Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world. I love the mix of old and new, the traditional and the trendy.
It is a city of three parts. The historic Sultanahmet on one side of the Golden Horn, the fun European side of Beyoğlu and its many suburbs on the other and the Asian side divided from the rest of the city by the Bosphorus. All are fascinating and all have their own attractions.
The most important thing to do when planning a trip to Istanbul is to allow enough time to explore. Too much to see and too little time is a common catch cry from those returning after a visit to this wonderful city.
1.The Topkapi Palace
The palace was the home of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th to 19th centuries. Four courtyards with beautiful gardens and fountains surround a multitude of buildings housing the Harem…a must see, the Imperial Treasury…don’t miss the stunning 86 carat pear shaped Spoonmaker Diamond, the armoury, the Hall of the Privy Chamber and the Throne Room where the Sultan received his guests. Walk to the end of the garden for a fabulous view over the Sea of Marmara.
As you can imagine, this is a very popular place to visit. My advice is to arrive just before opening time and make the harem your first stop as this becomes very busy later in the day.
Open every day except Tuesday from 9am -5pm . Tickets can be purchased just before the second gate.
Tickets to the Harem can now be bought at the same time at an extra cost of 15TL.
2.The Archaeological Museums
There are three museums in the complex: the Archaeology Museum which houses the famous Alexander Sarcophagus and the Athena Temple from Assos, the Museum of Ancient Orient which displays antiquities and the Museum of Turkish ceramics. On the edge of the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, it can be reached by walking down the hill in the first courtyard of the Palace or via it’s own entrance near Gülhane park.
Open daily except Monday
3. Istanbul’s Hidden Street
I’m popping this one in here as Istanbul’s Hidden Street aka Sogük Çesme Sokak, takes you from the edge of Gülhane Park to the Topkapi Palace. Beautifully restored wooden ottoman houses make this cobbled street one of the prettiest in Istanbul.
4. Aya Sofia or Hagia Sofia
Built in 537 as a Church, it later became a mosque in 1453 and finally, in 1935, a museum. You will be in awe of its beauty as you stand under the dome taking it all in. Take the steps to the gallery where stunning mosaics dating back to the 12th century can be seen. As one of the most beautiful buildings in Istanbul it is a sight that shouldn’t be missed! Read more about Aya Sophia here.
Open daily except Monday.
5. Basilica Cistern
Just on the edge of Sultanahmet Square, diagonally opposite the entrance to Aya Sofia, is this wondrous reminder of the past. The cavernous underground Basilica Cistern was originally used to store water for the palace and other buildings in the area. Don’t forget to look for the medusa heads! See what you are looking for here
6. Sultanahmet Imperial Mosque or Blue Mosque
Across Sultanahmet Square facing Aya Sofia stands the city’s main Mosque with its six minarets. It is known affectionately as the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles that decorated the walls. You need to make sure you are suitable clothed to enter this mosque.
Just around the corner from here is the Arasta Bazaar, a touristy market that sells high end merchandise but better than most!
You will have probably walked over the Hippodrome without realising that this was once the scene of chariot races and the centre of Byzantine life. Three statues still remain here.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts also overlooks the Hippodrome.
8. Kalpali Çarsi or Grand Bazaar
I can guarantee you will get lost in the maze of streets and passages that is the Grand Bazaar. Each trade is congregated in its own area: carpet sellers in one street, goldsmiths in another. There are some good buys on the leather street whilst the arts and crafts, ceramics and brassware areas may also tempt you. You’ll need a rest at some stage so pop into the Fez Cafe in the centre of the old part of the market for beautifully served refreshments and to plan your next stop… from here it is a ten minute walk to the Süleymaniye Mosque!
9. Süleymaniye Mosque|
This beautiful mosque was designed by the Ottoman Empire’s most famous architect, Mimar Sinan. It is the largest in Istanbul and can be seen from miles around. In the garden just past the old graveyard are two mausoleums that house the tombs of Sultan Suleiman 1 and his family. Don’t miss the views over the Bosphorus from the other side of the mosque!
10. Spice Market
Back down on the water, near to the New Mosque (which is very old) is the Spice Market. Wander the covered alleyways of shops selling spices, fragrances and dried fruit and every flavour of lokum..turkish delight..you could want. Outside you can buy your cheeses, meats and nuts.
