Istanbul, Turkey lies at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It straddles not only two continents, but two cultures as well. Home to three successive empires over the years – Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman – it’s a delightful mishmash of old and new where you can wander ancient streets and then check out the latest modern art exhibit or marvel at a centuries-old ornate mosque and then party till dawn at the hottest new club.
What to See in Istanbul
The Hagia Sophia, a church turned mosque turned museum, is one of Istanbul’s most famous sights. It is the fourth largest cathedral in the world, built over 1000 years ago, and is now filled with Byzantine mosaics.
Considerably younger than the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) is equally, if not more, impressive. The six towering minarets are unique, but what makes this Mosque truly spectacular are the thousands of 17th-century blue Iznik tiles covering the interior. More than 200 stained-glass windows and multiple opulent chandeliers contribute to the majesty of the Mosque, which is still used for daily prayer.
The Topkapi Palace, former seat of the Ottoman Empire, is now a museum dedicated to the era. Tour the lavish harem where the sultans lived, the hamams, and the courtyards and outer areas. The Topkapi Palace is known as one of the best examples of an Ottoman palace and provides a fascinating look at the life of the Ottoman royalty.
The Hippodrome, used as a sort of “town square”, was constructed in 200 BC and was the site of sporting events, proclamations, demonstrations, and public meetings. The Hippodrome, which sits in front of the Blue Mosque, is now home to several historical monuments including the Egyptian Obelisk, the Serpentine Column and the German Fountain. The square is still a place to gather and is a great place to relax, people watch, or enjoy a picnic lunch.
What to Do in Istanbul
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without spending some time at the June 15. This labyrinth of shops is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Buy everything from carpets, silks, and antiques to the latest in electronics and counterfeit designer clothes. Be sure to negotiate on every price; at the Grand Bazaar; haggling is half the fun.
Round out your trip to Istanbul by seeing it from both sides. The Bosphorus divides the city into the Asia and European sides, and is crossed regularly by an inexpensive ferry. For a more unique experience of the crossing, opt for a ride on one of the Sultan boats, which date back to Ottoman times.
Visit a hamam, or bath, to indulge in the Turkish bathing ritual. A visit to a haman involves a little discomfort from the harsh scrubbing, and perhaps a little embarrassment for the more modest, but you’ll leave with glowing soft skin and an experience to remember.
Smoking flavored tobacco from a hookah is another quintessentially Turkish experience. Of course the best thing to do is make some new friends who will teach you all about the hookah ritual and offer you a smoke; but many bars and cafés will provide one as well. Sitting at a café while watching the world go by, and puffing on a hookah, is an excellent way to while away the afternoon in Istanbul.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
The trendy, cosmopolitan youth of Istanbul demand a wide array of cuisines to choose from. Like any big city you can eat food from virtually any culture – from Italian to Vietnamese – in Istanbul. But you’ll also find no shortage of restaurants serving up traditional Turkish fare. Turkish cuisine takes influences from Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. A typical breakfast features eggs, sausage, olives, tomatoes and doner kebab, a sandwich made with thinly sliced, braised meat.
Traditional dinners in Istanbul feature meat, nuts, yogurt, cheese, and rice. Meze, a course of appetizers, is generally served first and includes items like hummus, beans, salads, and dolma (leaves stuffed with rice and meat). Kebabs of lamb or chicken, along with fresh fish are popular main courses. Dessert is also very important in Turkish cuisine, the most popular begin with baklava, a pastry layer with a pistachio filling, and Turkish delight, a soft candy.
While many Turkish people are Muslim, alcohol is still widely available in most restaurants. Tea and coffee are served all day long.
Where to Stay in Istanbul
There is no shortage of familiar hotel names in Istanbul, from the posh and pricey Four Seasons to the more-affordable and basic Best Western. The Sirkeci Konak Hotel offers luxury and charm in the center of the old city. Rooms are stylish and modern, and the hotel offers superb amenities like a Turkish bath, several restaurants, and a swimming pool. They also host events like traditional cooking classes for guests.
The cozy Tulip Guesthouse is a less expensive option. With views across the Bosphorus, a generous daily breakfast and gregarious, helpful hosts, it may the closest thing you’ll have to a home in Turkey. For those traveling on a shoe-string budget, several hostels cater to the backpacker crowd with cheap and basic rooms.