Top 10 things to do in Istanbul
As far as cities go, Istanbul is by far one of the busiest, most inspiring, chaotic and yet welcoming cities I've ever been in. The city can go from traditional to hipster in one turn, and there's something new around every corner.
I really believe in not judging a book by its cover - in this case, I think we shouldn't judge a city by the media reports that have been drowning it. To this end, I've compiled a list of beautiful things to see and do in Istanbul, because sometimes, remembering that this city and its people are to be celebrated may get a bit hard.
This list barely scratches the surface of the city, but hey - that just means you'll have to return again and again!
1. Wonder at Hagia Sophia
If you want to understand the evolution of Istanbul, make Hagia Sophia your first stop in the city. Over the centuries, Hagia Sophia served as a Greek Orthodox basilica, a Roman Catholic church, a mosque, and finally, a national museum. It has been rebuilt three times, the previous structures being burnt down during bloody revolutions. Today, the building is a unique meeting place of faiths which are so often at loggerheads.
You can visit Aya Sofya every day except on Mondays, at a fee. For exact visiting times and fees check out the official website here.
2. Take a Bosphorus cruise
The Bosphorus is the natural strait that splits Istanbul in two: the European side and the Asian side. It's also one of the busiest waterways in the world, and is the lifeline of the Turkish city. Hop on a boat just before sunset and you're guaranteed one of the most magical views in the world.
3. Cross to the Asian side
With so much going on in the European side of Istanbul, visitors sometimes forget that there's a much quieter side to the city. While you're cruising the Bosphorus, take a minute to look around the Asian shoreline, which is much more residential and peaceful. There are also a handful of lovely restaurants to try out too!
4. See the whirling dervishes
Dervish, or Sufi, whirling, is a form of active meditation performed in spiritual ceremonies. The aim of this ritual is to spin until the source of all perfection, the kemal, is reached. In this process, the ego and desire is dropped through the intense focus on the music and spinning.
Although far from religious, I found this experience incredibly moving and thought provoking, and would recommend anyone who gets the opportunity to see it to do so.
5. Try Turkish coffee (and meze. and baklava.)
Food is a huge part of Turkish culture, and is a ritual in itself. From sharing meze, small platters of food, together with friends, to enjoying a strong cup of Turkish coffee, stay away from Western food in Istanbul, and stick to what the locals eat and drink.
A hammam is the Turkish version of the ancient Roman bath. First, you get hot in a very humid room, until you sweat profusely, then you are washed with cold water, scrubbed down, massaged, and cooled in a different room. This may seem highly unpleasant at first, but I've never experienced a better bath in my life, and came out relaxed and with skin that's softer than a baby's butt. 10/10
7. Step in Sultan Ahmet Mosque
Known as the Blue Mosque due to its Iznik-covered walls and domes, this mosque is one of the largest in Turkey, and is still in regular use today. As always, tread carefully and with respect when visiting a religious centre.
Crossing the Galata Bridge from the old centre, you'll find yourself in Istanbul's young area, Beyoglu. It's one of the busiest zones, but also one of the coolest. Shop at Istiklal avenue, see the traditional red tram cross over to Taksim, and buy delicious street food from any corner.
8. Visit the Spice Market
The first time I was in Istanbul, I visited the Grand Bazaar, and was really disappointed by it. The second time round, I hopped through the Spice Market, and I fell in LOVE. Forget the Bazaar, the Spice Market is where you want to be for great deals on spices, meats, cheeses, herbs, perfumes and anything you might want to get your hands on. The sellers there are friendlier too, though if you're a woman and travelling unaccompanied, be ready for marriage proposals around every corner.
The Topkapi palace is possibly one of the largest palaces in Istanbul, and served as the Sultan's home for over 400 years. Today, you can stroll or take a picnic in its many gardens, enjoy a number of museums and most of all, the amazing views of the Bosphorus from the southernmost tip of the palace estate.
10. Go down to Istanbul's sunken cisterns
The Yerebatan Sarnici, or underground cisterns, are a hidden gem in the heart of Istanbul. Right under the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, these sunken cisterns date back to the ancient Roman empire. Today, they are called home by hundreds of fish and a handful of visitors, who visit the silent, echoing cisterns during the day.
What's your favourite place in Istanbul? Share it with us in the comments below!