11. Rüstem Pasha Mosque
Near here is my favourite mosque in Istanbul, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. Stunning Iznik tiles fill the mosque and its hidden position means that you may be able to enjoy this peaceful and beautiful mosque on your own. The directions are here!
12. Chora Museum
Near the old walls of the city, about 20 minutes from Sultanahmet, is one of the finest examples of a Byzantine Church. The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, known as the Chora Museum has 14th century mosaics and frescoes that dazzle. In similar fashion to the Aya Sofia, it later became a mosque and finally a museum. Whilst you are here, wander around the cobblestone streets with their wooden Ottoman houses before taking in the view from the nearby fifth century city walls.
This blog post has all the details for you! Istanbul’s Stunning Chora Museum
13. Take a Bosphorus Cruise.
Old palaces and mansions line the shores of the Bosphorus, Istanbul’s waterway that divides its European and Asian sides. See these as you cruise all the way to the Black Sea or take a shorter trip to just past Istanbul’s second bridge. Şehir Hatları, Istanbul’s official ferry company offers three different tours including a night tour. Their ticket office in Eminönü is the one closest to the Galata Bridge.
The European Side
14. Galata Bridge
Fishermen line both sides of Galata Bridge day and night. On the level below you’ll find a wide range of fish restaurants. As you walk from the Eminönü, the Galata Tower rises like a beacon. Walk up the Camondo Steps, or take the street that leads you pass the music shops. The historic funicular that runs from Karaköy to Tünel may just be the answer for those that do not like hills!
15. Have a Fish Sandwich
As you come over the bridge, on the left you will see the Karaköy fish market. Wander through and listen to the banter of the sellers trying to get you to buy from them. Restaurant owners will also try and attract your attention but keep walking for at the end of the market you will find two guys on the right standing over their barbeque making fabulous balik ekmek or fish sandwiches. If you find yourself near the Ataturk Bridge on the Fatih side, Mercan from Tarihi Eminönü Balikcisi makes a mean balik ekmek too!
*Since writing this guide, the government demolished the fish market in late 2015. I’m sure some of these vendors will pop up in a new place before too long and when I hear about it I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I’ll be heading to Fatih!
16. Galata Tower
The 360 degree view from the top of the tower is stunning…especially at sunset! The streets around the tower are home to many fabulous boutiques and cafes.
17. Walk the length of İstiklal Caddesi to Taksim.
Keep walking up the hill from the Galata Tower and you will reach Istanbul’s famous pedestrian avenue, İstiklal Caddesi which you can take all the way to Taksim Square. If you don’t feel like walking, one of the famous historical red trams will be only too happy to take you! Explore the side streets that lead from here…there’s a whole new world waiting to be found!
18. Explore Cihanger
I loved staying in this area on our recent trip to Istanbul. Head to the intersection of just near the Firüzaga Mosque to start the day with a fabulous Turkish breakfast but don’t forget to try the pickle juice from Asri Tursucu before heading back to Istiklal Caddesi or down the hill to Karaköy. Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence is nearby. You’re also not far from the Istanbul Modern so maybe it’s time for a bit of culture!
A Foodies Tour in Istanbul has many suggestions for here and the Beyoğlu area.
19. Istanbul Modern
Modern and contemporary Turkish artists, sculptors and photographers are showcased in this renovated dockland warehouse where ships still berth next door. The cafe has great views over the Bosphorus from its verandah.
20. Rainbow Stairs
If you’re walking from the Istanbul Modern to the Dolmabahçe Palace, keep a look out on the other side of the road for the painted steps that join Findikli to Cihanger (Cafe Nove is on the corner)
A local resident painted the stairs to brighten the area but two days later the council painted over them in boring grey! There was such an outcry that they were redone! There are now quite a few stairways in the area that have been painted.
21. Dolmabahçe Palace
Under Ataturk, this Sultan’s Palace originally built in 1856 became the Presidential Palace and the place of Atatuk’s death on Nov 10, 1938. The crystal mirrors, baths and beautiful glass decorations are all worth seeing but most go to see the famous Baccarat staircase and massive chandelier in the ceremonial hall. Its location on the Bosphorus is pretty special too!
