Istanbul is the jewel of the Bosporus; a city of such historical grandeur and importance that a visit there will take you from the heady days of Byzantine dominance through the prosperity of the Ottomans to the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic. With such rich cultural heritage all around there’s almost too much to see and do. That’s why we’ve put together a list of the top 15 things you just can’t afford to miss.
1. Blue Mosque
The stunning Sultan Ahmet Camii, often called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the interior walls, is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions. The mosque is closed for 90 minutes during each of the day’s five prayer times so mid-morning is a good time to arrive. You’ll need to remove your shoes (plastic shoe bags are free) and women should cover their hair (head scarves are also available for free). The mosque is the last great example of the classic period and incorporates some Byzantine design features of its neighbour the Hagia Sophia.
2. Hagia Sophia
Once a church, then a mosque and now a museum the mighty Hagia Sophia stands today as a symbol of both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The Hagia Sophia was originally built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD on the foundations of a pagan temple. The whole building is a treasure trove of ancient symbolism and it’s no surprise that it plays a central role in Dan Brown’s latest novel Inferno. Themed tours are now available for fans of the book.
3. Maiden’s Tower
The Maiden’s Tower is just a 35 minute drive from theRadisson Blu Hotel & Spa Istanbul Tuzla. There are a number of legends about this tower including that it was built by an emperor to protect his daughter against a prophecy that she would die from a snake bite. An older tale also names the tower as Leander’s Tower and links it to Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite and Leander, a young man from Hellespont and their doomed love affair. Today there is a restaurant and café at the top of the tower.
4. Ortaköy Mosque
The Ortaköy Camii or officially Büyük Mecidiye Camii was built in the 18th century. Apart from the incredible mosque this area also has a pleasant outside bazaar and cafes on the Bosporus. Don’t miss a local delicacy here called kumpir ; more about that down at number 11 on our list.
5. Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace was home to the mighty Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years (1465-1856). It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the finest examples of a palace from the Ottoman period. The site is enormous and includes several courtyards and a harem. You’ll need at least three hours or longer to see the highlights but if you are short on time see the harem and the treasury.
6. Spice Bazaar
One of the city’s largest bazaars the Spice Bazaar, or Egyptian bazaar, can be found in the Fatih district. There are over 85 shops selling everything from spices to jewellery and dried fruits. If you want to experience the sights and smells of the city then head here between 9am and 7pm on weekdays to 10am and 6pm at weekends.
7. Galata Bridge
Literally spanning east and west this epic bridge joins the two sides of Istanbul across the Golden Horn. The romantic appearance of this bridge makes it a popular tourist attraction and you’ll find many bridge related tourist items on sale in the bazaars. Most daily city tours include the bridge as it is the route into the old town of Constantinople.
8. Bosphorus Boat Tour
One of the best ways to view the city is from the water. You can take a Bosporus Tour on the Golden Horn and view the historic heart of the city at your leisure.
9. Basilica Cistern
The cisterns underneath the Hagia Sophia known as the Yerebatan Sarayı or sunken palace were built by over 7,000 slaves and provide a water filtration system for the Topkapi Palace. Don’t miss the famous Medusa head pillars in this magical space – try to go early before the crowds descend.
10. Grand Bazaar
One of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world, this huge bazaar has over 3,000 shops and is a maze of little shops selling jewellery, clothes, carpets, souvenirs and just about anything else you can think of. Although this is an experience not to be missed make sure you haggle over the price if you really want to buy something and take local recommendations to find the best shops.
The food in Istanbul is fantastic and is another part of the Turkish culture you are not going to want to miss. Add on these 5 foods to try to make your Istanbul experience complete.
Kumpir or baked potato is one of Istanbul’s favourite street foods, you’ll find Kumpir stands all over the city and as we mentioned previously especially in Ortaköy. You can choose from a staggering selection of toppings before settling down to enjoy your meal by the banks of the river and in the shadow of one of the world’s most beautiful mosques. Fast food never tasted so good.
12. Turkish Tea
When in Turkey do as the Turks do and drink chai. This strong tea is brewed in a special kettle allowing for a strong preparation that can then be watered down to your tastes and sweetened with beet sugar cubes. Just don’t ask for milk.
Sweet, rich, flaky pastry sweetened with honey and filled with pistachios – delicious. Buy them fresh from vendors across the city for a quick pick me up.
Just like mama used to make…this rice pudding dish is just one of hundreds of dairy desserts commonly eaten in Turkey. The secret is fresh milk and slow cooking. They are traditionally served in small clay dishes.
And finally before you leave Istanbul you have to try lahmacun. This delicious dish consists of freshly baked dough topped with minced lamb or beef and topped with vegetables and lemon juice. Despite being a simple dish, in the hands of Istanbul’s master Lahmacun makers this becomes a real delicacy.
What’s your favourite Turkish dish?