We lived in Istanbul for a couple of months in the beginning of this year and it was some of the funnest and most interesting months in our lives. We got to make friends, learn some Turkish, and as each day passed we felt less like tourists and more like locals. But every now and then we would look at each other and say ‘what is the most touristy thing we could do today?’
Istanbul can be a total tourist trap – but for good reason. Most of the most touristy things are incredibly amazing or just lots of fun. So if you are one of those travelers that squirms at the thought of being ‘touristy’, try and suck it up just long enough to do and visit these following six, not-to-be-missed, total tourist attractions. Istanbul is a destination city after all. [However if you absolutely refuse head on over to The 6 Least Touristy Things to do in Istanbul ]
1. Hit up Sultanahmet – Istanbul tourist hotspot.
This is where everyone understands English (don’t be surprised when restauranteurs greet you in your own language either); where the salesmen are uniquely aggressive; where you can see that ‘East meets West’ phenomena that many people associate so closely with Istanbul, since it is not only the most touristy area, but also the religious hotspot for Islamic travellers (and Saudi bachelorette parties). You could visit Istanbul for three days and never venture out of this area. It includes:
The Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Camii), est. 1616
This is the one COMPULSORY THING you must do when you go to Istanbul. Because it is free, and you can spend anything between 10 minutes and an hour (depending on how much of a photographer you are). Also because this is the mosque of mosques. It is absolutely stunning inside, with individually crafted tiles adorning all of its 73x65x43m interior (240x213x141ft). It’s a massive structure that fits 10,000 people – fitted with red carpet, glittering lights, one crazy dome with a diameter of 23.5 meters, and two security guards yelling at lady-tourists who try and step into the men’s prayer area.
DRESS CODE: It is a practicing mosque so you have to wear a long skirt or pants (NO JEGGINGS, LADIES!), a head covering, and no shoulder action. Also, as mentioned above, it is a site meant for the practicing of a very fundamental religion so do not go into the men’s prayer section (even if you are a man, unless, of course, you are Muslim, then pray away) – but be sure not to miss the women’s prayer corner, squeezed into one back corner of the mosque.
Basilica Cistern (akaYerebatan Sarayı, which means ‘Sunken Palace’)
Istanbul is one of the oldest modern cities in the world – it was first inducted as the capital of the Roman empire in the year 330. That does not even compute with me. Anyways, it’s really friggin’ old and as such, it has a network of cisterns underneath the city. They are essentially ancient underground reservoirs and the Basilica Cistern is the largest of these. It is nearly 10,000 sqm, and capable of holding a gazillion cubic meters of water. It is filled with row upon row of ancient pillars varying in style and lit up in a magical, almost eerie fashion. It is just beautiful in a fantastical, unbelievable way. Which is why you’ll have to brave the guaranteed line outside to get in.
DON’T MISS: The two ‘mysterious’ medusa-head pillars right at very back, and the large koi fish swimming circles in the dark water.
TIP: It’s really cold underneath the earth surrounded by all that water, so be prepared if you are visiting in winter.
DON’T use your flash. It’s really really very annoying for everybody else, and it’s going to be terrible photos.
Hagia Sophia (aka Aya Sofya)
Man. This place. My feeble words will not be able to describe the majesty of its structure. It is decidedly not free, but it is absolutely worth it, in my opinion. The Hagia Sophia was one of the first major church structures of the Greco-Roman empire, built by Constantine the Great and his successors and written about by Socrates. It was a Greek Orthodox church from the year 537 – 1204, then it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261, after which it became a Greek Basilica again until 1453. After the Ottoman army seized Istanbul in 1453 it became a mosque until 1931. It has since been converted to the neutral space of a museum, taking on the mammoth task of conserving the structure.
It has been the central point of the Greek, Roman (Latin), and Ottoman Empires. It has served as a point of conflict and contention, as well as power and religion over millennia, and houses the finest material of the ancient Roman empire – from tits thousands of tiles to its gold mosaics. I can not recommend going here enough.
TIP: If you don’t want to pay for a guide, just shuffle closer to a guided group to hear some fascinating facts and stories. But be cool about it.
2. Smoke some Sheesha and watch a Whirling Dervish
This is the ultimate touristy night out, but it’s also really fun. We took all our friends who visited us to do this to get the ultimate Istanbul feel. We went to this restaurant by the Arasta bazaar in Sultanahmet (very close to the blue mosque) which is super, ultra touristy. But just go with it. You get a Sheesha, you order tea (and they bring you the really crazy sweet apple tea), you listen to some live Turkish music, and you wait for this one guy to come up and work his Whirling Dervish magic. Seriously, it’s the same guy every night.
TIP: keep an eye on the band. Sometimes the drummer drums and texts at the same time. What skill.
