Our Top Five Must-See Istanbul Attractions

by GoWithGuide travel specialist

Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus Strait and is the marine equivalent of a crossroads between Europe and Asia. This bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis in north-west Turkey is the fifth largest city in Europe. 

There are fifty hills, several large islands and three ports within the city limits. Istanbul was first settled by the Greeks but rose to prominence in the 4th Century when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, made it his new capital. He named his ‘New Rome’ after himself, giving it the name Constantinople. This name endured for more than a millennium and a half of Byzantine and Ottoman rule, before being changed to Istanbul in 1930. The city’s architecture spans the ages and reflects its eclectic history. 

Today, Istanbul is the trade and financial hub of Turkey. The city boasts several UNESCO World Heritage Sites and was named European Capital of Culture in 2010. Get in touch with one of our Istanbul guides to plan your customized tour of the ancient city today. 

Hagia Sophia 

One of Istanbul’s premier tourist attractions is the Hagia Sophia. The massive pink Basilica was built by the Eastern Orthodox Church in 537, using materials from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Greece. The central dome is 30 meters wide and 50 meters high. The edifice is an engineering marvel and is sometimes referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World. 

Mosaics depicting biblical scenes adorn the building, interspersed with appearances by successive Eastern Roman Emperors. In the 15th century, after the Ottoman conquest, minarets were added and the building was converted to a mosque. Islam does not permit depictions of deities or humans in a place of worship, so artwork on the walls were plastered over and carpets were used to cover Biblical symbols on the floors.  

In 1935, the mosque was secularised and the Hagia Sophia became a museum. The carpets were removed and the artwork restored, but in 2020 it reverted back to being a mosque. The Hagia Sophia is closed during prayer times, a dress code is imposed, and visitors need to remove their shoes before stepping on prayer carpets. Entrance is free.    

Topkapi Palace 

Not far from Hagia Sophia is the Topkapi Palace. It was built in the 15th century, at the beginning of the Ottoman period, and served as the seat of government and the Sultan’s residence. In the 18th century it was replaced by the Dolmabahce Palace, and since 1924 has been designated a museum. 

Topkapi Palace was built on a hill, and commands views of the city and the Bosphorus. Several additions have been made over the centuries, and the sprawling complex now covers 60 hectares. Massive gates flanked by symmetrical stone towers mark the entrance to four large, landscaped courtyards. Artefacts excavated on the premises are dotted around the formal gardens for guests to marvel at. The public areas of the palace include a hospital, infantry barracks, stables, art schools, an audience chamber, a library, and a mosque. The splendid cobalt blue tiles and gold leaf designs are complemented by textured marble and wrought iron. 

Family quarters comprise hundreds of rooms, including the harem which housed the Sultan’s family, his concubines, and the eunuchs in attendance. The main residence, where the Sultan’s throne and the royal bed are on display overlooks the Bosphorus. The restaurant on the terrace overlooking the sea provides welcome respite and sustenance.  

Grand bazaar

This maze of domes, arches, and vaulted ceilings covers 61 of the old city streets. More than 4000 shops form Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, the largest and oldest shopping mall in the world. 

It is truly a showcase of Turkish manufacturing, and highlights include goods such as ceramics, carpets, lamps and leather products. Jeans and jewellery are also popular purchases. There is much to please the palate as well, with smooth dark coffee poured from specialised percolators into gilded cups, while roasted beans and mountains of colourful spices create an aromatic atmosphere.  

Mediterranean delicacies such as figs, olives, pistachios, and pomegranates are available in season and all year round you can enjoy Turkish Delights and other sweet treats. Shopkeepers, street vendors, and cafe owners make this a friendly and entertaining excursion. Watch out though, because you will be expected to haggle, it is an essential social and economic ritual. If you’re not sure how to haggle, hire one of our Istanbul guides to show you the ropes.  

Turkish Baths or Hammami

A trip to a traditional Turkish bath is an invigorating and revitalising diversion. The public baths are segregated, for both clients and masseurs. Private changing areas are provided where clients disrobe and don the traditional Turkish towel.

The oval steam room is lit by natural light or lamps, dimmed by mist. A large raised stone platform heated by the steam is where the action takes place. It is surrounded by columns and alcoves where visitors rinse themselves off with hot and cold running water.    

Services range from a do-it-yourself foam bath to the full package, which includes a body scrub and massage. Strong, expert hands will cover you in lather, stretch your limbs, pummel your torso, and exfoliate your skin with an abrasive cloth. Some have described the experience as being steam rolled and scraped with steel wool, but most find it exhilarating. 

Ferry to the Asian side 

A trip to the Asian side of the city starts with a twenty minute ferry ride across the Bosphorus. Wide decks allow passengers to observe the busy sea lanes up close, and provide the best views of the Dolmabahce Palace. You will also pass by the decommissioned lighthouse, known as Maiden’s Tower.  

A squadron of seagulls escorts each boat, loudly demanding payment for services rendered. Food is sold on board for this purpose. On the Asian bank, passengers disembark at Kadikoy, the oldest commercial and residential suburb in the eastern part of the city. It is characterised by markets and small alleys. 

Night life is vibrant, with entertainment provided by backgammon houses and live music in the many bars. Restaurants serve local and international cuisine. Those at sea level afford spectacular views of the Old city skyline and the sun setting in the west. Fish dishes, baklava, and Turkish coffee are recommended here. 

Conclusion 

Istanbul offers many more attractions, and if you’re unsure where to start, consider contacting one of our professional Istanbul private guides to set up a custom tour just for you! GoWithGuide offers several pre-made and customizable packages that are designed to streamline your experience so that you can focus on maximum enjoyment.  

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