Straddling two continents, Istanbul is a city divided by the narrow waterway known as the Bosphorus. The city embraces it’s mixture of European and Asian culture and visitors will sense the contrasts with each turn. To really explore and understand the culture and energy of the city one would need months or even years but we’ve highlighted our favorite things to do in Istanbul.
What to do in Istanbul
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is Istanbul’s most famous site and is the top thing to do in Istanbul. A visit to the city would not be complete without laying eyes on its beauty. It’s known by it’s more common name, The Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of its interior.
It is still a functioning mosque but visitors can enter if they follow the rules. Long pants should be worn and women must have their shoulders and heads covered.
Located in the old city, it’s the perfect way to start your day before moving on to the other sights nearby.
Across the Galata Bridge crossing the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul you’ll find the Galata Tower on the North Bank of the Golden Horn. It offers the best panoramic views of the city and an excellent vantage point to gaze upon Old Istanbul.
Until the 1960’s it was watch tower for city fires, but today it is open to tourists to walk around its balcony near the top of the 67 meter (220 feet) high tower.
Hagia Sophia is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was once a church and a mosque but is now one of the most visited museums in the world.
For 916 years it was a church and then following the conquest of the Sultan Mehmed, it was converted into a mosque and remained so for 482 years. In 1935 it was converted into a museum and visitors can enter daily to see the mosaics, calligraphy, tiles and Sultan’s lodge.
A short walk down the street takes you to the Grand Bazaar for the most exciting shopping experience you’ll ever have. There are more than 5,000 shops in the Grand Bazaar covering 60 streets. It was an important trading center dating back to the 15th century.
I can only imagine how it once was with traders coming in from Asia and Africa bringing their exotic items for merchants to peruse from Europe. Spend a day losing yourself in the giant labyrinth that houses Mosques, hamams, cafes, and jewelry stalls.
The Galata Tower offers beautiful views of the city. It is located just north of the Golden Horn in the Galata Quarter. We stayed in an apartment looking right up at this tower and it was breathtaking.
It is 9 stories high with a restaurant café and nightclub. You can take tours up to view the city.
There’s a great square at the base of the Galata Tower where you can enjoy some Turkish Coffee and Turkish Delight while people watching on the terrace.
Visited by nearly 3 million people daily, Istiklal Avenue is the beating heart of the city of Istanbul.
This 1.4 km long pedestrian walkway houses everything from cinemas to nightclubs and boutiques to cafés. It’s also here that we tried our first Turkish Delight treats and bought some much-needed medication from the pharmacies.
If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the historic tram all the way to Taskim Square to view the monument of the republic.
Eat with the Locals
You can book many dining experiences in Istanbul and the best way is to spend time with a local family.
Often you will meet friendly people that invite you for dinner and become fast friends, but you can also book dining experiences where you go to a home and eat traditional food, learn about the local’s way of life and have lively conversations.
Sip Turkish Coffee
If there is one thing that we wanted to try in Turkey was Turkish Coffee.
We’d had it all over the world, but to have it in its country of origin was beyond heavenly. It takes great preparation to make this tiny little cup of caffeine, but the effort is worth it as it’s one of the most delicious and rich blends of coffee you will ever have.
Don’t drink it to the last drop though, the bottom of the cup is filled with coffee grinds. (The secret ingredient perhaps?)
Cruise the Bosphorus
You must visit the Asian side of the city when visiting Istanbul. How often can you visit two continents in a matter of minutes and not even have to go through customs!
We popped over to Asian Istanbul after a scenic cruise checking out the shores of both North and South. A good stop is Kanlica, famous for its thick yogurt.
When strolling through the city, you’ll see many older gentlemen playing games. The game of choice is Backgammon and you must give it a try.
Look for a local café offering boards to use, sit down and order a coffee or tea and play until your heart’s content. This popular game dates back 5,000 years in the Persian Empire and is going strong today in the city of Istanbul.
Take Turkish bath
You cannot visit Istanbul without experiencing the weird and wackiness of a Turkish bath, also known as a traditional hamam. Be prepared to strip down to your birthday suit and have strangers vigorously bath and massage your entire body after a hot steam bath.
It can be painful, strange, and heavenly all at once. You may or may not like it, but I can tell you one thing for sure, you will never forget it.