Wonder what happens when east meets the west? Istanbul is quite literally the answer where the European continent meets the Asian continent. This historic city, formerly known as Constantinople until it was officially renamed in 1930 as Istanbul, is the only metropolis in the world that encompasses the two continents. One can experience the best of both sides and cultures in this exotic city. World History enthusiasts might also revel in the knowledge that it was after the fall of this Roman Empire’s city of Constantinople in 1453 and successive events which gave our global world its present form. Do I need to list more reasons to lure you into exploring this biggest economic and cultural center of Turkey? Because I surely can! This mesmerizing city boasts of a proud oriental heritage evident in its byzantine churches adorned with mosaics and magnificent mausoleums decked with sky high minarets. However this orientalism does not strip the city of its modernity and its European undertones.
Istanbul is located in the Marmara Region of Northwest Turkey and straddles the Bosporus Strait, the only passage from Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara. Home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites, Istanbul has been one of the favourites among the world tourists who are looking for an out of the world experience.
If you find yourselves planning to explore this majestic city, then this blog is just the place for you.
First things First! How to get a VISA to Turkey
The e-Visa facility offered by the government of Turkey 2015 onwards is a simplified and hassle free process and you can have your visa in a matter of minutes. Passport holders from a little over 100 countries can apply for an e-Visa to Turkey. You can find the list of eligible countries here.
You can visit the site https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/ to apply for the visa online.
There might be certain country specific requirements but mostly it’s a user friendly process.
Best Time to Explore Istanbul
The best time to explore this city is spring (March-May) which offers a moderate weather with hues of different colours. If you happen to visit it in April, don’t miss out on the International Tulip Festival. The tulip is one of Istanbul’s traditional symbols. The Istanbul Tulip Festival is not just about tulips, however. Other flowers—pansies, bluebottles, etc.—are planted in contrast and for variety in shape and color. The displays are breath-taking. Other interesting events around this time of the year are International Istanbul Film Festival, International Istanbul Puppet Festival and Conquest of Istanbul, a lively re-enactment of Mehmet the Conqueror’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453. This day also features exhibitions of traditional Turkish arts, parades by the ‘Ottoman’ Mehter band and fireworks. (29 May, between Tophane and Karaköy, and on the shores of the upper Bosphorus)
The spring season is followed by Autumn Season (Sept-Nov) as another very good time to travel to Istanbul. It’s a good time for the ones who like to enjoy and explore the city in a cool weather, but still shining. The weather might get a bit cloudy and rainy, so umbrellas and coats are recommended. Autumn too hosts a range of festivals like the Akbank Jazz Festival and Tüyap Book Fair. Akbank Jazz Festival focuses on traditional and avant-garde jazz. Daily a dozen bands perform over a two week period. There is also International Istanbul Biennial — a thematic exhibition of paintings, installations, screenings, walk-abouts, films, discussions and guided tours done by over 50 artists from at least as many countries. It’s held in odd years only.
How to Reach Istanbul?
One can travel to Istanbul by bus, train, boat or flights. The best option will depend on where you are coming from. For those looking at flight options, Turkish Airlines has good connectivity from all around the world. You can either go for Istanbul Ataturk Airport on the European side of the city, or Sabiha Gokcen International Airport on the Asian side of the city. Since all the major tourist attractions are sitting on the European side, Ataturk Airport is usually preferred by many.
Here’s a rough idea about the transfer charges from Ataturk to Sultanahmet and Taksim (Beyoglu), the two major districts on the European side of the city which are host to almost all the places of interest.
- Taxi – 50 Turkish Lira(TL) / $7 USD
- Private Transfer – 244 TL / $33 USD
- Metro – 10 TL / $1.34 USD
- Taksim (Beyoglu)
- Taxi – 68 TL / $9.14 USD
- Private Transfer – 290 TL / $39 USD
- Havabus Airport Shuttle – 14 TL / $1.88 USD
Metros and shuttles are the most cost effective option if you are not heavy on the luggage.
Indulgence: Major Tourist Attractions of Istanbul
As mentioned earlier, most places of interest for tourists are on the European Side and the Asian side is mainly a residential area. However, if you intend to stay in Istanbul for over 5 days (which is highly recommended to explore this ancient city in its absolute glory), then you can surely spare a day to take a ferry in the very famous Bosphorus strait to travel to the Asian side. There are several tours available for exploring the places. Walking tours can be a great way of exploring the city. Walks of Turkey organizes several tours ranging from 3 hours to 9 hours. The cost too ranges from approx. $50-$105 USD. You can also go for bespoke Istanbulite tours. Or you can check out some of the best aquariums the world has to offer.
Every place has certain entry charges. Make sure to find out about the ones you plan to put on your itinerary. You can also choose from a range of various tourist discount passes.
- Istanbul Museum Pass – 185 TL
- Istanbul Tourist Pass – covers everything one may want to do in Istanbul
- Istanbul Welcome card
- Istanbulkart – if you plan on staying for more than a couple of days, then investing it for transportation by metros and shuttles is a great idea.
