“See Naples and die,” the phrase widely attributed to the German poet Wolfgang Goethe, can be reinterpreted and perfectly applied to Istanbul. Former Byzantium, ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, re-named Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, this fascinating Turkish city amazes visitors for its layers of history, hectic bazaars and friendly people. Are you planning a trip? Here are some of the most important things to do in Istanbul.
European capital of culture in 2010, this Turkish city has largely earned its fame among the other cities of the Old Continent thanks to its lively society and some of the most sophisticated collaborations of different styles, traditions and civilizations.
Its central district Sultanahmet is dominated by the city’s most acclaimed wonders staring at each other: beautiful Ayasofya and awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Even though pretty much undisputed stars of all Istanbul tour packages, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are far from being the only places to visit in Istanbul.
Going down the Basilica Cistern, haggling and shopping in the many bazaars, a cruise along the Bosphorus, or just sitting on the shore to smoke a hookah and sip on some black tea, after enjoying a dinner with kebab or the delicious Turkish pide, are some other things to do in Istanbul to fully enjoy the vibe this beautiful and historical city has to offer.
My trip to Istanbul was for only five days, but I tried to see and do as much as I could. If you are travelling on a budget, you might want to consider the free tour of Istanbul organised by Turkish Airlines.
The most important things to do in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya)
Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) is one of the world’s most stunning architectural masterpieces: centuries of artistic schools overlap, solemnly offering their contribution to the world of arts with its finest mosaics, including the famous Christ flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.
Built in 532AD, the cathedral remained the most important church within the Christian world until Constantinople fell under Turks’ rule in 1453 and Sultan Mehmet decided to turn it into a mosque. Absolutely stunning, Hagia Sophia dome, 55 meters high, is made from bricks and mortar. They say when the Hagia Sophia dome was built, walls began to lean outward for the weight, so supporting walls had to be added.
Among the things to admire during your tour inside are the stunning Hagia Sophia mosaics and paintings
Today Hagia Sophia is obviously an Istanbul Museum, one of the most popular tourist attractions where visitors just can’t stop looking around in awe for this interplay of styles and cultures.
The Blue Mosque
Sultanahmet Camii, the local name of the Blue Mosque, stands aware of its timeless majesty in front of Ayasofya, giving the whole scenery the mysterious atmosphere of Scheherazade’s tales in the Arabian Nights.
One of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks, the Blue Mosque, owes its name to the cobalt tiles decorating the prayer room and is packed with tourists winter and summer alike, being exclusive Muslim prerogative only during the prayer time.
The suggestive beauty of softly-lit Sultanahmet by night is beyond imagination. Every attraction I visited made me gradually aware of how hard would have been to tear myself away from that half-European half-Asian jewel.
The city is studded with small, lesser-known mosques, each of them, samples of Arabian design. Five times a day, from every mosque the muezzin raise their voice to call the faithful to pray, filling the city with a captivating, ancestral lament.
Blue Mosque admission fee: Free
Blue Mosque dress code: Like in every other mosque, women need to be covered head to ankles. Head covering is available at the entrance. Men can’t wear shorts but can wear t-shirts.
Cameras at the Blue Mosque: Allowed free of charge
Blue Mosque visiting hours: All day, except praying times and Friday from 12-3. Best time to visit Sultanahmet Mosque: Saturday-Thursday From 8am-12pm.
Note: The prayers take place five times a day and the mosque closes for 90 minutes every prayer time. You will need to take off your shoes before entering and carry them with you in a little plastic bag.
The Sultan used to make his way to the Blue Mosque from his residence, nearby Topkapi Palace (Topkapı Sarayı), the immense cluster of buildings that dominate wide, evergreen gardens with breathtaking views.
The palace contains the imperial treasures that offer a comprehensive glimpse of the luxury kings lived in, despite the general poverty of the rest of the population, as it usually happens when it comes to royal residences: emerald-studded golden cradles, precious silk clothes, relics of the Prophet Muhammad.
Topkapi Palace Museum visiting hours: 9 am-4.45 pm in winter, 9 am-6.45 pm in summer. Topkapi Palace is open every day except Tuesdays.
Topkapi Palace admission fee: For adults 40 TL (Turkish Lira) each person and you visit everywhere except the Harem Section. Ticket for the Harem and the Dormitories of Halberdiers is 25 TL. So if you want to see everything in the Topkapi Palace, you need to get two tickets 40+25=65 TL.
Free admission for children 12-year-old or younger except for the Harem. Here kids under 6 or younger enter free of charge. You can purchase the tickets online or at the entrance and pay either cash or with credit/debit card.
Dress code: Topkapi Palace does not have a dress code.
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A cruise along the Bosphorus
No tour of the city can be considered complete without cruising along the Bosphorus, the stretch of water between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea that works as a natural barrier between the Asian and the European Continents.
Fascinated by the idea of finding myself between two worlds, I booked my cruise with Italian-Spanish-English-speaking guide Alparslan. After leaving from Eminönü bay, we headed to the other side of the coast, managing to shipwreck on our way back, just to make sure to add the thrilling (and funny) ingredient to an already exciting trip.
Istanbul Grand Bazaar
Although most people barely speak a little English, bazaars’ shopkeepers will welcome you in every language, and at my usual question: “Where did you learn Italian so well?” the answer was unavoidable: “Here at the bazaar, of course!”
Even though very touristy, I absolutely loved dawdling about the Grand Bazaar, where I ended up buying only a small narghilé “for personal use”, and staring at the traditional clothes, shoes, head-scarves, veils, that strongly reminded me of Samantha Stephens in Bewitched.
If you are not a master of bargaining, be aware that at the end of your visit to the Grand Bazaar you will have bought something you don’t need at a higher price than its real value.
My short stay was undoubtedly made more pleasant by the friendliness of Turkish people, who made even the most nerve-racking bargain a hilarious chat, ranging from flattering adulation to unpredictable proposals.
With some 60 streets and 5000 shops (but who’s counting), restaurants, hammam (Turkish baths), cafes and two mosques, the Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world and absolutely one of the most popular Istanbul attractions.
Istanbul Grand Bazaar opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9:00 – 19:00. Closed Sundays and national holidays.
How to get to Istanbul Grand Bazaar: Take a tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci or if you are in Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque area, it is about 15 minutes walk to Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul Grand Bazaar official website: www.grandbazaaristanbul.org
Istanbul Spice Bazaar
While I enjoyed my tour of the Grand Bazaar, I’m glad I made it also to Istanbul Spice Bazaar, a feast of colors, scents, spices, herbs, teas, and flowers. So if your Istanbul shopping spree is not over, head here to fork out some more cash.
Just like the main market, also at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar sellers spoke pretty much every language, and quite predictably, I bought tea and spices for a year.
I promise you will be carried away by the fragrances and the variety of goods and products from all over the world, especially Asia.
Istanbul Spice Bazaar opening hours: Daily 8 am-7.30 pm
After visiting all the must-see sites in the city center, my friends and I went to the Galata Tower from Taksim Square, to have a taste of what is a less touristy Istanbul, and all of a sudden all the obsessive bargaining and tricks aimed at foreigners were gone. We experienced a tangle of narrow back alleys, studded with small, picturesque cafés and tea houses, and populated with friendly locals who were interested in simply say ‘hi’ to travelers.
Needless to say, although I loved the city’s architectural majesty, I was completely captured by this more authentic ride, that was actually what makes me want to go to Istanbul again.
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