I have traveled to Istanbul, twice for business and once had a long layover, so my time in Istanbul was always limited. Places to visit in Istanbul are numerous, and as my husband, Oto, (who lived there for months) tells me, every traveler needs at least two weeks to experience Istanbul to the fullest.
Anyways. Istanbul is a hub city for many who travels from west to east or vice versa, and often we have long layovers in the city. Please, don’t stay at the airport! You can find a lot of things to do in Istanbul even on a short trip. And this is where this post comes in handy.
The best way to experience the city is to wander the streets, museums and historical landmarks. Rise early, maybe not at the first prayer of mullah, but soon enough to enjoy Turkish breakfast.
Riding a ferry is an integral part of the adventure. It’s not only a vehicle to get you to the destination, but it serves as a relaxing spot in-between the sights. Drink tea in a small, tulip-shaped glass or enjoy grilled-cheese sandwich over the great views of the city.
Find Flights to Istanbul
When to Visit Istanbul
The most popular time of the year to visit Istanbul city is summer. However, it can get very humid and hot. Thus, spring and fall are the most pleasant period with fewer visitors. Both of my visits were in this time frame. The weather was beautiful, sunny and warm enough to stroll the town in a light jacket.
For a more budget-friendly adventure in Istanbul, visit the city in winter. The price for accommodation falls radically, while fog and snow give an excellent touch to it.
The city is divided into two parts – European side with the historical center and Asian for a more local experience. The Old City in European side boasts with must-see tourist attractions. It reflects cultural effects of the many empires that previously reigned here. For instance, the Fatih district features Roman-era Hippodrome used for chariot races and Egyptian obelisk.
Watch a small video of my very recent trip to Istanbul
Try Turkish Breakfast
Oh boy! Turkish breakfast is HUGE! Just look at that picture and it’s half of it; I couldn’t fit all the plates in a photo. I am not kidding, that’s the way Turks like their breakfast. Once you order the meal, you get the typical breakfast ingredients like butter, bread, cheese, tomatoes and cucumber, olives, honey, gems, and eggs. Besides this, you get Turkish specialties like menemen (fried eggs with grated tomato, onion and bell pepper), borek (baked pastry with different filling) or simit (circularly shaped bread topped with sesame seeds). Last two are my favorites!
Have a Fish Sandwich
Balik Ekmek or fish sandwich is a must-try street food in Istanbul – grilled fish fillet served with salad leaves and onions. This simple snack is sold pretty much everywhere but if you’d like to see it cooked at served right on the boat, head to the Golden Horn.
Places to Visit in Istanbul
Byzantine Hagia Sophia
Or Aya Sofya as some call it. The iconic building which used to be a church, mosque and today is a museum, boasts with 55m-high dome and gorgeous mosaics of the Virgin Mary, Christ, and Byzantine rulers.
Once in the main hallway, you notice the large medallions with letters written in Arabic using the gold. This is one of the additions to the landmark at some point in the Ottoman rule. The museum is quite big and full of visitors, so the recommended time is early morning.
Blue Mosque (Süleymaniye Mosque) is nearby Hagia Sophia. The fourth regal mosque built by order of Süleyman I has three-sided open space with a central fountain and a big garden. Its four minarets and ten balconies stand for the fact that Süleyman was the fourth Sultan of the Ottoman Dynasty to rein the city and the 10th after the formation of the empire.
There are daily prayers in the mosque, and it closes down for visitation. However, the waiting is not that long, and the beauty of it is worth every minute. Women should cover the head, bare skin and wear a scarf-like skirt before entering the mosque. Prepare to take off your shoes and store them in a shoe shelf.
One of the essential places to visit in Istanbul is the Topkapi complex. Visiting the whole area will take the afternoon. Situated on the angle of the peninsula the complex has museums, cafés and stunning views of Bosphorus.
One attraction on my list of places to visit in Istanbul was the famous Grand Bazaar, chaotic yet colorful market has served as a hub for merchants for many centuries. Starting from a small warehouse in 1461 it grew over time and became a labyrinth. You can easily get lost while Turkish merchants try to lure you in their shops with sweet talk and free tea-offering.
If you decide to buy something, please remember: bargaining here is the must-do activity. Do not pay the first price the merchant asks for; always try to lower the cost. If you are not good at it, like me, turn around and start walking away, this might do the trick.
One of the must-see places to visit in Istanbul is Galata Tower. A medieval stone tower is Istanbul’s most striking landmarks. A 66.90 meter high, cylinder shapes building with cone top dominates the skyline and offers breathtaking views of the Istanbul’s peninsula.
To get to the observation deck, you take the elevator and couple of stairs. There is a restaurant on its upper floor with gorgeous views over the city. Once you go outside to enjoy those breathtaking views you read in all the guidebooks, you face LOTS of tourists taking gazillion selfies with their selfie sticks. The path around the cone is very narrow and with that many people, it kind of ruins the whole experience.
Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue
Taksim is a famous tourist and leisure avenue famous for its cafes, restaurants and a tram line. The name Taksim (‘division’ in English) refers to the fact that Taksim square was the area where the central water lines from the north of the city were collected and branched off to other parts of the city.
Unfortunately, on my recent visit to Istanbul, the tram line was under construction, and I couldn’t see the iconic red trams.
St. Anthony Church
While wandering at Istiklal Avenue, you can spot a church with unique and beautiful, Venetian Neo-Gothic architecture. St. Anthony Church is the most significant Roman Catholic Church in the city.
Even though I saw little of what Istanbul is, I enjoyed my time wandering the streets and taking the great pictures displayed in the post.