The best 20 places to see in Istanbul
Yes, you got it right!) In this article I will not touch on general issues about Istanbul (accommodation, currency, transportation, souvenirs, etc.). As a form of narration I chose to tell about those places in the city (and not only) that impressed me the most (in a good sense of the word, of course).
If you don’t see some of the planned places here – it doesn’t mean it’s not worth going there… And vice versa – if you’re not impressed by any of the listed below locations – no problem either). I do not pretend to universal approval, but only share my impressions.
To begin with it is worth noting that for any of my trips I prepare very carefully (every day is painted by the hour), and in order to get the most out of the local color, I try to walk not only off the beaten tourist path, but also look in places where a tourist foot rarely sets foot. Istanbul was no exception.
I spent the first two weeks of May 2017 in the city, and during that time I managed to see a lot of sights. I record all my locations in MAPS.ME, which is an indispensable travel assistant. MAPS.ME has the ability to share personal maps, so anyone, after reading this article can contact me in personal messages VKontakte (not in the comments to this thread!) and get a map of Istanbul with all my marks on it (and there are, as you can see, not a few).
In this article I will touch upon only the top 20 (in my strictly personal opinion) places in Istanbul. Just in case there is no gradation in importance and each of the locations listed below grabbed me in its own way.
P. S. At the end of the article there is a pleasant bonus waiting for all travelers in the form of a link to a resource with cool tours of Istanbul!
1. Süleymaniye Mosque Incredibly beautiful and the most majestic mosque in Istanbul! Fans of “The Magnificent Century” know about this place. The road to the mosque is not easy, but the grandeur of its architecture and the beautiful view of the Bosphorus and the city fully justify the effort spent on the ascent. If I had been asked to make a personal rating of mosques in Istanbul, Süleymaniye would definitely be in 1st place (may fans of the Sultanahmet Mosque forgive me).
P. S. For tourists the mosque is closed during namaz, so the best hours to see it are from 9:00 to 12:30, from 13:45 to 15:45. Entrance is free!
2. If you haven’t yet visited Üsküdar, I will try to encourage you to visit the Asian part of the city. Just a walk along the picturesque Usküdar promenade is worth the ferry ride here, if only for a few hours. It is from the Uskudar embankment in all its glory appears Kiz Kulesi (more familiar to us as the “Maiden Tower”) – a true symbol of Istanbul. The time passes unnoticed here. You can sit for hours on the shore under a warm blanket and admire the magical view of the Bosphorus. Hot tea, simitas, warm sun… and you don’t want to go anywhere, you want to stay here, listen to the waves, look at the seagulls and the ships passing by.
3. Galata Tower is one of the most popular places in Istanbul among tourists and locals alike. Instagram is literally full of pictures of this landmark. It’s worth noting right away that the view of Galata Tower itself is much more pleasant than the view from it. Climbing to the observation deck costs 25 lira (for tourists) and you get very few impressions. The same can be said about the restaurant inside the tower – anywhere else in Istanbul will be more tasty and cheerful and cheaper. But to see the tower itself up close is without a doubt worthwhile! It is better to come to Galata Square in the evening or at night, when they turn on the lights, buy a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice in the “Star Bufe” and sit on one of the benches nearby to fully enjoy the grandeur of the beautiful Galata.
4. Kuzguncuk Kuzguncuk is a cozy neighborly community located in the Uskudar neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The beauty of Kuzguncuk is its quiet streets with old carved wooden houses, small colorful window stores and grocery stores. The people here are very friendly, always smiling and maybe even inviting you for a cup of tea. Love books and coffee? Then you should definitely come here! Especially I want to mention the bookstore “Nail Kitabevi Kafe” which you won’t pass by. Once you grab a book and order your espresso, go up to the second floor to cozy up by one of the big windows. And for those who prefer to sip their drink with a view of the Bosphorus, I can recommend Çınaraltı Café, where in the shade of flat trees you can fully enjoy the solitude and maybe even catch some zen.
5. Sultanahmet Meydanı This is without a doubt the key place in Istanbul that no tourist will pass by. I was not an exception. On both sides of the square are two historical mosques – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, which attracts cameras like a magnet. If the Blue Mosque impresses with its splendor from outside (by the way, the entrance inside is free), the Ayia Sofia on the contrary is beautiful from inside (it is included in the museum map). Plan your visit to Sultanahmet Square in the morning, otherwise you have a great chance to get lost in the crowd of tourists. By the way there is free wi-fi!
