Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople) is not only situated on two continents, it also spans the ancient and modern world. The old city is located on the European side of the Bosphorus whereas the more modern areas are located in Asia. It even has an airport in each continent!
The most important sites are located in the city center, on the European side and mostly within walking distance of each other. The architecture is spectacular and several of the key sites you should make sure to visit include the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet Square, the Basilica Cistern and the Dolmabahçe Palace.
If you want to visit the Asian side, I recommend booking a hop-on, hop-off Bosphorus cruise. You can hop on and off as many times as you want in the day, and as well as getting a cruise along the Bosphorus, it is the easiest way to get to some of the landmarks on the Asian side.
TEN SITES YOU MUSTN’T MISS
1. Sultanahmet Square
Sultanahmet Square is the ancient hippodrome and it’s located between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. In ancient times, it was the sporting center of Istanbul, but nowadays the main attraction is the Obelisk of Theodosius, imported from Egypt in the 4th century.
The square also offers beautiful views of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.
2. The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, and it’s visible from just about anywhere in the city center, with its 5 domes and 6 minarets.
It is especially beautiful at night, when it is illuminated and the fountains in front of it dance and sparkle in the moonlight.
The “Blue” refers to the colour of the mosaics that adorn the interior. Entrance is free, but you should be prepared to queue and also bear in mind that it is primarily a place of worship.
You will be expected to respect the calm of the mosque and also to wear a skirt or long trousers (no bare legs) and women will be expected to wear a veil or a shawl to cover their heads. You will also have to remove your shoes before entering. Everything you need is provided free of charge at the reception (veils, skirts and plastic bags for your shoes).
3. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is just across the square from the Blue Mosque and was originally constructed as a Christian Orthodox church in the 6th century.
However, In 1453 the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed—known as Mehmed the Conqueror—captured Constantinople and renamed the city Istanbul, and as the Ottomans’ religion was Islam, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque.
A mihrab (or nave) was installed in the wall to indicate the direction towards Mecca, and four minarets were also added to the original building during this period, partly for religious purposes (for the muezzin call to prayer) and partly to fortify the structure following earthquakes that struck the city around this time.
In 1935, nine years after the Republic of Turkey was established by Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum and attracts more than 3 million visitors each year.
I recommend booking a “skip the line” ticket, as not only can the queues be very long, but it is definitely also worth having a guided tour. Our guide was extremely helpful and very knowledgeable! However, the skip the line ticket does not help you get through security any quicker!
Just like the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia is especially beautiful after dark.
4. The Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is also located in this golden triangle, and is also well worth a visit. It was built in the 6th century and was used to store water during Roman times.
It was featured in the 2016 film “Inferno”, starring Tom Hanks and based on the novel by Dan Brown.
It’s a beautiful underground chamber, filled with impressive, perfectly preserved columns, two of which feature the face of Medusa – a monster in Greek mythology.
Again, I would recommend booking ahead and taking a guided visit.
5. Topkapi Palace
This beautiful 15th century palace is located right to the East of Hagia Sophia.
It was built in 1461 by Mehmet the Conqueror, soon after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople and it remained the seat of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire until Sultan Abdülmecid I moved the imperial home to Dolmabahçe Palace in 1853.
It was converted into a museum after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1924 and is a must see for any tourist visiting Istanbul.
Again, I would recommend booking a guided tour in advance. One thing I hadn’t realised before my visit is that the majority of the tour takes place outdoors (and unfortunately for me the day I had booked was wet and windy 🙁 , but our guide managed to make the tour very enjoyable anyway!)
The palace is set in a wooded area in the old city and comprises four different courtyards and various exhibitions. There is an additional charge to visit the harem.
6 Dolmabahçe Palace
Dolmabahçe Palace replaced Topkapi Palace as the main seat of the Ottoman Empire in 1853, as Sultan Abdülmecid wanted a more European Palace, and also preferred the strategic location of the Palace on the Bosphorus.
The Palace is 600m long and took 13 years to build, and comprises 285 rooms and 43 halls. There is a ballroom and a ceremonial hall at the very center of the palace, and the impressive 4.5 tonne chandelier in the ceremonial hall was a present from Queen Victoria, and is the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier.
Dolmabahçe Palace became Atatürk’s Presidential Palace upon the declaration of the Turkish Republic. Ataturk died in the palace on November 10th 1938, and the clock remains set to the time he died, 9:05 am !
Dolmabahçe Palace became a museum in 1984, and is open to the public every day except Monday and Thursday, but individuals are not allowed to visit without a tour guide. Again, it’s worth booking a guided tour or you will have to wait until a local guide is ready for you.
7. The Grand Bazaar
Don’t miss out on a trip to the Grand Bazaar – the largest covered market in the world!
