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Top 20 Things to Do in Istanbul

Top 20 Things to Do in Istanbul

Visit the Topkapi Palace

For over three hundred years this was the heart and part command centre of the huge Ottoman Empire – this sumptuously decorated palace needs at least half of a day to visit – if time is short make sure you do see the Harem, Imperial Treasury and take in the stunning views from the innermost courtyard. As it charges a high entrance fee, we recommend you spend the whole day touring this wonderful part of Turkish culture. 

Visit the Church of St. Saviour in Chora or Kariye Museum

This Byzantine treasure is a little out of the way but more than worth the trip to visit. It is home to some of the most beautiful and important surviving mosaics and frescoes that date from the early 16th century and are in excellent condition.

Grand Bazaar or Kapalicarsi

The place for some serious shopping and we recommend at least a 3 hour visit and make sure you hone your bartering skills before you arrive there. With over 5,500 vendors all of who will be competing and vying you to buy from a choice of carpets, handbags and purses, coats and jackets and all kinds of jewellery. Whilst you trying to get the price down bear in mind the vendor has pays his rent in gold, around 7 kilos every year, so haggling here may be tough but certainly worthwhile.

Ride a Ferry on the Bosphorus

This is one of the busiest waterways in the world and offers a surprisingly relaxed way to take in some of the best sights. Ferry services from Eminonu leave every half hour and you can disembark at Besiktas , Ortakoy and Bebek as you cruise along and taking in lush green parks, palaces and waterside mansions.

Take tea at the Galata Bridge

The bridge is the crucial link between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul and spending an hour or two for a visit is recommended. Check out its lower deck – underneath the walkway – for its restaurants, bars and tea houses that give you a waterfront seat to watch the boats cruise by whilst you sip a nice cold drink or refreshing cup of tea.

Visit  Hagia Sophia or Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish)

This sacred building was first a Byzantine church, an Ottoman mosque and is now a wonderful Turkish museum.  The stunning mosaic walls and vaulted chambers give visitors an idea of its former beauty and its historical significance is a very worthwhile sight.

Haggle at the Egyptian Bazaar

This is the place to find perfume and cheap gold, is full of hustling and pushy vendors and has the most delicious treats that you will find. “Erzincanılar” which is shop No. 2 and has to be one of the best delicatessens in the world, particularly for its Turkish cheese and honeycomb. For the best Turkish delight or ‘lokum’, head for “Pınar” at shop No. 14 and the most delectable dried figs stuffed with walnuts and other dried fruits and nuts are at “Antep Pazarı” shop No. 50.

Walk along the City Walls

Istanbul’s city walls stretch 6.5km from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara and encompass the old city in a huge semicircle. Built in the reign of Theodosius II (408-450) the walls are the largest Byzantine structure to survive in modern times and are feat of engineering.  There are inner and outer ramparts with a terrace in between and restored sections, although disapproved of for using modern day materials, remains unquestionably impressive.

Climb the Galata Tower

The tower was built in 1348 was the highest point of the city walls and called the Tower of Christ. In Ottoman times it was used to detain prisoners of war and later became an Observatory. The viewing gallery at the top gives fantastic 360˚ views of Istanbul and it also has a nightclub and a rather touristy restaurant.

Sample delicious Turkish Food

Authentic Turkish - Ottoman food is very different from the greasy kebabs served abroad and you are in for some culinary delights. Turkish cuisine is a fusion of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan tastes. Anything from grilled and roasted meats, fish and seafood of all kinds, sweet and sour fruits, many vegetable and rice dishes or a dazzling array of hot and cold mezes will satisfy the palates of all food lovers. 

Mosey to the Istanbul Modern Museum

Located on the waterfront of Karakoy this former customs warehouse has exhibition space of 8,000sqm housed over two storeys. The museum mainly showcases Turkish art and the glass staircase that hangs from steel chains and books suspended over the library are two of the main attractions in this cutting edge museum. The restaurant here is very popular with spectacular views across the Bosphorus and out to the Marmara Sea and taking in the minarets on Sultanahmet .

