Istanbul was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople. As a matter of fact, the historic areas of Istanbul are UNESCO sites. For this reason, there are a lot of things to do in Istanbul;
Sultan Ahmed Mosque
Palaces of Istanbul
Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in Europe therefore choose where you stay wisely. I recommend Sultan Ahmet region as it’s safe and within walking distance of the main things to do in Istanbul.
Hagia Sophia – UNESCO Site
An interesting fact about the Hagia Sophia is that it used to be a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Built in the 6th century, it was the largest cathedral in the world for almost 1000 years until the Seville Cathedral was built. Of course, it was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times. Today however, it’s one of the most popular museums in Turkey. As a result, I highly recommend you buy a skip the line advance ticket.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque is more commonly known as the Blue Mosque, but why? To find out the answer to this question you must check out the hand painted blue tiles inside. It’s also lit up blue at night. Finally, it was built in the 16th century as an example of the power and prosperity of the Ottoman Empire.
Hippodrome of Constantinople
Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome of Constantinople, or the remains of it anyway! You need to use your imagination to visualize 100,000 spectators sitting in the stands. That’s a higher capacity than modern day Wembley Stadium. Today, the ruins aren’t much more than the Obelisk of Theodosius which was brought from Egypt, and the Walled Obelisk.
The Grand Bazaar is huge and features over 4000 shops. Furthermore, there are approximately a quarter of a million visitors each day. It’s often described as the oldest shopping mall in the world. With so many shops, I believe it would also be one of the largest. Remember, haggling is part of the culture and an absolute must or you’ll pay way more than necessary.
Rooftops of the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar recently featured in James Bond Skyfall as well as Taken 2. In these movies, both the Grand Bazaar as well as the rooftops were featured. As a matter of fact, the hotel Liam Neeson stayed in during Taken 2 was the Legacy Ottoman Hotel.
Topkapi Palace – UNESCO Site
Topkapi Palace was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1920, thereby losing its purpose. Ever since it has been a museum showcasing the lives of the Ottoman Sultans. An especially interesting part of the museum is the Ottoman Imperial Harem. There can be a long line to enter the palace, for this reason I recommend you buy a skip the line ticket in advance.
Beyazit Square – Istanbul University
The most impressive structure on Beyazit Square is the main entrance to Istanbul University. In addition, you’ll also find ruins from the forum of Theodosius. Finally, adjacent to the square is the huge 16th century Bayezid II Mosque as well as the entrance to the Grand Bazaar.
The Bosphorus is the strait of water which runs through Istanbul. It’s an extremely important strait because it separates Asia from Europe. Due to its significance, a Bosphorus cruise is popular with tourists. Amazingly, this cruise costs around $10 for 90 minutes!. In addition, you’ll see a huge chunk of the things to do in Istanbul on this boat trip.
An iconic landmark of the Bosphorus is Maiden’s Tower. It’s located at the Southern entrance to the Bosphorus and used to be connected to the Asian side. As a matter of fact, the connecting defensive wall is still visible just under the surface. Finally, the lighthouse featured in James Bond, The World is Not Enough.
The Golden Horn is a primary inlet to the Bosphorus Strait. For this reason, it’s where the majority Bosphorus cruises leave from. In addition, many ferries to the Asian side leave from here. It’s an incredibly picturesque location, with boats, bridges, seagulls as well as a panoramic view of Sultanahmet. Lastly, I stayed in the the Hotel Momento Golden Horn which offered panoramic views of the Bosphorus from the top floor breakfast terrace.
The main bridge which crosses the Golden Horn is the Galata Bridge. It’s a double decker bridge which works out very well for the main attraction, seafood. On the top deck are fisherman catching the fish, in contrast, the bottom features restaurants selling it. As well as restaurants, there are a few shisha bars. Due to the fresh seafood, this area is extremely popular!
Galata Tower is a Medieval tower looking over the Golden Horn as well as Istiklal avenue. The panoramic views are spectacular, especially with the mosque silhouettes and colors at sunset. As a result, Galata Tower is a top Istanbul Instagram spot.
