Every city claims to be unique, but Istanbul is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no other city in the world that spans two continents, after all!
Istanbul sprawls over 7 hills and is split by the mighty Bosphorus River: Europe on one side of the water and Asia on the other.
I was utterly enchanted by Istanbul.
You’ll see Muslim women wearing hijab walking beside tattooed and pierced hipsters. Sophisticated restaurants share the same zip code as traditional teashops and spice markets. Istanbul is home to fishermen and millionaires, age-old mosques and H&M.
Although nearly 20 million people call this city home, it doesn’t feel too compact, and green spaces frequently break up development. Modern construction backs up to ancient ruins in a tangible marriage of new and old.
Because Istanbul is the meeting place of Asia and Europe, traces of both continents are found here, along with a presence uniquely its own. Influences from Christianity and Islam merge with the grandeur of ancient Roman civilization, and are then mixed with a pinch of Middle Eastern flair.
There are so many reasons to visit Istanbul, but in my opinion, this city has a little bit of everything: Europe and Asia, old and new, upscale and authentic, Christian and Muslim. There is something incredibly charming and mesmerizing about how everything melds together in one beautiful masterpiece.
If you find yourself in this wondrous metropolis, you’ll be at no shortage of things to do, and the difficult part will be choosing how to spend your time.
Here are some of the favorite things we did in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
1. Take a Free Walking Tour of Istanbul
Ever since our amazing walking tour in Medellin, one of the first things we do in a new city is take a free walking tour. Usually these excursions are led by young locals who can give you great insight to their city and the life its people lead. You learn about this city’s history, its progression and the important places (including some stellar places to eat and check out on your own)!. The free walking tour in Istanbul is a great introduction to this metropolis and its place in history.
How to do it yourself: There’s no need to make reservations in advance. Just show up at the Sultan Ahmet Park (in between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia) at 10:30 a.m. Guides typically have a name tag and flag or umbrella. The tour usually takes 2.5 hours.
2. Visit a Turkish Bathhouse
There are plenty of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to choose from around Istanbul that range from basic to straight up luxurious. If you’re on a budget, look no further than Aga Hamami. This historic hammam is over 560 years old and the basic package costs just 70 Turkish Lyria (TL) ($24 USD) per person.
A comparable experience at other, more luxurious bathhouses average around $85 USD. One of the things we enjoyed most about this hammam is that as a couple, we were able to experience it together. Many bathhouses are completely separated by gender, but this hammam features a central room that we could hang out in together.
We arrived around 11 a.m. and were welcomed by a friendly staff member. Our nerves (mores specifically, Ben’s nerves) were calmed as he explained exactly how to use the bath, and led us into our private dressing rooms where we stripped down and wrapped ourselves with Turkish towels.
We liked Aga Hamami hammam because the main area is for both genders, so we were able to enjoy the bathhouse experience together. We alternated splashing ourselves with water and lying on the warm marble slab in the center of the room.
Once my masseuse was ready, I was called into a private room only for women where I dropped the towel and had a nice scrub by a jolly Turkish grandmother wearing nothing but her skivvies. After all my dead skin was thoroughly sloughed away, she slathered me in a cloud of lavender scented bubbles and gave me a massage.
In total, this little private session lasted about 20 minutes, and Ben had his right in the center of the mixed-gender area (with his towel in tact as not to give the other patrons a free show).
How to do it yourself: Just show up! Check the hours of the hammam you choose to be sure they are open. (The one we went to is open from everyday 10 a.m to 10 p.m.)
The staff should be able to explain the procedure to you in English. Prices range from about $30 USD to $85 USD, and vary in luxury according to cost. And if you are traveling with children, they will love the experience too.
3. Step Back in Time: Visit Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & Basilica Cistern
Being that the city of Istanbul spans two continents, it’s not surprising that it holds an incredible amount of historical significance. There are 3 buildings that should be on every history-lover’s Turkey Bucket List and each has its own allure. Take in the beautiful tile work of the Blue Mosque, see images of Christianity and Islam side by side in the unparalleled Hagia Sophia and walk underground in the eerily captivating Basilica Cistern. All three buildings are on the same block, so it’s possible to explore them all before lunchtime!
