Things to do in Istanbul
One of my cousins asked if I could share with her a list of things to do while visiting Istanbul.
Funnily enough, I had just put together the itinerary for my upcoming book and film project: The Magic of Istanbul.
The following is a list of what I will be doing on my third expedition to Istanbul.
And yes I have already visited everything listed.
The Hippodrome: Serpentine Column, Egyptian Obelisk, The German Fountain, Constantine Obelisk
The hotel I like to stay at is right in the Hippodrome and it really is a park like atmosphere. The monuments are all outdoors and are fun (and quick) to see. I like to see them during the day and at night as the flavor of the area changes.
The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art
The museum is fascinating and offers a really nice mix of things to see. The collection really rounds out things you won’t see at other museums. I missed it my first year though and felt really bad.
The Blue Mosque
There are many mosques in Istanbul but this one you can not miss! On both previous expeditions I went back several times. It is truly an awesome experience. You have to watch the clothing restrictions: be prepared to take off your shoes, women are given head covers and men can’t wear shorts. Some people really respect that this is a house of worship but don’t be surprised by tourists who don’t show it (or the rules) any reverence. Be offended by these people – just don’t be surprised.
The Arasta Bazaar
Right outside of the Blue Mosque is a small and very low key bazaar. It’s not a madhouse and very fun to look at – the prices aren’t great but shopping is as much looking as it is buying.
The Great Palace Mosaic Museum
This is located in the Arasta Bazaar and it has some fantastic mosaics. There is a lot to read and even more to see – though it is really just one big open space laid out so you can walk around and see it from above and at ground level. I’ve hard some people think its small but I include it on my must see list.
The Basilica Cictern
Not far from the Hippodrome is the Bascilica Cictern – also something not to miss. It is dark and cavernous, this underground water reservoir is a little hard to describe. It has some cool architecture (and a Medusa head). Plus they filmed parts of From Russia With Love in it.
The Hagia Sophia
One of the most important places in Art History and in Christianity – it was recently renovated and you can spend time just basking in the vastness of it. This is a universal must see. Expect to spend a lot of time here – it is big – and you don’t want to miss any of the nooks and crannies.
This place is huge! You have to pay extra to see the Harem but it is worth it. Between the gardens, the Harem, the treasury and the reliquary you can spend a lot of time here. The reliquary even has the sword of David & the staff of Moses! There are also some amazing views of the rest of the city.
It’s in the outer courtyard of Topkapi Palace so if it’s open peak in.
The Istanbul Museum of Archeology
This museum goes on and on (and on). I think you need to pick your battles as I don’t think anyone can see the entire thing. At some point you will just start to survey. I have seen it all I just haven’t read it all. I tell people to go but not to feel bad if they get overloaded.
The Column of Constantine
Is a nice monument plus it’s on the way to The Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar
Everyone should go to the Grand Bazaar twice. Once to view – once to shop. You can get great deals or you can get badly swindled. You can get knockoff designer versions of anything. I also like to wander the streets around it – the farther you wander the better the prices. When I buy scarves I keep walking to where the Turkish women shop and the prices plummet to a few dollars each.
Sahaflar Carsisi – The Book Bazaar
I hunted this down because I really wanted to see it – it isn’t too far from the Grand Bazaar (but it isn’t too close either). They have some very nice print and book merchants but most everything of course is in Turkish. Prints are expensive and you need to know what you are looking at before you buy anything.
This is one of the most important mosque’s in Istanbul. It is a real pleasure to visit and there is a garden, cemetery, and tomb.
Across the Golden Horn (but still on the European side of the Bosphorus) is the other big palace. Well worth going – the last room is one of the most breathtaking rooms I have ever seen in my life (and I have been to Versailles). Like Topkapi there are extra fees for the Harem and it also has a clock museum and an aviary. All of which are worth doing!
Everyone ends up at Taksim Square because it is so famous – its just a square (though I didn’t go at night) and it has a Starbucks – I don’t drink coffee it’s just a sign of the times.
The neighborhood right outside of Taksim is all upscale shopping and there is a trolly that connects Taksim to the Galata Tower (area) fun to walk around for a little but then I like to take the old fashioned trolley.
Every panorama of Istanbul is taken from Galata Tower – it has great views and they offer a very expensive dinner/show which I have not been to. The area around it has a lot of musical instrument shops. The whole area has a really mellow vibe.
The bridge connects back across the Golden Horn. Underneath there are a bunch of seafood restaurants. Watch the prices and if what you are ordering is local fresh or just fresh fresh.
