East & West. Old & New. A cultural confluence and a fascinating treat for the senses. Istanbul is historic, modern and ridiculously photogenic. Memories of my visit here are filled with the fantastic sights, delicious food and incredible people. Here are some of the highlights!
The Sultanahmet District
The iconic Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) is an epic example of Ottoman architecture. You can understand why this is one of the most photographed buildings in Istanbul with its artistic domes, chandeliers, blue Iznik tiles and sublime ambience.
The best view of the Blue Mosque is from the Hippodrome, a cultural centre in the Byzantine times. (when the city was Constantinople) The Hippodrome also houses the Serpent Column, The Walled Obelisk and the Obelisk of Theodosius.
Beyond the hippodrome is the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), probably one of my favourite historic sites. This noteworthy monument has stood through the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Consequently it has transitioned from being a church to a mosque and now is a museum. A surviving example of Byzantine architecture, it holds a special significance to art & architectural history. Aya Sofya houses an impressive collection of mosaics including the Deësis mosaic, the one of Virgin & Child, the Imperial Gate mosaic and the mosaic of Empress Zoe. Not to be missed here is the peculiar Wishing Column or Sweating Pillar.
The Basilica Cistern is another unique landmark located close to the Aya Sofya. A subterranean structure and Istanbul’s largest surviving Byzantine cistern, this sight is well worth a visit.
Entering this plush home to the Ottoman Sultans, one cannot help wondering how immaculate its location is. Surrounded by the serene blue on three sides and adored with gardens, harems, courts and kitchens, this palace makes for a fitting regal residence. Now a museum, the must sees here are Ottoman courts and the Imperial treasury, which houses the famous Topkapi Emerald Dagger and Kasıkçı Diamond.
Located on the European leg of the Bosphorus strait, this palace is a contrast to the Topkapi Palace and was the last residence of the Ottoman emperors . It is the largest palace in Turkey and architecturally blends traditional Ottoman styles with Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles. It is one of the most beautiful palaces ever ornate, elegant and truly one of a kind. Some of the key sights are The Ceremonial hall, The Blue hall, The Gate of the Sultans and the Gate to Bosphorus. From the Iznik tiles to the largest chandelier in the world, the painting collection to the Medhal hall, the grandeur of this palace is just beyond!
Süleymaniye Mosque & The Bazaars
The Süleymaniye Mosque presides magnificently over the Golden Horn as it stands on one of Istanbul’s Seven hills. The interiors are simply gorgeous and the terrace garden behind the mosque offers some of the best views of the Bosphorus.
The Grand Bazaar is a true treasure trove that had me in a sensory euphoria. Walking through one of the oldest and largest closed markets in the world, you can probably find anything here. A map of the market definitely comes in handy. Onwards from the Grand Bazaar, is the fragrant Spice Bazaar. This market houses colourful shops with zillions of spices, tea, dry fruits and more. I picked up some sumac, oregano and of course some Turkish tea. Also some very delicious Pomegranate tea!
THE Bosphorus Cruise
The Bosphorus and Golden Horn Cruise is a must do in Istanbul. It is one of the best ways to see the city from the waters and transit between its Asian and European side. The cruise takes you out from the Golden Horn all the way up to where the Bosphorus strait and the Marmara Sea meet. Rumeli Fortress and Pierre Loti Hill are some of the sights during the cruise. Simply spectacular!
Galata Bridge, GALATA tower & Taksim square
The Galata Bridge at sunset is a dream. It connects the two sides of Istanbul across the Golden Horn and houses restaurants & cafes serving food and drink round the clock. The Galata Tower, one of Istanbul’s landmarks, is located in the Beyoglu district, which you enter as you walk across the Galata Bridge. A ride up leads to a observation deck with stunning panoramas of Istanbul and a cute restaurant/cafe. At the foot of the tower there is the charming bustle of performers, travellers, street food vendors and more.
Taksim Square, also in Beyoglu, is the city’s historic public square housing the Monument of the Republic and is definitely worth checking out for shopping and food.
Food & DRINK
Istanbul is a culinary haven. Kofte and kebabs are great anywhere but my recommendations would be to try them at Köfteci Hüseyin in the Beyoglu district, Meşhur Filibe Köftecisi in Sirkeci or Fındık Kabuğunda Köfte in Balat. Pair them with Ayran, a yum cooling yogurt drink.
Fresh fish sandwiches made on the waterfront in Eminonu by the Galata Bridge are amazing as is the whole experience of seeing them being made. Sefa Restaurant in the Fatih District, near the Grand Bazaar, offers some mouthwatering authentic Turkish fare. Colourful and delicious mezze are best at Jash Istanbul in Cihangir district or Salkim Meyhanesi in Beyoglu. For a more upscale experience with music, dancing and spectacular views there is the plush Duble Meze Bar on the rooftop of the Palazzo Donizetti Hotel.
One can’t forget to have Doner Kebabs here. Bereket Döner in the Bazaar district and Şehzade Cağ Kebap in Fatih serve up delicious versions of this street food classic. Speaking of street food, the Turkish Pizza/flatbread at Fatih Damak Pide in the Bazaar district is fabulous.
For dessert, my favorite was Fırın Sütlaç or rice pudding at Saray Muhallebicisi in Beyoglu. Baklava is epic of course, my favorite one being the walnut one. A good place to eat and pack some to take home is Hafız Mustafa. Some of the best Turkish Delight is available here too!
Turkish tea or Çay as the locals call it is just the best! Served with Turkish Delight in tulip glasses this light brew is a delicious ice breaker which is probably why people seem to be drinking it all the time, all over the city.
Coffee-wise, the Turkish version is intense. Not something for me, but if you are a coffee connoisseur you would love it. Last but not the least there is Turkish Rakı (Lions Milk), an aniseed flavoured liquor that will quickly get you in high spirits!