The historic city of Istanbul straddles two continents and is known to be the center point of where East meets West. Istanbul used to be called Byzantium and Constantinople back in the day and was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity in the middle ages before it was conquered by the Ottoman empire and transformed into an Islamic powerhouse. Today, this buzzing and vibrant city gives you a glimpse into its past while capturing your heart and mind with its present. This post covers things to see and do in Istanbul, including some of its most famous sites as well as its best kept secrets.
I remember studying about the Hagia Sophia during art class in school so to actually visit here was a pretty surreal experience for me! This church, turned mosque, turned museum, turned mosque again dates all the way back to the 6th century. When it was built, it was considered the largest Christian church in the Byzantine empire. Today, this mosque has both elements from Christian and Islamic art, although the Christian elements have been covered with cloth as it is forbidden to depict images in Islam. I really loved the contrast between the high domed ceiling against the massive low hanging chandeliers. Hagia Sophia is an absolute must see in Istanbul.
Competing against the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia is the Blue Mosque. All you got to do to get to the Blue Mosque is to walk through a well manicured park with fountains and sitting areas. Don’t forget to look back as you walk towards the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia to get a stunning view of the Hagia Sophia’s exterior and minarets.
The Blue Mosque is also knows as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. This mosque was built during the Ottoman-era and is named so because of the hand-painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls. Unfortuntately the mosque was under construction when we visited but this picture below of the mosque’s ceiling gives you a glimps of its interior.
The Süleymaniye Mosque is the second largest mosque in Istanbul and a much quieter experience in my opinion. I went there early in the morning and there was only one other person inside with me. While the interior of this mosque is not as magnificent as the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, the exterior is sure to leave you in awe. The mosque also offers commanding views of the Bosporus through half domed roof tops that Istanbul is so famous for.
Bonus Mosque – Rüstem Pasha Mosque
A much smaller and relatively unknown mosque. I did not get to visit but heard the interior is adorned with İznik tiles set in a very wide variety of floral and geometric designs.
Sultan Ahmet Türbesi
Almost next to the Blue Mosque is the Sultan Ahmet Türbesi or the tomb of Sultan Ahmet. This burial place is a a quick stop as you have to walk around the graves pretty fast. Don’t forget to look up! The ceiling is ornate and beautiful.
Anyone is free to visit a mosque during non prayer time. However, proper attire is always a must. This means covering of knees and shoulders for all genders. In addition to this women need to cover their heads. You will have to remove your shoes before entering a mosque so bring socks if walking around barefoot is not your thing. Some mosques have a shoe rack for you to keep your shoes and some give you a disposable plastic bag to put your shoes in (this is especially true if the enter and exits are not the same direction)
You can hire a scarf and raincoat like covering before entering if you are not clad appropriately.
With so many domed rooftops of mosques and minarets soring to the skies, it is no secret that the city of Istanbul has stunning views to offer. Grab a drink or a bite to eat and enjoy the views and sunsets or sunrises.
Galata Tower and Surrounding Area
Unfortunately, the Galata Tower was closed for renovations when we visited, but that area is a still a good place to visit. The surrounding cafes and shops made me feel like I was back in Paris or Brussels.
Quaint and colorful, Balat is one of the oldest parts of Istanbul. The juxtaposition of old, narrow townhomes along steep winding roads and the hip cafes and coffee spots with fancy dessert menus truly makes this a very unique and must see part of Istanbul.
There is no way you will not run into colorful streets when you explore Istanbul. Look out for colorful stairs, light strung streets and umbrella canopies.
This pedestrian only street is one of the most busiest in Istanbul. People seem to enjoy the frolic and step a side from the tram tracks only when the tram is inches away.
This Square is the heart of the city buzzing with life and energy. Grab a bite from one of the doner kebab stalls and watch the crowds pass by.
Topkapi Palace and Harem
Bulit in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Topkapi Palace served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. There’s a lot to see at the Topkapi Palace. From its the vast grounds to the rooms that hold religious relics and it’s massive kitchens and museums. However, the most famous and prominent building of the Palace is its Harem.
The private residence of the sultan, the Harem contained more than 400 rooms and housed the sultan’s entire family, including his wives, children, concubines and servants. Not all rooms are open to the public but from the ones that are, the Imperial Hall is perhaps the most impressive.
Grand Bazaar is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world and a must see in Istanbul. You could probably spend days inside it and still not cover its length and breadth. Look up when you walk inside and you will see its grand and colorful arches. Perhaps the bazaar’s most famous products are the bright and colorful Turkish lamps that hang from its many lamp shops. Bring cash and haggle away!
Open Monday-Saturday 9AM – 7 PM
Although mighty impressive, I personally enjoyed the Souks in Marrakech from the my trip a few months back. There was something about these Souks that transported me way back in time.
Spice Bazaar/ Mısır Çarşısı
Also known as the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. This is the second famous market after the Grand Bazaar and another must see and do in Istanbul. This bazaar has everything from spices to herbal teas to all sorts of Turkish delight. Shop keepers are more than happy to indulge you in samples of sweets and cups of tea!
Ancient Ruins – The Hippodrome of Constantinople, Serpent Column, Obelisk of Theodosius
The Sultan Ahmed square has several remnants from the city’s ancient past. In the olden days this square used to be an arena used for chariot racing.
The Obelisk of Theodosius was brought to the then Constantinople in the 4th century. It has been standing here since then.
Built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, this cistern was a basilica before the cistern was constructed. The cistern’s most notable resident is Madusa’s head!
One of the best ways to see Istanbul is to hop on a boat and cruise the Bosporus. There are many different ways to do this from dinner cruises to sunset cruises on smaller yachts. The best time to go is in the evening so you get to experience golden hour and the sunset. The Bosporus straddles both Europe and Asia and it’s truly one of those unique spots in the world.
We took a tour called Bosphorus Sunset Cruise on Luxury Yacht and they were really good. The guide did a great job showing us significant buildings along the shores and also teaching us the history of Istanbul.
Turkish baths or hammams is a steam bath and cleaning ritual with its roots going back to ancient Roman times . Although not unique to Istanbul, it’s in my opinion a great way to relax after going through this long list of things to see and do in Istanbul.
I visited The Cağaloğlu Hammam. Finished in 1741, it is one of the last major hammams to be built in Istanbul during the Ottoman period.
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Check out my post on what to eat and drink in Turkey HERE