If there is one city that can truly claim the title of being the gateway to both Europe and Asia, it's Istanbul. Straddling two continents, Istanbul is a city divided by the narrow waterway known as the Bosphorus. The city embraces it's mixture of European and Asian culture and visitors will sense the contrasts with each turn.
To really explore and understand the culture and energy of the city one would need months or even years but we've highlighted our favourite things to do in Istanbul.
During our short time we witnessed young urbanites embracing the modern world while others cling to traditional values of the Byzantium period and Ottoman Empire. While we can't say that we walked away with a clear vision of the direction Istanbul will take in the future, we can say that this is one of the most fascinating, contrasting, and interesting cities we've ever visited. Where old meets new and history meets future, this is Istanbul.
12 Things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was once a church and a mosque but is now one of the most visited museums in the world. For 916 years it was a church and then following the conquest of the Sultan Mehmed, it was converted into mosque and remained so for 482 years. In 1935 it was converted into a museum and visitors can enter daily to see the mosaics, calligraphy, tiles and Sultan's lodge.
A short walk down the street takes you to the Grand Bazaar for the most exciting shopping experience you'll ever have. There are more than 5,000 shops in the Grand Bazaar covering 60 streets. It was an important trading centre dating back to the 15th century. I can only imagine how it once was with traders coming in from Asia and Africa bringing their exotic items for merchants to peruse from Europe. Spend a day losing yourself in the giant labyrinth that houses Mosques, hamams, cafes, and jewelry stalls.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is Istanbul's most famous site and a visit to the city would not be complete without laying eyes on its beauty. It's known by it's more common name, The Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles surrounding the walls of its interior. It is still a functioning mosque but visitors can enter if they follow the rules. Long pants should be worn and women must have their shoulders and heads covered. Located in the old city, it's the perfect way to start your day before moving on to the other sights nearby.
Across the Galata Bridge crossing the mouth of The Bay of Istanbul you'll find the Galata Tower on the North Bank of the Golden Horn. It offers the best panoramic views of the city and an excellent vantage point to gaze upon Old Istanbul. Until the 1960's it was watch tower for city fires, but today it is open to tourists to walk around it's balcony near the top of the 67 meter (220 feet) high tower.
Visited by nearly 3 million people daily, Istiklal Avenue is the beating heart of the city of Istanbul. This 1.4 km long pedestrian walkway houses everything from cinemas to nightclubs and boutiques to cafés. It's also here that we tried our first Turkish Delight treats and bought some much needed medication from the pharmacies. If you don't feel like walking, you can take the historic tram all the way to Taskim Square to view the monument of the republic.
Eat with the Locals
Nightlife in Ortakoy
Our guide told us that Madonna and other famous celebrities love to party in Ortakoy. Once a fishing village, this district is now the area for upmarket chic looking for a place to party. The waterfront is filled with bars and clubs and this is where the hip young professionals of the city hang out. Dave and I clearly didn't hang out here as we're neither hip nor young, but we did take a stroll through the city and had a glass of wine!
A Walking tour map of Istanbul
Eating in Istanbul is a feast for the senses and to truly appreciate the cuisine, you must join a family for an authentic local experience. Start with an array of small dishes known as mezze, such as pita bread with hummus, cacik and tabbouleh salad. Main dishes include kebabs and believe it or not pizza! The feast ends with Turkish delight and sweet tea.
Many tours offer a local dining experience including the Other Tour and Urban Adventures.
Sip Turkish Coffee
If there is one thing that we wanted to try in Turkey was Turkish Coffee. We'd had it all over the world, but to have it in its country of origin was beyond heavenly. It take great preparation to make this tiny little cup of caffeine, but the effort is worth it as it's one of the most delicious and rich blends of coffee you will ever have. Don't drink it to the last drop though, the bottom of the cup is filled with coffee grinds. (the secret ingredient perhaps?)
Cruise the Bosphorus
You must visit the Asian side of the city when visiting Istanbul. How often can you visit two continents in a matter of minutes and not even have to go through customs! We popped over to Asian Istanbul after a scenic cruise checking out the shores of both North and South. A good stop is Kanlica, famous for its thick yogurt.
When strolling through the city, you'll see many older gentlemen playing games. The game of choice is Backgammon and you must give it a try. Look for a local café offering boards to use, sit down and order a coffee or tea and play until your hearts content. This popular game dates back 5,000 years in the Persian empire and is going strong today in the city of Istanbul.
Smoke a Hookah
Also known as Shisha or waterpipe, Hookah lounges are very popular in the city. Dave and I are ardent non-smokers, but to visit Istanbul without giving a Hookah a try would be criminal. Hookahs are flavoured tobacco smoked through a waterpipe. It became popular in Turkey in the 17th century and was a status symbol for those in the city.
If you need someone to play with: Urban Adventures includes an evening out in their tours.
Visit a Turkish Bath
You cannot visit Istanbul without experiencing the weird and whackiness of a Turkish Bath, also known as a traditional hamam. Be prepared to strip down to your birthday suit and have strangers vigorously bath and massage your entire body after a hot steam bath. It can be painful, strange, and heavenly all at once. You may or may not like it, but I can tell you one thing for sure, you will never forget it.
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Istanbul is a busy and vibrant city and the best way to get around is by tram. It's affordable, fast and easy. We stayed near the Galata Tower and hopped on the tram to take us everywhere from the old city to Taksim Square. But in our opinion, the best way to discover Istanbul is by foot. Lose yourself in Sultanahmet, explore the streets of Constantinople, and get lost in the Grand Bazaar. There are so many things to do in Istanbul, you will want to go back again and again. What did we miss? We only spent 7 days in the city and I know there is so much more there, I'm sure you have some favourite things to do in Istanbul that we didn't get a chance to do ourselves.
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