Istanbul’s Top Ten must see sites
I guarantee you will never visit another city like Istanbul. It’s a unique mix of old and new and the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed by a visit to this stunning city. In fact you may never want to leave. The first time I went I completely feel in love with it, and I’m sure you will too.
The centre of the city is split into 3 main parts, the old European side home to the Sultanhamet historical district, the newer European side where Taksim square is located and the Asian side, and all three areas are separated by the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
Istanbul is home to roughly 15 million people and is the fifth largest city in the world, so that’s why it is very hard to narrow down this list to just ten top things to do and see. I have been there twice now and will be going back again later this year and honestly there is still much more I haven’t done yet, but here goes.
10 – Cruising the Bosphorus River
This is a must when you’re in Istanbul as its one of the best ways to see the city in all is glory. Remember the city straddles two continents so what better way to view it than from the water. There is also some stunning buildings and palaces along the water front that you cant see from the street side, so make sure you include a cruise along the Bosphorus while you are there. To get the best views you will want to sit on deck, but it can get quite chilly up there, so make sure you bring something to keep you warm.
9 – Shopping at the Grand Bazaar
Located in Sultanahmet district, the Grand Bazaar is a shopper’s heaven! If you love markets like I do, then the Grand Bazaar is a must to any Istanbul itinerary. It has been operating since 1461, so this makes it one of the oldest and also largest indoor markets. While your there make sure you take time to admire the beautiful building as you move through all the hustle and bustle. Allow your self a good couple of hours to really appreciate it and to snag a great bargain, oh and be careful not to get lost in the rabbit warren of narrow laneways.
Market shopping at its best!
8 – Topkapi Palace
From the grand front gate you have no idea how big this place is. I allowed an hour to visit and was there for nearly 3, and still didn’t see it all so my advice is to allow for plenty of time to really appreciate this beautiful palace. Topkapi Palace is a stunning example of Ottoman architecture separated into 4 courts, and from the 3rd court terrace you will get a amazing view of Istanbul over the Bosphorus. Make sure you visit the Sultans Harem when you are there soaking up all the opulence, and allow time for a stroll through the beautiful gardens.
7 – Shopping Time!
Want a break from sightseeing then head to Taksim Square which is located across the Golden Horn, still on the European side of Istanbul, and is often referred to as the heart of new Istanbul. It’s is the start of a long pedestrian walkway that has become a shopping mecca and entertainment area for both locals and tourists. The shops are open till very late here, so you can literally shop till you drop. Then when you are done with shopping, head on up to one for the amazing rooftop bars or restaurants along this area, you wont be disappointed. The food is amazing, the drinks are delicious and the views over the Bosporus and Istanbul are simply breathtaking.
6 – Galata Tower
I loved Galata Tower! It was one of my last stops before leaving Istanbul and I’m so glad I went. It originally started it’s life out as a prison tower, then a fire tower, and then back in the early 17th century, local man Hezarfen Ahmed Celebi flew from the top of the tower across the Bosporus with artificial wings that he had made. Now Galata Tower stands proudly above the surrounding buildings on the New European side and commands some of the most beautiful views over Istanbul. There is also a lovely café and restaurant at the top, so you can appreciate the views for longer. I highly recommend going here late afternoon/early evening, the light is amazing then, and if you are a budding photographer like me, you will not be disappointed.
5 – Museums, museums, museums
It is very hard to go to a country like Turkey and not get your history on!
I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to history and Turkey certainly didn’t disappoint. It has some of the oldest history I have ever been around and it was fascinating. Istanbul has roughly 80 museums, palaces, historical buildings and monuments, so it is very hard to pick just one must see. It even has a UFO Museum! However one of my absolute favourites would have to be The Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which was recommended by a friend. My advice is if you only have time to see one, this is the one to see, and its located right next to Topkapi Palace in the Sultanahmet District. So you could do both in one day.
Museums!!!!! I was in heaven!!!!!
4 – Visiting the spice markets
I absolutely love this place. Both times I have been to Istanbul this has been a must visit on my list. I’m a sucker for Turkish delight or Lokum as it is known in Turkey and I always come with an order for home. Honestly this is the best place to get it, as even the locals shop here, so it must be good. You wont have tasted Turkish delight like this and the best part is, they actually let you taste before you buy!!!! There are so many amazing flavours and combinations; my favourite would have to be rose flavoured Turkish delight with pistachios covered in small crunchy chocolate balls, simply divine. Once you have tried it you can even fill your own box to take home of all your favourites. They of course do stock other amazing food and spices, and I highly recommend the honey-roasted pistachios with sesame seeds; one is never enough of these amazing nuts. And of course kiwis know all to well about our strict bio security laws, but thankfully so do the lovely Turkish people. They will vacuum seal any nuts and Turkish delights for you so you can get these through customs on your way home. Oh and one of the spices you can bring home to NZ is Saffron, so stock up, get it sealed, but always remember to declare when arriving home. We got our goods through no problem.
So many Turkish Delights!!!!
3 – Basilica Cistern
Located in the Sultanahmet district, I had never actually heard of this place before we started our tour of Istanbul and when our guide told us we would be visiting and underground water filtration system, I was kind of thinking, but why? Then when I saw where we had to go to get in, I thought we had honestly lined up for a public bathroom. As deceptive as the little building above ground is, once you descend the staircase down into the depths of the Basilica Cistern you are absolutely blown away at how breathtakingly amazing this place is. I was literally speechless; never in a million years did I expect what was down there.
The Basilica cistern has been around since the 5th century and has actually starred in a few movies like the James Bond film, “From Russia with Love”. It ended up being one of my favourite places in Istanbul, and I’m sure you will love it as much as I did. While there, make sure you spot the two Medusa heads down the end of the cistern while you meander around the columns, taking in the quietness and grandeur of it all.
2 – Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)
I knew Hagia Sofia only by name, and nothing about her history let alone had I ever seen any pictures of it. She is located in the Sultanahmet district directly opposite the Blue Mosque. And man, she is one stunningly beautiful building; I could have spent the entire day wandering through her.
She started out her life in the 6th Century as a majestic Byzantine Basilica and she ran as a Christian cathedral until 1453 when she had a bit of a facelift and was turned into a Mosque. In 1931 she was secularised by Turkeys first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and she then opened her doors again in 1935 as a Museum, which she still is today. In fact, now she is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and currently undergoing some restoration to uncover some of her hidden secrets, but still well worth a visit. Make sure you get there early as she gets pretty busy during the day.
1 – Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
The main reason I wanted to go to Istanbul was to visit the Blue Mosque after hearing so much about it and seeing so many amazing pictures. It has to be a must see during your trip. And if you only get to see one thing, make sure it’s this mosque. Built in the 17t Century it got its English name, The Blue Mosque by the exquisite blue, green and white tiles adorning its roof. It is one of the most photographed buildings in Istanbul and when you visit you will know why.
The mosque is still a fully working mosque so there are a few rules to adhere to.
Tourists must enter through the southern doors (follow the signs), Women must have there heads covered so make sure you bring a scarf or shawl, also make sure you are appropriately dressed, you will need to cover your shoulders, arms and legs (no see through clothing), and finally shoes must be removed, there are plastic bags provided so you can carry them with you.
And one little bonus – A Unique Travel moment you shouldn’t miss.
While visiting the Sultanahmet area if you are there around 12ish or early evening you need to listen to the call to prayer. This is done live in Turkey and the Sultanahmet area is the best place to experience call to prayer if you have never heard it. Why? Because even though Hagia Sofia is no longer an active Mosque, she joins in the fun. The Blue Mosque begins the call to prayer and then pauses, Hagia Sofia then echo’s as if in response, and this continues on for about 10 mins. The best place to hear this is in the courtyard area that lies between these two stunning buildings. I happened to be there around lunchtime when it happened, it is truly one of my favourite moments from my trip, and it was entirely free. I think the call to prayer is absolutely beautiful and there is something reassuring when you hear it, but to experience it in Istanbul between these two stunning buildings is incredible. Also note that the Blue Mosque will shut for about 90mins around each prayer time as well.
View from Hagia Sofia to the Blue Mosque
Well that’s it! Istanbul you will forever have a piece of my heart and like I said it was hard to narrow it down to just ten, but hopefully it’s a good starting point for your own Istanbul Experience. If you have any questions or would like any advice on planning your own trip, drop me a line on Kirsty@wanderlustingtravel.com or comment below, and I will get back to you as soon as possible.