Istanbul straddles the border between Europe and Asia and is a thrilling melting pot of exotic cultures where the ancient and the modern co-mingle to create a truly special atmosphere. From ancient bazaars and bathhouses to modern, world-renowned restaurants and ultra-hip nightclubs, this city is loaded with awesome attractions. For the adventurous traveler, Istanbul offers plenty of one-off experiences – a day trip to Cappadocia to take a balloon trip over the dreamy landscape below (skip to our Must See section at the bottom) or a visit to the most cacophonous football stadium in the world that will provide the intrepid traveler with stories they’ll be telling and retelling for years to come.
If you want to make sure you see the absolute best that Istanbul has to offer, but don’t want to bother trudging through endless travel blogs, articles and books, then BUCKiTDREAM is the ideal resource for you. Read through our guide and take note of the best things to do in Istanbul. You can keep your favorite recommendations safely stored in BUCKiTDREAM’s planning feature tool. Below is our list of the best that Istanbul has to offer.
Marvel at the Magnitude of the Grand Blue Mosque This curvaceous building is Istanbul’s most breathtaking structure. The building’s ornate domes and minarets are visible from miles around and its interior is equally dazzling with tens of thousands of elegant, colored Iznik tiles, 260 windows and a massive central prayer space. Women are required to wear a headscarf while inside the mosque, but other than that there are no restrictions on who can enjoy this beautiful triumph of architecture.
Haggle with the Pros at Grand Bazaar in Istanbul One of the oldest and biggest covered markets in the world. Tightly packed with an infinity of shops and stalls selling everything from exotic spices to ornate rugs, sumptuous dried fruits, jewelry, souvenirs and mouth-watering traditional Turkish food and drinks, the word ‘bustle’ was invented for this place! Don’t be afraid to haggle – it’s expected!
See the Ancient Graffiti in Hagia Sophia This UNESCO-listed building was built in the 6th century and has been used as a Christian church, later a mosque and in 1935 became a museum. Aesthetically stunning and historically fascinating, it seems to evoke the phrase, “If these walls could talk…” One of the most intriguing things is a small piece of very old graffiti, a calling card from a Viking mercenary bodyguard that was employed to protect the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople during the Viking Age.
Venture Deep into the Bowels of the City at the Basilica Cistern This vast subterranean chamber is an eerily beautiful place. It is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul. It was built in 532 A.D. to serve the Great Palace and surrounding buildings and held up to 80,000 cu meters of water delivered from a reservoir near the Black Sea via 20 km of aqueducts. The ornate, bizarre carvings and statues give it a very surreal feel so bring a friend if you’re easily spooked. This place can get pretty busy so it’s a good idea to come in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Experience the regal Topkapi Palace Topkapi Palace was the court of the Ottoman empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. Over the years it has been the setting for an incredible amount of lurid, fascinating, macabre and glorious stories. This wonderful palace and museum gives an intriguing glimpse into the lives of the famous and powerful rulers of the once all-powerful Ottoman Empire.
Chill Out and Enjoy the Magnificent Sights on a Bosphorus Cruise Sail down the famous Bosphorus Strait, the scene of so many seismic historical events and world-altering battles. Relax and take in the beautiful buildings and vibrant streets that line the water’s edge. Zoe Yacht offers shorter and longer cruises at different times of the day to fit in with your schedule. Cocktails onboard the sunset cruise is a perfect way to begin a night out in Istanbul.
Visit a Hamam for an Authentic Turkish Bath Experience Luxuriate in the cleansing and rejuvenating steam of a Turkish bath. Versions of this ancient tradition date back to ancient Greek and Roman times. The Turkish bath method was perfected by the Ottomans and it remains unchanged to this day. It is a wonderful way to unwind after a day of sightseeing and restore energy for a fun-filled evening out in Istanbul.
Get a 360° Panoramic View of Istanbul from the Galata Tower The ideal place to enjoy a spectacular view of Istanbul. There is a lift to the top so there’s no need to worry about an arduous climb. An excellent panoramic view of this huge city can be had without expending any energy at all on climbing ancient stairs. Hurray for technology!
Catch a Soccer Match in ‘the Loudest Stadium in World Sport’ Visit Galatasaray’s famous Turk Telekom Arena and experience one of the most electric and boisterous atmospheres in world soccer. This fiery and passionate venue is in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium at 131.76 decibels. Why not go and add your voice to the noise?!
