Istanbul is one of the world’s most historic and fascinating cities, but for a long time it was considered a bridge too far by a lot of tourists heading to Europe. Lately, though, it’s gaining in popularity: in fact, a recent survey called it the third most visited destination in Europe.
If you’re headed to Istanbul, you want to know what the highlights are, and where they’re located — nothing worse than leaving yourself in the hands of the first cab driver you see. Happily, most of the great sights in Istanbul can be seen in a couple of days, and many are within walking distance of each other. Go here for a good map of the top sights.
Here’s a quick guide that shows you what to see in Istanbul on a short visit. See it all in two days, or take a lifetime — it’s your choice.
Istanbul is a city that spans two continents, Europe and Asia, and separating them is a strait called the Bosphorus whose history stretches all the way back to Jason and the Argonauts. In fact, it was Istanbul’s location on this strategic strait that made it a centre of the ancient world. Even if just to orient yourself, you should cast your eyes on it when you arrive.
Better yet, take a boat cruise on the Bosphorus. The tours are affordable, take about an hour, and give you a unique perspective on the city as you motor past many of the city’s notable sights. These include palaces and two bridges, the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which start on one continent and end on the other.
The Galata Bridge
The boat tours start from a dock at the foot of one of Istanbul’s other famous landmarks, the Galata Bridge. This is the main route for traffic into the old part of town, and it’s a fascinating structure, with a major thoroughfare on the top and rows of shops and restaurants below.
You may end up walking across the bridge to get to the historic sites, especially if you arrive by cruise ship: they dock at Karakoy Port, just a few blocks north. In any case, it’s a great place to catch a quick meal and watch the men fishing at all hours of the day.
The Topkapi Palace
The historic section of Istanbul is on a point of land called the Golden Horn, which commands the Bosphorus. And commanding the Golden Horn is the Topkapi Palace, the home of generations of Turkish sultans, or emperors. It’s open to the public, and well worth an hour or two.
The palace is mostly a collection of halls and official buildings, many featuring displays of artifacts dating from the sultans of old, including costumes, decorative pieces and weaponry. The buildings themselves are ornately decorated as well. The most popular section is the harems, but at time of writing, they were closed for maintenance.
The Hagia Sophia
The area around the palace is called the Sultanahmet, and these few blocks contain many of Istanbul’s ancient treasures, all within walking distance. If you walk out the front gate of the Topkapi Palace you’ll arrive at one of the most famous, the Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya. In fact, you can see it through the doorway.
The Hagia has a remarkable history. Built as a church by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and consecrated in the year 537, it was later taken over by the city’s Ottoman invaders and turned into a mosque. The result is a building filled with Islamic symbols and rich Christian iconography, some of it more than 1,000 years old. The crowning piece is the image of the Virgin Mary and Christ child high above the altar, in the Hagia’s amazing domed ceiling.
The Basilica Cistern
Just across the street from the Hagia Sophia is a small, low building that disguises a remarkable find: the Basilica Cistern, a water reservoir built in Roman times on the site of an ancient church. The cistern supplied water for the Sultanahmet for many years before being covered over, and the story goes that a researcher discovered it when people told him they got water by dropping a bucket through their floor.
The cistern itself is an unforgettable place, lined with rows of pillars taken from old buildings and still filled with a couple of feet of water, in which goldfish swim. At the rear is another surprise, a pair of Medusa heads used as the bases for two columns — no one really knows why.
The Blue Mosque
Continue on past the Hagia Sophia (with a slight detour to see the remains of the old Hippodrome, or horse racing course, if you like), and you come to another of Istanbul’s most treasured buildings, the Blue Mosque. Its real name is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but it’s famous for the blue tiles that lend it a unique beauty.
The mosque is an imposing place, set above the Bosphorus coast with an enclosed courtyard on one side. Tourists can enter through the back door, but you’ll have to remove your shoes if you want to view the interior. The building is still a functioning mosque, so if you show up at prayer time you’ll wait to get in.
The Grand Bazaar
Walking west from the Sultanahmet for about 15 minutes brings you to what may be Istanbul’s most entertaining attraction, the Grand Bazaar. Housed in two huge, ancient buildings, this immense market sells everything from oriental carpets to silk, gold, clothing, leather, antiques — if you want it, it’s probably here.
If you like to shop, you can spend the whole day here. And if you get tired, you can stop in one of the tea houses that look as old as the market itself and have a cup of tea in a tiny glass cup, admiring the ancient wall decorations of traders carrying their wares on pack animals.
The spice market
Head out of the Grand Bazaar going north and you emerge into a colourful maze of streets lined with shops selling household goods. These lead to the spice bazaar, also called the Egyptian bazaar. It’s a feast for the senses, with colourful spices set out in displays as far as the eye can see.
There’s a hundred kinds of Turkish delight, which you can sample, and lots of things to take home as gifts. There’s even a fish market on one side. When you’re done, the Galata Bridge is just up the street, so this is a good place to end the day.
West of the Sultanahmet, past the Grand Bazaar, is the Süleymaniye Mosque, built by Suleyman the Magnificent in the 1550s. It’s the largest mosque in Istanbul, and towers over the city skyline from its hilltop location.
While its decoration is fairly simple, the mosque is one of the best examples of Ottoman Islamic architecture, and was built as a little city, with a hospital, library, kitchen, Turkish bath, hospice for the poor and shops. Suleyman’s tomb is on the site.
Sitting on the European shore of the Bosphorus, the Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1856 and was originally used as a winter palace for the sultan. However, the royal family later moved in permanently, and it was their home until the declaration of the Turkish republic.
The impressive palace complex includes a grand ceremonial hall, state apartments and a harem, along with barracks, stables, a pharmacy, an aviary, a plant house and greenhouse, a carpet workshop and a clock tower. It’s now a museum, and worth the short trip out of the centre.
There’s more to Istanbul than the Sultanahmet and the markets, and the heart of modern Istanbul is Taksim Square. This is where the 1928 Monument of the Republic is located, and where the Istikal Caddesi pedestrian shopping street ends. It’s a busy place, lined with shops, restaurants and major hotels.
Taksim is also the hot spot for Turkey’s sometimes violent political life. It’s the site of Taksim Gezi Park, which sparked a huge occupation in 2013 when residents filled the square to protest government plans to redevelop the site. Life in Istanbul is not always calm, but it’s always interesting.
That’s a snapshot of the most prominent things to see in a short visit to Istanbul, but there are many more things to see and do. The city has a long list of museums, including one dedicated to Florence Nightingale — you can find a list here. And there are other palaces and mosques, as well as Turkish baths and performance venues.
What to eat
Turkey has a rich and savoury cuisine, flavoured with lots of fruits, spices and sweets. The most common dishes include things like kebabs, meat balls or kofte, and the pide, which is a kind of thin pizza topped with ground meat and different vegetables. And of course, there are the desserts, including Turkish delight, either plain or with nuts, and the achingly sweet baklava, best served with some strong Turkish coffee.
In the Sultanahmet, you can find a concentration of restaurants on Akbıyık Caddesi, some with outdoor patios. I can also recommend the Hamdi Restaurant, located upstairs in a building right behind the spice bazaar — good food, and a great view over the city.