Istanbul is a fascinating city, a mix of of sumptuous palaces, mosques and minarets, narrow cobbled streets and underground roads and trains, old wooden houses and tall glass buildings, chain stores and bazaars, restaurants worthy of a Michelin star and street food, many lovely cats and , above all, many boats and an unforgettable sunset on the Bosphorus.
Istanbul is one of the few cities that lay on two continents, but by far the largest and best known. The city is built on the two banks of the Bosphorus Strait that connects the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea, separating Europe from Asia. Due to the geographical position between the two continents, Istanbul has gained a great geopolitical importance that urged many people to conquer it. Istanbul was the capital of the three great empires, Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman, and changed its name every time – Byzantium, Constantinople, and later, Istanbul.
With such a rich history, Istanbul could only be compared to Rome in terms of cultural and historical heritage. There are so many things to see and experience that it will be hard for me to keep the list short, but here I am, giving it a try!
Hagia Sophia cathedral
Hagia Sophia is considered an architectural masterpiece – it is the first building of such magnitude executed in rectangular form and covered with a huge dome and two semi-domes. The building was built in the sixth century, functioned as a church until the fifteenth century, and then turned into a mosque that served the Muslim community. In 1935 Hagia Sofia was turned into a museum.
During the summer, the museum can be visited from 09:00 to 19:00, the last entrance being at 18:00.
During winter, the program is from 09:00 to 17:00, with the last entry at 16:00.
Ticket price: 72 TL (12 Euro)
Although there are a lot of mosques in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is the most famous and imposing of them all. It was decided to build it in the Hippodrome Square, located in the center of the city. To do that, it was necessary to demolish several buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
The Blue Mosque is the only 6-minaret mosque in Istanbul and Turkey and represents a masterpiece from the Ottoman period. We arrived at the mosque during the prayer, so we just admired it from the outside and couldn’t enjoy the blue decorations inside.
The mosque is open to visitors daily between 08:30 – 11:30, 13:00 – 14:30, 15:30 – 16:45, except Friday, when it’s open from 13:30. When entering the mosque, you must take off your shoes and replace them with plastic slipper. Clothing restrictions: head, shoulders and feet must be covered.
Other mosques worth visiting if you have time: Süleymaniye Mosque, Sehzade Mosque, New Mosque, Sinan Pasha Mosque
It is the former residence of the Ottoman sultans, the place from which the Ottoman Empire was ruled for 400 years. Topkapi Palace is considered to be Istanbul’s most important tourist destination, crossing the threshold of over 2 million tourists annually. The place covers an area of 700,000 square meters, double the area of Vatican. Inside the palace you will find green spaces and various exhibitions.
Inside Topkapi Palace
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. The bazaar attracts an impressive number of tourists every year, in 2013 becoming the most visited tourist spot in the world, crossing its threshold over 90 million visitors. We know how crazy we are all after shopping, so it’s no wonder. The bazaar comprises over 3000 shops that sell absolutely everything: gold, carpets, clothes, spices, Turkish delight, oriental perfumes in small bottles and many other products specific to this amazing place. Believe it or not, in the bustle and madness of the bazaar, you will also find tea houses that seem to temper the madness a bit. My recommendation is to take a break and enjoy a traditional baklava and a cup of hot apple tea.
I recommend you to visit the Egyptian bazaar whose interior preserves the oriental atmosphere much better compared to the Great Bazaar. Visiting the bazaar is an interesting, intense and very tiring experience. In the bazaar everyone negotiates, negotiates and again…negotiates. Sellers are trying to attract you in every store and not let you go empty-handed. Although it can be exhausting, it is part of their history and culture and it definitely is an unforgettable experience.
The bazaar’s hustle
From the Grand Bazaar, you can walk to the Galata Tower. All you have to do is cross the Galata Bridge and you will reach the Galata district. The Galata tower is 61 meters high and is located at the top of a hill, from where it offers a breathtaking panorama. The view is the main reason why tourists visit this place. The tower was formerly used as a defense tower. The line to enter the tower was incredibly long, so we decided to just admire it from the outside and walk around the Galata neighborhood, full of pretty souvenir shops, vintage shops and coffee places. .
Close to Galata district, lays the Taksim Square, a dynamic and bustling center. It is famous for a tram that is known for never stopping for years (just a legend, of course).
Swap the hustle and bustle of Istanbul’s streets for a more peaceful way of sightseeing—a cruise down the Bosphorus strait on a boar or even yacht, if you’re more pretentious. You have also a short “cruise”, just cross the Bosphorus strait with the public transportation. The price of a ticket is 5 Turkish pounds (4 lei).
If you do not have much time to walk around the city, you can admire some places on the boat, such as the Dolmabahce Palace on the European side, the Beylerbeyi Palace and the Virgin’s Tower on the Asian side.
Daily commute : Asia- Europe
Fishermen and cats
Bosphorus strait seen from above
We booked two rooms at Mercur Altunizade near Uskudar, the historic center of the Asian side. It was a good opportunity to discover Asia, but it was time-consuming to cross the Bosphorus strait everyday to get to Europe. As a tourist, I recommend you to book a hotel in Europe, if possible, near Eminonu.
Seafront, pretty close to our hotel
Imagine a city with a population of 15 million people that lays on two continents… The distances are huge and you lose a lot of time on the road if you don’t organize your trip in advance.
Istanbul’s new airport is situated 40 km away from the city. I recommend you to arrange a shuttle in advance. If you don’t want to spend so much money, the airport has a shuttle service, Havaist, that stops in several places in the city. The price of a ticket is 18 TL (3 Euros), luggage included. Another option is to take the public transportation, bus H-2. It can get pretty crowded during rush hours.
In the city, we traveled by subway, taxi and we walked a lot. Take cash with you, you might need it for tickets.
To get from Europe to Asia, you can either take a taxi, the underground train or the boat (1 Euros) that offers great views!
The new airport – pretty awesome!
Turkey is one of the countries where you should spend weeks to try the local food. They have the doner, ciorba (soups), sarmale, baklava, coffee and tea, Turkish delights, spices… I went out to dinner with two dear friends from Istanbul and we had a kind of Turkish “tapas” – appetizers to share. The main ingredients were fish, eggplants and many spices. All yummy! BUT we had such a great time together, after 9 years, that I forgot to take a single picture of the food. Never mind, you can see my beautiful friends below – they’re more important! 😀
Turkey is a wonderful combination between Europe and Asia. It is a noisy, sometimes chaotic city, but very captivating and unique!
On our way to Europe
Old city center
A different architecture
Looks more like Italy
Cats, they’re everywhere you look