While Istanbul boasts an impressive range of luxurious hotels, there are also a great number of affordable budget hotels and hostels to choose from. So whatever your budget, you’re sure to find a great base camp from which you can chase your dreams.
High-end – Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet This fine hotel is pricey but totally worth it if you feel like splashing out. Situated in a perfect location in central Istanbul, the style and character of the Four Seasons is plush and authentically Ottoman. Although you’d never guess it, this palatial hotel is actually a converted 100-year old prison that was used to hold writers and other dissidents until the 1960s. But fear not, the bars have long since been removed from the windows!
Medium – Georges Hotel Galata A boutique hotel situated in a gorgeous 19th century former apartment building in Istanbul’s old European quarter. There is a rooftop restaurant called Le Fumoir that has a fine view and is popular with tourists and locals serving great quality, mostly French, food and wine.
Budget – Cheers Hippstreet This is a friendly, clean and cozy hostel located in the Ottoman district of Beyoglu, 10 minutes walk from Galata Bridge. With a great atmosphere and a rooftop bar, it’s a perfect place to chill out and trade stories with fellow travelers. WiFi and public computers are available.
Istanbul has a fine range of high-end gourmet restaurants as well as plenty of cheap and delicious street food options to keep your taste buds tantalized for the duration of your stay. The city is proud of its diverse and world-famous culinary heritage and, once you’ve tasted its cuisine, you’ll probably be in agreement with the locals that it is without doubt amongst the best in the world.
The döner kebabs in Istanbul are delicious, meaty and very popular. They bear little resemblance to the slimy and often unpleasant variations on offer in many Western European and American cities. Fresh ingredients and good quality meat make döners in Istanbul a scrumptious and surprisingly healthy option for a quick meal. (See below.)
Simit is a delicious, molasses-dipped, sesame seed-crusted dough, quite similar to that of a bagel; like a bagel, the smell of it being baked is almost impossible to resist. Simit is a very popular breakfast on-the-go for Istanbulites.
Balik Ekmek is another wildly popular street food; often served from boats in the harbor, these fish sandwiches are a big favorite amongst locals.
Other delicious street food options are: lahmacun (‘Turkish pizza’), dürüm (flatbread wrap), tantuni (spicy beef or lamb sandwich), midye dolma (stuffed mussels) and kumpir (filled jacket potato).
Should you fancy tucking your napkin in at one of Istanbul’s fine high-end restaurants, Nicole is a fantastic option. With two of the hottest young chefs in town creating exquisite dishes from the finest quality local ingredients, the seasonally-changing menus reinterpret classic flavors with a modern and original touch.
Drinks and Nightlife
Istanbul has a thriving and eclectic nightlife scene with many very cool and lively districts to explore.
The Beyoglu district is particularly lively at night and has myriad places to check out, from traditional Turkish folk music venues to indie discos, trendy rooftop bars, laid back jazz clubs and much, much more.
Anjelique is a super-hip nightclub on the top of a three-storey mansion that offers an amazing view to enjoy as you dance the night away.
Sortie is a venue that blends Eastern and Western styles of decor and has a cool but very relaxed vibe. The venue has three restaurant areas and six bars and is open late into the night.
Raki is the national alcoholic beverage, an aniseed flavored liqueur that you mix with water and is best drank with a delicious platter of meze.
Tips and Culture
Traveling around Istanbul is quite easy when using the metro, trams, buses and ferries. All fares are integrated using a Istanbulkart contactless card.
Turkey is an Islamic country and the majority of its citizen are Sunni Islam. Istanbul is a fairly liberal city but sensible dress is recommended. Bikinis and bare chests should be confined to the beach.
Let Off Steam Floating in a Hot Air Balloon over Cappadocia Our ‘must-see’ recommendation is not actually in Istanbul but is easily accessible from the city and certainly worth the journey. Take a two-day trip to experience the surreal and spectacular landscape at Cappadocia. The best way to truly appreciate the dreamlike topography of this unique place is to drift high above it in a big, bright hot air balloon. The Cappadocia tour includes flights from Istanbul to Kayseri and transfer to Cappadocia, as well as accommodations in a traditional cave hotel, balloon trip, sightseeing tour and lunch. This truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
With its incredible natural beauty, fascinating ancient palaces, thriving arts scene and fabulous array of dining options, Istanbul is one of the world’s great travel destinations. So start by copying all of your favorite Istanbul tips from this article into your BUCKiTDREAM dream planner and while you wander the Grand Bazaar or float above the mesmerizing Cappadocia landscape why not inspire your friends by sharing your dream Istanbul experience on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram?