Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Straddling the Bosphorus a narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul is a transcontinental city that bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally. Formerly known as Byzantium and Constantinople, it was the capital of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires for over 1500 years.
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Istanbul is Turkey’s cultural hub and one of the world’s most fascinating places. Located on both sides of Bosphorus – a narrow strait connecting the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara, it is the only city spread across two continents with the old historic part in Europe and the modern part in Asia. Its strategic location between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and on the historic Silk Route attracted settlers for many centuries. With its enchanting natural beauty, it is a melting pot of diverse cultures, religions, and empires. One of the most fascinating aspects of Istanbul is the blend of modern and traditional – be it the magnificent monuments, palaces, museums, mosques, churches, bazaars, hammams, or the sites of natural beauty. One of the first things you notice in Istanbul’s is its countless minarets and the crystal blue waters of Bosphorus.
While the Bosphorus divides the city into two parts East (Asia) and West (Europe), the western part is further divided by the estuary of the Golden Horn (Haliç). The Golden horn is a 7 km long deep drowned canal which is also one of the best and picturesque natural harbors in the world. Situated across the Horn is Galata the vibrant part of Istanbul’s European side. Beyoğlu neighborhood in Galata has many of the old city’s nightlife venues and restaurants along with Istiklal Caddesi – Istanbul’s most famous avenue.
To experience Istanbul’s magical vibe, take a walk on the Galata Bridge that spans the Golden Horn. The bridge carries a constant flow of people crossing to and from Beyoğlu and filled with anglers trying their luck for a big catch from the waters below. Underneath the bridge, there are many restaurants and cafes where you can savor authentic Turkish street food all day and night. Go grab some fish and beer while watching the ferries making their way to the docks. Walk over to the other side and climb up the Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi). It is one of the oldest towers in Istanbul that provides a panoramic view of the old town and sweeping views of the Bosphorus along with the two continents.
Most of the sights are in the old city are on the peninsula between the Horn and the Sea. The original city a UNESCO world heritage site is 23 square km has seven hills and in its slopes are many of the landmarks built over 2500 years. Head to Sultanahmet district the heart of the old Istanbul that has many of the historical sites. This is where you will find the Iconic Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) and the 6 minaret Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) along with the lavish Topkapi Palace. Among the other sites of historical importance is the Byzantine Hippodrome - the heart of Constantinople’s political, social, and sporting life when it was the capital of Byzantine Empire and the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Saray) – the largest and the grandest of cisterns all that provided filtered water to all nearby buildings in the ancient times.
One of the most prominent landmarks and the symbol of Istanbul’s history of being the melting pot of religion and culture is undoubtedly Hagia Sofia. Officially the Great Holy Mosque of Ayasofya and formerly the Church of Hagia Sophia – it used to be the largest church until St Peter’s Basilica was constructed in Rome 1000 years later. It is grand inside and outside with its innovative architecture, rich history, and religious significance making it the most visited site in the whole of Turkey. The array of domes, towering minarets, the grand marble columns, and the beautiful mosaics make it one of the wonders of the world’s architecture history.
Just a few minute's strolls will take you to the equally impressive Blue Mosque. With its six minarets and cascading domes, this magnificent mosque is a fine example of Ottoman architecture. The blue tiles add distinction to the grandeur of its interiors making it one of the most visited mosques in the world.
Close by is the Topkapi Palace & Museum home to the Ottoman Sultans for over four centuries. The palace with its sprawling courts and harems, opulent pavilions, and jewel-filled treasury, provides a glimpse into their fascinating lives.
Its strategic location has ensured Istanbul remains a center of trade and exchange along the Silk Route for many centuries. As the passage for merchants, travelers, artists, and craftsmen from East and West who docked at the city's harbors the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) was a vital component of the city's history and identity.
It is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops selling carpets, lamps, pottery, and everything you can possibly imagine. You can spend an entire day here sipping apple tea that is offered at almost every shop you step inside.
The Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı), at the southern end of the Galata Bridge near the ferry docks, is the place for Spices, lokum (Turkish Delight) dried fruits, cheeses, sausages, jams, nuts, and seeds. Filled with the fragrance of the exotic East you will also find handicrafts, jewelry, and souvenirs.