While modern trains still run through the station it is the original terminus for the Orient Express and they have a nifty little museum. It really is a hidden gem and shows a part of history you don’t see in other parts of the city.
Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir
Not far from the station is the sweet shop that invented Turkish Delight. You have to go if just to get a free sample.
I like going to this sweet shop because it has a larger variety of items (and also more free samples).
The Spice Bazaar aka The Egyptian Bazaar
The Spice Bazaar is not very large but it is a completely different experience from the Grand Bazaar. Everyone will try and sell you Saffron and giant Jasmine flowers. The different teas are fun to get and they will vacuum seal everything for you. You can get your luggage overloaded pretty fast by bringing home a kilo of this and a kilo of that. Like the Grand Bazaar I like to walk around and see the area that has spilled over around it for amazing food and culinary supplies.
The New Mosque
Is attached to the Spice Bazaar so if you have a few peak in.
The church is a must must see and the mosaics and frescoes are breathtaking and even though it is harder to get to its really worth the trip. Some nice shopping right around it as well. There is nothing else like it in Istanbul!
The Theodosian Walls
The outer walls of the city – while you can see them everywhere – when you are by Chora you really get a chance to explore them. Every so often you find stairs that lead to the top of the walls – and if you aren’t afraid of heights you can get some awesome views.
The Palace of the Porphyrogenitus
Part of the wall (and near Chora) forms the ruin of a ancient palace – its right by a playground and a truck parking lot. I love architecture so I hunted it down – for most though it is just a different stretch of wall.
Just another stretch of the old city walls that has the ruins of some window openings of another palace long gone. It’s really hard to find – and not worth it for most. It is on the far side of the city walls by the water.
The Valens Aqueduct
It is a huge aqueduct running through the city – with traffic going under. I thought it was great – but again I’m into architecture – tricky to get to though – it isn’t near anything else.
Sehzade Camii – The Prince’s Mosque
Since I wander everywhere for architecture I visited this really nice Mosque.
Across the water (on the Asian side) is this little palace which I think is a real gem to visit. You take the train to Dolmabahce and then the ferry across the water (and then a taxi) sounds like a hike but it really is lovely.
Since I am a castle guy – I need to see the local castles. This one has 7 towers and is totally empty! Not for those afraid of heights (which I am) because they really let you explore the towers and walls. To get there you take a real train. It is not for most and I don’t imagine a lot of people go there but I think it is awesome!
I have a thing for malls – and this is the largest mall in Europe and the 6th largest in the world. The 5th floor is one giant food court, the 6th is all restaurants. Why am I telling you this? Because sometimes when I am out of the country for a month I need to go to the movies! Plus fast food in Istanbul is much better than fast food at home.
A Bosphorus Cruise
There are many ways to see the Bosphorus and the best way is a cruise. Not a big fancy one – just the basic “Full Bosphorus Cruise”. While you can get on and off, I like to take it all the way to the end which is at Anadolu Kavagi a little fishing village – have a great seafood meal and then…
Take a taxi (don’t hike it) up the mountain and visit this really neat ruin of a castle. From here you can see a view that stretches out to the mouth of the Black Sea. They started doing a dig there so you can’t get into the castle anymore but it is a pretty spectacular view from outside. Plus its a ruin so there is not much to see inside that you can’t from the outside.
On the cruise you will see a giant three towered castle – the Castle of Europe. You get great views from the cruise but it is also possible to visit (with buses and taxis). As castles go – it is very well preserved, a nice fortification ,and a pleasant afternoon – but again I like castles. Some just enjoy the views from the cruise – I like going there – it has a great little outdoor theater. There is another little castle across the water called the Castle of Asia – it is barely visible from the water and not worth visiting in person (I did once and if you blink you miss it).
Cappadocia Day Tour
It’s not Istanbul – in fact it is not anywhere near Istanbul but if you fly halfway across the world why not go for a little more. Capaddocia is simply magical. Last year I did a one day trip – they fly you out in the morning, drive you all over, feed you, and then fly you back. In one day I saw: Devrent Valley, Pasabag/Monk’s Valley, Avanos Pottery Village, Goreme, and Uchisar Citadel. Its a slippery slope though because you can spend more days here and then start seeing the other sights outside Istanbul – but I feel one little excursion doesn’t hurt.
Other Things To Do
Eat! Shop! Listen to Music! Watch Dancing! Go to a Turkish Bath! Get a Shave! Shop for a Turkish Carpet (but don’t buy it).
So much to do!