Where else can you find 6000 boutiques, with different stalls selling everything from carpets, jewellery, souvenirs, clothing and leather goods?
Shopping at the Grand Bazaar is one of the most fun things to do in Istanbul! Haggling is expected and you can always get a good bargain for your purchases.
8. The Spice Bazaar and the Suleymaniye Mosque
The Spice Bazaar is about 15 minutes north from the Topkapi Palace, and it’s the second famous shopping mall in Istanbul, after the Grand Bazaar.
As its name suggests, it’s specifically oriented to those who love food, especially oriental spices!
It’s very close to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Istanbul. Whilst not as famous as the Blue Mosque, it is equally impressive and worth a visit.
9 The Whirling Dervishes
I would recommend booking a ticket to a “Whirling Dervishes” show during your stay in Istanbul.
During this spectacle, the Dervishes perform the mystical ceremony known as a ‘sema’, in which their series of mesmerizing whirls help them, and the audience, reach a state of nirvana.
The audience is instructed not to talk, use mobile phones, take photographs and even applaud during the ceremony. I assumed this was out of respect for the religious ceremony but I later found out that whilst this is true, it is also because the full attention of the audience is necessary to the success of the process.
Dancers wear long white robes with full skirts, which symbolize the shrouds of their egos, and they wear tall, conical brown or black hats on their heads to represent the tombstones of their egos.
While whirling, the dervish’s arms are open with his right hand directed towards the sky, representing his readiness to receive God’s grace, and his left hand turning towards the earth, representing his willingness to convey God’s spiritual gift to those present.
You will need to book tickets in advance.
10 Beylerbeyi Palace on the Asian Side
If you take a hop-on, hop-off Bosphorus cruise, then one of the stops on the Asian side is Beylerbeyi, and I would definitely recommend hopping off to visit the Beylerbeyi Palace.
This palace was the summer residence of the sultans and it was built between 1861-1865 in French neo-baroque style.
The palace has a rectangular plan with the long side facing the Bosphorus. There are 6 large halls and 24 rooms on two floors. You can choose to visit the interior of the Palace or if you are in a rush to hop back on the Bosphorus Cruise it’s possible to buy a ‘gardens only’ ticket.
INTERESTING QUIRKS ABOUT ISTANBUL
Two surprising things I noticed :
- the surprising number of stray cats and dogs ( however, it seems that the city has developed a collective responsibility for strays and most hotels/ restaurants and residents don’t mind sharing their leftovers.)
- the also high number of bandaged heads, especially men. It seems that Istanbul has a booming business in cosmetic surgery, especially male hair transplants. On a quick stroll through Istanbul and on guided visits, you are likely to come across half a dozen men with the painful raw scalps and bandages that indicate a recent operation!
WHERE TO STAY
Best Western Antea Palace Hotel and Spa
We stayed at the Best Western Antea Palace Hotel and Spa, which was perfectly located, right in the heart of the old town and close to all the main monuments, and it was heavenly to come back to the hotel at the end of an exhausting day and take advantage of the spa facilities.
The hotel is five to six minutes walking distance to the iconic Istanbul landmarks such as the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi, Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern and more.
It was not a problem for me but because of the hilly nature of this part of Istanbul ( some of it quite steep) I would not recommend this area for anyone with restricted mobility.
It has a rooftop terrace with spectacular views over the old town and the Marmara Sea, and there is a nice park just in front of the hotel.
It boasts 58 rooms and every detail has been considered to ensure your comfort. We were lucky enough to be accomodated in a King Suite and our room was everything we could have wished for. We had a huge King Size bed, tons of space, a settee, and a balcony with views over the Marmara Sea. We were welcomed with a fruit basket and the hotel provides bottled water every day.
The breakfast was both delicious and copious, and a choice of hot european savoury dishes was offered, along with fish, cold meats and cheeses and Turkish specialities, such as special breads and pastries and even Turkish Delight!
The hotel has a lobby bar and restaurant area: we didn’t eat in the restaurant, but we did have a drink in the bar and the staff were friendly and helpful.
The spa is available free of charge for hotel guests from 8am to 10pm, (outside of these hours, charges are applicable) and features an indoor pool, a turkish bath, a sauna and a steam room. Massage facilities are also available at an additional charge.
Other convenient facilities at the Best Western Antea include an airport shuttle, car hire and free parking. They are also able to arrange visits to local attractions for their guests.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay here and would definitely book again if/ when I go back to Istanbul. The staff were friendly, professional and helpful and the hotel was comfortable and well-located.
I hope you enjoyed finding out more about Istanbul, and if you decide to visit, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed. I’m Julia, the Senior Travel Editor and I can’t wait to share some more travel inspiration with you again soon!
Happy travelling !