We’ve all heard the descriptions of Istanbul being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a place where East meets West and where cultures have coexisted for centuries. But not everyone is aware of its endlessly fascinating contradictions.
Here are the top things to do in Istanbul to experience the city’s different stories and faces.
Marvel at the Aya Sofya
History resonates when you visit the majestic Byzantine basilica of Aya Sofya. Built by order of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, its soaring dome, huge nave and glittering gold mosaics contribute to its reputation as one of the world's most beautiful buildings, and its fascinating history as church, mosque and museum make it the city's most revealing time capsule. Looted by marauding Crusaders in the 13th century, stormed by Ottoman invaders during the Conquest in 1453 and visited by millions of tourists after being converted into a museum in 1935, it is one of Turkey's greatest treasures.
Since its reconsecration as a mosque in summer 2020, the Aya Sofya is closed to non-worshippers during the five daily prayer times, women must cover their heads and all visitors must take off their shoes to enter the inner narthex. Most of the building’s ancient marble floor has been covered by carpets, some of its mosaics are shielded by retractable screens and the upper gallery is inaccessible, but its historic grandeur remains breathtaking.
Experience the extravagance of Topkapı Palace
The secrets of the seraglio will be revealed during your visit to the opulent Ottoman Topkapı Palace complex occupying the promontory of Istanbul's Old City. A series of mad, sad and downright bad sultans lived here with their concubines and courtiers between 1465 and 1830, and extravagant relics of their centuries of folly, intrigue, excess, patronage, diplomacy and war are everywhere you look. Highlights include the huge Harem, impressive Imperial Council Chamber, object-laden Imperial Treasury and picturesque Marble Terrace.
Uncover the secrets of Topkapı Palace
Lose yourself in Istanbul's Bazaar District
The chaotic and colorful Grand Bazaar is the best-known shopping destination on Istanbul's historic peninsula, but it certainly isn't the only one. After exploring its labyrinthine lanes and hidden caravanserais, follow the steady stream of local shoppers heading downhill into the busy shopping precinct of Tahtakale, which has at its hub the seductively scented Spice Bazaar. From there, head back up toward the Blue Mosque and its attached arasta (an arcade-style Ottoman bazaar that typically featured practitioners of a single trade), where you may well find a lasting memento of your trip.
A guide to shopping in Istanbul
Ride Istanbul’s ferries
Climbing aboard one of the city's famous flotilla of ferries is the quintessential Istanbul experience. The trip between Asia and Europe on a commuter ferry is hard to beat, but the Bosphorus tourist ferries that travel the great strait from Eminönü toward the mouth of the Black Sea are even better, offering passengers views of palaces, parks and ornate timber mansions on both the Asian and European shores. It doesn't matter whether you opt for a long or short cruise: either is sure to be memorable.
Istanbul ferries will now run during the night at weekends
Revel in Istanbul's nightlife
Though Istanbul’s nightlife scene has suffered some setbacks, you can’t keep a good party town down. For a traditional night out, head to one of the Beyoğlu district’s meyhanes, tavern-like restaurants serving meze and fish where sing-alongs of classic songs flow with each new round of rakı, an anise-flavored liquor. Lively crowds of young beer-drinkers fill the pubs of the Beşiktaş Çarşı and central Kadıköy, while a swankier set sips cocktails near the Bosphorus in the bars and cafes of Bebek and Arnavutköy. For the full Istanbul experience, top off the evening by joining your fellow revelers in lining up for some late-night street food.
Get acquainted with Turkish contemporary art
Anchored by high-profile cultural institutions like Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, SALT Beyoğlu and Yapı Kredi Kültür Sanat, the Beyoğlu district has long been a hub for art-lovers, with galleries and museums scattered on and around İstiklal Caddesi, and increasingly in the adjacent Karaköy, Tophane and Dolapdere neighborhoods as well. Well-established commercial galleries in stately apartment buildings also cluster among the chic boutiques of the Nişantaşı neighborhood, while hip Kadıköy has an up-and-coming independent art scene of its own.
