If you're planning a trip to Istanbul, prepare to be blown away with the thousands of years of history waiting around every corner. From ancient ruins to modern architecture, the city provides the visitor plenty of things to see and not enough time to see them. Here's my list of the top ten places to go in this incredible city!
1. The Blue Mosque
I'll start with the most obvious of buildings to visit when in Istanbul, and that would be the Blue Mosque, or Sultanahmet Camii. This mosque draws millions of visitors to Istanbul every year, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to experience an intricately decorated and beautifully designed piece of architecture. It is centrally located and is a great starting place when touring the city. You can also read more about my experience and tips visiting the mosque here:
2• The Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia Museum)
My next pick is another tourist favorite in Istanbul. You can see from the picture below how massive this historic building is. It was originally a church built in the early 500's, and then converted to a mosque during the Ottoman Empire of the 1400's, and lastly, turned into a museum in the early 1900's. Pick up a good guide book or take an informative tour to get as much information as you can on the fascinating history of this prominent monument! It is located just across the street from the Blue Mosque, and touring the two buildings and the plaza between them makes for an excellent morning. Again, this is a great starting point for the first-time visitor to Istanbul.
3. Topkapı Palace
Visiting lstanbul's 600 year old SuItan's Palace, complete with 400 rooms, ceremonial halls, hamams, kitchens, harems, gardens, and fountains, is another essential experience when visiting the city. The Topkapi Palace covers acres of land and must not be missed when learning about the history of the Turkish and Ottoman Empire. Pay extra to enter the harem section, which housed the sultan's 300 concubines!
4. Basilica Cistern
Many tourists aren't aware that a mere 1,000 steps from the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, right under their feet, is a series of ancient cisterns that provided water to the city's inhabitants thousands of years ago. Descend into the cool and damp air several flights of stairs underneath the city. Then weave the platform walkway through the hundreds of columns while an eerie glow reflects off the water below you. There are even fish that swim in the dark and sinister water! A creepy but fascinating experience!
The Hippodrome is the city's central square and park. The layout, and name, of this gathering place comes from the Roman Hippodrome, or chariot race course, that outlines an oval shape for the park. I was blown away by the fact that the ground we were walking on was once used a stadium for chariot races in ancient Constantinople. It even houses an obelisk with ancient Egyptian carvings. This was my favorite area to walk around. What was even more exciting was that, besides being a central gathering spot in the city anytime of the year, we were visiting during Ramadan. This meant that the square was especially active because hundreds of families would gather on the grass and wait for the evening call to prayer and subsequent iftar, or evening meal. AND, Ramadan also meant seasonal holiday vendors were set up in the middle of the Hippodrome with handmade gifts and souvenirs! Again, you can see why this was my favorite place to experience the city. We spent several evenings in Istanbul just strolling around, shopping and people watching late into the night!
6. Grand Bazaar
No trip to Istanbul is complete without weaving through the shops and stalls in the Grand Bazaar. Many people visit Istanbul just to shop in this covered market that houses over 4,000 vendors! The vendors inside the covered area tend to be a little higher in price since they are located within the historic monument. The vendors near the entrances to the covered areas tend to be a little cheaper in price. Even if you aren't planning on buying anything, the traveler absolutely must walk through the maze of narrow stalls and marvel at just how much stuff is available for sale here.
7. Suleymaniye Camii
This was my favorite mosque to visit, over the Blue Mosque, because it was much more grand, yet quieter. It's also a newer mosque, and with not as much tile work and detail as the Blue Mosque. But the massive size of this mosque made it really impressive. It's also located on a hill with some excellent views of the Bosphorus.
8. Dolmabahçe Sarayi
I may get a little heat from architecture snobs for picking this palace for my list. It was built more recently than a lot of the monuments on my list, and it was built to be as ostentatious and exhibitionist as possible. Some historians would argue that this palace was the last straw in the financial collapse of the Ottoman empire. Well, as garish as this palace is, it is certainly one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen in my life. Especially impressive is the ceremonial hall, the Muayede, at an insane 36 meters high with 4.5 tons of crystal chandeliers! There are no pictures allowed inside any of the rooms. Pictures wouldn't do it justice anyway. You just have to visit this massive palace and grounds for yourself!
9. Galata Bridge and Eminonu Square
Crossing the Bosphorus river over the Galata bridge is a fun way to exprience everyday life in Istanbul with some of the locals. Fisherman try their luck every day from the bridge, and it's an enjoyable walk from the Sultanahmet neighborhood to the Beyoğlu side. Don't forget to get a fish sandwich from the famous grill-boats near Eminonu Bazaar!
10. Istiklal Caddesi and Ataturk Monument
Once you're on the Beyoğlu side, make your way to Istiklal Caddesi, or Independence Street, where you can experience the more trendy and modern area of the city. Along this street, you're more likely to find brand-name clothing stores and chic restaurants and bars than ancient monuments. It's still a must-see part of the city, as it has become an important location for contemporary life in Istanbul, whether you're just there to meet friends for dinner, take part in a political march or demonstration, or just listen to the street musicians as you make your way home from work for the day.