Istanbul is an incredible city that has a dual identity of being both a historically Christian and Islamic place. This overlap makes for a culture that’s intriguing, and an atmosphere that’s unforgettable. But there are so many incredible things to do and see in Istanbul, that it can feel daunting. That’s why we’ve given you this guide on the absolute musts when it comes to a visit to this gorgeous and historical place. Join us, as Viewcation presents, the Best Things to Do in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia is often the first stop for tourists visiting Istanbul, and for good reason. It’s a worldwide landmark that has been standing since around the year 532, and is an architectural and cultural marvel. It’s no longer an active mosque, and is purely a site for visitors at this point, but from 1453 to 1935 it was active. Prior to that, it served as a church for around a thousand years. So clearly, in terms of historical and religious significance, it’s incredibly impressive. But its long history alone is not what draws millions to it. It was literally the largest cathedral in the world for many years, and it’s considered the top example of architecture and construction from the Byzantine era. Physically, it’s quite the sight to behold. And because of its history of serving as both a Christian church and an Islamic mosque, it has come to represent the duality of Istanbul in this regard. While visiting, you’ll be able to see things like gorgeous Islamic writings on the wall, sitting next to mosaics from the years it was a church. It’s a unique and breathtaking visual element that helps make the Hagia Sophia one of the most popular places to visit in Turkey. And that’s also precisely why you should expect a crowd, almost regardless of when you go. This means long lines and a little jostling once you’re inside. But it’s fully worth it. They are also working on the exterior, so at the moment you won’t get quite the visual splendor as in years past. To get in, you’ll need a ticket that’ll set you back around $11, and with that ticket you’ll have access to the inside of the building, plus a café and gift shop. It’s geerally open from 9 to 5, though there are additional hours added on in the busy season, from October to April.
While Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar isn’t considered one of the top wonders of the world, in many ways it should be. Because it’s a fascinating and wild experience from start to finish, and should be on every visitors list of things to see in the city. For starters, it’s one of the oldest (and largest) covered markets on the planet. When you arrive, you’ll find a maze of 60 streets that are bursting with merchants selling a huge variety of wares. And while you likely won’t have time to peruse all 5000 or so shops, you’ll certainly have fun trying. Each shop comes complete with vendors who are, let’s just say, aggressively forthcoming about how great their items are. So try not to be thrown off by the bevy of people shouting at you. It’s simply the way business is done in the Grand Bazaar. You can get everything from food, to fabrics, to art pieces, to Turkish baths at the Bazaar. One important thing to remember is that haggling is part of the custom. And especially if you’re visiting from the west, the vendors will generally hike up their prices right away. So don’t be afraid to engage in some back and forth. Even if you don’t end up buying an item, you’ll still feel the rush of engaging in the local commerce process. Plus, most vendors will immediately cut their initial asking price in half once you start haggling. And you’ll likely get a deeper discount if you skip the credit card and pay cash. The Bazaar is in Eminonu, which is located inside the Fatih district. It’s easily accessible by bus or metro, and it’s open every day but Sunday, 24 hours a day.
The Blue Mosque
They say competition breeds excellence. And while that’ not most commonly said with regard to religious architecture, it applies to the Blue Mosque. In the early 1600’s, Sultan Ahmed I decided he wanted to build a mosque that could take on the Hagia Sophia in prominence, stature, and religious importance. And thus the Blue Mosque was constructed. While the Hagia Sophia might still be the most prominent mosque in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is nothing short of marvelous. It was constructed with a bevy of minarets, domes and semi domes, and is a tourist attraction worthy of a visit from every visitor to the city. And while the Hagia Sophia is the top mosque in many ways, the Blue Mosque is arguably more intricate and interesting in terms of its interior and exterior architecture. It’s in Fatih, (in the Sultanahment area) and it’s fairly easy to get to. You can walk from several local tram stops, or from several other tourist spots like the Brand Bazaar. It’s also open 24 hours every day, so you can easily add it to your trip itinerary. There are six daily calls for prayer, depending on where the sun is. This is important to remember, since you’ll be visiting an active mosque, not simply an architectural site. So be sure to wear conservative dress. This includes headscarves for female visitors, which can be provided by the mosque as well.
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Topkapi Palace Museum
Like the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace Museum is a hugely popular tourist attraction that has changed from being actively used, to being a tourist attraction. It was once the home to Sultans from the Ottoman empire. But when that reign ended in 1924, it shifted to a museum. And, similar to the Hagia Sophia, it’s a visual marvel. In addition to it’s gorgeous architecture and pristine courtyards, it’s a museum that shows off a vast collection of art, porcelain, weaponry, and more. It’s also a spot where you won’t want to simply pop in and pop out. There’s enough to look at that you’ll likely want to spend a few hours wandering the grounds, and learning about the Ottoman Empire and all the artifacts contained in the museum. For starters, check out the extensive array of cutlery in the kitchens. And then you’ll want to marvel at the armaments room and the calligraphy area as well. When you’re done with those, have a stop at the coffee shop for some caffeine, and then take a stroll around the impeccable gardens the property offers. From there you’ll be able to see out to a breathtaking view of the Golden Horn. It’ll cost you around $11 to enter the museum, and it’s quite easy to travel to, as many bus lines run directly to its location in Sultanahmet. The only part of the museum not accessible with a standard wicket is the Harem section, which is where the reigning sultan of the time lived, along with his family, concubines, eunuchs, and servants. But you can add on a tour of that area for an extra $7. The museum is open to visitors from 9 to 4:45 every day, with additional hours added on in summer.
The Basilica Cistern
If you think that seeing an underground water reservoir wouldn’t be a top site, you clearly you haven’t see the Basilica Cistern. It was built in 532, and its incredible construction has stood the test of time. Back in the day, it was the source of water for the Great Palace of Constantinople. This was where the local emperors lived form many centuries. For a long time after the Palace stopped being in use, the cistern sat underneath the former site without being excavated. But in 1545 it was rediscovered. Then in 1985 it was fully restored and set up as a place for visitors to marvel at. It’s certainly not as fancy or active as things like the Hagia Sophia or the Grand Bazaar. But walking inside an ancient water reservoir will make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time, and they’ve doe an excellent job of preserving it. You’ll enjoyt the twin Medua heads that were carved into the base of two of its columns, but don’t expect a treasure trove of art or scuptures, etc. After all, it was a purely functional reservoir, not a living space or a mosque. It can get a little crowded, and the ticket lines can be quite long. That’s why it’s probably a good idea to go with a tour group if possible. And what’s great is that it’s nearby the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Hagia Museum.
Istanbul is a marvel and a mix of old and new world charm. And obviously there is far more to it than these few sites. But we’d definitely consider these to be our ‘must-see” attractions. And you should definitely explore the city as much as possible while you’re there!
Now it’s time to hear from you. Have you ever been to Istanbul? Do you plan to go? Let us know in the comments section below. And before you go, make sure to give this video a like, and subscribe to Viewcation if you haven’t already. Click the bell icon to stay updated on all our latest content.