P. S. Sultanahmet Square is the starting point for sightseeing tours of the city by Big Bus Tours with an opportunity to get off at any of the stops, walk around, and hop on the next bus for free. Cost: 33 euros (adult ticket for 1 day). Tours start at 9:00 (on the red line) and 10:00 (on the blue line). All details about the routes and costs are here. I took both lines and I can say that these tours are a great way to get to several interesting places in Istanbul that are sometimes only accessible via public transportation (which is not very convenient).
6. Arnavutköy “Houses in Flowers – Flowers in Houses” is definitely about the Arnavutköy neighborhood, one of the most beautiful places in Istanbul. It is not without reason they call it the “Turkish San Francisco”. The place is very popular among instagram users, who flock here from all over the world to take some bright pictures against the background of the famous “zephyr houses” (colorful wooden mansions in the Ottoman style). Although you won’t find any historical sights in Arnavutkoy, you can take a leisurely stroll along the promenade overlooking the yachts and the Bosphorus, and enjoy the sea breeze. There are some delicious fish restaurants here (I can recommend Sur Balik and Arnavutkoy Sosyal Tesisleri). How nice that Arnavutkoy is not listed in the main tourist guidebooks and the place is still comfortable for walking today.
7. Dolmabahçe Palace (Dolmabahçe sarayı) The Dolmabahçe Palace is one of Istanbul’s calling cards. The openwork building with rich interiors and manicured garden reminds me of the luxurious palaces of European monarchs. I visited this place already after the Topkapı Palace, and I advise you to do the same, because the impression of Dolmabahçe was much brighter. Inside the palace itself shooting is strictly prohibited, and they watched me very carefully, but I got my pair of shots of luxury (although I had to go through an excursion twice for the sake of it). Besides the magnificent interior of the palace I want to note the beautiful view of the Bosphorus through the openwork gates which like a cherry on the cake complements the overall picture of the place. Besides, not far from the crystal pavilion there is a bird house with important well-fed royal peacocks, which was also interesting to look into. And in the palace park on the very shore there is a great cafe where I had a cup of coffee with dessert with pleasure. If you can sacrifice some of the places in Istanbul due to time constraints, the Dolmabahce Palace is definitely worth a visit!
P. S. Cost to visit the main part of the palace: 40 liras per person (with the harem 60 liras (the museum card is not valid here). Opening hours: from 9:00 to 16:00 (except for Mon-Fri and Thurs). The most convenient time to visit is before lunch or until 15-00. Reserve at least 1.5 hours for this place.
8. Istiklal Caddesi The noisiest shopping street in Istanbul with a lot of activity. I happen to live in the center of Beyoglu so I’ve walked along Istiklal Caddesi to my heart’s content. The boutiques and chocolate shops are overflowing with sweet tooths. We would like to single out the tiny Meşhur Beyoğlu Çikolatacısı shop which you are sure to pass by without paying attention to, which would be a great shame as this is a real chocolate kingdom! And even if you don’t like chocolate, it is worth a quick look. Also, it’s worth checking out one of the oldest confectioneries in Istanbul, Ali Muhiddin Haci Beqira (that’s how it’s called). They have been making wonderful Turkish sweets here for more than two hundred years. Sadly, I did not have time to catch the famous historical streetcar, which used to be the highlight and symbol of Istiklal Street (now only a small piece of rails is left of it).
20 things to do in Istanbul. A guide to the most interesting foreign city of those where entry is open
There are many guidebooks written about Istanbul, but the city is constantly changing, some of its traditions and institutions are a thing of the past, and some remain forever. Our editor-in-chief, Artem Chapayev, tells us what to do in Istanbul.
1. aya Sofia.
The main historical building and landmark of Turkey, or maybe Europe. It really is a very cool thing and nowhere else in the world there is anything like it, even though it’s a cliché, but you should definitely go there. My advice: read the chapter about St. Sophia in the book “In Search of Constantinople” by Sergey Ivanov the day before and use it as a guide to the cathedral.
Not only is it very beautiful inside, there’s a lot to see: fantastic 6th-century engineering, major Orthodox mosaics, 11th-century graffiti by parishioners scrawled on the marble walls, etc. If you want to make sense of it all, Ivanov’s book is indispensable.
The conversion of St. Sophia into a mosque has had little effect on the inside view of this treasury, except that admission is free. Try to avoid the prayer times at the beginning of the second day and at five in the evening.
The best view of the Sophia from outside is from the terrace of the Seven Hills restaurant.
As a bonus, from here you can see the abandoned Byzantine excavations of the Great Imperial Palace, which was supposed to be an archaeological park but became a dusty wasteland behind a tin fence.
Aya Sofia from the terrace of Seven Hills restaurant (all photos taken from the author’s Instagram @artemchapaev)
2. Don’t eat balik ekmek (fish in a bun) on Galata Bridge
It’s tasteless, greasy, considered bad taste and a tourist trap, and Istanbul’s new progressive mayor Imamoglu has already promised to rid the bridge of these rancid eateries. Istanbulis go to the hellhole to eat cheap fish in bread, you are unlikely to go there, so you should just avoid this gastronomic genre. If you want to grab a bite to eat in Eminönü, better get a kebab at Şehzade Cağ Kebap or a Turkish pide pizza at nearby Hocapaşa Pidecisi.
Fishermen on Galata Bridge
The Topkapi Shed and Harem.
Another must-see item on the program is the most accessible eastern sultan’s palace, a succession of courtyards and pavilions, as it should be. Admission to the harem, a women’s dormitory whose legends are much more beautiful than reality, is paid for separately.
In one of the courtyards there is an exhibition of Islamic relics: the hair of the Prophet, the Prophet’s tooth, the Prophet’s sword, etc., where there is always a long line of Muslim tourists. Here you will also find the Palace Kitchen and Living Museum with an exhibition of Ottoman and Chinese porcelain, verandas with views and in general quite a few corners in the open air, which is a plus in our covid times.
One of the rooms of the Topkapi Shed.
The remnants of the Great Imperial Palace of Constantinople.
There is virtually nothing left of the luxurious palace complex of the Byzantine emperor. To appreciate the scale of what has been lost and is underfoot and in ugly hotels south of Ayia Sofia, we must:
- read the relevant chapter from Ivanov’s book mentioned above;
- enter the Palace Mosaic Museum, east of the Blue Mosque;
- go down into the basement of the Palatium Cafe, where the ruins of the vaults of one of the state rooms are preserved;
- Go down to the embankment and find a piece of the ruined facade of Bukoleon Sarayı Palace, which was one of the most famous palaces in the complex. There is also an old Byzantine cistern in the basement of the Nakkaş carpet store, not sure if it is related to the palace, but it is worth a look.
5. Archaeological Museum
Most of it is still under restoration, but there’s a lot to see, so you can get enough impressions without getting tired. After the entrance – on the left – is the cabin of the Department of Ancient Oriental Art (this is what ancient Greek art is and what it actually evolved from).
If you are lazy to look for prototypes of European art in ancient Sumerian and Hittite sculptures, you can just look at them as a modernist sculpture of the early 20th century, like some Picasso or Matisse with Brancusi.
There are only a few rooms open in the main mansion with columns, where the exhibits are immersed in context in a modern museum way, it turns out to be interesting. The main hit of the museum is the so-called Alexander sarcophagus, the king of Sidon who knew and obeyed Alexander the Great, who is depicted in the sarcophagus’ reliefs, was buried in it. Exhibits of such high sculptural skill, historical significance and excellent preservation are very few in even the coolest museums in the world.
At the pavilion of Ancient Eastern art
6. The Ottoman city parade of the 18th and 19th centuries
See the remnants of the old grand building of the ancient city by walking along the streets east of the Egyptian Market, past the New Mosque, along Bankacılar, Hamidiye, Büyük Postane, Yeni Camii and the surrounding alleys and squares – here the Ottomans tried to combine fashionable French Europe with Islamic traditions, all among the sultan pavilions, the 16th century bazaar, old Ottoman mosques and the Turkish crowd.
On Büyük Postane Street
7. “Perde Pilav” at Siirt Şeref Buryan
If you want a hardcore Anatolian culinary experience, go to the conservative Fatih district of the Old City and go to Siirt Şeref Buryan, overlooking a huge Byzantine aqueduct, and order the baked pilaf with the intriguing name “Perde Pilav” or one of the signature kebabs. Then walk from there 300 meters northeast to the Zayrek Jami Mosque, the former church of the Pantocrator Monastery of Byzantine Constantinople, the largest surviving complex of Byzantine buildings after Sofia. First of all, from the platform across the street there is a great view of the city, and second, inside it will be empty, you can go in for free and look for traces of Byzantium in the mosque.
View from the terrace of the cafe at the former church of Pantocrator Monastery
If you want to see one major large Ottoman mosque, go to Süleymaniye Jami. First of all, it is considered the main structure of the architect Sinan, responsible for all Renaissance architecture in Istanbul. Secondly, the mosque has spectacular views of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Thirdly, there are many other curious structures around, including the tombs of the characters from The Magnificent Century, Sultan Suleiman and Roksolana, as well as madrassahs, bathhouses and various 16th century buildings with characteristic puffy roofs.
You can continue your journey in the neighborhood cafés with open rooftop terraces, such as the Mihrişah Cafe or the Mimar Sinan Teras Cafe. To the east of Süleymaniye, there are rare streets of old Istanbul buildings (mostly wooden) that are disappearing at an incredible rate, as well as mosques in former Byzantine churches.
9. A day in Balata and Fener
It’s worth setting aside a day to spend time in the northeast of the Old City, see the Byzantine mosaics, palaces and walls, and stroll through the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of Balat and Fener.
Better yet, catch a cab to the famous Chora Church, the city’s largest collection of surviving Byzantine mosaics. To make the shiny comics on the ceiling make sense, it’s worth reading the chapter about this church in Ivanov’s book In Search of Constantinople and using it as a guide.
After the Hora, you can have lunch at the nearby Asitane Restaurant, the main Sultan’s palace restaurant in Istanbul, where the dishes used to feed the sultans and harem dwellers are carefully reproduced from the historical recipes of the Topkapi Palace kitchens.
Then go through the alleys to the Byzantine walls of Theodosius, built in the V century and since then protecting the city from the east gate of Edirne, to appreciate the impressive hulk and the excellent preservation of ancient buildings. The palace of Tekfur Sarayı, a Byzantine palace, must be walked along the walls on the inside to get an idea of what the chambers of the nobility in Orthodox Constantinople looked like, as there are none left in the city.
Then, through the alleys of the former Roma ghetto one must go down to Vodina Caddesi Street, where the former Jewish and Greek neighborhoods of Balat and Fener begin. The entire street has been dotted with hipster coffee shops since a certain point, but if you want penny-pinching, very tasty and totally local food, go to Ada Restaurant.
Aside from Vodina, make your way up to Merdivenli and Kiremit Streets for the colorful houses that dot the neighborhood and are destined for Instagram. At the end of the neighborhood, closer to the waterfront, is the World Orthodox Patriarchate, where the patriarch of Constantinople sits (an unbroken line of patriarchs since the 4th century, despite all the historical twists and turns). From the church it is worth walking out to Fener Wharf and taking the boat that goes along the Golden Horn back to Galata Bridge.
The Streets of Balata
10. Chukurbostan .
For Islamic hardcore, go to the most conservative neighborhood in the city, where you rarely see a woman without a veil – Chukurbostan! There’s not much to see there except for the people on the streets, but you can see what conservative Erdogan voters would like the right Muslim city to be like. Women should definitely be in a long skirt or loose pants and a modest, not too open top, or the locals can throw a meaningful look or even verbally offensive.
Istanbul’s old buildings were mostly wooden.
11. tomtom, Cukurcuma and especially Cihangir
The best places to live in Istanbul are in the lovely neighborhoods of Tommom, Cukurcuma, or Cihangir, which line up one after the other south of Istiklal, the city’s main promenade street. These are the coziest parts of the city, reminiscent of old Europe, now populated by expats from the U.S. and Western countries and full of trendy cafes, designer stores and all other hipster businesses.
The cozy streets and fin-de-siecle houses, when Istanbul really wanted to be like Paris, are accompanied by views of the Bosphorus and the minarets of the Old City from the many stairs in the area of Sanatkarlar Parkı.
The best coffee is said to be served at the exemplary third-wave coffee shop Kronotrop Cihangir, the best sweets are at Savoy Pastanesi, bars with cute Istanbulites like Geyik or Smyrna are open until night on Akarsu Yokuşu Sokak, You can have lunch and dinner at Cuma, an expensive by local standards place or at Galaktion, a very nice Georgian restaurant with excellent khinkali and khachapuri whose owner speaks Russian very well. Terraces with views are available at 5. Kat Restaurant and Terrace 41. There are numerous antique shops with cheap stuff on Cukur Cuma Street and its surroundings.
Cafes in Cihangir
A restaurant where the trendy cuisine of the average Michelin restaurant in Europe, with all sorts of molecular twists, you can try three times cheaper. It may not always be delicious, but it’s always memorable. From here you have a beautiful view of the Old Town with the protruding minarets of the big Ottoman mosques.
The restaurant is in a grandiose late 19th-century bank building, now a museum and various creative spaces where you can hang out while waiting for dinner.
Surroundings of the Galata Tower
13. Old World Charm
For a taste of old European luxury (at Istanbul prices), you should stop in for tea and cake at the Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul’s main historic hotel built for the passengers of that very “Orient Express” in the late 19th century. Agatha Christie had her own room here, where she wrote her famous detective novel. However, every conceivable star and historical figure – from Winston Churchill to Coco Chanel – has stayed here.
A kitschy, cheap version of the genre is the Buyuk Londra Hotel nearby, where the shabby-chic lobby and cheery wallpaper on the first floor rival the inexpensive bar and great views from the rooftop.
View from Buyuk Londra Hotel to Pera Palace Hotel
Istanbul’s most beloved sweets by Istanbulites and knowledgeable tourists are Karaköy Güllüoğlu, near Karaköy Wharf. One of the secrets why the baklava tastes better there is that they just don’t make it as sugary sweet as everywhere else, where you can’t taste anything but sugar at all, and this baklava has flavor!
If the not-so-large assortment of Karakoy confectionery gets boring – the Hafiz Mustafa chain has a good reputation, they have a dozen stores in tourist spots. Their most delicious is Pomegranate Ottoman Kadayif, a bombastic pomegranate lukum with pistachios in a crispy pastry.
Baklava from Karaköy Güllüoğlu.
15. Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamami Hamam
The best historical hammam in Istanbul, without the crowds and exorbitant prices of the historic Old City baths. Opened in 1583, it was renovated not too long ago and looks chic. You will be given a bathing ceremony with a specially trained bath attendant, who will soap you and wash you according to the strict protocol, just like in the times of the Sultan.
Mosque Nusretiye, not far from the Kilic Ali Pasha Hammam, is a masterpiece of Ottoman Baroque.
16. Viewing Restaurants
If you are on Istiklal Street, Istanbul’s main promenade, you will find two restaurants with marvelous views of the city from their roof terraces: 360 Istanbul and Leb-i Derya. I will add to this well-known list the rooftop restaurant of The House Hotel Karaköy with Aya Sofia and the Golden Horn in front of my eyes.
The House Hotel Karaköy’s rooftop restaurant
A completely unknown neighborhood in Istanbul, lying behind Taksim Square, it is well known to Orhan Pamuk’s readers; it is where he lived with his family until his father went bankrupt and moved to Cihangir. Nishantashi is the most expensive district of the city, a place of Prada and Vuitton boutiques, European-looking streets and richly dressed passers-by.
The streets Teşvikiye and Abdi İpekçi are lined with expensive (by Istanbul standards) restaurants and mansions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you get tired of the endless bazaar of the Old City and want to experience the atmosphere of a European, clean and rich neighborhood, it is worth a walk here in the evening. Have dinner at Tatbak, a traditional Pamuk’s boyhood restaurant, or Pokemate’s trendy poké and 400°C Pizza, which offers the best Italian pizza in town.
18. Karaköy Lokantası.
For a taste of delicious Turkish food adapted from the rest of Europe and a pleasant, non-crowded atmosphere in Istanbul’s trendiest district, Karaköy is worth a visit.
If the prices are biting, go to Karaköy Çorba Evi soup shop 100 meters away, where you can choose from 20 traditional Turkish soups for pennies, which you will immediately be poured from a steaming vat.
19. Take a ferry trip on the Bosphorus.
To sail along the shores of the Bosphorus and see the Ottoman palaces and summer houses, it is better to choose not the weekend cruises (there will be a lot of people), but the regular weekday ferries of the provider Sehir Hatlari – from Eminenu or Besiktas to the Sariyor district.
The nicest stops for walking are the Greater Istanbul neighborhoods (and formerly the suburbs for the elite) of Arnavutkoy, Bebek, Emirgan and Sarier. Or simply choose the palace you find most interesting from the water and go there (usually the biggest and most pompous ones are open to the public, whether it’s a museum or a fancy hotel).
20. Princes Islands.
For an immersion in the dacha atmosphere, take a daytrip from Kabatas station to one of the Princes’ Islands, preferably the largest, Büyükada, walk past the nostalgic Old World wooden summer houses, have some fave tea at the old-fashioned Splendid Palace hotel, find Trotsky’s house: he lived on Büyükada Island from 1929 to 1933, after being expelled from the Soviet Union, and wrote “The History of the Russian Revolution” here.
Then walk through pine groves to a giant abandoned 19th-century wooden manor house, the former orphanage of Istanbul’s Orthodox Patriarchate. The walk will be accompanied by views of the sea and other islands of the archipelago. Just don’t go there on a weekend unless you want all of Istanbul to walk with you.
Villas at Büyükada