Just like people, cities too have that special aura around them, places that instantly click or fall in love with; Istanbul is that kind of city.
The city where beauty, depth and culture come together blowing every bit of your mind away. It’s a perfect merge between modern westernization and eastern authenticity, leaving its own mark on the soul, making it a prime destination for millions of travelers over the years. No wonder it came in 1st place winning TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Award in 2014; topping Paris, Rome and New York (Just WOW).
And that’s exactly why we will be unraveling some of Istanbul’s countless gems in the next few paragraphs; making your next trip there indelible. So keep on reading…
Let’s assume that you plan on staying for one week -please don’t stay any less-, and you kind of want to get the experience in that given amount of time, but don’t want to be running around feeling exhausted by the end of your trip from trying to cover EVERYTHING.
Here is when a good plan comes in handy…
Your plan should basically include;
- The Must Sees
- The Must Dos
- The Must Buys & Tries
That simple…and “The Must Rule” as I like to call it, can be applied to any new city you’re visiting.
In no specific order whatsoever;
Istiklal Street & Taksim Square
Goes without even saying…probably you will be staying there anyway.
By far it is the most visited/busiest avenue in Istanbul; where a huge number of residents and tourists spend their time. The main reason behind its popularity lies in its central location and vast amount of facilities; you can walk, shop, eat and even watch some street live performances -if you got lucky. Walking your way down to Istiklal Street you will be surrounded by a wide range of restaurants and coffee shops of all kinds to please all taste buds. The avenue is vibrant that you will feel energized and alive just being there.
On top of that, Istikal Street is considered to be the best shopping street in the city; packed with local and international brands, food markets and handmade jewelry shops.
Located on the Asian side of the city -unlike most of the attractions that are located on the European side- is this secluded hill and park. Unquestionably it is the best view you will ever get of the city, offering a wide sweeping top view of the Bosphorus, all the city bridges and mosques. The place has been known for years to be an inspirational spot for writers and poets. You can walk round the park, drink some tea or even have lunch up there, where you will find a really old authentic Turkish restaurant. The fresh air and view will inspire you somehow. I would recommend you visit the hill during spring or summer, avoiding winter seasons since it can be very windy and unbearably cold.
For hundreds of years this used to be the presidential palace for Ottoman Sultans/Royal Family; making it a significant attraction revealing Turkey’s history. The palace is huge, so make sure you visit early in the morning for it might take at least a couple of hours. Just walking up to the palace you will find a big garden; which is rented -sometimes- nowadays for weddings and receptions. Inside the palace you will find different courtyards and rooms filled with Ottomans’ preserved treasures. Moreover, some rooms are used to display some of the rarest Islamic Treasures; some of which belong to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his family.
Would also recommend if you have enough time on that day to visit;
Another great example of the Ottoman era with all its details lying around the palace. It is known to have the finest and biggest chandelier in the world which was given as gift by Queen Victoria. And because it was built later in the 1800’s -a relatively close era- everything was kept and preserved in its original state.
Aya Sofia/Hagia Sofia & The Blue Mosque
Both landmarks are located in Sultan Ahmet area; Istanbul tourism and history hub.
The Hagia Sofia museum; which used to be a church, converted into a mosque, and now a museum with a little mix of both, is an architectural phenomenon; details of both religions (Christianity & Islam) are to be found all over the place, including paintings of Virgin Mary, Jesus, the names of Islamic caliphs and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
The museum consists of two massive floors, the first with a very high ceiling covered in mosaic and drawings; and the second is currently used as a gallery for many historic preserved paintings, offering a great wide top view of the entire museum.
It is where serenity and peace come together, offering a tranquil experience the moment you step in. The mosque got its name as its interior is covered with rare blue inzik tiles. The exterior of the mosque is nothing less magnificent than the inside; with its silverfish/grey domes and six tall minarets. When visiting make sure to dress moderately according to the Islamic code (women covering arms, legs and hair, and men preferably covering legs).
The largest most visited bazaar in the city; sort of “Khan El Khalili” of Istanbul. Skillfully built in an indoor area makes it easier to visit all year long, unlike many other street bazaars. It has all kinds of goods; from jewelry and fabric stores, to dried fruits, nuts, spices, and souvenir shops. The quality and variety of products you will find there is definitely better than any around touristic areas. However, make sure you check a couple of stores first before jumping and buying the first thing you see; chances are you are going to find it cheaper in the next store, and use your haggling skills, but don’t go too far because the Turks get quickly irritated. Whether you are shopping or just visiting, be sure that you will have an authentic Turkish experience.
