Istanbul is a unique city that famously spans two continents, and effortlessly blends old world charm with cosmopolitan modernity — and it’s entirely possible to get the best of both worlds in as little as a long weekend. So whether you’re based in Europe or are planning to fit it into a bigger tour of the region, Istanbul has a lot to share with all travelers.
I was lucky enough to visit Istanbul for the second time in December 2011 and have decided on these as Istanbul’s Top 10 must-do’s, all of which can easily be seen in a three day getaway.
Taking its name from the millions of intricately decorated blue tiles inside, this mosque is open to the public and free to enter. (We love FREE here at The ‘Buzz!) Having said that, it’s still in regular use today so you’ll get kicked out at
call to prayer if you’re not a practicing Muslim. It’s an amazing building to see, even if you’re not familiar with the religion or the history.
Larger than life, this Byzantine church is an architectural miracle. Nearly 2000 years old, with a dome as big as St Peters Basilica in Rome, it is – to put it bluntly – freaking massive. Directly opposite the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet Square, it’s a must-see, simply because it might just be the biggest, oldest building you’ll ever stand in.
This palatial compound was once the home of Ottoman sultans and contains artifacts that will have history buffs salivating. Even if your historical interest is only vague, it’s worth visiting to see the gargantuan kaftans worn by Ottoman rulers in the Imperial Costumes wardrobe. Nuts.
See this incredible form of meditation practiced by the Mevlevi (Sufi) sect of Islam. Do some research before you go so that you fully appreciate what you’re seeing, and then go witness this fully mesmerizing performance in person. Remember, this is part of their religion and they’re letting you be a part of it, so be respectful. (Great place to see this: Hodjapasha Cultural Center, Sultanahmet)
Sunset from the Galata Tower
For the best views of a golden-colored, minaret-pierced Istanbul skyline, head to the Galata Tower in Beyoglu. A word to the wise from a fellow sunset-chaser: go early to avoid being caught in line at the bottom of the tower when the sky is at its finest.
What can’t you get in a bazaar? These marketplaces have everything from exotic spices to tacky souvenirs to designer knock-offs to antiques to seriously gorgeous (and real) jewels. And possibly even more impressive than the range of stuff in the bazaar itself is the specialty shops lining the streets surrounding the bazaars. There are shops that specialize in absolutely every kind of textile: Underwear. Towels. Ribbons. Zippers. Suitcases. Hats. Belts. One after another after another of shops full to the brim of one item only. It’s delightfully surreal.
Afternoon tea: Turkish style
The Turks have a national sweet tooth. It’s all about the syrupy-sweet, ooey gooey, honey-soaked, pistachio-encrusted, melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness of every type of baklava you could ever dream of. And with a rainbow of options for Turkish Delight as well, you’ll be spoiled for choice for your afternoon sugar hit. Enjoy a sweet treat from Istanbul’s dessert headquarters, Hafiz Mustafa, next to Sirkeci station. Wash it down with a tea from a tulip shaped glass and watch the world go by from the upstairs café.
Hammam (Turkish bath)
When it comes to stepping outside your comfort zone in Istanbul, this takes the cake. Prepare to strip down for the scrub-down of your life in an ancient stone bath house. Leave your modesty at the door because the most authentic hammams will have you in a very naked, sudsed-up situation with a personal attendant in a (single sex) room with other bathers. Chalk it up to cultural immersion and go for it – you might be surprised how relaxing it is once you get used to the semi-public nudity.
“Hubbly Bubbly”, “Hookah”, “Shisha” – it has many names, but this flavored tobacco is tar, nicotine, and hallucinogen-free and is a part of the national culture in Turkey. Smoker or non, it’s worth a try as it’s a leisurely way to socialize. Pick a flavor that appeals, order a Turkish coffee or apple tea, sit back and pass the pipe.
Possibly my favorite part of the whole trip: Turkish tapas. If you love Mediterranean grazing food like I do, check out the incredible selection of meyhanes and meze tavernas in Nevizade Sokak in Beyoglu. The eateries here will have full menus but this is the go-to district for small plates at reasonable prices. Go hungry.
A few practical things to note:
Most sights worth seeing are in European Istanbul. The Asian side is easily reached via a 20 minute ferry, but all of the must-sees are conveniently located on the European side.
The Galata Bridge separates the ‘old side’ from the ‘new side’, but they’re both still in Europe. It’s the Bosphorous Bridge that separates Europe from Asia – and it’s worth going just to say you did.
You need a visa to enter Turkey, but this is obtained upon entry at the airport. They arbitrarily choose how much you need to pay for the visa based on your nationality, and it needs to be paid in the currency specified. Weird but true. Check before you go and arrive prepared.