Standing on the historical crossroads of Europe and Asia (and with a foot in the Middle East), Istanbul gets the best of all worlds. Sprouting from the ruins of the ancient city of Constantinople – former capital of the eastern half of the Holy Roman Empire and, later, the Ottoman Empire – Istanbul is a constantly evolving melting pot of different eras, civilizations and cultures.
It’s also surprisingly happening. Recently dubbed the ‘World’s Hippest City’, Istanbul’s nightlife is inventive, creative and increasingly hedonistic. The traditional taverns and tea gardens can still be found (the hookah lounges have disappeared, though – victims of the smoking ban), but for Istanbul’s Gen Y crowd, it’s the stylish new bars, restaurants and clubs that capture the attention.
But if that represents new Istanbul, there’s still plenty of the old to enjoy by day, in the form of museums, mosques and more. Walking across the Galata Bridge after a very late night, you cross the Bosphorus Strait, which separates continental Europe and Asia and the site of the rowdy, colourful Besiktas Fish Market.
For those on a cultural bent, the Chora Chura and Blue Mosque contain some of the finest examples of early Christian and Islamic art. You can’t buy it, of course, but the Antique Rug Market of Istanbul and the Arasta Bazaar are both proving grounds for hagglers and treasure troves of rare and beautiful finds.
Whatever your objectives, Istanbul is a city that absorbs you completely, proving to be a real Turkish delight.
Istanbul’s Top 10
10. Princes’ Islands If visiting during summer, a boat trip to these remote beaches is a must.
5. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum Housing an amazing collection spanning over 1000 years of art, it’s one for the art and history buffs.
9. Cemberlitas Hamami Get naked (then preserve your modesty with towels) at the grandest of Istanbul’s Turkish baths.
4. Istikal Street The fashion and entertainment district. Go, spend, drink, enjoy.
8. Egyptian Bazaar Specialising in spices and herbs, the bazaar is home to the sweetest aromas of the entire city. Just follow your nose.
3. Sultan Ahmed Mosque Its minarets have become synonymous with the Istanbul skyline.
7. Topkapi Palace Once home to the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, it now holds some of the greatest artistic and architectural treasures of Istanbul. A fascinating place to spend a few or several hours, even for people who hate that kind of thing!
2. Grand Bazaar With over 4000 stores, 20,000 employees and between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors a day, it is one of the largest markets in the world. Best of all, it’s not simply a tourist trap but a living, working market where Istanbullus come to shop.
6. Eyup Sultan The fourth holiest pilgrimage point for the Islamic faith. Will its ranking ever improve…?
1. Hagia Sophia Over 1500 years old, this former cathedral and mosque, and current museum, is an icon of both modern and ancient Istanbul.
- Topkapi Palace – Former home for several rulers of the Ottoman Empire.
- Aya Sofia – This basilica was built in 537 and converted into a mosque after the 1453 conquest of Byzantium.
- Blue Mosque – This mosque was built in the 17th century and designed to rival the Aya Sofya.
- Istanbul Archaeology Museum – Features collections that were once owned by the Ottoman rulers.
- Yedikule Zindanlari – A fortress with a history that dates back to the 4th century.
Istanbul Art & Culture
- Dance of Colour – Celebrates the unique music, dance and attire of the Sufi Muslims in Istanbul.
- Istanbul Modern – Opened in 2005 and now hosts modern art exhibits.
- The Florence Nightingale Museum – Dedicated to the work of nurses during the Crimean War.
- Rahmi M Koc Museum – Highlights the naval history of the city.
- Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts – Includes a lovely collection of calligraphy and carpets.
- The Grand Bazaar – One of the most colourful and lively shopping areas in Istanbul.
- Flower Passage – A revitalized home for several food markets.
- Sali Pazari – This a good place to stock up on clothing at unbelievable prices.
- Spice Bazaar – Has everything from culinary spices to types of potions.
- Istanbul Handicrafts Market – Stop here to buy souvenir items.
Gay & Lesbian Istanbul
- Aquarius – The only gay sauna in Istanbul with a pool.
- Istiklal Street – This is where you will find most of the gay- and lesbian-friendly nightclubs.
- Taskim Area – Has hookah cafes that attract gay residents and visitors.
- Gay pride parades – Istanbul hosts several annual gay pride parades with large turnouts every year.
- Private tours of gay clubs and bars are available for men who are unfamiliar with the city.
- Yildiz Park – Located at one of the former palaces in Istanbul and now home to various exotic plants and trees.
- The Princes' Islands – There are no cars allowed on these islands, making them great for a fun retreat.
- Beyazit Square – Near Istanbul University and populated by pigeons, street vendors and police.
- Night cruise – A Bosphorus night cruise on a ferry is a fun way to enjoy a warm night and relax.
- Buyuk Camlica – A park atop a hill with gardens, pines and picnic spots.
- One of the most popular sporting arenas in history, the Hippodrome, has been in Istanbul since Roman times.
- Many Turks are football enthusiasts.
- The nearby village of Kilyos is a great spot for beach volleyball games.
- Visit the Ahmet Comert Spor Salonu for boxing matches and basketball games.