22. Visit Ortaköy
The main tram line stops in Kabatas. From here it is an easy walk to Ortaköy. You will know you’re here when you see the Ortaköy Mosque (known also as Grand Imperial Mosque) standing proudly in front of the Bosphorus Bridge..the first bridge that crosses the Bosphorus. Wander through the streets of this popular village for some delightful window shopping or cafe spotting.
Instead of walking on to Bebek, you could catch the funicular from Kabitas to Taksim and then walk back along Istiklal Cadessi or take the short walk to Nişantaşı
23. Walk along the shores of the Bosphorus
I am starting this walk in Arnavutköy but you could also walk from Ortaköy to here! If you’re feeling very energetic, you could even start from Karaköy or the Istanbul Modern Gallery!
Arnavutkoy is a small historic village that is known for its wooden ottoman houses. Ottoman aristocrats chose this area and Bebek as the place to build their summer houses. Don’t forget to walk amongst the homes behind those that front the waterfront. Arnavutkoy is also known for its fish restaurants but we decide to have a snack and share a delicious lahmacun from Fistik Kebap
From here continue your walk along the shores of the Bosphorus to Bebek.
Bebek is a trendy village in comparison to Arnavutkoy. Fashionable boutiques and gift shops are dotted along the street amongst the many coffee shops and restaurants. We lunched at Kantin Bebek, an off shoot of the famous restaurant in Nişantaşı, eating fabulous takeaway food at a table outside.
24. Rumeli Hisari
If you’re feeling energetic, keep walking along the water to the ruins of the old fortress of Rumeli Hisari
Rumeli Hisari is open everyday except Wednesday
25. Taksim Square
Taksim Square, known as the heart of Istanbul, lies at one end of Istanbul’s famous Istiklal Cadessi. The Independence Monument, at the southern end of the square, commemorates Attaturk’s roles as military commander-in-chief and as a statesman. To the north, Cumhuriyet Caddesi takes you to Nisantasi.
Keep in mind that there is also a funicular from Kabitas to Taksim
Nişantaşı is Istanbul’s most fashionable shopping and residential area. Besides great shopping, there are some interesting art galleries, fun cafes and my favourite restaurant, Kantin. Walk down Abdi İpekçi where you will find international labels including Prada, Cartier,Louis Vuitton and even Laduree! There are more cafes and shops on MimKemal Öke and Atiye Sokak
The Asian Side
27. Visit Kadiköy
Even though the Marmaray Tunnel has since opened, I would still catch the ferry to Kadikoy. There’s something very relaxing about being on the water! As you pass the Ottoman train station at Haydarpasa, you know you are getting close! The Kadikoy daily market is the place to go. Beautifully arranged stacks of colourful fruit and vegetables, fish shops touting for business, nut sellers, sweet sellers and fabulous spice shops all compete with the aroma of coffee from the nearby cafes.
From the ferry, cross the main street and head to the right
Not far from here, Bagdat Caddesi is one of the well known shopping boulevards in Istanbul. Here you will find famous names in fashion along the tree lined street…Louis Vuitton, Prada, Burberry, they’re all there!
28. Eat at Ciya Sofrasi
Ciya Sofrasi is the place to go for delicious Anatolian cuisine. Here you will try dishes that you won’t find at other restaurants thanks to the owner, Musa Dağdeviren’s devotion to finding old traditional recipes. The menu changes with the seasons, the quality is always good. There is also a kebab restaurant over the road.
Ciya Sofrasi: Güneşli Bahçe Sokak No:43 Kadiköy
No where in particular but everywhere…..
29. Drink Turkish Coffee
Thick, black, unfiltered coffee…”coffee so thick a water a buffalo wouldn’t sink in it”….hence the name of one of Istanbul’s best, Mandabatmaz …manda means water buffalo and batmaz means doesn’t sink.
If you’re not a coffee drinker, don’t worry cay (pronounced chai) is served as well!
