Straddling the Bosphorus Strait with land in both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is truly a fascinating place. Turkey’s largest city is made up of ancient streets teeming with life, centuries-old bazaars standing alongside designer outlets, historic traditions blending seamlessly with modern beliefs, and cultural wonders that will have you enthralled for hours on end.
The Old City
Sultanhamet, often referred to simply as ‘The Old City’, is home to most of the main historical attractions, and it is here that most people will stay when visiting Istanbul. The most iconic sight in this area, and arguably the entire city, is the Blue Mosque.
The Blue Mosque
Built in 1616 and still standing majestically today, its six minarets, five main domes, and further eight smaller domes, command your attention from the very second you arrive. Although not its official name, the mosque gained the nickname it is known by across the world thanks to more than 20,000 blue tiles that adorn the interior of the main entrance. Each was painstakingly decorated by hand, and each is completely unique.
In the evening the still-functioning mosque is bathed in soft blue light, a beacon to worshipers across the city, and listening to the sunset call to prayer as it sails through the night sky is something you will never forget.So captivating is the Blue Mosque, you may well forget that there are any other places to see – but there are plenty!
Directly opposite, across pretty fountains and small, immaculately manicured lawns, is Hagia Sofia. A sight to behold in its own right, it has stood proudly since 537 – more than 1000 years longer than the Blue Mosque – and has seen the rise and fall of empires. Originally built as a Byzantine church, Hagia Sofia was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, and is the most expensive building in Medieval history.
In 1453, when the Ottoman Empire came to rule, the church was transformed to a Mosque and played host to sultans for hundreds of years. Inside the grand main hall, the stunning golden mosaics of Christian icons were plastered over and covered with intricate Islamic calligraphy, only to be partially uncovered again when the mosque was turned into a museum in 1934, meaning you can see the symbols of both religions standing side by side.
At the rear of Hagia Sofia is another must-visit attraction – Topkapi Palace. Built in the 15th century, this complex was the main residence for Ottoman Sultans, their families, and their famous Harems (mistresses). As you wander through the grounds you will find everything from audience rooms where sultans would hold their council, spacious bath houses so the sultan’s family could have privacy from those of lower social stature, and dormitories that servants called home for their entire lives. But most impressive of all is where the Harem lived – sometimes up to 300 mistresses at a time!
The surroundings are full of comfortable lounge rooms, private mosques, pretty courtyards overlooking the river, kitchens complete with their own staff and, of course, sizeable bedrooms. The gold painted walls glisten throughout and the large windows bathe the main gathering rooms in warm sunlight. As you work your way through this opulent maze of rooms, it can become easy to see why so many women were attracted to this way of life.
Back outside the palace complex, just a 40-meter walk from Hagia Sofia, is an ancient sight of a different kind, and to see it you need to venture underground. Beneath the bustling streets of Istanbul are hundreds of ancient cisterns (underground reservoirs) that provided the city with water for centuries.
Commissioned in 532, and housing 336 huge pillars, Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving cistern and can hold up to 100,000 tonnes of water. As part of a restoration program, it was drained two years ago but is still definitely worth visiting. The lack of water means you have full view of the pillars that are now softly lit, two of which have carved Medusa heads at their base, and can fully appreciate just how much of an engineering masterpiece this place is.
Food and Restaurants
The streets leading off the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are lined with restaurants and cafes, perfect for when you want to refuel after some serious sightseeing! For a quick (but very filling) lunch on the go, an absolute must-try is Lahmacun – Turkish bread baked with minced meat. All of the small, open-air cafes have this on their menu for around £4. The restaurants also have the same meal, but at a higher price of £6. Don’t be afraid to haggle – when tempting you into their restaurants the hosts will match the lower price – all you have to do is ask!
For a longer lunch or evening meal, some of the best quality local dishes, at reasonable prices, are offered at Babylonia Garden Restaurant. The sizzling prawn and mushroom starter, and lamb casserole served with authentic lavas puff bread, both come highly recommended and cost around £10 for both courses and a glass of wine. For something extra special, head to the roof terrace at Seven Hills Restaurant for speciality, locally-caught, seafood and unrivalled views of both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia (you will get some of your best photos from here). Prices are slightly higher at around £20 for a starter, main and a large beer, but everything about this place is exceptional.
Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
It’s easy to spend at least a full day around this part of the Old Town, but there is still yet more to see, and for those looking for a quintessentially Turkish experience, haggling in the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar is not to be missed. Around a 20-minute walk from Hagia Sofia, one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, dating back to 1455 and boasting more than 4000 stalls, is waiting to tempt you with goods from clothing and jewellery to sweets and herbal tea.
