Turkey’s largest city is a lesson in the art of contrasts. In the most seamless way, Istanbul mixes old and new, traditional and hip, grimy and luxurious to form a city with a notably strong sense of identity. Istanbul is groomed hills and lawns one second, graffiti and concrete the next. It is fashionable women in headscarfs on one corner and a group of rowdy teenagers & female intellectuals on the next. It’s a city with a story that keeps you hungry and curious to know more.
My first visit to Istanbul was last month and I quickly learned that a week was not enough. Right before I left, I felt a twinge in my heart because I knew I had barely scratched the surface. Nevertheless, in the time that I was there, I saw, ate and experienced some incredible things.
For your next trip to Istanbul, here are the things I recommend prioritizing:
(P.S. There is a handy map at the end of this post, so you’ll know exactly where everything is!)
What to do:
Galata Tower: For 18.50 TL/$5.24 USD, head to the top of the Galata Tower for incredible 360 degree views of Istanbul. You can see absolutely everything from the top – the Asian side, the mosques, the winding streets below and the Bosphorus.
Taksim Square: “The heart of Istanbul” has beautiful monuments and markets that are perfect for browsing.
Blue Mosque: The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (or “The Blue Mosque”) is a must-see. The inside of the mosque is covered in rich maroon carpeting and intricate tiling, and the outside of the mosque is breathtaking.
Note that you do need to be completely covered when entering the Blue Mosque. If you’re a woman, officials will only give you a long skirt to wear, so be sure that you bring a sweater with long sleeves and a scarf to cover your head. (I bought my scarf at a shop nearby for less than $5). Men are fine to enter in long sleeves and pants.
Hagia Sofia: Another can’t-miss mosque during your stay, the Hagia Sofia is stunningly beautiful. There is a 30 TL/$8.50 USD entrance fee.
Rustem Pasha Mosque: Rustem Pasha is a mosque I wish I had visited, but unfortunately didn’t have the chance to. The mosque is filled with beautifully intricate blue and white tiles. Its also more hidden than the other mosques, meaning you may actually get this beautiful place to yourself!
Grand Bazaar: You can’t visit Istanbul without experiencing the Grand Bazaar! I recommend visiting when the market opens at 8:30 am, when there are less crowds and the place is slightly less overwhelming. Definitely practice your bartering skills before heading here and be prepared to want to buy everything 😉
Spice market: The Spice Market is blocks and blocks of small alleyways with covered shops selling dried fruits, lokum (Turkish delights) and lots of yummy spices. It’s the perfect place to grab some souvenirs for home!
The Topkapi Palace: With four courtyards, sprawling gardens and fountains, Topkapi Palace is a wonderful place to learn about the very lavish life of Turkish Ottoman sultans. It also happens to be an Instagram dream 🙂
Visit a Hamam: Hamams are without a doubt either a love or hate experience, but you don’t know which kind of person you’ll be until you try one, right? Try Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam.
Sail the Bosphorus: Sailing the Bosphorus is the best way to see Istanbul from a distance, as well as the many mansions and palaces that line the shores of the river. Book a tour with Sehir Hatlari and sail the Bosphorus during the daytime or at sunset.
Walk the Istiklal Caddesi: The Istiklal Caddesi is a famous pedestrian road with tons of boutiques, restaurants, bars and night clubs. Be sure to walk the bustling avenue and wander up the side streets to discover some beautiful hidden restaurants.
Explore Cihanger: The Cihanger neighborhood is without a doubt my favorite neighborhood in Istanbul. The residents in Cihanger are artistic types, so it’s notably lively and filled with quaint restaurants, shops and cafes. The best way to experience Cihanger is simply spending half a day on foot exploring its narrow streets.
Eat a Turkish breakfast: A traditional Turkish breakfast involves, well… a lot of plates. Plates of cheese, dried fruits and tomato salad. Plates of jams, pastries, borek and menemen. It’s a foodie heaven and one you need to experience while in Istanbul. I recommend Naga Putrika in Kadikoy, Mangerie for views of the Bosphorus and Van Kahvalti Evi in Cihanger.
Eat İskender: *pause for laughter while it sets in that I have listed eating a specific dinner dish as an experience*
Ok, but really, İskender is a religious experience. It’s a dish of thinly sliced lamb and small pieces of pita that have been soaked in butter and tomato sauce. It’s usually served with a little bit of Greek yogurt. It’s one of those dishes that you not only salivate thinking about, but salivate while eating in anticipation for the next bite. It’s that good.
Where to eat:
Istanbul has endless dining options, but these were a few of my favorite spots:
Cuppa Café (breakfast/lunch) – I highly recommend eating at this trendy spot for breakfast or lunch one day! Cuppa has an extensive list of juices, smoothies, teas and coffees, and delicious food. For breakfast, I enjoyed a green juice, Turkish tea and çicili. Çicli is Greek yogurt with poached eggs – something that at first I thought wouldn’t be great (and even sounded a bit repulsive), but turned out to be one of my favorite breakfast dishes of all time.
Van Kahvlati Evi (breakfast) – Like I mentioned above, you can’t visit Istanbul without enjoying a traditional Turkish breakfast, and Van Kahvlati Evi has one of the best.
Karakoy Gulluoglu (dessert) – The best baklava you will have in your life. Really. Karakoy Gulluoglu is a local spot that serves up the best baklava both in the world and in Istanbul. Be sure to order the pistachio and the chocolate with a sweet kaymak (clotted cream) topping.
Petra Roasting Company (coffee/breakfast) – The go-to trendy spot for coffee in Istanbul.
Hocapaşa Pidecisi (lunch/dinner) – A very local spot that serves up delicious pide – a traditional Turkish flatbread with ground meat and vegetables.
Nusr-et (lunch/dinner) – Nusr-et has rocketed in popularity in recent years due to the most 21st century reason ever – the restaurant’s owner salted meat on camera and rocketed to viral Internet popularity. Sigh.
Regardless of the Salt Bae hype, though, Nusr-et has very clearly mastered the art of preparing delicious meat. If you’re a meat lover, eating dinner here one night is a must.
Neolokal (dinner) – For a more expensive fine dining experience, Neolokal serves up some of the best (and most beautiful) dishes in the city!
Where to stay:
(dress: Noel Asmar)
(Photo by InterContinental)
Here’s a map to help you understand where everything I mentioned in this post is located in Istanbul.
(Blue pins are attractions, pink pins are experiences, orange pins are restaurants and purple pins are hotels).
Note: Istanbul is split into two sections by the Bosphorus Strait – the European and the Asian side. This is a guide to only the European side of Istanbul. The biggest difference between the two parts is that, since the European side has most of Istanbul’s signature attractions, it is oftentimes more crowded. The Asian side is known to represent a more authentic Istanbul, so I highly recommend taking the ferry over to visit!
If you’re interested in exploring other regions of Turkey, be sure to check out Cappadocia!
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