Straddling the Bosphorous Strait, Istanbul has long been a bridge between Europe and Asia. It was once a strategic spot on the Silk Road, and its multicultural history is evidenced in its food, textiles, and architecture to explore on your tour. Istanbul was once the most populated city in the Western Hemisphere, its population peaking at close to half a million people, but its main streets and back alleys are still teeming with artists, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals.
Colonized by the Greeks, then falling to the Romans, Istanbul was known as Byzantium until 330 when it was renamed Constantinople and made the new capital of the Roman Empire. When Muslims invaded in 1453, Constantinople became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman the Magnificent reigned over the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566 and ushered in a time of great artistic and architectural achievements. He commissioned the famous architect Mimar Sinan to design many of the iconic buildings that are visited today.
When you first arrive, your senses are bombarded with ancient Ottoman sites, exotic smells of slow roasting kebab skewers, and the sounds of people and cars energetically buzzing about. Istanbul was once the most populated city in the Western Hemisphere, its population peaking at close to half a million people. Today its main streets and back alleys are still teeming with artists, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals.
Plunge right into all the action at the historic core of Istanbul, Sultanahmet. Here you will find the some of the most well-known attractions, like Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern. Marvel in front of the 15th century Blue Mosque that iconically marks the Istanbul skyline with its blue domes and piercing minarets. The exteriors are impressive, but the interior of the building is equally, if not more jaw-dropping. A halo of soft lights ring the main prayer room, while stained glass windows let in the sun’s rays at the top. The light illuminates the ceiling, each arch and niche covered by intricately designed individual tiles. It’s absolutely dizzying.
Next, cross over to the nearby Hagia Sofia. Once a Byzantine church, and converted into a mosque, it is now a museum. Constructed in 537, it stood as the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years. With such a rich history, this perfect example of Byzantine architecture houses Islamic and Christian motifs side by side.
Close by to the Hagia Sofia is the Basilica Cistern. Situated underneath the old city, this 6th century cistern is the largest of several that are hidden beneath Istanbul’s modern cityscape. Make your way down the steps into the darkness as the air becomes cool. Once inside, you can stroll a boardwalk among hundreds of ancient columns coming up out of the water, each one lit softly at its base. Water dripping slowly from the ceiling echoes mysteriously throughout the quiet waterway.
Sultan’s Palaces and Old City Walls
Adjacent to the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque is the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and Topkapi Palace. Step into the ancient world before it was Istanbul, or even Constantinople. The collection includes artifacts from the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks, and Romans.
Take a self-guided tour through the spectacular architecture of the 15th century architect, Sinan. This magnificent Ottoman palace is awash with golden Arabic script, expertly painted tiles, and brightly stained glass. Every room is covered floor to ceiling with elaborate tiles painted with traditional Ottoman motifs like stylized tulips and leaves, geometric designs, and stars.
Break for lunch at a nearby café, and treat yourself like a sultan. Kick your shoes off and idle away the afternoon on a pile of pillows, puffing on a nargile (water pipe). If you need a kick, order a strong, silty Turkish coffee; for the less adventurous, stick to the tried and true Turkish Black tea and sugar. Listen as the traditional Turkish melodies from an old bağlama player waft through the café.
During the evening, head to Galata Dervish Monastery to witness the spiritual Sema ceremony. Sufis, commonly known as “Whirling Dervishes,” subscribe to a more mystical side of the Islamic faith, a sect that is known to express their ecstatic love for God through ethereal music, dance, and poetry. The Sema is a 7-century old ritual where worshippers spin in a kind of trance state and is meant to represent the spiritual journey, revolving in harmony with all things.
Treasures of the Grand Bazaar
On the other side of Old Town, you can spend hours getting lost in the infamous Grand Bazaar. As soon as you step through this nondescript entryway, you find yourself in a labyrinth of colorful wares and energetic salesmen. With hundreds of silk scarves stacked to the ceiling, hand painted ceramics, vintage jewelry, hanging glass lanterns, and stunning carpets, it is an Orientalist's dream. The sheer size of this marketplace is overwhelming. With its many twists and turns of alleyways, you could easily spend hours browsing through the selections, while you are treated to the standard complimentary apple tea and chatted up by a shopkeeper.
Meander through the side alleys around the Grand Bazaar and make your way to towards the Eminonu district and the Bosphorous Strait. Duck into the arches that house the Spice Market and your nose will be greeted by scents of exotic spices, tea, and fresh sweets. Be sure to try the lokum, or Turkish Delight which comes in so many flavors, from mint, to rolled in rose petals, or sprinkled with saffron.
When you’ve had your fill of baklava and lokum, take a rest at any of the beautiful mosques in the area. New Mosque (Yeni Cami), Rustem Pasa Mosque, and the Mosque of Soleyman the Magnificient all make for quiet and peaceful refuges from the busyness of the markets.
Traditional Turkish Baths
After your jaunt to the islands, return to city to continue with your day of total relaxation. For an unforgettable experience, try the traditional hammam, or Turkish bath. There are many throughout the city, a number of which cater to tourists. You will be assigned a small changing room where you can stow your belongings and get changed into a peştemal, or Turkish towel. Your attendant will lead you through a couple of antechambers, where you can feel the temperature and humidity rise significantly. Lounge lazily on the warm marble alcove, steam rising all around you, as the dying sunlight filters in through star shaped windows cut out of the domed ceilings. When you are nice and relaxed, your attendant will take you to a smaller room to massage, scrub, and bathe you in sumptuous olive oil and rose oil soaps.
Beyoğlu and the European Side
Experience the more modern side of Istanbul. From the shoreline of Eminönü, walk across Galata bridge which spans the glittering Bosphorous Strait, through the crowds of fishermen hanging their poles from its edges. Now you’re in the European side of Istanbul, Karakoy and Beyoğlu. Wander the alleyways of textile shops and homey cafes until you reach Galata Tower. From the top, you are rewarded with 360-degree views of stunning Istanbul.
The hip and modern Istiklal Street and Taxim Square are also close by. Istiklal Caddesi is a spacious pedestrian boulevard lined with department stores, boutiques, and cafes. At the end of this long thoroughfare, you will reach Taxim Square, an area very popular with college students for its lively nightlife scene. Stop for lunch in any one of the great restaurants or cafes in the Beyoğlu area. Feast on an array of traditional Turkish foods like manti (beef dumplings that resemble ravioli), börek (a savory flaky pastry), döner kebab, or gözleme (thin pancake stuffed with meat and onion). Wash it all down with ayran, a tart yogurt drink that pairs perfectly with heavily spiced meats.
Escape the hectic city for the day by taking a cool ferry ride to the Prince’s Islands. Motorized vehicles are banned, so you can leisurely bike, stroll, or take a charming horse-drawn carriage to take you on a tour down quiet tree-lined boulevards and wooden Victorian-Era mansions. Enjoy the soft sea breeze and fresh seafood at one of the many cafes along the shores.
If you have time on your trip, do not pass up a Bosphorous Cruise at sunset. Nothing is more romantic than cruising by Istanbul’s brilliant skyline bathed in golden light, the wind blowing your hair back, and the sense of one more adventure on the horizon.