We loved Istanbul on our first visit and loved it even more second time around. It’s one of those cities that grows on you the more time you spend in it. It’s the sights and the sounds but most of all it’s the people. It might take you longer than you expect to walk around the city as so many people will stop for a chat. For a relatively big city it has a surprising small town vibe.
It’s also jam packed with world class sites to see, here’s a few of our favourites.
Places to visit and things to do in Istanbul
Hagia also known as Aya Sofia is one of those places which is truly mesmerising. It’s the icon of Turkey and is one of the most incredible buildings we’ve seen in the world. At over 1,500 years old it oozes grandeur and mystery. It’s an incredibly atmospheric experience as you walk under the huge dome lit by hundreds of chandeliers which look like burning candles.
Hagia Sofia was built by the Emperor Justinian in 537 AD when Istanbul was known as Constantinople and Turkey was the Eastern Roman Empire (historians in hindsight named it Byzantium, the people of the time called themselves Roman). In its original incarnation, Hagia Sofia was a Christian Church with mosaics of Jesus Christ and Mary throughout. Once the Ottomans took over, it was converted into a mosque with all the signs of Christianity plastered over.
Since Ataturk became Turkey’s first President, Hagia Sofia has become a museum with remnants of both Justinian’s Christianity and the Ottoman’s Islam on show. You can explore the site on two levels, starting on the ground floor to take in the sheer scale of the place to the upper level with its stunning mosaics and fabulous views from above.
Hagia Sofia is probably the most popular place in Turkey, so be prepared for crowds, even at opening time. At the time of writing there is a large amount of scaffolding that covers part of the dome and the ground floor. This has been going on for a few years and is part of the maintenance of this important building.
We’d advise arriving at opening time or just before to get in the queue and experience Hagia Sofia at its best.
Entrance to Hagia Sofia is 60 lira (approx US $10.40).
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque)
Supposedly the Blue Mosque was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the Disney animation and one glance on this incredible mosque with its six minarets and you can see the influence there immediately.
The Blue Mosque was Ahmed 1 ‘s stamp on Istanbul, wanting to rival Aya Sofia and be enshrined forever in the city’s history. It is a place that is grand even today, we can’t imagine what people must have thought of it when it was built in 1609. The complex was originally designed to be a place of prayer, but it was also designed to be a city centre with schools, markets and places where Turks could meet, learn and interact as a community.
Unlike Hagia Sofia the Blue Mosque is still an active place of worship and you cannot visit during prayer time (several times a day).
Currently the Blue Mosque is under considerable renovation so a lot of the interior (and some of the exterior) is obstructed by scaffolding. However, this doesn’t make it any less grand and is still well worth a visit.
The Blue Mosque also has volunteer guides who provide really entertaining talks about the history of the mosque and answer any questions you may have.
Entrance to the Blue Mosque is free.
Often overlooked for its more famous counterparts in Sultanahmet, Suleymaniye Mosque is the one you’ll see on the horizon, especially from a Bosphorus Cruise. This huge mosque is less touristy than Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, but is no less grand. Designed in the Ottoman style by the great architect Mimar Sinan, Suleymaniye Mosque is set within beautiful grounds, has a huge domed interior and plenty of details which make it worth a trip to this part of the city.
If you visit during Ramadan, there is a nightly Iftar that is held on the grounds around the mosque. If you are lucky enough to be invited don’t miss it! This is a unique experience as you get to break the fast with people from all over the world in a festival atmosphere. It was a highlight of our trip to Turkey.
Like the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque also has really informative and entertaining volunteer guides. Don’t be shy to start a conversation as your experience will be greatly enriched.
Entrance to Suleymaniye Mosque is free.
The Grand Bazaar is like taking a trip into old arabia with bustling narrow souqs and shops selling just about everything you can imagine. This myriad of laneways is a really fun place to explore, even if you don’t intend on buying anything. The noise, the crowds, the smell of spices and the twinkling light shops make this a special place to visit.
