If you like to have the best of both worlds, then Istanbul is the place for you. After all, it’s the only city in the world that can lay claim to straddling two continents – both Asia and Europe. And it’s this mishmash of cultures that Istanbul does well. It’s a very modern Muslim city with so much more to it than just mosques and souks. In fact, there is a vibrant social scene with bars, clubs, art galleries, and let’s not forget about the yummy food! And as it’s only a four hour flight away from London – there is nothing stopping your wanderlust. Here’s our insider’s guide on where to go so that you can make the most of your trip.
What to see
The Blue Mosque (pictured above) is one of the most iconic landmarks to grace Istanbul’s skyline with its six minarets. Its real name is Sultan Ahmet Mosque but is know locally as The Blue Mosque from the beautiful blue tiles which adorn the walls inside. It is open everyday and is free to visit.
A stones throw away from the mosque is The Hagia Sophia. It was once a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. This evolving history is reflected in the decor which ranges from Islamic calligraphy to mosaic art of Jesus (below right). In the evening the fountains between the museum and mosque puts on a colourful light show at night. Simply sit on the nearby bench and take in the atmosphere.
Topkapi Palace (below left) was once home to generations of sultans and their wives and is one absolute must-see in Istanbul. A collection of lush green gardens surround the entrance to the palace which boasts Islamic relics, and crown jewels. It also has views to die for over the Bosporus strait which is a natural waterway dividing the Asian and European sides of Istanbul.
The Basilica Cistern was an underground water system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul. But now it is the city’s most unexpectedly romantic attraction (pictured below). It was constructed in the sixth century and was forgotten for centuries. However, it has now been fitted with atmospheric red lights and music. Fish swim around the bases of the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Keep your eyes peeled for the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column, which many say is proof that that the Byzantine rulers saw Roman relics as reusable rubble.
If you have time then head to the Galata Tower which is a medieval stone tower. There are two elevators that carry visitors from the lower level to the upper levels where there is a restaurant that commands a magnificent view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus.
Where to shop
You cannot visit Istanbul without stepping foot inside the Grand Bazaar. This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with over 3,000 shops which attract up to 400,000 visitors daily. Inside you’ll find a cave of treasures such as lamps, ceramics, handicrafts, jewellery and tourist souvenirs.
The Arasta Bazaar on the southeast side of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is worth visiting for its many shops selling carpets, kilims, Turkish tiles and souvenirs. It is also home to many restaurants, with outdoor seating, where you can soak up the sunshine and refuel after a day of shopping. Here you’ll spot many street cats and dogs wandering around looking for food and stroke from tourists and locals alike.
If you want western High Street brands then head to the shopping promenade in Taksim Square. It is Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street and is buzzing with big brands such as Mango, and H&M to name a few.
Where to eat, drink and be merry
There are restaurant in every nook and cranny – especially around The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. You will find everything from fancy restaurants, fast food chains and even top floor restaurant inside B&B hotels which boast epic views of the Bosporus. If you walk passed the Galata Bridge then pick up a fresh fish sandwich which is caught, cooked and sold by the fisherman. Istanbul is also filled with street carts selling fresh orange or pomegranate juice which is sweet and very refreshing- just what you need when out sightseeing.
There are countless clubs and bars along the Bosphorus. But perhaps the most famous is the Reina Club. It is considered Istanbul’s celebrity haunt with skyline views, several bars, restaurants and dance floors.
Istanbul’s growing art scene will please culture vultures. Check out Istanbul Modern which is on the shores of the Bosphorus, and has an extensive collection of Turkish 20th-century paintings on the ground floor, and mixed-media exhibitions by local and international artists in the basement galleries. There’s also a gift shop, a cinema that shows art-house films and a stylish restaurant.
It’s always best to stay in an area where you can leave your hotel door and walk straight into the hustle bustle of Istanbul. That’s why I would recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area which is close to all the main historical attractions, shops and restaurants. For luxury try the Four Seasons hotel which features 65 rooms, 11 suites, a spa and a restaurant inside a century-old neoclassical Turkish prison.
Where to escape the tourist trap
Take a quick boat trip out to the Princes’ Islands which lie about 20km southeast of the city in the Sea of Marmara. They make a great destination for a day escape from Istanbul. The Princes’ Islands are a chain of nine small islands and the ferry stops at four of these. The largest island in the group is called Büyükada and this is where most people get off and explore. The island is filled with grand homes, restaurants, shops and scenic views as far as the eye can see. The Princes Islands evolved from a place of exile for misbehaving princes during the Byzantine era, to a popular destination for locals to escape the hectic city life for a day. Part of its charm is that there are no cars on the islands which is something that comes as a welcome relief after the traffic mayhem of Istanbul. You literally step back in time as the main way to get around is by foot. You can hire a bike to tour the islands but I would recommend taking a horse-drawn carriage trip to absorb the beautiful surroundings.
Log on www.visitistanbul.org for more information on Istanbul.