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Things to Know
Spanning two continents, three empires, several cultures, and thousands of years of history, few cities in the world can match the magnificence of Istanbul and the sense of genuine intrigue that it evokes. The former Byzantine capital sits right on the Bosporus, a strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which in turn connects to the strait of Dardanelles and then to the Mediterranean Sea. For millennia, this route was the only way to travel between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, which made Istanbul one of the most important and most coveted cities in the world. Today, Istanbul is the cultural, commercial, financial, industrial, and maritime capital of modern Turkey. Combining the charisma and rich heritage of its historic districts with the vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere of its fashionable contemporary areas, Istanbul is as beautiful as it is complex, a city imbued with a palpable exotic energy and a truly fascinating destination to explore.
Things to See
The Süleymaniye Mosque
Commissioned by Sultan Süleyman and built between the years 1550 and 1557 by the great Turkish architect Sinan, this masterwork is regarded as one of the most substantial ensembles of Ottoman architecture in Istanbul.
The Blue Mosque
Built on the orders of Sultan Ahmet I between 1603 and 1617, the Blue Mosque is one of the most iconic buildings in the city. It gets its name from the dazzling blue tiles that line its imposing interior.
The Hagia Sophia
Located just across from the Blue Mosque, the astounding Hagia Sophia is a Byzantine church turned mosque shortly after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453. It was built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD with the goal to outshine the Temple of Solomon and it was the largest church in the world until the Cathedral of Seville was erected between 1402 and 1519.
The Basilica Cistern
The largest and most impressive of hundreds of underground cisterns located underneath the city. It once held about 80,000 cubic meters of water and provided a filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other building of the First Hill.
The Topkapi Palace
This was the primary residence of the Sultans from the late 1400s until the mid-1800s. It features several sections that include rooms and museums, all linked by four open courtyards. Don’t miss the famous Spoonmaker Diamond that was first worn by Mehmet IV at his coronation ceremony in 1648 and is considered to be the fifth largest diamond in the world.
The Dolmabahçe Palace
Commissioned by Sultan Abdülmecid I and completed in 1854, this palace became the new home of the reigning Ottoman Sultans during the Ottman Empire’s last decades of prominence. During the years of the early Republic, Ataturk used to reside there when he was staying in Istanbul and it is also the place where he died in 1938.
Things to Do
Experience the Grand Bazaar
Dating back to the 1500s, the Grand Bazaar is considered to be the progenitor of the modern-day shopping mall and it remains the largest covered market in the world. Even before entering the bazaar itself you’ll be confronted by a “flea market of vendors”, while inside the bazar you will find literally thousands of little shops that sell everything from expensive jewelry and carpets, to leather jackets and silk scarves, to traditional ornaments and souvenirs. While haggling is often frowned upon in most parts of the world, it is an inseparable part of the Grand Bazaar’s culture and its not uncommon for customers to receive huge discounts on merchandise after threatening to walk away unless a better price is offered to them.
Take a Boat Trip through the Bosporus
Seeing Istanbul by land is an undeniably beautiful experience but getting to see this enchanting city by water will offer you a whole different perspective. If you haven’t included a Bosporus cruise in your itinerary, you can easily join one of the many boat cruises scheduled as a tourist attraction to experience the city in this unique way. Some of the many Ottoman architectural marvels that you will be able to see include the Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ciragan Palace, the authentic Istanbul suburb of Ortaköy, the baroque style Mecidiye Mosque, the Bosporus Bridge, the Fortress of Europe, and the impressive Basi Salih Efendi residence just to name a few. Make sure to bring your camera and fill it up with beautiful pictures while you enjoy the ride through the Bosporus strait.
Visit the Prince’s Islands
For a more romantic alternative to the Bosporus boat tours, consider a trip to the charming Prince’s Islands in the Marmara Sea. Büyükada is the largest and most popular of the nine islands, mainly due to the absence of cars and its pristine natural environment. The only way to get around the island is either by foot or by climbing on one of the horse carriages that travel through the vast green forests and the beautiful residences of its inhabitants. Take a carriage ride through Büyükada and hop on the island ferry to head to one of the other three islands that it connects to where you can enjoy swimming, biking, or dining in one of the well-known fish restaurants of the area.
Walk From Dolmabahçe to Ortaköy
The promenade that connects these two districts offers a great opportunity for a leisurely walk along the Bosporus and it also offers a chance to admire another one of Istanbul’s imposing palaces. The Çırağan Palace is an exemplary neoclassical architectural work that combines both the Ottoman and Moorish styles from the “Tulip Era” that was a time of marked cultural innovation for the Ottoman Empire. As you reach Ortaköy, take some time to enjoy this beautiful area as you walk through its cobbled streets and glance at the Anatolian-style houses before stopping at one of its authentic cafes and restaurants for a taste of the local life.
Shop Till You Drop at Galata, Istikbal Street, and Nişantaşı
The area around the famous Galata Tower is regarded as the “Soho” of Istanbul. After climbing the tower and admiring the gorgeous view of the city, it’s time to hit the streets to indulge in some shopping at the area’s trendy designer’s boutiques or walk around and enjoy its various art galleries. For even more shopping, head to the bustling pedestrianized Istikbal Street which starts from the busy Taksim Square where you will find a plethora of different shops for all tastes and styles. The nearby Nişantaşı is a great area for upscale shopping where you will find high-end international fashion boutiques like Louis Vitton and Prada as well as several boutique coffee shops and restaurants whose outdoor tables make an ideal place to do some people watching and take in the latest fashion trends.
Discover Istanbul Nightlife
If you turn right into the narrow street across the Tram Station at the end of Istikbal Street, you will find yourself in the colorful Sofyali street, which along with Asmalimescit street located a bit further down make up the beating heart of Istanbul’s trendy nightlife scene. Resembling the Meat Packing District in New York, this area starts packing up in the evening hours on account of its several interesting restaurants, clubs, and bars, while its street-side tables serve as the perfect spot to enjoy dinner or a tall glass of beer.