- Visit Bahcesehir Atli Spor Kulubu to ride horses.
Istanbul LocalSultanahmet (Old City)
Bordered by water on three sides and a wall on the other, this area is all that’s left of the once-mighty Constantinople. With its architectural roots dating back nearly 8000 years, the Old City is full of history, stories, myths and characters.
Dominated by the Hagia Sophia, there are lesser-known jewels begging to be discovered. The Basilica Cistern is a giant underground water system, equipped with monster-headed columns and newly introduced orchestral music (in case it wasn’t already creepy enough). Get a taste of ancient Rome (and Ben Hur) at the Hippodrome and a taste of everything from the local to the exotic at the Grand Bazaar. For souvenir-hunters, the Bazaar’s Can Antik section offers more than fridge magnets.
On the European side of the city, Bosphorus is one of Istanbul’s most scenic areas, yet is often overlooked by tourists. Once a series of fishing villages, the suburb is comprised of unique subcultures. The Ortokoy neighbourhood is noted for the baroque architecture of the Ortokoy Mosque but is also the city’s bohemian quarter thanks to a plethora of busy, artsy cafés.
The Dolmabahce Palace should not be missed. With 285 rooms and 43 halls, it was the vast administrative centre of the vast Ottoman Empire. To appreciate the scale of the architecture, guided tours are recommended. Less ostentatious but equally well positioned is Macka Park. Situated on the water, the rickety wooden bridge spanning the two sides of the park screams ‘photo opportunity’!
Named after the exiled Ottoman royals who called them home, the Princes’ Islands are the most multicultural of modern Istanbul’s suburbs, housing a large Greek and Armenian community.
Amidst the pines of the central summit on Buyukada Island lies the Greek Orphanage. Originally a hotel, now a possibly haunted abandoned house, the four-storey building is the largest wooden structure in Europe. On the other summit stands the Hagios Giorgios Church. Although architecturally average, its cobblestone path provides the best views of the sea.
Most visitors come to Galata for the nightlife. The Beyoglu district houses some of the coolest bars with an array of music to suit all tastes. The Atlas Axis serves up amazing world music and good food at a very reasonable price. During the week, Dulcinea is a popular museum and café, but over the weekend it becomes home to Istanbul’s re-energised techno music scene. A hidden gem is the Haymatlos Bar – a second-floor dive bar with some of the best local folk music around.
Istanbul Food & Drink
Istanbul’s cuisine embraces the best of traditional Asian, European and Middle Eastern foods, while still evolving to reflect the city’s modernising outlook. From local bistros providing traditional Turkish fare to world-class hotel restaurants offering international culinary delights, there’s so much on offer.
Refik The oldest and most famous drinking house in Istanbul. Uniquely, there are no menus – the waiters walk past with appetising dishes and you simply indicate the ones you want (get the fish, always get the fish). Book ahead for an outside table – the street performers make it worth the effort. Tünel
Dersaadet Situated on Galata Bridge, facing the minarets of the Old City, games of backgammon and late-night drinks are the order of the day.
Cintemani Swiss-Australian chef Marcel Nosari fuses modern and Asian cuisine with more traditional takes on Turkish food. Situated in the Ritz Carlton, Cintemani is aimed at luxury, boasting Istanbul’s finest selection of whiskey and cigars for post-meal basking. Sisli
Poseidon White linen tablecloths, exceptional views and exceptional seafood. Famous for its mezze (Turkish tapas) menu, the fish croquettes and stuffed calamari are signature dishes. Kucuk
Cezayir Popular with Istanbul’s young elite, its regally high ceilings and original fittings give it a French rather than Middle Eastern vibe. The cocktails are specially crafted with a solid combination of old favourites and fresh new mixes. Galata
360 Istanbul The glass and steel surrounds of 360 Istanbul house the best views of the city – and the best Martini in Turkey! Galata
As one of Europe’s greatest clothing suppliers, the Istanbul Fashion Festival in February provides a proving ground for new designers and established fashion houses.
In May, Formula One comes to town for the Turkish Grand Prix. One of the 20 races on the international F1 circuit, the event attracts thousands of fans from around the world.
For half of July, jazz fans gather in Istanbul for the biggest horns and best scatting around. With acts also embracing everything from electronica to rock, the festival has attracted some of music’s biggest names, including Ray Charles and Miles Davis.Turkey has many national holidays celebrating its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Republic Day (29 October) commemorates the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923. All of Istanbul is filled with flags and food, as a warm and welcoming nationalism sweeps across the city.
The Whirling Dervishes are symbolic of Turkey and the Middle East as a whole, their swirling and mesmerising dancing styling being a unique expression of culture. Every December in Konya (to the south of Istanbul), the Mevlana Festival commemorates the founding of this order of dancers.
When To Go
During April and May, schoolchildren are in class and parents are at work. This leaves museums, historical sites and even shopping malls ripe for you and your aimless wandering. Not being pushed around and actually having time to enjoy a timeless piece of art or history should never be underestimated.
Spring and autumn are the most pleasant seasons in terms of climate. Summer delivers scorching heat and winter is rather miserable – especially in a city where walking should be your main mode of transport.
If you’re open to a religious experience, visit during Ramadan. The Islamic month of fasting (so no indulgences during daylight) makes for raucous nights, with festivals and fares livening up the streets. By day, though, not much is open – and the people you’ll meet are likely to be cranky.
What To Miss
River Cruises The Bosphorus is majestic – it shimmers in the morning, glistens in the midday sun and sits reflectively and still at night. You do not need an air-conditioned, leather-seated cruise boat to enjoy this. Instead, take a ferry – the local commuters are worth the trip alone.
Shoeshine Scam A little boy will be walking in front of you and a brush will fall out of his bag. You grab the brush and run after him; he seems grateful as you return it. He even offers a shoeshine. You wouldn’t normally, but you say ‘OK’, a good deed done in return for your own selfless act. He will finish, smile at you and demand 10 times what a regular shoe shine would cost.
Hotel taxis If you wish to travel around the Old City, walking or a taxi is the way to do it. But hail your own cabs as hotels will charge extra for calling one. Just learn the name of your destination and a vague direction so you can correct your driver if he’s taking ‘the scenic route’.
Boats Since the city is separated by water, a boat trip will be unavoidable. Fortunately, the views are incredible from such a low vantage point, as the city seems to grow towards the sky.
Public transport Thanks to heavy government investment, buses and trains are the best ways to travel long distances on either side of the river.
Bikes and cars These are options, but not recommended. Traffic is absurdly congested on the old roads around Istanbul, so don’t expect a relaxed trip. Also, the roads are poorly constructed and usually very hilly, so avoid cycling unless you have thighs of steel.
Istanbul serves as a fascinating link between Asia and Europe. With such a unique location straddling continents, the capital of Turkey has nothing short of magic offering a journey into the land of contrasts. Enjoy this seemingly magic carpet ride over a city divided by the Bosphorus Strait, dodging minarets piercing through the Istanbul skyline.
Stunning architecture from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods dominate the city. There’s a thrill of walking past monumental landmarks, taking in the character and frenzy of the bazaars, or soaking in the famed Turkish baths. Istanbul is also a haven of trend and sophistication. Commercialism has pushed shopping and dining into the limelight; well-heeled locals make Istanbul their playground. If you get past the historical highlights, don’t forget to enjoy a cup of tea before you dive into more of what the city has to offer!
With such an illustrious heritage, Istanbul is a magnificent sprawl of palaces, museums, mosques and bazaars. Most of the city’s attractions date back to the time the city was established by Emperor Constantine in 326 AD.
Istanbul’s historical peninsula defines the cultural clout of Turkey. There are three major landmarks found in Sultanahmet Square. Topkapi Palace and Museum was the former seat of the Ottoman rulers, thus be prepared for a view of the opulence enjoyed by sultans for almost four centuries. There are tours within the palace’s elegant rooms and hallways, all intricately designed. Another grand reminder of Istanbul’s past is Hagia Sofia, a perfect example of Byzantine architecture. The domed structure has seen a transformation from a Christian cathedral during the 6th century then converted into a mosque by 15th century. Currently it is a museum housing outstanding frescoes and mosaics.
The more lavish Blue Mosque, however, elicits more awe from those viewing its six minarets and multi-tiered domes! Built as the Islamic counterpart of the Hagia Sofia in 1609, this mosque is designed with such meticulous detail right down to its flooring embellishments.
In the middle of your itinerary, you can also find the Yerebatan Cistern, an underground water system which was the lifeblood of the Byzantine era. A showcase of the best Islamic artifacts in the world awaits visitors inside the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. Apart from the collection, the view overlooking the Hippodrome is enough for one’s amazement!
Shopping enthusiasts would surely squeal at the sight of the Grand Bazaar. This mother of all bazaars in the world is definitely astonishing in size and in the multitude of wares found throughout. It is a covered area in Istanbul composed of 65 maze-like streets lined with shops, tea houses, public baths and more shops!
More time-warped sections of Istanbul can be discovered in Balat and Fener with its centuries-old Turkish homes. The district of Beyoglu shows a more modern side of the city, with hotels, restaurants and urban establishments concentrated within Taksim.
The other half of Istanbul offers a more laid-back pace. Past the grand welcome sight of the Haydarpasha Train Station, the Anatolyan side of the city promises a relaxing ambience. Flea markets are fun to explore in Kadiköy whilst retreats to Moda, Kalamis and Çelgenköy are simply divine with their seaside views.
Istanbul witnesses car racing at its finest when the Turkish Grand Prix comes to the city around May every year. Formula One enthusiasts are sure to be in the front seat of the action as streets are converted into one of the most challenging tracks in the racing world!
The International Istanbul Music Festival treats locals and visitors alike to a month-long celebration of musical events in the city during summer. There are operas, traditional and classical music, and ballet performances from artistes coming from different corners of the world!
- Spring (April - May) 12-16˚C Mild
- Summer (June - August) 20-30˚C hot and humid
- Autumn (September – November) 12-20˚C Pleasant
- Winter (December – March) 7-8˚C wet, cold and snowy
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