One of the must-do activities in Istanbul is the Bosphorus cruise. In fact, we would recommend that you do this on the very first day of your visit. There are many cruises to choose from - Bosphorus Dinner Cruise, Bosphorus Sunset Cruise, Istanbul Lunch Cruise, Bosphorus, and Black Sea Cruise. The shortest one is about two hours long and gives you a glimpse of the rich cultural history, the strategic location, and the timeless natural beauty. Brimming with stunning architecture in the forms of palaces, forts, royal residences, and houses. In just a few minutes into the cruise, you will notice the
Dolmabahçe Mosque – an ornamented mosque constructed in baroque style with two minarets. Right adjacent to it is the Dolmabahçe Palace – the largest in Turkey constructed in neo-baroque style in the 19th century and was the residence of the Sultans during the last days of the Ottoman empire. The Bohemian crystal chandelier in its main ballroom is the world’s largest with 750 lamps.
Further along the coast is the Çırağan Palace, the last palace built for the royal family. It is now one of Istanbul’s most exclusive hotels, the five-star Çırağan Palace Kempinski. You will also pass by Beylerbeyi Palace and the Küçüksu Palace. The Küçüksu Pavilion is an ornate nine-room Ottoman imperial hunting lodge.
Rumeli Castle is a medieval fortress located on a series of hills on the European banks of the Bosphorus. The fortress dating back to the 15th century is now an open-air museum.
And then you pass under the Bosphorus bridge the first of the three transcontinental bridges spanning the Bosphorus connecting Europe and Asia. Officially it is known as the 15 July Martyrs Bridge and unofficially as the First Bridge.
The Haydarpasa Train Station is Turkey’s largest and most magnificent railway station. Built in the early 20th century the station is a major intercity, regional, and commuter rail hub as well as the busiest railway station in Turkey. Haydarpaşa, along with Sirkeci station on the other side of the Bosphorus, are Istanbul's two intercity and commuter railway terminals.
On the way back you will come across the Maiden’s Tower. It stands right in the middle of the Bosphorus at its southern entrance. Built over a small islet this medieval tower has been converted into a café and restaurant with many private boats taking you there for panoramic views.
Some day-long cruises take to the Prince’s Islands a cluster of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara. However, you can still visit the islands on your own by taking one of the regular ferries that run every few hours from both sides of the Bosphorus. The Islands officially called Adalar ("Islands in Turkish"), are an archipelago off the coast of Istanbul. The islands are car-free and known for their horse-drawn carriages. Many local people in Istanbul own or rent their summer houses, or just go there at the weekends for swimming in the tiny beaches and for picnicking.
Best Place to Stay
Sultanahmet area is certainly on top of the list for most first-time visitors. All the landmarks that are worth seeing are within walking distance. The area has a lot of Cafes. Restaurants and Boutique-hotels. The Bazaar district around Grand Bazaar is the place to be if you like shopping along with sightseeing (you are not too far away from the sights). For nightlife stay in the Galata area which has a distinct feel and flair of a modern city with old-world charm. Beyoğlu neighborhood is one of the liveliest with the popular pedestrianized Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). If you are on a tight budget then the Karaköy neighborhood near the golden horn is a good choice with nice cafes, outdoor terraces, and tiny shops. Taksim area has most of the chain luxury hotels and high-end shopping.
Istanbul’s public transportation comprising of trams, buses, metro, taxis, and boats are safe and reasonable to get around the city. In the old part of the city, it is the trams. You will need a magnetic card (Istanbul Kart) to use public transport.
Best Time to visit
Istanbul has a moderate climate throughout the year. The peak season is the summer months of July and August. However, April – May, and September – October are best times with lesser crowd and the weather is usually good.
The Turkish Lira is the official currency of Turkey. TL is the symbol. Euros are also accepted in certain places. Foreign currencies can be exchanged at the banks and at the airport.
A 4-day itinerary is a must; Istanbul is also a foodie’s paradise and there are cruises that are day-long, so a 5-day itinerary is recommended.
Authors and Food Travel Writers Suk & Sangy are a couple living in Toronto Canada with a nomadic soul. They have been traveling the world together for many years now and have been to many places across 5 continents. As the pandemic put a restriction on their travel plans, they decided to spend their time sharing their past travel experiences through their blog – Urge to XPLORE. Also, follow them on their Instagram.