Visiting Istanbul - What to See and Do
(Istanbul Ataturk International Airport IST, Turkey)
The undisputed cultural capital of Turkey
is the timeless city of Istanbul
. Few other places on earth manage to span two continents, fusing the cultures and ideologies of Europe
into something that is uniquely Istanbul. Under the shadow of its ancient minarets is a city of modern inclinations, where fashion and forward thinking temper the old ways.
With the Bosphorus strait between it, the two sides of the city reflect the duality of its secularism and conservative spirituality. Star attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia offer the perfect complement to newer highlights such as the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art in the neighbourhood of Karakoy.
Take a cruise on the Bosphorus to get a fresh perspective, then dive into the slivers of streets, ancient bazaars and intricate mosques to absorb the thick culture of these people. Food is everywhere, and most of it is cheap and delicious. Shopping is another highlight, whether it is a rare Persian carpet or a bag of fresh pistachios. Match the appeal of the bazaars in Beyazit with modern boutiques in Beyoglu, where things face full into the future.
Ten things you must do in Istanbul
- Span two continents in the space of 15 minutes by taking a boat cruise on the Bosphorus. It is great to get out on the water amidst the heavy traffic of fishing boats and massive cargo ships, but the real reward is the panoramic view over Istanbul, with its minarets piercing the Turkish sky.
- The granddaddy of all shopping malls has been beguiling consumers for more than five centuries. You can't leave Istanbul without spending a morning navigating the stalls of the Grand Bazaar. Haggling is de rigeur in this wild buzzing market, where everything under the sun is sold for a price. If you enjoy a good battle of bargaining, this is the place for you.
- Make time to take a traditional Turkish bath called a 'haman'. These hot baths are very relaxing and a veritable way of life here. There are lots to choose from, but it is hard to beat the ancient ambience of the Cemberlitas Hamami. You will emerge scrubbed clean and ready to face the chaos of Istanbul for another day.
- Istanbul is really best viewed from above. There are several historic attractions where you can combine sightseeing with superb photography, spending a few hours simply soaking in the jaw-dropping city views. Topkapi Palace is definitely one spot for good views, but even cheaper is the Suleymaniye Mosque and Complex. The rear courtyard here looks unfettered over the Bosphorus and Galata Bridge.
- The fact that Topkapi Palace was once somebody's home is reason enough to pay the entry fee to get into this fantastical compound. For nearly six centuries the sultans of the city have kept the greatest treasure of Islam and hoards of the most beautiful women behind the palace gates. Wandering its halls, courtyards and secret rooms invites limitless imagination.
- There is an unbelievable quantity of history in Istanbul, and the best place in Turkey to get a grip on its scale is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Starting at 6000 BC, the exhibits of this fascinating museum run through the ages of Byzantine rule, the ancient Orient and the Ottoman Empire. Set aside most of the day to digest it all.
- The Blue Mosque is one of those pieces of human architecture that makes you restore your faith in humanity. One of the real defining features of the city skyline, the Blue Mosque is a magical blend of harmony, power and subtlety. Early morning is arguably the best time to explore, as the light plays off the 21,000 tiles in ways that seem impossible by design.
- Byzantium Christianity also had a very long run in Istanbul, and the crowning achievement of this 1,000-year era is the Ayasofya, or Hagia Sophia Church. Its design was meant to awe and inspire, following the triumph of Byzantium Christianity. Standing inside its main hall, the sheer scope of this church is almost hard to fathom. It is impressive and warrants its status as one of the world's greatest structures.
- Explore the modern face of Istanbul in its lively fashionable Beyoglu district. This fun and frivolous area is packed with attractions and neighbourhoods like Istiklal Caddesi, a lovely pedestrian strip lined with local clothing boutiques, bookshops and other notable stores. Naturally, there are plenty of Turkish cafés around to break up the window shopping.
- Beyoglu is also one of the city's best places to eat and drink. This bustling district is where you will find the most traditional dining houses, called 'mayhanes', alongside dozens of excellent restaurants serving modern cuisine. Start with Nevizade Street, where the waiters try and reel you in for a platter of meze appetisers before the main course. Local gypsy musicians are common in these restaurants, adding to the overall charm.