"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul."
- Alphonse de Lamartine
I'm going to come right out and say that Istanbul is my favorite city in the world. The meeting point of three great continents, the city is a brilliant mix of cultures, constantly changing and evolving. From delicious street food to some of the most beautiful mosques in the world, there's so much to see here. This is a list of my all time favorite things to do in Istanbul, Turkey.
FOR A LIST OF MY FAVORITE STREET FOOD SPOTS AND RESTAURANTS, CLICK HERE
1. Istiklal Street
On the European side of the city, Istiklal street is the center of this neighborhood. A walking street lined with dozens of restaurants, candy shops, and vendors selling delicious ice cream. Branching off are hundreds of tiny streets packed with rooftop bars and nightclubs. This is where all the action is and where the younger population comes to party.
For a list of my favorite bars/nightclubs, click here
Address: Istiklal Street Cd, Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
2. Grand Bazaar
The perfect place to try some Turkish delight or haggle for a backgammon set. This is the main bazaar of Istanbul and is widely considered one of the oldest markets in the world. The market consists of over 4,000 shops and 61 covered streets, attracting around 300,000 visitors daily.
Be warned if you aren't comfortable haggling, chances are you'll be ripped off if you try and buy something. My advice is don't buy anything unless you've walked away from the guy at least once, and/or talked him down to half-price.
Hours: All day, everyday
Address: Grand Bazaar, Beyazıt Mh., 34126 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
3. Hagia Sophia
The world's largest cathedral for a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was constructed between 532 and 537 under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It was built at the height of the Byzantine empire and is widely considered to have "changed the history of architecture".
Visitors are allowed entry between 9:00 AM and 5:00PM for about 85TL ($22 USD) which also gives you access to several other monuments and museums. I recommend going early to avoid lines, or go late in the evening to try and catch the sunset.
Hours: Daily, 9:00AM - 5:00PM (Closed Monday's)
Address: Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
4. The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus is the narrow straight that separates Asia from Europe, and connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara (and then the Mediterranean). All along the waterfront of the Old City are dozens of traditional boats rigged up to produce the best fish sandwichs you'll ever have (also known as Balik Ekmek).
You can find most of them just next to Galata Bridge, swaying with the tide of the bay. It really is amazing how they are able to produce such delicious sandwiches while being tossed back and forth constantly!
Price: Free (a sandwich goes for about 6TL)
Hours: Unknown (safest bet is to go around lunchtime)
Address: Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi, Galata Köprüsü, 34425 Beyoğlu/İstanbul, Turkey
5. Spice Market
The second largest market in Istanbul, the Spice Souk is located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district. It has a total of about 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, jewelry, souvenirs, and dried fruits.
Right next door is the New Mosque, which will give you a inside look at a mosque that is still in service and let you avoid all the crowds (no tourists go here because the mosque is much less well known).
Hours: 8:00 AM - 7:00PM
Address: Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No:92, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
6. Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)
Just a few blocks from the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. It got its name from the hand painted tiles that cover the inside of the five domes. At night the mosque is bathed in a soft blue light that reflects off of the tiles. Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this mosque is still in use and men can be seen kneeling inside during the call to prayer.
Fun fact, the mosque has six minarets. At the time it was built, that was the same number of minarets as the mosque in Mecca and after being criticized for this, the sultan immediately ordered a 7th spire built in Mecca.
Hours: Sat - Thurs
8:30 AM - 11:30 AM
1:00 PM - 2:30 PM
3:30 PM - 4:45 PM
1:30 PM - 3:30 PM
Address: Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Atmeydanı Cd. No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
7. Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is the largest of several hundred cisterns located beneath the city. Used in ancient Rome for storing rainwater, the Basilica Cistern can house roughly 80,000 cubic metres of water and is supported by over 300 marble columns .
One of the great mysteries of the Cistern are the two massive medusa heads used at the base of two of the columns. No one can say for sure why they are there or where they came from. However a popular theory is that after conquering Greece, they were brought back as trophies and used in this way to signify that the Greeks gods were meaningless compared to the ottomans.
Price: 20 TL (Children under 8 are free)
Hours: 9:00AM - 5:30PM
Address: Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
8. Topkapi Palace
The residence of the Sultan during the Ottoman Empire, Topkapi is where he would command his forces and administer the empire. Construction began in 1459 by Mehmed the Conqueror and remained the center of the Ottoman Empire until its fall in 1923.
Today, it's home to the Tokapi Palace museum, the Ottoman imperial harem and the imperial treasury. The museum features an impressive collection of Ottoman artifacts including the Spoonmaker's diamond, which is the fourth largest diamond in the world! The pass includes entry to the Hagia Sophia as well so make sure you stop by on your way out.
Hours: 9:00AM - 4:45PM
Address: Cankurtaran Mh., 34122 Fatih/Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul has an off the hook party scene filled with live music, good drinks, and rooftop bars. There are so many awesome places to check out but number one on my list is Arsen Loupen. Located just off of Istiklal Street, this rooftop bar features some of the best live music in the city, and its fun, authentic energy is totally addictive.
Located on the third floor of a nondescript building, few tourists know of its existence (even some locals don't know about it!). This is the perfect introduction to Istanbul's party scene.
All of the info below is generalized so make sure to check with each location individually!
Price: Around $2-$3 USD per drink
Hours: Places are usually open till 6AM and don't get going until 11PM
Address: For a complete list of my favorite bars/nightclubs CLICK HERE
Rumelihisarı Castle is a medieval fortress located in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul. It's part of the Bosphorus water tour that you can take for about 25TL. The trip takes you on a cruise to several different locations across the Canal. There are 5 stops during the trip including several fortresses and small villages that give you a unique perspective about what life outside the city is like.
You can pick from several cruises that vary in time, place, and duration, but I recommend the Full Bosphorus Cruise (Uzun Boğaz Turu).
Price: Varies but around 25TL
Hours: Again, schedules change but early afternoon is when most leave (you can check their timetable here)
Address: TurYol Eminönü İskelesi, Istanbul, Turkey
WHERE TO STAY?
The city is divided into three parts. The first is the European side (Karaköy) which is where most people choose to stay. This is where Istiklal street is and most of the nightlife in the city. There are also tons of cafes and restaurants nearby.
The second area is the Old City (Eminönü), which is where all the mosques and historical ruins are. This is typically a more conservative area that has a completely different feel from the European side. When I went I stayed in the Old City for 3 days, then moved across the canal to the European side to get the best of both (I highly recommend doing this!)
The Third area is Kadıköy, also known as the Asian side of the city. Kadıköy is mostly residential and is full of fish markets, hip cafes, and colorful street art. A close second but the European side is still my top pick. In terms of lodging, Airbnb is definitely the way to go, the cheapest and most local option.