A European city on one side of the Bosphorus, and an Asian city on the other, Istanbul is a fascinating mix of cultures and histories. As you could imagine, it might seem like there’s just too much to see and do. We’ve picked out the essential landmarks for every discerning traveller, along with some hidden gems - perhaps less obvious, but just as rewarding.
1) Galata Tower
Let’s get our bearings by heading over to Galata Tower and looking out over the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. You’ll enjoy a 360-degree view of the city and on a clear day you’ll be able to spot the Princes’ Islands too. There’s a restaurant on the 9th floor if you’re peckish, or why not head over to Karaköy Güllüoğlu afterwards for some amazing baklava.
Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu/İstanbul.
2) Mackerel at Galata Bridge
You can’t miss the lines of fishermen on Galata Bridge, all throwing out a line with the aim of reeling in a mackerel or two. So make sure to taste their wares while you’re in town. A mackerel sandwich is an Istanbul tradition, and you can pick one up from any of the floating barges on the Sultanahmet side of the bridge.
Rüstem Paşa, No:, Ragıp Gümüşpala Cd. No:12, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul
3) Topkapı Palace
The Topkapı Palace was one of the main residences of the Ottoman sultans, and the architecture and décor stand as testament to the Empire’s heritage. There’s a fascinating museum at the Palace with, among other things, the very staff that Moses carried, or so they say anyway. Topkapı is also a good place to come to hear the call to prayer echoing around the city.
Cankurtaran Mh., 34122 Fatih/İstanbul (Gülhane Park, near Sultanahmet Square).
4) Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia was originally once of the largest churches in the world, before becoming one of the most famous mosques. Now it’s a museum, and following a thorough restoration it’s finally scaffold-free too. The vast dome is just as spectacular on the inside as on the outside, and the Byzantine mosaics are not to be missed. You can get up close to them by walking up the spiral ramp.
Sultanahmet Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul
5) The Blue Mosque
It may be close to the Hagia Sophia, but the Blue Mosque is equally worth a visit. Known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the building acquired its nickname from the beautiful blue tiles that adorn the interior. Make sure you’re dressed appropriately before you enter - modest clothing which covers the skin is ideal. The mosque is closed during prayer time.
Sultanahmet Mh., At Meydanı No:7, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul
6) The Grand Bazaar
This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. It’s easy to get lost here, as the lanes twist and turn through a bewildering array of stalls and shops. But if you’re looking for a souvenir, this is the place to come. From Turkish lamps to the traditional carpets, there’s so much on offer. And don’t forget to haggle! If it all gets a little too much, make your way to the centre of the Bazaar, where you'll find cafés offering a relaxing Turkish coffee or tea.
Beyazıt Mh., 34126 Fatih/İstanbul
Tel: +90 (212) 519 12 48
7) Süleymaniye Mosque
There are so many mosques to discover, and each one is beautiful. Süleymaniye may be close to the Grand Bazaar, but it’s gloriously uncrowded and serene. The mosque was designed by the architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent, and you can see Sinan’s tomb in the graveyard. As with the Blue Mosque, be considerate of your attire when visiting.
Süleymaniye Mah., Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar cad. No:1, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul
With so much to do on the European side of the Bosphorus, it can be easy to overlook the Asian side of Istanbul. So make sure you don’t. Take a ferry over to Kadıköy to see a whole different side to the city. You’ll immediately escape the tourists, and once you step off the ferry you’re not far from some good shopping too. There are market stalls nearby, and shops like Doga Kuruyemis offer mouth-watering Turkish delight and apple tea.
Ferries to Kadıköy depart from Beşiktaş, Kabataş and Eminönü.
9) Bosphorus Cruise
Istanbul is mesmerizing from the water, and a cruise on the Bosphorus is a magical experience. There’s no need to take a private tour - the official ferry company is just as good and can be a lot cheaper. Sail to the gates of the Black Sea and back, all in one day.
Tickets are available from Rüstem Paşa, Ragıp Gümüşpala Cd. Eminönü Otobüs durakları yolu karşısı, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul. Cruises depart from here too.
10) Dolmabahçe Palace
285 rooms, 43 salons, and all done out in gold leaf and marble. You can be forgiven for thinking that Dolmabahçe is a bit over the top, after all, it was built as a demonstration of the power of the Ottoman Empire. Wondering why the clocks all show the same time? Ataturk died in the palace at 5 minutes past 9, and all clocks have been set to that time ever since.
Vişnezade Mh., Dolmabahçe Cd., 34357 Beşiktaş/İstanbul, Turkey