K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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This city that straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait in Turkey is one of the world’s most popular destinations. It offers everything from its ancient nearly mythical market to grand palaces, a long list of fantastic museums, fabulous cuisine and so much more. If you plan to visit the Turkish capital, be sure and put these things to do on your list.
While you might have heard that the Grand Bazaar is simply a tourist trap, it’s really anything but. Plenty of locals shop here on a daily basis, though most are arguably better at bargaining than visitors. At over 500 years old, it’s still the world’s largest covered bazaar with its 60 streets lined with more than 5000 shops, five dozen restaurants, 12 mosques and countless fountains. The Bazaar is most famous for its intricately patterned carpets, gold Byzantine-style jewelry, leather, hand-painted ceramics and souvenirs. Taking in all the sights and sounds, sampling the local cuisine and haggling, is all part of the experience.
The Blue Mosque is a sight to see, built in the early 17th-century to rival nearby Hagia Sophia some 1,000 years after it was constructed. It’s all domes, half-domes and minarets on the outside, with the interior gleaming with the famous blue Iznik tiles that gave it its name. While it’s open 24 hours a day, it closes six times daily for calls to prayer. As an active religious site, if you plan to visit you’ll need to dress conservatively, including head scarves for women.
Be sure to take a Bosphorus cruise while you’re there to get a perspective of the city from the water. You won’t want to miss the chance to capture this postcard-perfect sight, and you might just spot harbor porpoise and bottle nose dolphins along the way. It offers a fabulous overview of the city, including the European and Asian shores of the famous waterway, lined with grand century-old palaces and mansions. There are multiple options, including sunset tours in the summer, a short trip to the second suspension bridge and back, and a longer cruise to the Black Sea and back. If yo’re able to go toward the end of summer, from early- to mid-September, you’ll be able to enjoy warm temperatures and thinner crowds. While weather can occasionally bring cancellations, if you go during the short days of winter, morning cruises bring the best chance of sunshine.
Once the home of the Ottoman Sultans, from the 15th to around the mid-19th-century, Topkapi Palace sits atop a promontory near the Basilica Cistern and is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Today it serves as a museum, offering the chance to marvel at its impressive architecture, stroll through manicured courtyards and view exhibits that feature an extensive collection of weaponry, cutlery, porcelain, art and fabric collections. The museum also hosts restaurants, cafes and bookstores.
Hagia Sophia Museum is another one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. One of the largest cathedrals on Earth, it draws countless visitors to view its impressive architecture, incredible interior and historical significance. Built between 532 and 537, it served as a church initially, during its the first thousand years of its existence. In 1453 it was used as a mosque, and continued to serve that same purpose for nearly 500 years before becoming the museum that it is today. The magnum opus of Byzantine architecture, it’s located in the Fatih’s Sultanahmet neighborhood near the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace Museum.
The Istanbul Archaeological Museums opened in the mid-19th-century, with its three buildings, the Tiled Kiosk Museum, Archaeological Museum and Ancient Orient Museum containing over a million antiquities, including three sarcophagi, a tomb monument that dates to the 1st century and Islamic coins. You can walk through via Gulhane Park or the grounds of Topkapi Palace to get there. If you’re limited on time, head straight to the large porticoed building that houses the stunning sarcophagus of Alexander that depicts scenes from the life of Alexander the Great in 3D.
All cities seem to have their great viewing points, and one of the best in all of Istanbul can be found at the Galata Tower. The iconic landmark crowns the hill that sits opposite of the Golden Horn and was built in 1348. It once served as a jail, though it has an interesting place in aviation history too. It was from here in 1638 that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia, inaugurating the first ever intercontinental flight. Using a pair of glider wings attached to his body, he leaped from the top of the tower and managed to make it all the way across the Bosphorus Strait to Dogancılar Square, a journey of about two miles.
The observation deck was opened up to visitors in the 1960s after a copula was added during restoration, and you’ll be able to get a bird’s-eye view from here.
Istanbul is also worth exploring underground, particularly its Basilica Cistern, an extraordinary feat of Byzantine engineering that was used to bring drinking water via aqueducts from the area known as Bulgaria today to Istanbul. A bit spooky though arguably romantic with its dimmed light and classical music combined with the sounds of dripping water, you won’t want to miss the chance to travel across the walkways and view the fish swimming between the 336 columns supporting the ceiling. At the very end is a Medusa head, placed upside down as the base of one of the columns.
Set within what was once the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum overlooks the Hippodrome where Byzantine lovers of chariot racing once arrived in droves to indulge their passion. It showcases a fantastic collection of massive carpets from across the country, and it it basement you’ll see reconstructions of everything from a nomad tent to the magnificent interior of a 19th-century Bursa mansion.