Istanbul is a destination where the enduring legacy of the Ottoman Empire (14th–20th centuries) and religious beliefs have melded to create one of the most fascinating cultures on the planet.
A strong tradition of preservation and restoration means the city’s wealth of historic buildings has adapted to the challenges of the modern age, while culinary influences from across Europe and Asia have created a melting pot of taste sensations. Cultural traditions are cherished, and a history lesson awaits around every corner.
Given the political unrest and spate of terrorist attacks over the past few years, the Turkish authorities remain on high alert and caution is the order of the day when visiting any part of the country. Refer to Smart Traveller for the latest travel advice. You’ll need your wits about you from the get go; Istanbul taxis are notorious for ripping off visitors and may even refuse to take you to your accommodation (or end up taking you to a completely different hotel!). Negotiating a reasonable fare can be a challenge after a long flight, so pre-book a hotel transfer or give Uber a go!
Driving along the coastal road into the city, you’ll see parts of the great medieval walls that once protected what was then known as Constantinople. It’s a fitting introduction to Istanbul’s rich history.
This Istanbul travel guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Istanbul for history lovers
Constantinople served as the capital of the Roman and Byzantine empires until it was renamed Istanbul in 1453, and became the capital of the expanding Ottoman Empire.
These transitions endowed the city with the classical architectural masterpieces that grace the skyline. In 1923 the Republic of Turkey was founded, and the capital moved to Ankara. However, Istanbul remains the most popular city for tourists and is literally where the east (Asia) meets the west (Europe), separated by the Bosphorus Strait.
Topkapi Palace — built in the 15th century — was occupied by the Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. It is now a museum and houses an array of impressive manuscripts and sacred relics. Make sure you cover your arms and legs if you want to see the best of the collection (staff will provide material to help you cover up if required). The palace offers incredible views over the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmara. While you’re there, head to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums (there are three). They can be accessed through the palace grounds. The Istanbul Through the Ages exhibition is well worth seeing.
Some say the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace, built by sultan Abdulmejid I, is one of the most glamorous palaces in the world. Given the lush interiors and expansive grounds sitting on the banks of the Bosphorus, they could well be right. A guided tour is worth the price in order to get inside. Walk along the river and you’ll discover Yildiz Sale Chalet — another royal retreat — demonstrating that one simply cannot have too many extraordinary homes.
Istanbul’s history is one of extravagance and exuberance, and there seem to be palaces everywhere. A boat trip on the Bosphorus is the perfect way to get a glimpse of those located by the water. Nestled under the Bosphorus Bridge, the Hatice Sultan Yali is a waterfront mansion that’s now used as a sports club. On the eastern side of the strait sit two buildings of historical significance. Anadolu Hisari is an Anatolian fortress that was constructed in 1395. It’s an intriguing example of how the modern world encroaches on the past, with modern homes scattered amongst the ruins. A little further along the strait, Küçüksu Kasri is a neo-baroque summer palace that was built for the sultans.
Top cultural experiences in Istanbul
The city’s cultural heritage is inextricably tied to its position as a bridge between east and west on the Bosphorus strait.
There are three bridges over the strait, tunnels beneath it, and regular ferry services across. The newest bridge is the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge, which spans over two kilometres with suspension cables held up by towers as high as the Eiffel Tower. It was renamed 15 July Martyrs’ Bridge, in honour of those who were killed during the failed military coup d’état in 2016.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) and Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia) are two of the most recognisable structures in Istanbul. They sit close to each other, joined by gardens and a large pedestrian square (which makes an ideal place to chill out and admire both, while sipping coffee or munching on fresh pretzels).
Built by the emperor Justinian I in the 6th century AD, Hagia Sophia has moved with the times. It has undergone several metamorphoses — from European and Greek Orthodox Church, to Roman Catholic Church, to Imperial Mosque, to current day museum. For nearly 1,000 years, it was the world’s largest cathedral. Inside, Byzantine mosaics glisten in the sunshine splintering through the windows, and reflecting off the glorious works of art. Find a local guide outside who will help you skip the queues, and talk you through the building’s glorious past.
Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, has six minarets that reach for the sky. Built in the 17th century, it’s still a place of worship. The mosque is named after Sultan Ahmed I and his remains are entombed here. Enter via the side entrance to be greeted with the best view. Here again, the sunlight refracts through the windows, bathing the stunning interior in a soft glow. It’s an honour to be allowed to enter and visitors need to be respectful of the areas reserved for Muslim worshippers.
Beneath your feet, Basilica Cistern provides an insight into the incredible system that once brought water to Istanbul from Thrace in the southeast Balkans. Construction was started by Constantine the Great and finished by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Climb down the 52 steps into the bowels of the earth where 336 columns seem to hold up the city above. The sound and light show reveals the detail. The two-storey Valens Aqueduct (Bozdogan Kemeri), standing 29 metres high in some places, carried water to the city for over 15 centuries until the 1800s. Today, almost a kilometre of the aqueduct still stands as a reminder of this engineering masterpiece.
Istanbul is renowned for the whirling dervishes who perform the famous Sufi religious dance ceremony known as the Sema. You can attend a ceremony at the Galata Mevlevi Museum every Sunday. As the semazens (dancers) perform, their white skirts whirl up as they spin around — which is said to put dancers and the audience in a trance. Be mindful that this is a religious ceremony and should be shown respect. Tickets are available from Saturday at noon at the venue. In the central Faith district, ceremonies are held at tekkes (Sufi places of worship) on Thursdays. They tend to be a bit more touristy. Contact Les Arts Turcs for details.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in the Palace of Ibrahim Pasa houses one of the world’s best textile and carpet collections from across the centuries, along with ceramics, calligraphy work and carvings. However, Istanbul’s cultural scene is not completely moored in the past. Contemporary art at its best is exhibited at Galerist.
Enjoying a traditional Turkish water pipe (nargile/shisha) is a great way to connect with local culture. It’s usually accompanied by tea scented with rose, mint or cinnamon. Çorlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi is a circa 18th century tea garden on Yeniçeriler Caddesi, which offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar. The range of teas is staggering, and the Turkish coffee is reputed to be among the best in town.
Great places to eat in Istanbul
Sampling local cuisine is one of the great joys of travelling.
As you walk the streets of Istanbul, you’ll find no shortage of kerbside stalls offering local specialties. Here are a few dishes you have to try.
Köfte is minced meat, grilled on an open flame to smoky perfection. Stop in at Meshur Filibe Köftecisi in the heart of the old city, where they have been making exceptional köfte since 1893.
Lahmacun is flatbread served with meat, veggies and a squeeze of lemon and parsley. It’s so simple and yet so tasty. Tatbak is a local favourite and their lahmacun is one of the best (albeit off the beaten track). Alternatively, drop by Ortaklar Kebap Lahmacun as you walk from the Blue Mosque to the Grand Bazaar.
Gözleme is possibly the best toasted sandwich you’ll ever eat! Enjoy the theatre as the batter is poured onto a huge domed hot plate until it’s slightly crisp. A combination of minced meat and vegetables is spread on top. It’s folded in half and sliced up ready for you to enjoy. You’ll see the hot plate being tended in shop windows.
If you’ve ever hunted down a gyros on the way home after a late night, you’ll appreciate the Turkish version — the döner kebab, which is equally as satisfying. Herbed and spiced meat is cut from a rotating mass, and served with lettuce, onions, tomatoes and garlic mayo. Feta, jalapeno peppers and pickles can be added for extra punch.
There’s no shortage of superb eateries across the city, but here are a few of our favs. Fresh seafood is one of Istanbul’s most delectable joys, and Suna’nin Yeri takes casual waterfront dining to the limits of perfection. The menu is fairly limited (they serve what is caught fresh that day), but their meze (starter dishes) are delicious, and their fish and calamari are mouth-wateringly good. The sunsets aren’t too bad either.