Olivia Geçidi (near St. Antoine Cathedral on İstiklal Caddesi)
30. Have a Turkish Breakfast
There’s nothing quite like having a Turkish breakfast. Plates keep coming to the table….different types of cheese, various home made jams, tomato and cucumber salad, olives and dips, sometimes there’s pancakes and borek. Then there’s that fabulous Turkish dish of menemem…eggs with tomato and peppers that can’t be beaten!
You’re either a hamam person or you’re not. I’m of the latter category so these recommendations come via trusted friends. If I was tempted, I would head to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam, next door to the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque, not far from Istanbul Modern. I did try, but I was waylaid in their great gift shop and ran out of time!! Next time!
If you’re on the Sultanahmet side, Jo Kavagnagh recommends the recently renovated Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam in Sultanahmet Square. You can read about her experience here
32.Visit the Markets
Istanbul’s neighbourhood markets sell everything from fruit and vegetables to clothing and appliances. Held on different days of the weeks, each enjoys their own local atmosphere. There’s a lot of markets in Istanbul but if you’re looking for something to do on a Sunday, you can make it market day and head first to the Kastamonu Market then walk on to the Tarlabasi Market!
Sellers from the Black Sea area of Kastamonu leave home on Saturday night to be in Istanbul to sell their produce at the Sunday market in Kasimpaşa, an area of Beyoğlu. Autumn offered us a fabulous range of new season’s porcini, bags of walnuts, mounds of garlic, pastes and purees that I wished I could bring home, crates of eggs still with the straw stuck to them and fresh locally baked bread. If you can’t visit this area of Turkey, a visit to the Kastamonu market will take you there.
The Kastamonu market is at Toprak Tabya Sokak
Just down the hill from İstiklal Caddesi is the residential area of Tarlabaşi, an area that is so different to that you have just left and one that would not normally be on a tourist’s itinerary if it were not for its Sunday food market where, after shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese and spices, you can buy a new outfit, shoes or even new curtains! Change is coming for the 19th and 20th century row houses that are now boarded up, are soon to be restored as part of a modern development. In the meantime, head here for an authentic local market.
From Istiklal Caddesi follow Sakiz Agaci Caddesi across Tarlabasi Caddesi and continue downhill until you come across the market.
Beşiktaş Market…held every Sataurday Nüzhetiye Caddesi.
Fatih Market…known as Çarşamba Pazarı, it is held every Wednesday Behind the Fatih Mosque
Kadiköy Market….held every Tuesday and Friday Mandıra Caddesi
33. Roof top Bars
Watching the sun set from one of Istanbul’s many roof top bars is a must! Mikla, at the Marmara Pera Hotel is my favourite but there’s also a fabulous view from 360 in Istiklal Caddesi. Just around the corner, Leb-i-Deyra may not be as high but it’s just as much fun on its small seventh floor balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. In Sultanahmet, head to the roof top bar at the The Four Seasons.
34. Take a food Tour
Want to know the food secrets of a city…take a food tour. We can highly recommend our tour of Kadiköy with the knowledgeable Tuba Satana from Istanbul Food. The post, A Foodies Tour in Istanbul was written after a tour of the Beyoglü area with Istanbul Eats. Delicious Istanbul offers exactly that…delicious tours of Istanbul as well as cooking classes!
35. Visit the Princes Islands
Escape the city for a day and head to the peace and quiet of the Princes islands, a group of nine small islands that lie about 20 kms south of the city in the Sea of Marmara. We visited Büyükada, the largest and most popular island. Cars are banned, so join the queue for a horse drawn carriage tour of the island through pine forests and past 19th century wooden houses.
Ferries leave from Kabitas…IDO’s fast ferry takes abpout 55 minutes whilst the slower local ferry takes about an hour and a half. The weekends are very busy so try and go during the week.
36. Last and by no means least….eat lots of Turkish food!
Where to start…you’ve got to try it all! From the many fabulous bites offered on the street, to cheap and hearty meals at tradesman’s cafes, specialist Black Sea dishes, mezes choices at local meyhanes and delicious fusion cooking to rival any top restaurant in the world, Istanbul is a gourmet’s delight. The restaurant post is coming…
Have you been to Istanbul? Are there any places you think should be added to this list?
If so, I’d love to read about them in the comments!
For more information, don’t forget to read An Introduction to Istanbul for the First time Visitor‘