On the border of Asia and Europe, Istanbul’s location and long history has given this city an unparalleled mix of influence making it the undisputed cultural heart of Turkey.
Often mistaken for the country’s capital, this bustling destination is vastly large and with a population of around 14 million people it is essentially impossible to get to all of Istanbul’s offerings.
Below is a list of where to get started on things to see and do!
1. Fresh seafood
At the foot of the Galata Bridge at the Eminönü waterfront you’ll find these quirky lit up fishing boats which cook their goods right on board and serve up fish sandwiches, with salad and onion added this makes for a fresh and cheap meal.
I really enjoyed this area of town as it was pretty lively and right next door there was a stand selling honey covered donuts too – yum!
2. Cruise the Bosphorus
Probably one of the best things I did while visiting, the weather was on our side and it was a beautiful sunny day when we spent around an hour doing a river cruise.
We even saw dolphins swimming alongside us!
There was local fisherman hanging out by the banks and the stunning buildings which line the Bosphorus make the journey go by in no time – well worth doing!
3. Go from a hamam
A tradition for hundreds of years in Turkey, a bath/spa or hamam is usually housed in a building equally as old and seeing this alone makes the experience worth it.. because yes it is a little weird getting basically naked in front of random ladies, baking in a sauna until someone calls you out to vigorously scrub you from top to toe.
However, afterwards your skin feels truly amazing and at the hamam I went to you can chill out in a swimming pool for as long as you want!
I sadly can’t remember the name of the one I visited but there are so many to choose from just ask your accommodation for a recommendation if you’re stuck.
4. Hagia Sophia
Once a church, later a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia has seen a lot of change dependent on who last conquered the city.
Regardless of the strange mix of influence in this building it remains an impressive architectual gem today.
The Hagia Sophia is not open every day so check the opening hours before visiting. It is also conveniently located directly across from..
5. Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque)
A truly impressive building, a visit inside the Blue Mosque is essential when visiting this city.
You will need to be appropriately covered to do so, this means no shoulders or knees visible and shoes have to be stored away when you enter too. If women don’t have coverings for their heads then some can be provided.
I’m not sure which I’m impressed by more, the dome shaped interior with its intricate carpeting and hanging lights or the exterior’s six minarets and a call to prayer which could be heard from my dorm room, a 10 minute walk away.
6. The Grand Bazaar
An obvious highlight to a visit in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar has been operating since the mid 15th century and with over 3000 shops you’re bound to find anything you could ever desire within its walls.
I actually didn’t realise it was undercover until I went and there are some great entrances to the bazaar, depending which side you enter from.
Whether its Turkish delight to colourful lanterns, scarves or plates you’re after, if you can find your way out of the bazaar then you won’t go home empty handed.
As Turkey was my first stop on a seven month trip I was especially sorry that I couldn’t take more with me from Istanbul!
7. Topkapi Palace
Situated with a wonderful view over the Bosphorus, Topkapi Palace was the residence of Ottoman sultans for over 400 years.
Today you can tour the palace grounds and a large collection of Muslim artefacts remains here for viewing also.
8. Basilica Cistern
This underground site provided water for the palaces of Istanbul back when it was known as Constantinople.
In operation since the 6th century, walking around down here is pretty cool and the medusa heads are very impressive also!
9. Galata Tower
For a 360 degree views of Istanbul you can pay to visit the top of this medieval tower which is lovely but it’s not obviously a huge structure so you won’t be seeing out for miles or anything.
Some of my friends managed to climb Roman remains of the Aqueduct of Valens and it looked as if this was a great vantage point too – and for free!
Waiting in line for the tower, a little girl dances to the music
10. Taksim Square/Area
My accommodation was near the Blue Mosque and therefore quite a journey to the Taksim Square. You will definitely need to take a tram or taxi there if you are also on the other side of Istanbul.
This is the renowned area for nightlife and you’ll also find more modern shopping options available here.
I also noticed a couple protests going on when I visited (April 2014) so this area of town seems popular for gatherings and appeared to have less tourist influence.
11. Shisha in Sultanahmet
Just behind Sultanahmet Square there is a labyrinth of restaurants and cafés to be found and many of these offer shisha.
If you’re visiting with a partner, in a group or have made new friends at a hostel spending some time hanging out after a meal engaging in this Turkish tradition is a lot of fun.
12. The Food
The humble kebab is probably the most famous export of this country but beware, finding a non Westernised version in Istanbul can sometimes be a challenge. However, when you do score a legit traditional version- it’s heaven.
I also enjoyed local gozleme, pide, meze and when you’re wanting to save some dollars and have something lighter lentil soup is my go to as it’s served with bread usually and will only set you back about 1 AUD.
Turkish coffee (quite thick in texture) and tea (apple tea is my favourite) are quite different to their Western style counterparts so have a try of each while you’re here!
I didn’t even get to any museums while here, there’s just far too much to see and do around the place and I know multiple visits here wouldn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Istanbul is a lively place and a stunningly beautiful city well worth a visit anytime of the year.