Haggling is a must in the Grand Bazaar which is a fun place to test your negotiating skills. Rule of thumb is that most sellers will start with a price of at least double the real price they’ll sell for (sometimes it is treble), so don’t be ashamed to start low! After all, this is just the start of getting to the right price.
Remember to be light-hearted with your negotiation though. It is easy to lose perspective when negotiating and the truth is that $1-2 will make a much bigger difference to the seller than it will to you. However, don’t feel embarrassed to walk away. You aren’t compelled to buy and sometimes walking away is the best tactic to get the price you are looking for.
Roof top restaurants
Istanbul is one of those cities which is best seen from up high. There are plenty to choose from, in fact most restaurants seemed to advertise a rooftop with epic views.
We chose Seven Hills Restaurant situated between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, it doesn’t get any better than this in terms of stunning views. The food here isn’t cheap or by any means the best we had in Turkey, but it isn’t as extortionately priced as you may expect for such a stunning view.
So, snag a table on the edge and admire the view.
Taking in the best views in town
If the rooftop bar wasn’t enough, head to Kubbe to check out one of the best views in Istanbul. Tucked away in the backstreets is a staircase to the rooftops and this beautiful vista across the Bosphorus. You’ll be able to take in Suleymaniye mosque and Yeni Cami mosque from the top of one of the domes.
If you fancy having an edge of the world view, check out the rooftop right beside these domes. The rooftop is laid with carpets and the whole scene is amazing but when we sat down to order a drink we realised it was a set price which was way too high for what you got.
For 50 lira per person (approx US$9) you get unlimited tea and turkish coffee as well as chicken scraps to feed the gulls to make sure they swarm around you for an epic photo (even if It isn’t that ethical). You’ll get a great view, but not that much better than the free one below.
The best time to visit is at sunset when the golden glow makes the views even more special.
Getting to the viewpoint
Getting to Kubbe is pretty confusing. We asked a lot of people in the area and the majority had no idea, except one man who led us there.
The key is to look for Pak Pide. It’s down a back street and marked below. From here, look for the staircase that looks like this. It will lead you to the rooftop.
Otherwise, look for the spot on the map and find the tiny street that leads to this staircase.
See the whirling dervishes
The whirling dervishes are a unique religious sect which originated in the city of Konya in the south. However, you can get a glimpse of this unusual ceremony that dervishes embark on in the centre of Istanbul.
The ritual of music, chanting and then almost continuous twirling is mesmerising and a truly beautiful scene to witness. The ceremony goes on for 45 minutes and a projector explains what each section means throughout the ceremony.
iI you’re heading to Konya on a Saturday then you can see what’s said to be an even more amazing performance for free but if not Istanbul is known as the second best place to watch the dervishes.
The best choice in Istanbul is Hodjapasha in Eminonu. We watched a performance that lasted for about an hour with 5 dervishes. Tickets are $22 USD per person with performances starting nightly at 7pm. Remember you cannot take photos at Hodjapasha.
You can also get a glimpse of one part of the dervish ceremony at the Dervish Cafe near the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet. This is a single dervish which you can watch if you buy dinner. It doesn’t have the atmosphere of Hodjapasha, but if you want a short glimpse without buying a ticket, this is an option.
The grounds of Topkapi Palace are steeped in history, it was the centre of power for the entire Ottoman Empire. The grounds are huge and are set around three courtyards, each housing several different rooms and places of significance.
One of the highlights is the portrait gallery which stretches back centuries with paintings of all the Ottoman Sultans. Here you can see just how long the Ottoman Empire lasted and the trends that seemed to change with each dynasty.
Entrance to Topkapi Palace is 60 lira (approx US $10.40) not including the Harem, but it is well worth the additIonal 35 lira (approx US $6) to visit the Harem too.
…. And the Harem
The Harem of Topkapi Palace is one of those rare chances to see inside the day-to-day life of one of the most powerful empires in European history. In this labyrinth of rooms and corridors, you can take in the grand reception rooms that were intended to awe visitors, as well as the Sultans private quarters.