Surrender to the steam in a bath house
In life, there aren't too many opportunities to wander seminaked through a 16th-century Ottoman monument. But Istanbul's world-famous hamams offer just that: the chance to immerse yourself in history, architecture, warm water and soap suds all at the same time. A hamam treatment makes for a relaxing finale to a day spent pounding the city's pavements and gives a fascinating insight into the life and customs of Ottoman society. You can surrender to the steam at baths on both sides of the Galata Bridge: the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı in Tophane and the Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı in Sultanahmet are particularly stunning and luxurious.
Istanbul's bathhouses: a step-by-step guide
Hang out with the cool kids in Kadıköy
Riding a ferry across the Bosphorus is one of Istanbul’s great pleasures and the Asian-side neighborhood of Kadıköy is becoming a destination in itself, with hip cafes, bars, restaurants and boutiques frequented by a lively young crowd. Peruse the colorful produce market, hunt for street-art murals in the backstreets, visit the museum-home of Turkish rock giant Barış Manço or stroll the waterfront with an ice cream in hand. The sunset views from the shoreline are among the most spectacular in the city.
Sample the flavors of Istanbul
More than anything else, Istanbullus love to eat, and food is much more than mere fuel. Instead, it’s a celebration of community. Meals unfurl with great ceremony – they are joyful, boisterous and almost inevitably communal. The national cuisine has been refined over centuries and is treated more reverently than any museum collection in the country. That’s not to say it’s fussy, because what differentiates Turkish food from other national noshes is its rustic and honest base. The small meze dishes you’ll eat will be simple, the kebaps austere, the salads unstructured and the seafood unsauced. Flavors will explode in your mouth because ingredients are used in season.
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Admire the architecture of Süleymaniye Mosque
Commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Süleyman I, known as “the Magnificent,” this 16th-century mosque has a fittingly grand perch atop one of the old city’s seven hills. The view from here is one of the finest in Istanbul, looking out over domes and rooftops to the confluence of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn waterways and beyond. With its elegant symmetry and soaring interior, the mosque itself is considered among the masterpieces of the great architect Mimar Sinan. The complex around it is inviting and serene, with tall trees, a grassy lawn and a rose-studded cemetery.
Go underground at the Basilica Cistern
When the Byzantine emperors decided to build something, they certainly didn't cut corners. The extraordinary subterranean Basilica Cistern, located opposite Aya Sofya, features a wildly atmospheric forest of columns (336 to be exact), vaulted brick ceilings, mysterious carved Medusa-head capitals and ghostly patrols of carp. A testament to the ambitious town planning and engineering expertise of the Byzantines, the cistern has played a starring role in innumerable motion pictures (remember From Russia with Love?) and is now one of the city's best-loved tourist attractions.
Go tile-mad at the Blue Mosque
Officially named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, after the early 17th-century Ottoman ruler Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque gets its better-known moniker from the color of the tens of thousands of İznik tiles that adorn its interior. With its enormous courtyard, grand prayer hall and six minarets (an unprecedented number for a mosque when it was constructed) this is a building made to impress – and to rival the Aya Sofya, which sits directly opposite across a landscaped square.
Ogle the opulence of Dolmabahçe Palace
Weighing in at nearly 10,000 pounds, the crystal chandelier hanging over the Ceremonial Hall of Dolmabahçe Palace exemplifies the opulence of this royal residence commissioned in the mid-19th century by Sultan Abdül Mecit I. It’s a glorious mishmash of styles and materials, with ceilings gilded with thousands of pounds of gold, marble floors, crystal bannisters and bearskin rugs. The Bosphorus views are just as dazzling as the decor.
Let your feet be your guide
Istanbul’s marvelous sights could keep a visitor busy for months, but it’s worth taking some time to explore its myriad neighborhoods as well. Though the city is sprawling, its central districts are walkable and reward wandering, with lively street life and distinct identities. Follow the film crews and Instagram influencers through shabby-chic Fener and Balat’s historical lanes; sip black tea with a Golden Horn view at the Pierre Loti Café, perched above the leafy cemeteries and holy tomb complexes or Eyüp; or watch fishermen cast their lines from the Bosphorus village of Arnavutköy.
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