Visit  Dolmabahce Palace

This opulent historical building with its outstanding white marble façade that you view from the waterside has an interior decorated by the Frenchman Sechan who helped design the Paris Opera House. The 36m high Throne Room has a 4-tonne crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria along with alabaster baths and a stunning crystal staircase. This sumptuous building is a must see place whilst in Istanbul.

Experience Turkish Meyhane

This is the Turkish equivalent of a pub, brassiere, taverna or tapas bar. Meyhanes are where the locals go to drink Raki , the Turkish national drink, whilst indulging in mezes and listening to traditional folk (fasıl) music. Most establishments have no menus, waiters will explain or show you what dishes they have to offer and the best place to find them is at the 19th century arcade off Istiklal Caddesi (Road) in the Flower Passage ( Cicek Pasaji ).

Istanbul Nightlife

There are rooftop bars and restaurants everywhere in Istanbul all competing with one another that have extensive views across the skyline and offer you an array of exotic cocktails from their menus. A couple we recommend are the Beşinci Kat which is rather outlandish and has some great art deco and the dazzling and spacious Leb-i-Derya Richmond which serves excellent food.

Smoke from a Hubbly-Bubbly Water Pipe or Nargile or Shisha

Turks call it a Nargile and have been smoking different types of tobacco in these since the early 17th century. It was a very popular pastime for the high societies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries but lost its appeal when Turkey became a republic and taken up by the peasants of Istanbul. Once again popular, there are many Nargile cafés at the pedestrian strip by the American Pazari where you can sit and smoke and drink a traditional Turkish coffee that has been boiled in a small copper pot, served in a china cup and is the equivalent of a double espresso. The touristy Enjoyer Café or the student friendly Erenler Çay Bahçe are good places that we recommend you try.

Take a Steam Bath at a Hamam

Here you will be soaped, scraped, kneaded and pummelled by a near naked person whilst laid out on a marble slab; this has to be one of the most self indulgent things that you can do and which we highly recommended. Originally the hamam was a place for Muslims to go to purify and cleanse themselves before praying. You will find the best hamam’s are the Cemberlitas Hamam , the Galatasary Hamam and the Cagaloglu Hamam . Click for Top 10 Hamams in Turkey

Galata Mevlevihanesi Dervishes

The whirling dervishes sect was outlawed and is now rarely seen in Istanbul. The Galata Mevlevihanesi Dervishes perform twice a month, three times a week and exclusively for tourists at the busy waiting room of Sirkeci Train Station.

Check out the Bosphorus Club Scene

Turks love to dance and party and if you do too we recommend you head for the flashy venues between Ortakoy and Kurucesme along the Bosphorus. In summer the most popular are the ‘super-clubs’ Reina and Sortie that fill with C-list celebs, medallion wearing playboys , has enough bling wearers to blind you and the requisite very loud thumping music. The Anjelique club is probably the most tasteful of them all and there is a new upmarket club just opened called Blackk.

Boogie to Turk-Pop Music

Turks have combined Western pop and Turkish folk music together and musicians such as pop idol Tarkan have inspired a multitude of venues to open to accommodate the many new musicians. There are always gigs and concerts happening at any given time and information can be found in flyers along Istiklal Road or from cafés and bookstores.

Discover Princes’ Islands

This is where most of Istanbul’s privileged non-Muslim’s have built their summer homes and mansions. The island has a mix of Greek, Armenian and Jewish residents with many churches and mosques and has managed to retain the ethnic mix and magnificence of old Istanbul.

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Turkish Food Recipes

Stuffed Mussels - Seafood Mezes

Cold Meze

Pursley with Olive Oil - Vegetable Courses

Main Course

Kidney Bean Salad - Legume Mezes

Cold Meze

Yogurt or Yayla Soup - Soup

Turkish Kidney Bean Soup - Soup

Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms - Hot Meze

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