5 Things to See & Do in Istanbul

I confess: We did not have a long list of reasons to visit Istanbul. As an architecture aficionado, sure, I’ve long wanted to see Hagia Sophia and its legendary dome. But apart from this, the real reason we booked our first trip to Istanbul in 2012 is—get ready—sheer convenience.  It was Easter weekend and we anticipated that most cities in Western Europe would have holiday closures.  We also knew that Turkey, being a primarily Islamic country, will be conducting business as usual.  And so we booked.   Prior to the trip, I did not infatuate about strolling the cobbled streets of Sultanahmet like I did (for weeks!) with Tuscany, nor did I endlessly daydream about the views of the Marmara Sea like I did with the caldera of Santorini.  Like a an arranged marriage, I booked the trip not out of love but out of convenience.  I was in for a real surprise. 

Istanbul, I very quickly learned, is a magnificent city.  The 5th largest city in the world (New York is No. 21 and London is No. 23), its urban areas are comparable to any other modern city in Europe, North America, or Asia.  And its old town—with ruins dating back to 600 BC easily makes most other old towns seem almost contemporary.  Like most developed metros, the entire city is connected by an easily-navigable transit system.  And when it comes to history, Istanbul showcases one so incredibly rich: the culture of two continents, the chronicles of Islam and Christianity, and stories from the biggest empire our history has ever known. And it does not stop there—the city has world-class architecture, outstanding local cuisine, and probably some of the warmest and kindest people on this side of the world.

I fell in love with Istanbul on that first trip and we’ve gone back to Turkey every year since. There are many guides that provide itineraries to see the city, and here’s our own version of 5 Things to See & Do in Istanbul based on what we’ve tried and tested ourselves:

1. BE A TOURIST – SEE THE MAJOR ATTRACTIONS

Seeing major attractions is being dubbed ‘touristy’ nowadays—like being a tourist is a bad thing.  If you’re the type to capitulate to this thinking, please don’t do it in Istanbul. Istanbul’s roster of attractions include some of the best work out of Byzantium, Constantinople, and the Ottoman Dynasty.  If there’s one thing we could have skipped, it’s Taksim—the modern area of Istanbul; we did not feel that the glass buildings and shopping streets were in any way special or different from other’s we’ve already seen.  Sultanahmet—the old town—is significantly interesting showcasing so much history in such a small area. We opted to do a day tour to see the sites in Sultanahmet because we wanted to take advantage of two things (1) a guide, and (2) skipping the lines.

We took a tour similar to this offered by Viator which took us to all the must-see spots in Istanbul without having to deal with the long queues. The sites covered by this tour include:

  • Blue Mosque
  • Hagia Sophia
  • Topkapi Palace
  • Hippodrome
  • Basilica Cistern
  • Grand Bazaar
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This day tour did not include Dolmabace Palace and the Spice/Egyptian Bazaar but we booked another activity that covered these plus a cruise—which is No. 2 in the list:

2. TAKE A CRUISE ALONG THE BOSPHORUS

A cruise along the Bosphorus will not only take you along a very beautiful waterway but will also give you a glimpse of the most beautiful villas and mansions of Istanbul while straddling the Europe-Asia divide. We booked a tour (similar to this) that kicked off at the Spice Bazaar in the morning, continued on to the cruise, and ended with a visit at Dolmabahçe Palace.

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3. TRY A TURKISH HAMMAM

Going to the hammam is a Turkish tradition that goes back to the Hellenic and Roman times.  The ritual starts with a visit at the hot room (caldarium) for steam-soaking—with temperatures reaching up to 60°C (140ºF).  Next, you move on to the warm room (tepidarium) for washing with soap and water.  Finally, you end your visit in the cool room for resting after the bath with a cup of Turkish coffee or a glass of tea.  The massage can take place either in the hot room or in the warm room—depending on your preference or the hammam’s ritual.  Strictly speaking, men and women are segregated and most hammams in Istanbul are either exclusive to men/women or have segregated spaces.  My husband and I booked a hammam session at Suleymaniye Hammam, built in 1557, but has now been transformed into the only co-ed hammam in the city.  This anecdote will give you an idea of how controversial this is in the :

We got severely lost in the labyrinth of Sultanahmet and had to resort to asking for directions from a stranger. Along a narrow alley, we approached an old man who was quietly sitting at his stoop. My husband who grew up in Dubai walked towards the old man and gave a hand gesture that meant ‘help.’  Not knowing Turkish, he asked, “Suleymanye Hammam?”  To this, the old man scowled and responded, “Haram!” which means “forbidden” in Arabic—probably referring to the fact that we’re heading to a co-ed hammam. My husband, thinking that he was misunderstood, tried again, “Suleymanye Hammam?” And louder and sterner, the old man said, “Haram!”  Slightly frustrated my husband half-grumbled as he walked away, “Yes, haram but we have a booking and we’re really late!”  Hearing this, the old man answers in straight English, “Oh tourists. Go straight and take the second left.”  It was pretty clear that when he thought we were a Muslim couple, he highly discouraged us from going to the co-ed hammam, but the instant he realized we’re tourists, he dialled down the rigidity.

Our hammam session started out with an hour in the steam room, followed by a very rigorous scrubbing and intense massaging from two towel-clad masseurs.  Steamed, scrubbed, and beaten massaged, we were then sent to the ‘drying’ room where another person performed the traditional drying process on us. It is immediately after this that I saw bright white spots and fainted from dehydration.  (Insert awkward laughter here.)  Please do not let this story discourage you from experiencing a traditional Turkish hammam—fainting was completely my fault because I did not keep hydrated all day and in the steam room.  When you visit, make sure that you’re well hydrated throughout the day, and that you continue drinking water in the hot room.  After a couple of hours, you’ll be perfectly cleansed and relaxed in the age-old style of the Ottomans.

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4. SAMPLE THE LOCAL CUISINE ESPECIALLY THE BAKLAVA

Istanbul has food for every taste but the local cuisine reigns supreme. For vegetarians and pescetarians (like us) options will prove to be quite limited. The good thing is, unlike Germany where vegetarian is synonymous to potatoes, restaurants in Istanbul offer flavourful vegetarian options.  Most restaurants, for example, offer lentil soup and couscous. We kept on coming back to Khorasani in Sultanahmet—and we highly recommend a visit.  And in you’re in the Taksim area, there’s also Kosebasi which comes highly recommended by most of our Turkish friends.

Last but most important, you must sample the baklava—as nowhere else in the world will you find better. We had it for dessert, as a midday snack with tea, and honestly, every chance we got.

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5. SHOP FOR SOUVENIRS

Istanbul has two legendary bazaars unlike any other in Europe. The smells, sounds, and merchandise are reminiscent of the souks of Morocco and fairs of India, but located in the heart a modern European city. Your senses will be filled with colour, tastes, aromas, and textures of the many carpets, jewellery, lamps, spices, sweets, and more.  Whatever your budget, you can certainly find a souvenir fitting your taste that, once you bring back home, will remind you of the incredible city of Istanbul.  Having said that—like most bazaars that attract tourists, you need to be a smart souvenir shopper and not a naïve tourist. Our trips to Istanbul have given us two enormous chandeliers—a 19-piece mosaic chandelier, and a 17-piece hand-crafted set.  We have our hearts set in buying a Turkish carpet—a very good excuse for another trip to this magnificent city.

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As avid travel shoppers, we have a tip or two to share when it comes to shopping for souvenirs—coming next!

 

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