Architectural / Heritage Wonders
From ancient ruins to 16th-century masterpieces, here are some of the must-see UNESCO World Heritage–listed sites and landmarks in Istanbul architecture.
- Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) – The first Christian cathedral in the Roman Empire, Hagia Sophia dates back to the sixth century. This extraordinary building has played the role of a basilica and an imperial mosque during its lifetime and today houses a museum. Its interior showcases Byzantine mosaics and marble ornamentation, and shines a light on 10th-century Roman leaders, including Emperor Alexander.
- Sarayburnu – It is a promontory quarter separating the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara in Istanbul, Turkey. It is included in the historic areas of Istanbul, added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. Interestingly, the first settlement on the Sarayburnu goes back to Neolithic, c. 6600 BC and lasted for almost a millennium before being inundated by the rising level of the sea
- Topkapi Palace – Translating as Cannon Gate Palace, it’s a large museum in the east of the Faith district of Istanbul in Turkey. It was called Palace of Felicity” by the Ottomans. Its construction, ordered by the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople. Topkapı was originally called the “New Palace” to distinguish it from the Old Palace in Beyazıt Square. It too was recognized as a world heritage site in 1985. The palace complex is located on Sarayburnu on a hilly terrain, on the highest point near the sea. During Greek and Byzantine times, the acropolis of the ancient Greek city of Byzantion stood here.
- Sultan Ahmed Mosque – Widely known as the Blue Mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has been a site of Islamic worship since 1616. With 13 domes and six minarets, the mosque is a standout on the Istanbul skyline. Visitors can explore the mosque on guided tours and admire treasures including the blue Iznik tiles that cover the ceiling.
- Basilica Cistern – Remember the underground cistern from Dan Brown’s Inferno? Yep, there you are!! This huge, palace-like underground hall, supported by 336 columns in 12 rows, once stored the imperial water supply for the Byzantine emperors. The project was begun by Constantine the Great but finished by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.
- Hippodrome– This was the center of Byzantine public life and the scene of splendid games and chariot races but also factional conflicts. There isn’t much glory that remains but still is worth being ticked off your list.
- Dolmabahçe Palace – It’s marked by a clear influence of European decoration and architecture on the Ottoman Empire. Built by Sultan Abdülmecid I in 1854, it replaced Topkapi Palace as the main residence of the sultans. The formal gardens are punctuated with fountains, ornamental basins, and blooming flower beds, while inside the sheer splendor and pomp of the Turkish Renaissance style is dazzling. The interiors mix Rococo, Baroque, Neoclassical, and Ottoman elements, with mammoth crystal chandeliers, liberal use of gold, French-style furniture, and dazzling frescoed ceilings.
- Galata Tower – This Genoese tower was built in the 14th century and is one of Istanbul’s most recognizable landmarks. Take the elevator or the stairs for great panoramic views over the city from the top balcony. This very famous tourist spot remains crowded for photography sessions.
- Hagia Irene – For generations Hagia Irene served as an Eastern Orthodox church, and today is a popular museum and concert hall. It sits within one of Topkapi Palace’s courtyards, behind Hagia Sophia, and hosts to classical music concerts and art exhibitions.
- Walls of Constantinople – These defensive stone walls once encircled Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), helping protect the city from attack. Today, visitors can walk uphill from the Ayvansaray neighborhood to see what remains of the walls. Nearby attractions include the old church of the Holy Saviour in Chora—now the Kariye Museum—with its mosaics and paintings.
- Shopping Tours
- Historical Bazaars
- Grand Bazaar – the first shopping mall of the world built in the 15th century, is still the biggest covered bazaar in the world, where istanbulites flock on weekends to shop. Grand Bazaar has 66 streets and almost 4000 stores. Feel free to indulge in wide selection of sapphires, gold, silver to copper, Christian icons to handwritten old Kur’an books & pages to old dowry pieces, ‘ikat’ & ‘suzani’ material, leather jackets. Don’t forget the very famous Lapiz Lazuli, all thanks to Dan Brown again.
- Spice Bazaar– This market with around 150 stores has dazzling colors and smells. One can indulge in Turkish delicacies here.
- Modern Boutiques- There are many amazing places that you can explore for indulging in a shopping spree. Some of the best known stores include
- Janet Bilgin, Aphorm – Quirky Jwellery
- Fashion at Eye – Fancy eyewear accessories
- Atelier 55, Arzu Kaprol– High end brands for clothes
- Sofa Art and Antiques – Antiquities
- Historical Bazaars
- Turkish Baths
They date back to the Victorian era and “hammams” were built next to mosques for a variety of reasons. Before you enter a mosque you should clean yourself and another reason was the money brought in from the hammam would help fund the mosque. The most unique part about them is that they do not have pools or baths in them unlike Roman Baths. The prices ranges somewhere between $50-$70 USD. Here is a list of some of the best reviewed baths.
