Tips on What To Do in Istanbul
Istanbul has had a long and rich history. The city's major attractions reflect this, from the museums to the stunning architecture. Palaces, castles, mosques and churches abound. Combined with the spectacle the bazaars, they lend the city a fantastically exotic feel. If you have time, stop by a Turkish hamam (bath) for a soak and a massage -- the Süleymaniye Hamam is recommended by travelers.
If you have kids in tow, you might want to vacation elsewhere. Istanbul does not have much for children to do and they will most likely quickly tire of touring Byzantine architecture.
- Most first-time travelers to Istanbul spend a lot of time in Sultanahmet. ... Merchants crowd the district between the enormous Grand Bazaar, east of the university, and the less touristy Egyptian Spice Bazaar, just southeast of Eminana. To soak in the city's sights the easy way, hop on one of the small boats on either side of the Galata Bridge and go for a relaxing and panoramic Bosphorus tour. " -- Let's Go Istanbul
- Even though Turks are notorious pushovers for their children, Istanbul isn't really a kid-friendly destination; even the most privileged and well-educated children will get bored trudging around the recesses of ancient Byzantium." -- Frommer's
Palaces & Mosques
With a city as rich in history, it should come as no surprise that some of its most popular attractions are buildings built by royalty in centuries past. Start with the beautiful blue interiors that inspired the name for the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. Also in the Old City is Hagia Sophia (the Church of the Holy Wisdom), reportedly one of the best examples of Byzantine architecture around, with a huge dome 18 stories high and covered in gold tiles. Created in 537 AD, it served as the main cathedral of Constantinople, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, though the city changed names a few times. Nearby is Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), a centuries-old palace that once housed sultans and their harems. The vast grounds consisting of multiple courtyards are now available for tours.
Across the Golden Horn and south of Beyoglu is Dolmabahçe Palace, whose construction helped to bankrupt the Ottoman Empire at one point. Filled with gifts from international royalty, including a 4.5-ton chandelier from Queen Victoria, writers call the palace gaudy luxury at its best.
- History buffs love Istanbul, as do those keen on Islamic architecture. There's a buzz, too, around a number of new art galleries, most of them in Beyoglu around Istiklal Avenue." -- Sherman's Travel
- Pretty much everywhere you turn in the city, historical sites abound. It's impossible to see all of them, but some that shouldn't be missed are the Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Yerebatan Basilica Cistern, and the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). The Bosphorus cruise to Anadolu Kavagi is fabulously relaxing. Çiragan Palace and Dolmabahçe Palace are both in Besiktas." -- Travel Channel
Sitting right next to the Topkapi Palace is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi). The museum features the Alexander Sarcophagus, once (falsely) thought to be the remains of Alexander the Great. For more contemporary pieces, head across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu, home to the Istanbul Modern, which opened in 2005, in a converted shipping terminal. Once you've viewed the exhibits, make sure to stop by the museum's café, which overlooks the Marmara Sea.
Also in Beyoglu is the Divan Edebiyati Müzesi, a small collection of instruments important to Turkish Sufi culture, including special flutes and guitars. On Sunday afternoons, the museum hosts music and dance performances. One branch of Sufism has been nicknamed the Whirling Dervishes in the west, and members of this sect are known for their twirling-whirling dances as a way of honoring God.
- The main street in Beyoglu, Istiklal Caddesi, is packed with art galleries, most displaying contemporary works. International artists and mixed exhibitions feature regularly. Every bank has an art gallery or cultural center open to the public." -- Travel Channel
- Istanbul Modern. Housed in a former warehouse in the Tophane district, this industrial-looking art museum features a comprehensive survey of Turkish painting. After touring the galleries, make sure you grab a drink at the museum café and take in the view of the Bosphorus." -- Forbes Traveler
With the opening of the Grand Bazaar in the mid-1400s, it seems fitting that Istanbul would become the shopping haven it is today. From the huge Grand Bazaar's vast number of vendors to the Egyptian Bazaar's variety of spices, the city offers a wide range of markets to choose from and haggle in.
In addition to the bazaars, Istanbul has many modern shopping centers, stores and boutiques for those who want to exercise their credit card swiping hand. Head to Istiklal Caddesi, the main road in Beyoglu, for smaller local stores and outposts for big name brands.
Haggling is an art form in Istanbul. One maxim is to never accept the first price. And one tried and true technique is the fake walk-away -- many times this will get the merchant to knock down the price considerably.
- Perhaps it was the renown of the Grand Bazaar that put Istanbul on the map of the world's great shopping destinations. But it's the hunting grounds of Old Istanbul, the elegant boutiques of Nisantasi, and the revival in handicraft and artwork that have kept it there." -- Frommer's
Whatever ideas you may have about the conservative nature of this mainly Muslim city will go out the window when you stay overnight in Istanbul. Bars, nightclubs, lounges and performance venues are scattered throughout all of Istanbul. However, Beyoglu, the trendiest part of the city, is the center of Istanbul nightlife. Writers recommend doing as the Istanbulians do and starting your night in a meyhane to sip on raki and munch on mezes (small plates). Later, hit the clubs and dance the night away or catch a live show.
If you have the urge to splurge, the European shores of the Bosphorus are lively when the sun goes down and attract Istanbul's wealthy. The sleek and sophisticated clubs here are where you would go to see and be seen, but they're only open in the summer months.
As in any large city, tourists should not walk around alone at night and should stick to more crowded areas. Single men in particular should be on the lookout for scams when going out in Istanbul. Be wary of groups of young men offering to take you to an exclusive bar or club where they will pay for drinks. It may be the start of a scam, where they will stick you with a giant bill in the end. If you do not pay, they may threaten you with physical harm.
- Even taxi drivers can't keep up with the ever-fluctuating club scene. The Beaiktaa end of Ortaköy is a maze of upscale hangouts. The cheerful Nevizade is a virtually uninterrupted row of wine shops and tapas bars, parallel to Istiklal Cad. Istanbul's local specialty is balyoz (sledgehammer or wrecking ball). Getting wrecked won't be difficult: balyoz consists of rakâ, whiskey, vodka, and gin with orange juice. Bottoms up." -- Let's Go Istanbul