What can be better than having lunch with a panoramic view of Istanbul after a long walk? Within walking distance from Istiklal Street makes it the easiest landmark to visit without doing too much effort. The tower was built in the Romanesque style, an obviously high, cone-capped cylinder dominating Istanbul’s skyline, and going up you will find this really cool restaurant, where you can have a nice meal and drink your coffee over viewing the city…Like a boss.
It is advisable to visit in the afternoon and stay up there to watch the sunset.
Getting There & Around
And if you are wondering about the accessibility to all the mentioned above places, transportation in Istanbul is a piece of cake. Over the past 10 years the transportation system has developed massively; connecting the city together. You can go anywhere in Istanbul using underground, buses, mini buses, trams, ferries and sometimes cabs.
Stations are to be found around every couple of blocks; however if you are a tourist it is advisable that you ask about the closest station to your hotel.
Spa day? YES PLEASE!
Just like the name says, it’s taking a bath the Turkish historical way. The experience is in the overall atmosphere, taking you back in time to a different era, while relaxing and detoxifying your body.
Here are three of the best/reasonably priced baths in Istanbul:
- AyasofyaHürrem Sultan Hamamı
Bosphorus walk & Tea time
A walk by the Bosphorus (the sea connecting Europe & Asia), a cup of tea later on while watching sunset might be all you need to heal your soul. You can always bring a book and dwell in it, and if you are up to it, you can even put on your sneakers and go for a run by the sea.
Since the Bosphorus is that transforming, there is a little more that can be done to make the best out of it. And by that we mean taking a ferry for 30 minutes or 1 hour, passing by Istanbul’s historical attractions, bridges and mansions. This short ride will not only give you interesting insights, it will leave you refreshed and relaxed inside out. You can take the ferry from Eminönü or Karaköy and it doesn’t cost much.
Have Ice cream or baked potatoes at Ortaköy
Ortaköy is a cosmopolitan avenue overlooking the sea and the Bosphorus bridge; known for its numerous restaurants and coffee shops. You can go there by cab or public transportation at any given night, buy Ice cream or/and baked stuffed potato (Kumpir) while enjoying the sea view.
Must Buys & Tries
And a trip to Istanbul is never complete without buying and trying some of Turkey’s exceptional products. So here is a list of our top buys and tries out there;
– Turkish delights and chocolates: because these little saccharine pieces will fill your tummy with joy; not to mention how they make an ideal gift to bring home for friends and family without over spending. They are to be found everywhere in Istanbul, however a famous chain that sells all sorts of Turkish delights, candies, coffee and tea is called KOSKA located in Istiklal Street.
– Magnets and key chains: the variety offered at local souvenir shops is remarkable. Most of which are hand carved in Turkish authentic designs, having one or two is always a great reminder of the city. You can find them in all the touristic areas and famous avenues.
– Buy something pretty for your wardrobe: if you feel the need to splurge a bit, you should definitely stop by any of Istanbul’s shopping malls -look for the word Indirim meaning SALE. This city is a fashion enthusiasts heaven. Drop by Cevahir Mall -pronounced Jewahir- or Metro City Mall if you want to check out international brands. Yet if you’re the A List designer type then Istinye Park Mall is the place for you, or Nişantaşı Avenue.
– Fresh apple tea, Turkish coffee, dried fruits and all sorts of spices from the Spice Bazaar -known as The Egyptian Bazaar.
– Künefe & Baklava with some tea at Hafiz Moustafa, right by Taksim Square; the best in town so far and it’s open 24/7. Künefe in turkey is unlike the “Konafa” we are used to in the Arab world; that in form, taste and even way of serving. During my last visit, my best friend woke me up at 2 A.M just to go have some…I am not even kidding, that Good!
-All sorts of street food: Boiled salted corn cobs, roasted chestnuts, pomegranate juice, wet burgers, baked stuff and stuffed mussels. You can find all these walking down Istiklal Street.
– Turkish food is a must try: an absolute must try, devour and bring back home if you can are these local and famous dishes; İskender Kebap, Döner, Meze, Köfte and Dolma. Some of which might look similar to our Egyptian recipes, but taste nothing like it. The taste is quite delectable and rich; making dinning an experience in itself. On the top of local restaurants, is a place called “Konak” located in Istiklal Street, where you can try all sorts of Turkish dishes.
And you cannot leave Istanbul without trying “Tavuk göğsü”; which weirdly enough is a pudding made of milk, sugar, heavy cream, “chicken” and a sprinkle of cinnamon. This mouth melting dessert taste nothing like chicken really, if the description got you worried, be a little adventurous and make sure you try this signature Turkish dessert people swear by.