- Culinary Walks
You can experience the Turkish Gastronomical Nirvana which boasts of its Ottoman heritage and is a delightful fusion of Turkish and Persian cuisines. Here are some of the best guided culinary walks across Istanbul to relish in these finger licking delicacies. Apart from these walks, here are some of the best reviewed restaurants and food places depending on your tastes, preferences and budget.
Culture and Entertainment
The Turkish culture is an exotic blend of artistic traditions of conquered lands, with each layer holding ethnic complexities, only to unfurl nostalgia. Its an amalgam of Turkish, Anatolian, Ottoman and western influences. The most popular folk music is Halk Muzigi, Fasil and Sanat Muzigi.
Below are some of the places where you can experience performing arts.
- Galata Mevlevi House Museum
The 15th-century whirling-dervish hall at this lodge is the venue for a one-hour whirling dervish sema (ceremony) held on Sundays throughout the year. It’s the most authentic of the city’s semas that can be attended by tourists.
- Babylon Bonmonti
This live music place is packed with crowds.
- Hodjapasha Cultural Centre
Occupying a beautifully converted 550-year-old hamam, this cultural centre stages a one-hour whirling dervish performance at 7pm daily (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday only January to March). Note that children under six are not admitted, and it is essential that audience members switch off their phones. Also on offer are a 1¼-hour Turkish dance show (at 8.30pm on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday)
- Nardis Jazz Club
Named after a Miles Davis track, this intimate venue near the Galata Tower is run by jazz guitarist Önder Focan and his wife Zuhal. Performers include gifted amateurs, local jazz luminaries and visiting international artists.
- Munzur Cafe & Bar
Hasnun Galip Sokak in Galatasaray is home to a number of türkü evlerı, Kurdish-owned bars where musicians perform live, emotion-charged halk meziği (folk music). This simple place, which is two decades old, has a regular line-up of singers and expert bağlama (lute) players.
Where to Stay
It’s preferable to stay in the European side of the city as most of the sites are located here. Sultanahmet and Taksim Square have many good hotels. Here’s a list of some of the best hotels to stay in Istanbul, Turkey, curated by experts.
This is another list of best hotels in Istanbul, based on user reviews.
Nisantasi is Istanbul’s New York City’s Upper East Side, which used to be dominated by strawberry orchards in the 18th century. It was here that the sultan’s soldiers used to train their target, hence its name – Nişantaşı means “target stone”. Strolling through the streets you will note elegance and a more modernized vibe amongst the tourists and locals. Nisantasi is chic. This part of town is also home to many cafes and restaurants, especially gourmet restaurants serving from the traditional Turkish börek and best of international cuisine. During your exploration, you will find a number of charming cafes where locals meet up for a cappuccino.
Hilton Istanbul is an upscale 5 star hotel on the European side of Istanbul. It is the longest operating international Hilton Hotel and was built in 1955 and has hosted famous guests like Sophia Loren, Louis Armstrong, Grace Kelly, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden. This is a typical business style hotel that has spacious meeting rooms for holding important business conferences. However, there are still many family-oriented amenities and leisure spaces, like pools, a spa, gym, and seven dining options are on offer and keep things welcoming overall. Inside, the decor is a mix of elegant stateliness with high ceilings with crown molding and chandeliers, contemporary furniture, printed rugs, and lovely stained-glass windows. The hotel manages to add some cultural elements like black-and-white historical photographs and Turkish-inspired patterns on furniture and pillows. Business travelers are the primary guests here, though couples are attracted to the upscale amenities too.
The Swissotel Istanbul is a Luxurious five-star 19-story Hotel situated in residential area near the Bosphorus, city center & Taksim business district. It features an ultra nice rooftop bar called the 16 Roof. Nestled within 65 acres of historical gardens with world-class shopping and vibrant nightlife nearby. It offers 566 guest rooms and suites, featuring state-of-the-art technology and exclusive amenities. Wake up to views of minarets, the Golden Horn, a verdant garden and the Asian landmass across the water.
Four Seasons Istanbul
Ranked one of the top hotels in Europe, the Four Seasons is right around the corner from Istanbul’s main attractions, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. Not to mention the unbeatable luxury that it provides.
Ritz Carlton Istanbul
The Ritz Carlton Istanbul is a luxurious five-star hotel near the azure waters of the Bosphorus. The hotel offers an authentic Turkish experience through its services and décor. Moreover, the use of elegant Iznik ceramic tile work in its structure amplifies the beauty of the building.
You can either rent a pocket wifi device from Alldaywifi or get a Turkcell sim card from the airport.
This ancient city of Turkey is the custodian of three world empires, countless potent kingdoms and dazzling coastlines. The ruins of turkey have more greek undertones than roman influences. Artifacts of Greek Invasion, Byzantine Majesty and Ottoman Supremacy make Istanbul a sight to behold and an experience to be felt.
Check out Istanbul travel stories by Sofialog