahçe Palace. The palace was opened as a museum in 1924 and receives around 3 million visitors a year. It is a vast complex so you need to plan your visit in advance to make the most the time that you have available. Be sure not to miss seeing the crown jewels in the Imperial Treasury.
Explore the Dolmabahçe Palace
It is billed as one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. 14 tons of gold were used to decorate the ceilings. Can you imagine the opulence? There is even a crystal chandelier which is the largest in the world that was a gift from Queen Victoria. It has 750 light bulbs and weighs 4.5 tons. I wouldn’t like to be the person who has the change those light bulbs, would you?
You can only do a guided tour of the palace and are not allowed to wander around on your own.
The Grand Bazaar
I love shopping, but I was totally overwhelmed. There are 66 streets and around 4000 shops in the Grand Bazaar which is the largest covered market in the world. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience, but you could easily spend a day there and not see everything. I suggest that you research the items that you would like to buy and have an idea of the price before you go. You also need to be prepared to bargain and quite honestly I don’t have the patience or the inclination. My husband is so much better than I am at bargaining, but unfortunately, he was not with me on this trip.
There are loads of small shops and street vendors on the outskirts of the market which I enjoyed so much more than the actual market.
As long as you know what you are in for then you really should not miss visiting the market as it is a unique experience.
I was a bit confused when I asked for directions and was asked if I was looking for the Egyptian Bazaar. It was a bit of a case of lost in translation for me, but apparently, it is called Mısır Çarşısı in Turkish which translates to either the Corn Market or the Egyptian Bazaar.
You can find just about any spice under the sun in the market, but if you are looking for something to remind you of Turkey then Sumac is a good choice.
I also took home some Nar Ekşisi which I just couldn’t get enough of when I was in Turkey. It is a pomegranate reduction, quite thick and tart. I use it for dressings and drizzling over roasted vegetables. Every time I use it I am taken back to Istanbul.
There is also a huge choice of teas, nuts, baklava , nougat and Turkish delight to choose from.
Lunch at the Eminönü fishing boats
This is where the locals go for divinely fresh fish. You have to try fish on bread (fish roll). It is cooked on the boats moored on the waterfront and is an institution in Istanbul. It was certainly busy when I was there. I couldn’t quite get my head around the idea of fish on bread, but it really was delicious.
Take a Bosphorus Cruise
After lunch, you can hop on to one of the many boats that offer a cruise of the Bosphorus. The cruise takes you along the Straits to the Bosphorus Bridge and back. It is a great way of enjoying the scenery. You could also just jump on a ferry and go for a ride, which is what we did. Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s official ferry company has a choice of 2 routes, a longer one and a shorter one. You can check their online timetables for departure time and buy a ticket at the office at Eminönü.
It is unclear as to when the tower was originally built, but the consensus is around 507 CE. It was rebuilt in the 14th century by the Genoese as part of their defence wall for the district of Galata.
If you are looking for spectacular views then look no further. It houses a restaurant, an observation deck and a souvenir shop.
Before I visited Turkey I had no idea that it was where tulips originated. As you walk through the streets you will see representations of them everywhere. Supposedly the Flemish Ambassador who visited Süleyman the Magnificent took some bulbs back to Holland in the 16th century. They were so rare and so sought after that a single flower could cost as much as a house in Holland.
This year 30 million tulips were planted throughout the city. I was lucky enough to see them in bloom and this has to be my no 1 choice of things to do in Istanbul if you can get your timing right. They begin to bloom in March through to the end of April weather dependent of course.
I saw spectacular displays in Emirgan Park which is in one of the villages on the Bosphorus. It was easily reached by public transport. It can get packed with busloads of visitors. Luckily when we went, early in the morning, it was relatively quiet.
This is the charming village on the Bosphorus where I was based. The views are spectacular and it is the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. There are cobbled streets, a craft market, a huge choice of restaurants and cafés on the water. Ortaköy is the perfect spot for a sundowner while you listen to the call to prayer from the mosque on the water’s edge and relax after a busy day’s sightseeing.
Turkey as a country fascinated me. It felt ancient, but modern at the same time. The people I met were charming, friendly and extremely helpful. I had an amazing week in the city and would love to visit it again should the opportunity arise. I certainly did not have some of these places on my list of what to do in Istanbul. Thanks to Lucy, I saw so much more of the city. If you haven’t thought about Istanbul as a destination then I hope that this has changed your mind and whet your appetite enough to want to include Istanbul in your future plans.
Read my article for tips on visiting the Hagia Sophia
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