For an atmosphere reminiscent of large family gatherings around the dining table, head for The Meyhane and enjoy amazing meze and raki (anise-scented alcohol). By the end of the evening you’ll have many new friends and have shared plenty of stories (raki tends to loosen the tongue!).
Mikla offers one of the finest dining experiences in the city. Try the tasting menu with Turkish wine pairings. Chef Mehmut Gürs combines Turkish and Scandinavian culinary influences to create edible masterpieces that will delight all the senses.
An evening at 360 Istanbul will see you dining on the roof of a 19th century apartment building and soaking up 360-degree views. Enjoy delicious meze with a twist as Hagia Sophia glitters in the distance.
Where to shop in Istanbul
Istiklal Caddesi (renamed Independence Avenue in honour of the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923) is lined with boutiques, galleries and cafes.
Wander down the side alleys to bargain with shopkeepers over a cup of tea. The avenue runs from crazy busy Taksim Square to Tünel Square in Galata. Pop into Old Sandal for handmade shoes or book an appointment at NR.39 (+90 212 241 4059) to be fitted for custom-made shoes. After your session of retail therapy, drop into Georges Hotel for a cocktail and stunning views over the Sultanahmet district.
The cool boutiques of Serdar-i Ekrem Caddesi near Galata Tower are worth a visit if you’re hunting for something out of the ordinary. Vintage sits side-by-side with local designer boutiques, making it fun to browse for one-off buys.
Abdi Īpekçi Caddesi is Istanbul’s answer to Bond Street or Madison Avenue. Well-known brands mix with Turkish up and comers. Head to Esas for men’s business attire, and Hakan Yildirim for women’s custom-made attire. The H by Hakan Yıldırım range offers affordable off-the-rack options.
Lively Çukurcuma in Beyoglu is famous for antiques. While prices are quite reasonable to begin with, it’s worth trying to bargain. A la Turca offers a stunning collection.
The Grand Bazaar needs no introduction and is on everyone’s Istanbul itinerary. Experience a labyrinth of over 4,000 stores along 60 streets, under ornate domes that date back to the mid 1400s. This is market shopping in overdrive. Glass lanterns festoon the alleyways as ceramics, carpets and clothing spill out to tempt passers-by. Be prepared to haggle and remember the gate number where you entered in order to find your way out! Alternatively, throw caution to the wind and wander where you will.
Ways to relax in Istanbul
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to a traditional Ottoman hamam (bathhouse).
Since 1556, Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam in Sultanahmet Square has been pampering guests in opulent surroundings. The design and construction of this hamam were commissioned by Roxelana — the consort of the Ottoman Emperor Sultan Suleiman I. With its wood panelling, Çinili Hamam provides a more intimate ‘old world’ experience.
A sightseeing cruise on the Bosphorus will see you passing palaces and fortresses aplenty. If you haven’t booked online, head to the docks at Eminönü to buy your tickets. There are lots of options, and don’t be suckered into ‘special deals just for you’. Buy at the designated ticket booths. A two-hour cruise is plenty of time to take in the key sights.
Gents — if you’re in need of a holiday spruce-up, employ the services of a local barber. Trust the man with the cut throat and let him work his magic. With over 40 years’ experience, Tarihi Berber Salonu in Beyoglu (near Taksim Square) is about as old-school as you can get. If you’re exploring the aforementioned neighbourhood of Moda, Çirak is a trendier salon.
Take in the water and city views and mingle with local fishermen on Galata Bridge. The bridge is close to Galata Tower at one end and the Egyptian spice market at the other, and is a great spot to grab a quick bite to eat. Try a BBQ fish sandwich made with crusty Turkish bread.
We wrap up this Istanbul travel guide on Ortaköy Square, where a beautifully renovated mosque sits on the Bosphorus. Enjoy coffee and a snack at one of the many cafes and let your cares drift away on the slow-moving current.
Browse our range of Istanbul tours and experiences here.
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Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.