How to do it yourself: Located in the Sultanhamet neighborhood, visit these attractions in the same morning. The Blue Mosque is free to enter, but you must cover shoulders and legs and wear a head covering. (There are coverings available to borrow free of charge.) Tickets to the Basilica Cistern can be purchased at the entrance for 20 TL ($7 USD) each. Tickets to Hagia Sophia cost 40 TL ($14 USD) and can be purchased at the entrance.
4. Cruise the Bosphorus
Taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus was something we didn’t get to until our very last day in Turkey, but we’re sure glad we squeezed it in! Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents, it is pretty cool to cruise between the two, seeing Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
How to do it yourself: If you want to cruise on the government ferry, go to the office right next to the bridge (No need to buy a ticket online or at a tour agency. There are a bunch of scams out there so be careful). It leaves at 2:30 p.m. and costs 12 TL ($4 USD).
5. Try the Turkish Delicacies
Turkish food is more than just kebabs, and actually, they have a lot vegan and vegetarian options. I found a lot of them in Istanbul, and I’m now going to share my tips for vegan restaurants and dishes.
Try the street food, sit down at a local restaurant, and don’t forget to try Turkish tea and coffee. Wander the bazaars, sampling local cheese and Turkish delights (yes, sampling is encouraged!). Snack on dried fruits and nuts, and save room for baklava. Be sure to have a few traditional Turkish breakfasts and try kaymak. Just do it and don’t check the calories. It is something like clotted cream and is best with a drizzle of honey and fruit or served with a dollop of Nutella. If you’re anything like us, you’ll leave Turkey wowed by the food!
6. Picnic in the Park
This one may not be in your guidebook, but our picnic at Gulhane Park was once of our favorite afternoons in Istanbul. Pick up some fruit, wine and cheese from a local mart, then buy a Turkish towel (great souvenir alert!) and head to park. The mix of people lazily milling about in green landscaping creates an idyllic backdrop to an afternoon picnic.
How to do it yourself: Wander through Gulhane Park, located next to Topkapi Palace Museum. Find a grassy spot, spread out your blanket and watch the world pass by.
7. Browse the Bazaars
Istanbul is known for its variety of Bazaars, and we’d recommend taking a gander. Breathe in the scents of the Spice Bazaar, but if you want to purchase anything, step outside, where prices are cheaper. Get lost in the Grand Bazaar, and wander through the Little Bazaar, both of which mainly sell souvenirs. We wanted to get a taste of where the locals shop, so we wandered through the farmer’s market in the Tarlabasi Pazari neighborhood. It felt far less touristy than the main bazaars and had unbeatable produce prices, which tempted us into buying more cherries than two people should be able to consume. Oops! But we aren’t most people.
8. Explore Different Neighborhoods
Istanbul is a sprawling city and it can seem overwhelming at times, but think of it as a compilation of many smaller cities. Each neighborhood in this metropolis has a distinctly different feel, and attracts people for different reasons. Spend an afternoon getting lost in narrow cobbled streets of Beyoglu, or window-shopping and people watching in Taksim.
Some central neighborhoods in Istanbul to check out are:
How to do it yourself: The metro is very convenient and is the cheapest way to get around. The taxi drivers are known for ripping off tourists (as in many big cities), so this was our preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll need to purchase an Istanbulkart card. Buy this from one of the machines at the metro station for 10 TL and it will come preloaded with 4 TL on it. Even if you are traveling with multiple people, you only need one card. Simply pass it back once the first person has gone through the turnstile.
9. Catch the Sunset on the Galata Bridge
Istanbul has some killer sunsets, so be sure to catch at least one. Whether you’re on a rooftop or near the water, you’ll be enchanted by the orange sky and flapping seagulls. Our favorite sunset-viewing spot was on the Galata bridge where we could watch the fishermen pack up for the day and see spectacular views of at least three mosques.
Look up the time of sunset, and make it to the Galata bridge (or whatever spot you wish to watch the sky fade to orange and purple) a bit ahead of time. Find a comfortable spot to relax and get ready to be wowed.
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