3. Go on a Bosphorus Tour
The Bosphorus is a channel that runs between Europe and Asia, connecting the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea. It’s just really nice to be able to get a look at the city from the outside, and a bizarre feeling to not only see, but also be in between two continents at once. You get to see some harbours, fancy wooden Yalıs (riverside vacation homes), and many palaces. There are usually little kiosks on the boat where you can buy orange juice, tea, and snacks.
TIP: You can also entertain yourself by buying a simit and tossing bits of it up to the sea gulls accompanying your boat.
4. Go see at least one palace
There are many, and all of them are spectacular. These are the two you mustn’t miss.
Fine, if you had to go to only one, it should be the Topkapı Palace. It’s claim to fame is that it was the Sultans’ residence for 400 years of the Ottoman Empire’s 600+ year reign. It was a royal residence and administrative site, so it gives really interesting insights into the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire. It is decked out in marble, gold, precious stones, intricate metal work, Persian rugs, and it is all layed out on beautifully landscaped grounds, hugging the banks of the Bosphorus. It is really a half-day event, or potentially even full day. There are multiple sites spanning many courtyards, and you can buy extra tickets to go into the Harem (where the family, the concubines, and the eunuchs lived).
DON’T MISS: Some of my favourite rooms (I’ve been there multiple times) are the wonderfully curated armoury exhibition and the room housing the clocks, many of which were especially made for the sultan or gifted by other leaders (don’t miss the mother-of-pearl, floor-to-ceiling grandfather clock gifted by Queen Victoria!)
TIP: Try and go on a day with nice hot weather. lots of walking through gardens and the rooms are also chilly.
PRO MUSEUM TIP: Don’t tire yourself out. When you get a little over it go grab a tea and a snack at the museum café, situated on the riverbank with beautiful views of the Bosphorus, before you carry on with the exploring
If you have time for one more palace – go here! It is another lavishly built palace, but with an interesting and obvious West vs. East tension. The Empire’s 31st Sultan ordered its construction as he felt that Topkapı Palace was starting to lack the fashion and grandeur of other newer European palaces. Its construction nearly ran Istanbul to a bankrupt end, costing the equivalent of $1.5 billion dollars (you can bet people were pissed). It was home to the last six Sultans until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s successful coup abolished the Caliphate in 1924. As the first president, he used it as his summer home and moved the country’s administrative centre and official capital to Ankara. Its 285 rooms and 46 halls have strange mixture of a Versailles-like palace-feel, and Oriental tradition.
TAKE NOTE: You can’t wonder around in the palace by yourself. Tours are conducted regularly in Turkish and English and you don’t have to book in advance.
DON’T MISS: The gardens are beautiful and I highly recommend not saving this for a rainy day. Take a leisurely stroll and don’t miss the aviary tucked away in a back corner, still stocked with exotic birds. It is not really advertised or marked out so it’s very quiet back there. I even saw some guinea fowls – African birds that, where I’m from, still run around freely in the suburbs trying to evade neighbourhood cats.
5. Enjoy 360-degrees panoramic views of Istanbul atop the Galata Tower
The first time we approached the Galata tower we scoffed at the 25Lira entrance fee and the queue of tourists outside, and said ‘forget about it’. However, after our friend who assured us that it’s SPECTACULAR, we showed up, paid up, went up, and it was SO WORTH IT.
TIP: Go at sunset or sunrise to get them beautiful hues. Those are the most busiest times but, trust me, this is when Istanbul is at its prettiest.
6. Get faded on Istiklal Avenue, Taksim
Or not. You decide.
Istiklal avenue is like the Times Square of Istanbul. Sort of.
It’s a long, broad avenue that’s unbelievably busy at lunch and at night. Part fun, part crazy (I’ve witnessed many a fist fight in some of the streets off of Istiklal, but also many a communal dance circle). On many Sundays it is also the general protesting-site (Turkish people loooove their protests), as well as acoustic guitar nights. Alternatively this is where you might find alcohol and restaurants that sell something other than Turkish food.
TIP: Lookout for the Balıkpazarı Alley (Fish Market Alley) – besides the fresh fish market, there are amazing seafood restaurants there.
TIP: Massive markups on Turkish merch for tourists (buy your scarves elsewhere), but good sales on European name brand shops
TIP: Keep your eye on your pockets. It’s really busy and their are lots of little hands looking for extra cash at night.
BONUS – Got some hours to spare?
Go to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums
I’ve sufficiently expressed how ancient Istanbul is. One can only imagine the kind of artefacts held and exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums (a group of three museums on the same site) – it rightly has one of the biggest and most important collections of Middle Eastern archaeological treasures. Take a stroll back in time through the displays, or just take regular stroll on the amazing grounds.
Well that should keep you busy.
However, Istanbul is cray cray. So if you get a little bit tired/frustrated of all the tourists and tourist traps, or if you are more of the off-the-beaten track kind of traveller, or if you’ve already checked all the above mentioned places off your Istanbul-list, take a look at the 6 least touristy things you can do in Istanbul!