20 things to do in Istanbul. The guide to the most interesting foreign city of those where the 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.
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 parishioner graffiti 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 excavations of the Great Imperial Palace from Byzantine times, 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 to the basement of the Palatium Cafe, where the ruins of the vaults of one of the grand halls are preserved;
- Go down to the promenade and find a piece of the ruined facade of Bukoleon Sarayı Palace, which was one of the most famous palaces of 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 are quite a few interesting things open to get enough impressions without getting tired. After the entrance – on the left – the house of ancient oriental art department (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 columned mansion, 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 nearby rooftop cafés with open 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 Balat and Fener
It is worth setting aside a day to spend time in the northeast of the Old City, to see the Byzantine mosaics, palaces and walls, and to 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 preserved Byzantine mosaics. To make the brilliant 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 restaurant of the sultan’s palace cuisine 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 structures. Along the walls, walk along the inside to the newly opened Tekfur Sarayı, a palace from Byzantine times, to imagine what the chambers of the nobility in Orthodox Constantinople looked like; 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 how Erdogan’s conservative voters would like to see the right city for Muslims. 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 the lovely neighborhoods of Tommom, Cukurcuma, or Cihangir, which line up one after the other just 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 institution or at Galaktion, a very nice Georgian restaurant with excellent khinkali and khachapuri whose owner speaks excellent Russian. 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. The 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 the most interesting from the water and go there (usually the largest and most pompous are open to the public, whether it’s a museum or a luxury 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 dachas, drink 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.
The summer houses at Büyükada
Streets that reveal the secrets of old Istanbul
After getting out of the malls, offices, residences and towns where we feel completely safe, but where we so lack joy, we went for a walk through the streets of Istanbul.
To places where children’s voices can be heard and the smell of basil. The atmosphere of the neighborhoods, the energy of the streets, the Ottoman architecture… It has it all.
Süleymaniye/Airangi Street: When people talk about old Istanbul houses, the first thing that comes to mind is Süleymaniye. In this place, where wooden houses still resist the onslaught of time, you can physically feel the touch of the old Istanbul neighborhood. Hayrancı Street is the first street you should see in Istanbul. Its cobblestone cobblestones and 16th-century mansions give us a glimpse of that old Istanbul. Some of the wooden houses have been renovated with the support of Istanbul’s Department of Protection, Devices and Administration. There is a good cafe outside, where you can take a break and have a cup of tea while enjoying the gray-green landscape of the Golden Horn…
Fatih/Hippodrome: The Fatih neighborhood is one of the places where you can breathe in the air of Istanbul of distant eras. Fatih is the oldest settlement of Turks in Istanbul. The Kadınlar Pazarı (Women’s Market) was where the women of the area used to do their shopping in the olden days. Today the area attracts visitors with its restaurants and kebab stands. After the Women’s Market one must go to the Hippodrome. This square was once used for many years to sell horses, today this small and cute square is famous for its cafes and restaurants. On the street where the square is located, you can find houses with small balconies. On this square is the Eski kafa café, a favorite place of intellectuals, connoisseurs of literature and students.
Tahtakale/Tahmis street: The historic Tahtakale neighborhood, with its market and innkeepers, still manages to retain its Ottoman spirit. Over the years, the people of Istanbul have been able to find everything they needed in the stalls there. Walking through the streets of Tahtakale, you take a journey into history. Tahmis Street has preserved its authenticity. You will find this street located behind the Egyptian Market, following the smell of coffee coming from there. The name “Tahmis” refers to the place where coffee is made and sold. Kurukahveji Mehmed Efendi’s year-old coffee shop is located on this very street. The craftsmanship of Mehmed Efendi, who added the word “kurukahveji” to his name, which means “seller of ground coffee,” is still alive today. Mehmed Efendi sells freshly roasted, ground coffee in a mortar. There is always a line at his shop.
Zeyrek/Fil Yokushu: The Zeyrek district has preserved its traditional architecture until today, albeit in part. Most of the wooden buildings were built between 1800-1840. The hills are another feature of Zeyrek. There is even a saying: “I don’t know any other birds except sparrow, I haven’t seen other hills except Zeyrek”. The most important hill is called Fil Yokushu, or Elephant Hill. It skirts the Byzantine reservoir and is considered the steepest hill of Istanbul. The wooden buildings on the sides of the road are eye-catching. Very close to Elephant Hill is the tomb of Mehmed Emin Tokadi. Opposite his tomb is Zeyrekkhane where you can admire Istanbul with a cup of tea or coffee.
Divan Yolu/Bilejiler Street: Divan Yolu is a place where the new intertwines with the old. On the right and left sides of the street are mosques, madrassahs, shrines – the best examples of Ottoman architecture. You can take a trip back in time in this street. With its historical decorations Bilejiler Street also attracts attention. It is the street between the complex of buildings around Çorlu Ali Pasha Mosque and Sadrazam Sinan Pasha Mosque complex. In the past, bileyici worked on this street, the word remains in the name of the street.
Balat/Merdivenli yokushu: In recent years, Balat has won the hearts of many. Balat is known for its lodges. Time has not spared them: they are dilapidated, but still have not lost their Ottoman spirit. These houses have the typical features of old Istanbul houses: the floor area of 45-50 square meters, two or three floors, with small balconies. Built of stone and brick, these houses are tightly pressed together. Now the houses are being restored. Merdivenli yokushu in the Balat district is one of the most attractive streets. The two- and three-story houses leaning against each other look like the scenery for a movie. A Greek community used to live in this area.
Eyup/Arpaggi Hayrettin Street: Eyup has become a center of attraction for many because of its otherworldly atmosphere. Witnessing the earliest years of Ottoman history, the Eyüp district has preserved this historical atmosphere, albeit partially. Arpadži Hayrettin Street is one of the historical streets in Eyüp. This street overlooks Abdurrahman Sheref Bey Street. The street was named after Arpadži Hayrettin efendi, who rested in the old mosque.
Sultanahmet/Soukçeşme Street: Sultanahmet district is the most favorite district of Istanbul in the world. Sultanahmet, where Aya Sofia, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Yerebatan Vault, Topkapı Palace and Obelisk are located, resembles an open-air museum. In the Sultanahmet neighborhood, which shelters so many historically valuable buildings, there is a street worth seeing. It is Soukçeşme Street. On one side of the street is Aya Sofia, on the other side are the outer walls of the Topkapi Palace. The old wooden houses on the street are restored and the street itself is closed to traffic. There are two and three story houses with small balconies and cages. Restored houses are turned into a boarding house. Among them are small shops where you can shop. There is also the house where Fahri Koruturk spent his years and the Istanbul library. The road of those who want to feel the grandeur of the old Ottoman streets is undoubtedly through this street.
Tophane Street/Sanatkyarlar Street: This is the street with the richest views of Istanbul. It is located behind the embankment, directly opposite the Nisretiye Mosque in Tophane. On the street you can see wooden, somewhat dilapidated houses.
Cibali/Tepedelen Chesmesi Street: It is important to visit this street in the Cibali neighborhood, where modest wooden houses retain the authentic atmosphere of Istanbul.