Istanbul: Top 10 Things to See

Istanbul is the only city in the world built on two continents. Bosphorus strait separates the European part from the Asian part of Istanbul. Istanbul is seeping with history, culture, and generous hospitality. In recent years tourism has declined because some feel it’s dangerous to travel to Turkey, and since you may be wondering, I never once felt unsafe in Istanbul.

hagia sofia

Here are some of my favorite things to do in Istanbul!

1. Blue Mosque

This mosque is a famous landmark of Istanbul, and has incredible architecture inside and out. The Blue Mosque is an active religious site, so it’s important to be respectful and acknowledge the mosque rules. Dress conservatively, men cannot wear shorts, and it’s customary for women to wear headscarves. If you forget to bring one, you can borrow one from the mosque.

blue mosque istanbul

I was selfishly disappointed to discover that it was under renovation. The renovation meant we couldn’t see the famous blue dome on the inside. However, the renovations are much needed in order to preserve such a wonderful building and place of worship, for future generations.

2. Spice Bazaar

We wandered into this beautiful old market with hundreds of stalls and our senses were immediately attacked with the pungent scent of spices and dried fruit.  The market is in the layout of the letter T so it’s fairly easy to navigate.

spice bazaar istanbul

Many of the shops sell similar items, but the variety of items (there were more than a dozen varieties of Turkish Delight) are a feast to the senses! Important to note that haggling is expected in this market.

3. Hagia Sophia

When you enter Hagia Sophia you can’t help but appreciate the importance of the building; first to Christians then Muslims.

hagia sofia istanbul

Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most famous and fascinating monuments and is the spiritual hub of Istanbul. It’s called the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by historians, and is one of the most visited places in the world in terms of art and architecture history.

hagia sofia roof istanbul

Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 as a church, it then served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, before becoming a secular museum. There’s a history of religious and political struggles with the building. I was fascinated to see traces of christianity within mosaics inside the Hagia Sofia. The mosaics were not destroyed by the Ottomans, instead they were covered when the city was occupied by Muslim Turks. When Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum, the images were uncovered so visitors of all religions could enjoy them.

jesus christ in hagia Sofia
Here you can clearly see the last judgement scene

In March 2019, President Erdogan declared on national TV that the status of Hagia Sophia will again change back to a mosque. Security is incredibly tight, and you have to be completely comfortable with young men carrying guns. Lines are always long, and we went early in the morning to beat the crowds.

4. Topkapi Palace Museum

Topkapi Palace served as the home of the Ottoman Sultans from 1478 to 1856 and is an amazing large palace set in beautiful grounds. There is extremely tight security here.

It officially became a museum in 1924, shortly after the end of the Ottoman era. It features stunning architecture, pretty courtyards and extensive weaponry, porcelain, cutlery, art and fabric collections. We allowed 3 hours for this visit as there’s so much to see.

topkapki palace istanbul

We wandered through rooms filled with historical Islamic treasures such as ancient armors, weapons and staff quarters.

I’d strongly suggest sitting in the beautiful gardens to have a cup of Turkish coffee to soak in the stunning views overlooking Istanbul and the Golden Horn.

5. Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

This place is amazing with 19 entrance gates!  We wandered around a maze of over 4000 stalls selling an endless supply of  jewelry, trinkets, shoes, spices, lights, Turkish delight stores and ornaments.

grand bazaar in istanbul

However, if you want to shop I’d recommend shopping at the outside bazaar as we found the prices to be about half of the price of the indoor bazaar.

grand bazaar istanbul

It’s easy to get disorientated, so be sure to note the gate number where you entered.  It will make things easier when you attempt to find your way out!

6. Experience the Call to Prayer in Istanbul

The call to prayer booming throughout the city of Istanbul, was one of the more memorable parts of our trip. Five times a day throughout the streets of Istanbul you can hear the call to prayer, also known as ezan. During this time the voice of the  muezzin, the man who calls the Muslims to prayer from a minaret, can be heard over loudspeakers at different mosques in the city. It’s an incredible experience to see people washing quite proudly, in preparation to enter the mosque for prayer.

mosque istanbul

7. Turkish Baths of Istanbul

The hamam (Turkish Bath) is an important part of Turkish life. The Ottomans built hundreds of outdoor public fountains, where people would cleanse before heading to their mosques. They were also places where men and women would gather socially.

Turkish Baths were a public utility in the past because of water shortages. Most Turkish homes now have plumbing, however the baths still remain a social institution today. We decided we HAD to experience this during our stay in Istanbul, and it was a true highlight. You can read more in-depth about our experience in the hamam here.

hamam turkish baths

8. Taksim Square

Taksim Square is the central tourist hub of Istanbul and has much historical significance. It’s bustling with activity. taksim square istanbul

It’s a great place to sample local food and sweets, shop for souvenirs, people watch and  feel the Istanbul culture with flags draped across the street. It’s incredibly crowded, so be prepared to get bumped by people and look out for pickpockets. If you hate crowds, avoid it at all costs!

9. Basilica Cistern

This is the largest and probably the oldest underground water reservoir, that lies beneath the city of Istanbul close to Hagia Sophia. It was built in the 6th century while the city was still called Constantinople under the Byzantine Emperor.

It’s huge and is roughly the size of two football fields. The cistern is filled with carved columns and one of the most intricate columns has two Medusa heads carved at the base.

medusa heads basilica cistern

The air is musty, thick with moisture, and you can hear the dripping of water echoing. If you happen to catch the light at the right angle you can also see hundred of fish swimming in the cisterns. It’s quite creepy.

10. Sample Istanbul cuisine

The food is incredible in Istanbul. We ate the freshest humus and seafood most days.  Most of our meals began with Mezze, which is a small selection of dishes commonly served with drinks before a meal.
We enjoyed freshly squeezed pomegranate juice most days, sweet corn and chestnuts from  street vendors, and sampled the local after dinner drink, Raki.
raki in Istanbul

11. Princes’ Islands

If you’re looking to escape the hustle of Istanbul and have a day to spare, the Princes’ Islands are tranquil and peaceful. The Princes islands are a 90 minute ferry ride from Istanbul.
We easily purchased tickets at the port and enjoyed a lovely 90 minutes ferry ride that allowed us to see the European and Asian side of Istanbul. We choose a seat on the top deck and watched the cityscape pass by.
princes islands
The islands are motor-vehicle free. You can either rent a bicycle, hire a horse and carriage, or just walk around. We chose to walk, soaking in the quaint bungalows and holiday homes that line the small pathway up the hill. The place is incredibly safe, and it’s a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.
Five days in Istanbul was the perfect length of time, and I’d recommend staying 3 days at the very least. Our visit left us longing to explore more of Turkey. There is still so much to discover and we are excited to explore other cities in Turkey.

Have you been to Istanbul? What were your highlights? Thinking of going? Let me know in comments below and join me on Instagram and Twitter!

 

About The Author

Samantha

I’m a travel and health writer, digital and brand consultant, breast cancer survivor, and supermom to two active boys! I keep it real and share stories of raising feral wolves teenage boys, family life after a cancer diagnosis, and family travels around the world! Each story is shared with my dry, and sometimes naughty sense of humor.

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