Istiklal Avenue is the Istanbul equivalent to La Rambla in Barcelona. It’s full of shops, restaurants as well as historic buildings. However, it features the addition of a historic tram which passes through it. Photographers in Istanbul will love the scenes of Istiklal Avenue with historic buildings combined with a colorful old tram. An interesting fact about Istiklal Avenue is that at its southern end is the second oldest metro station in the world known as Tunel.
At the northern end of Istiklal Avenue is Taksim Square. The main feature of the square is Republic Monument which celebrates independent Turkey. An interesting fact is that it was designed by an Italian. Lastly, the square is surrounded by hotels, restaurants as well as an impressive mosque.
The Ottoman Sultans decided the Topkapi Palace was not enough for them. As a result, they built the European style Dolmabahce Palace. It not only served as a palace for royalty but also as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. After the demise of the empire, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey. A major feature of the palace is the room in which he spent the last few days of his life. If you wish to see his patriotic room, I recommend you take a tour of the Dolmabahce Palace.
Ciragan Palace Kempinski
If visiting a palace doesn’t satisfy you then you should consider staying in one. Ciragan Palace is a 19th century Ottoman Palace. Today, however, it’s a 5 star hotel which faces the Bosphorus and features an infinity pool. Lastly, check out the price to stay in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, the Sultan Suite is one of the most expensive hotel rooms in the world!
Ortakoy Mosque is a picturesque Baroque Revival style mosque. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful mosque in Istanbul. Furthermore, it’s adjacent to the Bosphorus bridge.
Basilica Cistern – Istanbul Underground
Basilica Cistern is a 6th century underground water filtration system. Essentially, it provided clean water to the surrounding region. Today, it’s a popular Instagram spot!
Rumeli Hisarı Fortress
Rumeli Hisarı is a Medieval Fortress on the European side of the Bosphorus. It was built to defend the Byzantine Empire from an Ottoman attack. History tells us that it was unsuccessful in its defense. When the Ottoman Empire were in control of Constantinople, the fortress became a customs checkpoint as well as a prison. Today however, it’s a tourist attraction and you’re welcome to explore this 15th century fortress.
The majority of Istanbul palaces are located on the European side. An exception to the rule is Beylerbeyi Palace which is on the opposite side of the Bosphorus in Asia. The purpose of this palace was a summer residence for Ottoman royalty. An interesting fact about the Beylerbeyi Palace is that King Edward VIII of England has visited. Today, the palace serves as a museum.
Galatasaray Stadium Tour
Galatasaray are the most successful Turkish football team. They’re multiple Turkish champions and regularly play in the Champions League. They play at the huge Turk Telekom Stadium which is open for tours! Read about my Galatasaray Stadium Tour on my travel blog.
Did you know there’s a Galatasaray Island? Although it sits abandoned in the Bosphorus Strait, there’s a Galatasaray flag flying proud on it.
Fenerbahce Matchday Experience
Fenerbahce are the major rival to Galatasaray. Furthermore, they are located in the Asian side of Istanbul. The stadium boasts the best atmosphere in club football. Read about my Fenerbahce matchday experience as well as how to watch a football match in Turkey.
Besiktas Stadium Tour
It’s highly likely you’ll see the Besiktas stadium as it’s adjacent to the Dolmabahce Palace. It’s also the only stadium you can see from the Bosphorus boat cruise. To blend into this historic part of Istanbul, the stadium design is based on the Colosseum of Rome. For this reason, not only football fans will be impressed with the Vodafone Park. Read about a Besiktas stadium and museum tour on my travel blog.
How to get from Istanbul to Izmir
I took a direct bus from Istanbul Otogar to Izmir. This route is longer than you think as it takes a couple of hours to get through Istanbul. It takes around 10-12 hours therefore you could choose a night bus. Snacks are served on route and there are a few stops at clean service stations.