Is Istanbul worth visiting? You bet it is! Often overlooked in favor of the southern beach resorts or the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, Turkey’s biggest city might not be in the travel brochures that much, but it’s one darn enthralling place. That’s what this guide aims to show, by running through nine amazing aspects of this fizzing, throbbing megacity…
The only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul combines all the intrigue of Asia with the cosmopolitan nature of Europe. It’s a vibrant melting pot of cultures, architectural styles, and cuisines, cut through by the wide waters of the famous Bosphorus Strait. There’s a rich history dating back to the 7th century BC, along with mystical mosques and Ottoman-era castles. Tempted yet?
The big sites and landmarks aside, every bustling street and every nook and cranny of the great bazaars here also ooze with character and charm. You can come to people watch with a coffee and a shisha pipe, taste kebap from hole-in-the-wall vendors, and party the night away in Karaköy neighborhood if that’s your sort of thing. We don’t think it’s even possible to get bored!
Explore two continents for the price of one!
One of the main draws of visiting Istanbul is the opportunity to visit two continents in a single trip. The European side of the town is where you’ll find the most well-known sights, including the Blue Mosque, the sprawling Topkapi Palace, and – of course – the iconic Hagia Sophia. It’s also where you’ll find historic neighborhoods such as Balat, a Jewish Quarter offering brightly painted houses, hip cafés, and a bohemian atmosphere, or Fatih, the ancient heart of erstwhile Byzantium.
The Asian side of the city is much quieter. It’s made up of more residential neighborhoods but also has something of an up-and-coming vibe. Kadıköy, for example, is a relaxed district with a popular fish and produce market and lots of laid-back restaurants, making it great for food-lovers. The ferry crossing in itself is a reason to visit the Asian side, because those who make the trip across the Bosphorus will be following in the footsteps of emperors. They also get rewarded with wonderful views of the city’s skyline. Other bonuses to the Asian side: Moda has some quirky museums, while there are even a few small beaches in Caddebostan.
Delve into the fascinating history
The fabric of Istanbul has been woven by many different empires, religions, and civilizations since its foundation several millennia ago. From the coming of the Roman Empire to the ages of Byzantine rule and then the rise of the Ottomans, a real layer cake of enthralling periods and epochs has played out in these parts, and treasures have been left in their wake.
Check out the incredible Byzantine Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground structure that once delivered water to the city. Imposing stone columns were salvaged from temples to be used for its construction, while an eye-catching medusa statue adds to the eerie atmosphere.
Above ground, you’ll find the impressive Topkapi Palace, once home to Sultans and their wives. It features a gilded treasury of jewels, as well as the secretive harem, a secluded space with its own Turkish bath where the emperor’s women would reside. Of course, you can’t miss the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s star attraction. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this hallowed site is a vision of domes and spires and minarets, with a breathtaking interior lined with iridescent tiles.
Breathtaking beauty and buildings
Connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara while dividing the city in two, the Bosphorus Strait lends an unusual element of natural beauty to this urban jungle. Taking a boat tour on the water itself is the best way to appreciate some of the incredible sights of Istanbul, including the dazzling architecture of the Ottoman mansions and palaces which line the steep banks. You’ll also be able to spy out the medieval Maiden’s Tower, an unusual lighthouse in the middle of the waterway. (As the legend goes, a Sultan kept his daughter here after a prophecy predicted her death.)
Inside the city, the gorgeous architecture continues. You’ll find a unique blend of oriental and arabesque styles at the Grand Bazaar, with its vaulted domes and silk merchants. Elsewhere, there are ornamental mosques and synagogues. You can also visit the Galata Tower to get the best panoramic views of the city, or simply head to one of the many rooftop bars and restaurants (more on those later).
Basically, there’s striking sights and buildings around almost every street corner in old Istanbul!
Traditional Turkish hammams
Spa enthusiasts are in for a real treat in Istanbul. This megalopolis is famed all around the world for its centuries-old bathing tradition and wellness facilities known as hammams. A hammam is a public bath featuring a steamy, marble-clad room where you can be attended to by a masseur who uses warm water, soap, and salts to provide a vigorous exfoliating treatment. The facilities are usually split into separate areas for men and women. You will typically have some time before and after the treatment to relax and unwind, too.
The Mihrimah Sultan Hammam was built by Mimar Sinan in the mid-1500s and offers classic, domed Ottoman architecture to enjoy while you unwind. Luxury-lovers should check out the Hürrem Sultan Hammam, which was also built during the Ottoman times but under the orders of the Sultan himself! Those are just two – there are thousands on offer across the city.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar hardly needs an introduction. Known for being one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the whole world, it’s an explosion of color and chaos, home to around 4,000 shops, along with a mosque, post office, and police station. Yep, it’s practically a city in itself!
It’s the ideal place to shop for authentic souvenirs. There’s all sorts on offer here, from hand-loomed carpets to stained-glass lanterns to floral-painted ceramics and filigreed shisha pipes. You can also pick up a cotton peştemal, which is a traditional striped and fringed towel used in the Turkish hammam (you’ll need it when you head to the spa).
Meanwhile, foodies should look no further than the nearby Spice Bazaar, which is an aromatic alternative to its larger neighbor. Go there to get a taste for Turkish cuisine and the rich paprika and cardamom that’s used throughout. Visitors can sample the many fragrant herbs and products there, not to mention the local sweet delicacies of Turkish Delight and sticky baklava, an authentic pastry smothered in honey and nuts.
With a cacophony of scents, sounds, and sights pulling you from pillar to post, there’s no question that the streets of Istanbul can be a touch overwhelming at times. Thankfully, there’s an escape on offer: The rooftops.
Head up to the urban canopy and you’ll find spectacular views, excellent bars, and a breath of fresh air. Some of the best options have now been converted into sophisticated cocktail venues. Try the Banyan for uninterrupted views of the Bosphorus Strait, Vogue for elegant cocktails and an extensive cigar menu, or 5.KAT for a more authentic afternoon drink setting.
Those who love a photo opportunity could also check out the various rooftops across the city where the owners have set up colorful rugs and carpets. They’ll charge a small fee for taking a picture but it’s real Instagram fodder sort of stuff. Alternatively, Kubbe Istanbul is a great little establishment with an Instagram-worthy rooftop where you can sip Turkish tea, lounge on colorful embroidered cushions, and watch the seagulls swoop and dive above the Old Town. We go back there whenever we’re in town.
Istanbul’s multicultural past means it now boasts a diverse and delicious local kitchen. You’ll find everything from tempting street food to Michelin-star fine dining, with something to suit all tastes and budgets in between. The overarching theme of the food here is a collision of east and west – think the freshness of Greek food mixed with the exoticism and spiciness of Middle Eastern cooking.
A traditional mezze is the perfect thing to start with. It’s made up of lots of different small plates, like Turkey’s answer to Spanish tapas. There are all sorts on the menu in mezze eateries, from beyaz peynir (white cheese, sometimes in honey) to kalamar tava (salty calamari, often grilled), along with olives, walnut pastes, aubergine salads – the list goes on and on.
Street-food specialties include simit, which is a type of bagel, and of course the quintessential kebab, which are sold from holes in the wall all over the metropolis. Other dishes you might want to consider sampling include mantı, often hailed as the Turkish ravioli, consisting of small filled dumplings served with yogurt, garlic, and tomato sauce, and the Arab pastry known as künefe, which contains unsalted cheese and is served warm and smothered in syrup.
Istanbul is a city of such epic proportions that it often feels more like 20 cities mushed into one. Mhmm…there are many faces to this 15-million-strong town. In one area you’ll get those urban NYC vibes and the slick feel of a global business district. In the next you’ll be lost in stacks of Berber rugs and East Asian spices amid plumes of shisha smoke and haggling hawkers.
There’s WAY too many to get through in a single guide, but here’s a quick glance at some of the most enthralling neighborhoods out there and what they offer:
- Beyoğlu – Medieval Christian sites and Genovese landmarks like the Galata Tower give this one a Euro feel, and Istiklal Avenue that carves through its center is one of the most vibrant tourist shopping strips in the city.
- Sultanahmet – Sightseers can’t miss this one. The Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Hagia Sophia – they all make their home here.
- Kadıköy – Get stuck into the Asian side with this epic whirlwind of cafés and bazaars.
- Ortaköy – Seeking luxury? Look no further than the five-star hotel resorts that line the Bosphorus in this affluent area.
- Balat – An old Armenian neighborhood with handsome streets set on steep hills, this one can look more San Fran than Turkey sometimes. There are Byzantine churches and a frenetic flea market to get through.
It’s a gateway to Turkey
Something in the region of 16 million people visit Turkey every year and most won’t even go near the sprawling megalopolis of Istanbul. Most stick to the resorts of the iconic Turquoise Coast, which spans several hundred miles of some of the Aegean’s most wonderful shoreline. But you don’t actually have to choose between the historic sights of the town and the pearly blue waters of the Med. You can do both, and plenty more besides.
Yep, Istanbul is one of the great gateways to Turkey as a whole. It’s a transport hub from where it’s possible to venture to all corners of the nation. Some of the easiest places to hit would be the Black Sea beaches of Ağva to the northeast, which are often a lot quieter than their compadres on the Mediterranean. Resorts like Izmir and Bodrum are also only a single day’s bus ride away, or you could rent your own car and add in stops to UNESCO-tagged Ephesus before hitting the sands.
We also think it’s worth looking east from Istanbul. The temptation of the old Hippie Trail is still strong. It’s a route that will take you across the wild Caucuses all the way to New Delhi and it begins right here, with a train connection that runs through the dusty mountains of Cappadocia to untrodden parts of Asia Minor. Who’s feeling adventurous?
How many days do you need in Istanbul?
We recommended spending at least 3-5 days in Istanbul. This will give you enough time to see the main sights without feeling too rushed or overwhelmed. If you choose to spend a week in Istanbul, you will also have time for enticing day trips to places like the car-free Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara, known for its elegant horse-drawn carriages, or the enchanting Belgrad Forest, for a sense of wilderness and a little adventure.
Is Istanbul good for tourism?
Istanbul has been popular with tourists for centuries. It’s just got so much to see, from the old palaces of the Ottoman sultans to the enthralling mosques that rise in the middle of the old center. On top of that, Istanbul has a wild nightlife side for younger travelers, backed up by a fantastically authentic gastronomy – mezze, anyone?
What is Istanbul famous for?
Istanbul is famous for its rich history and culture. Once named Constantinople, many of the city’s most famous landmarks were built during the Golden Golden Age of Byzantium, such as the Hagia Sophia. This impressive feat of architecture was formerly a church but later became a mosque – a great illustration of the city’s colorful and transformative past. Istanbul is also known for its hipster cafes, buzzy nightlife, and location between Europe and Asia.