The sellers have a target to hit each day before they can earn commission, so haggling is usually best at around 1pm. At this time they are usually close to hitting their quota, and will agree to lower prices more frequently in an attempt to secure more sales. Remember when haggling to always be polite and don’t feel any pressure to buy – it is often when you walk away that you will get the deal you are looking for!
The bazaar ends where the river begins, and it is from here that you can access the area known as ‘New Istanbul’. Along the riverfront street food vendors are all selling one thing – fresh fish sandwiches and, for lovers of seafood, they don’t disappoint! To see the city from a different perspective, Bosphorus cruises start from here at prices from as little as £8 for a 90-minute cruise complete with audio guide.
Water taxis are available, one of the best ways to reach the opposite side of the river is to stroll across the Galata Bridge, as the views of each side of the city are simply beautiful. It also gives you the opportunity to watch as the fishermen, who stand the entire length of the bridge, bring in their daily catch. From here you will also get a glimpse of the famous Bosphorus Bridge, spanning the water as it effortlessly connects Europe and Asia.
The main attraction in this newer part of the city is undoubtedly Galata Tower. Built in 1348, rising high above the surrounding buildings, it was originally a lookout over the city and harbour. Today it is still home to the observation deck with a view stretching, literally, across continents. The climb up to the base of the tower is steep and winds up through small, cobbled streets. For a more leisurely journey, a 90-second ride on the Tunel – the world’s second oldest underground metro system (second only to the London Underground), will take you close to the tower entrance.
As you spend more time on this side of the river, you will notice that there is a distinctly different feel to that of Sultanhamet. Restaurants and, in particular, bars are found in larger numbers here, as well as a selection of clubs. For anyone looking for a livelier night out, this is definitely the place to be. An Irish Bar can be found close to an English fun-pub, and sophisticated wine bars lead to live jazz venues, giving this area a more vibrant and youthful feel to that of the Old Town.
Whichever side of the city you prefer, Istanbul is a genuine melting pot of culture and history, both ancient and modern, and the memories you make will stay with you for a lifetime. Days can be spent endlessly discovering what this amazing city has to offer, and here are some Insider Tips to help make the most of your visit, however long you have:
- Istanbul is served by two main airports, so be sure you check which you are flying to/from. Istanbul Ataturk is on the European side of the city and a taxi ride will take around an hour and cost in the region of £25 including tolls (please note that toll charges do not appear on taxi meters but are still charged, so don’t be surprised when the driver adds them to meter amount).
- The airport shuttle bus will take around an hour and a half at a cost of £2, but please bear in mind that these stop of at central points in the main tourist areas and not at your hotel door. Sabiha Goken Airport is on the Asian side of the river and will take around two hours in a taxi to reach the centre. The cost will be in the region of £30. If you are staying in a hotel it is worth checking to see if they offer a shuttle service to/from either airport, as many do and prices are around £15.
- If you are visiting as part of a cruise, you will dock at the large cruise port on the European side of the city, close to Galata Bridge, making it extremely easy to access either side of the river.
- Istanbul is known for its not so honest taxi drivers, who will often take longer than necessary routes to overcharge tourists. To avoid this make sure you pre-order taxis and agree a price before the start of the journey. For those who are able, downloading the BiTaksi app will eliminate this risk as it works in the same way as Uber, quoting the journey cost and route before you book your ride.
- If you are a solo female traveller you may be approached by lone males, even in crowded places, asking where you are from and telling you they are learning to speak English and would like to spend time with you to practice speaking. Be polite but stern when telling them no, it takes just a few seconds for them to give up when they see you are disinterested.
- Although the main tourist areas of Istanbul can be seen on foot, for those who would prefer to use public transport the metro and tram system is easy to use and very cheap. Travel cards must be purchased at either the airport or at main pick up points (cards are £1.50) and topped up with the amount of journeys you need (starting from around 40p per journey)
- It is worth noting that the Blue Mosque is currently under renovation (and has been for the past two years), so if you are planning to visit the long queuing times to see inside can leave you disappointed. Currently the views from the outside are far more breathtaking than those inside.
- If you are visiting Topkapi Palace please be aware that there is an additional charge to visit the Harem (around £6), but it is by far the most interesting building in the complex and well worth the cost.
- Istanbul is busy all year round, with long queues even in winter. Queue jump tickets are available at each attraction, but be sure to factor in waiting times when planning your visit.
Have you been to Istanbul? If not, book your 2021 cruise with Cruise Nation today!