This was our favourite part of Topkapi Palace and offered a good insight into the life of the Sultan and his concubines.
Entry fee for Topkapi Palace
The price for Topkapi Palace is split into two entry fees (a common thing in Turkey!). Entry into the Palace is 60 lira ($10 USD) and for an extra 35 lira ($6 USD) you can get into the Harem.
Topkapi Palace is open every day apart from Tuesday from 9 until 4pm in the winter and 6 pm in the summer.
A cruise down the Bosphorus is a trip along the water that divides Europe and Asia. A trip through this strait of water is the journey that Kings, Emperors, Lords and Pilgrims made for centuries, leaving the western world to enter what was known as Asia Minor and the land of the Seljuk Turks.
Nowadays the cruises simply glide down the river, taking in the hills of Istanbul with their grand houses and mosques, but it is hard to not be swept away by somewhere so significant in European history, especially if you hear the call to prayer echoing all around you.
The Galata Tower (or the hotel next door)
The Galata Tower rises up from the hillside on the Asian side of Istanbul and offers up stunning views of the city. It’s a bit of an uphill walk from the bridge and once there you can either choose to pay the entry fee of 25 lira (approx US $4.30) at the tower, or hop to the hotel next door for a similar view! You can buy a drink at the rooftop bar for less than the tower entry fee and the view is just as good. Both the tower and the rooftop hotel are great for views, the choice is yours.
If you’ve read Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’ then you’ll already know about Basilica Cistern. This underground water chamber was built in 532 AD and still holds water today, it even has the odd fish swimming around.
For an underground structure it’s amazing how grand it is with hundreds of huge columns. A trip here is incredibly atmospheric, the lighting is dim and there is soft haunting music playing as well as the dripping of water. It’s easy to see how it made its way into Dan Brown’s book!
The entry fee is 20 lira (approx US $3.50).
We were sat in a coffee shop directly adjacent to this cistern when a woman next to us asked if we’d been inside. She was writing a novel set in Istanbul and said that it had been her favourite place she’d visited so far. Of course we couldn’t resist after that.
This cistern is equally as impressive as Basilica Cistern but has far fewer visitors. The lighting is brighter so it’s easier to take photos and to generally take it in.
Entrance to the Theodosius Cistern is free.
Even if you aren’t in the market for any spices you’ll enjoy a stroll through the spice bazaar. It’s a total sensory immersion, with so much colour and fragrance. You can taste as you go although then you probably should buy something!
As well as spices it’s a great place to buy different teas and also turkish delight - although our favourite turkish delight in the whole country is from the very first shop to sell it in Istanbul, Ali Muhittin Hacibekir. In fact we didn’t even like turkish delight at all until trying it at this store!
Where to stay in Istanbul
Budget - Arven
Locationwise, Arven is hard to beat. Just a five minute walk from the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet and surrounded by restaurants, whilst still being nice and quiet. The rooms here are big, clean, comfortable and have good wifi - everything you need for an inexpensive city break. This is where we stayed on our second visit.
Mid-range - Romance Istanbul Boutique
The Romance Boutique gets rave reviews from its customers and comes in at a pretty decent rate. It is located a short distance from Sultanahmet, meaning you aren’t far from a lot of the best things to do in the city.
The rooms look pretty traditional and beautifully furnished. As this is a newer hotel, everything’s still in great condition which can’t be said for all the hotels in this price bracket.
Luxury - Four Seasons at Sultanahmet
You can’t go wrong with a Four Seasons and the one in Istanbul is no exception. It mixes luxury and style and is situated in one of the old buildings in the heart of Sultanhmet. You are literally footsteps away from the two incredible mosques in the heart of the city and you can get views of the mosques (or the Bosphorus) from your room.
We’ve been told that the risk with booking the Four Seasons is that it is so good that you don’t want to leave!
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Are you planning a trip to Istanbul? Where are your favourite spots in this great city? Let us know in the comments below!