The Getaway
A Millennial's Guide to Istanbul

The only city in the world that spans two continents, Istanbul has been a place for conquest, culture, and commerce for millennia. The city is split by water into three sections:

- Sultanahmet sits on the peninsula and is home to the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.

- European Istanbul is where you'll find shops, restaurants, and a vibrant nightlife scene.

- Asian Istanbul is across the Bosphorus and is a much less tourist-heavy destination.

With its tolerant, secular society and stunning architecture, a trip to Istanbul is a rare opportunity to see the world in a new way.

Advertisement

01 The Blue Mosque

Interior of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Turkey Yarygin / Getty Images

From the outside, the Blue Mosque feels a little bit like false advertising - there's nothing blue to be found. But step inside the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, and you'll be blown away by the 20,000 blue tiles that make up the stunning ceiling.

Built in the early 1600s, while most mosques have two or four minarets, the Blue Mosque boasts six. While it is open daily for tourists, the Mosque is still practicing, so there is a dress code, and you cannot visit during prayer time except to worship.

  • Fajr (İmsak): Two hours before dawn
  • Tulu (Güneş): Dawn
  • Zuhr (Öğle): Midday
  • Asr (İkindi): Afternoon
  • Maghrib (Akşam): Sunset
  • Isha (Yatsı): Last Light

Prayer times depend on sunrise and sunset. The best time to visit is between Tulu and Zuhr. Women should cover their arms, legs, and hair. Men should cover their legs.

Advertisement

02 Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace Istanbul, Turkey. RuslanKaln / Getty Images

Construction on Topkapi Palace began in the 1400s, and during the fifteenth century, it served as the main home for the Ottoman Sultans. As you might expect for such a grand estate, the palace is architecturally stunning, with incredibly opulent gardens and rooms.

Today, Topkapi Palace is partially open to the public as a museum and visitor site. It is home to the most extensive, unique collection of Chinese pottery outside of China, dating back to the 13th century.

Topkapi Palace also has religious relics, which include some of the Holy Mantle of the Prophet, hair from the Prophet's beard, and the footprints, letters, bow, and sword of the Prophet.

Advertisement

03 Hagia Sophia

Originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 A.D. It was used as mosque after 1453. tunart / Getty Images

The Hagia Sophia was commissioned in 532 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and was the focal point for the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost 1000 years. In 1453, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, the building became an Ottoman mosque. The mosque was transformed into a museum in 1935 by the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Aside from its sheer physical size, the building is particularly impressive for the early Christian mosaics, which are still visible today. Discussions are in place to convert the museum back once again into a Mosque.

Advertisement

04 Eat Your Heart Out

A tray with turkish dessert baklava, Istanbul grand bazzar. Alice Fox / Getty Images

Spending your time roaming the beautiful city is sure to have you working up an appetite, and while you're in Istanbul, several local delicacies are well worth trying.

  • Simit: sesame seed-covered bread rings
  • Borek: filo pastry filled with meat or vegetables
  • Gozleme: stuffed pancakes
  • Mısır: corn on the cob.

For those who have a little bit more of a sweet tooth, you'll have no difficulty finding some delicious lokum. These are Turkish delights, which come in many different flavors, from rose water to almond.

Also, make sure to try some of the delicious soaked pastries known as baklava, which have been covered in honey syrup and are usually stuffed with pistachios or almonds.

Advertisement

05 Visit a Hammam

Tramway passing through large crowded Istiklal street in Taksim, Beyoglu, Istanbul, Turkey. damircudic / Getty Images

Historically one of the places for Turkish people to socialize and gossip, the traditional Hammam experience is something that you don't want to miss out on when you're visiting Istanbul. Turkish baths are separated by gender, and a traditional experience will see you given a towel so you can preserve your modesty.

In a traditional Hammam, you will enjoy a steam room, a hearty massage, and a scrub down. If you're new to the experience, you'll find that you either love it or hate it, and there are a wide range of Hamams in the city. Some claim to have serviced everyone from Tony Curtis to Florence Nightingale, so the only thing to do is to make your own mind up!

Advertisement

06 Galata Tower

famous ancient tourist place Galata tower in Istanbul in Turkey silverkblack / Getty Images

Built in CE as a watch tower, the 9-story Galata Tower has impressive views over the Gold Horn. With its distinctive cone-capped tower, it offers a panoramic view of the peninsula and surrounding areas.

Today, it is open to members of the public and is a great opportunity to look out over the breathtaking landscapes. Lines can tend to get quite long, so it's best to visit it in the early mornings - however, there is also a cafe and a nightclub on the upper floors.

Advertisement

07 Istiklal Caddesi

Crowds of tourists, shoppers and local people walk down Istiklal Avenue in the Beyoglu area of Istanbul decorated with flags commemorating October 29 the Turkish Republic Day public holiday davidf / Getty Images

Stretching around 1 mile through European Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi is the perfect place to shop til you drop. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; you can get everything from designer clothing and handmade leather goods to musical instruments and local art. Not for those who dislike crowds, however, as around 3 million people a day visit the street on the weekend.

Be sure to stop off for a drink in the stunning Cicek Pasaji - or Flower Passage - or if you're feeling a little exhausted, take a trip on the antique tram to get to Taksim Square, where you can enjoy dinner in a rooftop restaurant with a stunning view of the Bosphorus.

Advertisement

08 The Grand Bazaar

Two Woman Going Shopping At The Grand Bazaar. Istanbul, Turkey, RoBeDeRo / Getty Images

The Grand Bazaar is the largest undercover marketplace in the world, and no visit to Istanbul would be complete without a visit here. It is 330,400 square feet and has over 60 streets and alleys, which are home to 4,000 shops and 500 dolaps - or market stalls.

You will get lost. There are 22 entrances, and the entire outside section is also part of the market. It will also take more than an afternoon, so rather than rushing through, take your time to chat with the shop owners and barter for the purchases you want to make.

Don't be afraid to pass on certain objects, and some shop owners will more aggressively try to close a sale with you. In general, the more aggressive the vendor, the less likely the item is worth your time.

Advertisement

09 Take a Boat

Galata Bridge in Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey. omersukrugoksu / Getty Images

When it comes to getting a feel for Istanbul, a 90-minute cruise on the Bosphorus will give you an unrivaled view of Istanbul's skyline. These cruises go from Eminonu Quay to the Bosphorus Bridge and then return, and is a great way to understand more of Istanbul's geography.

If you want to get to the less touristy part of Istanbul, take a ferry from Karakoy or Eminonu to Harem. Part of the Asian side of Istanbul, you can walk the coastal path to Uskudar and look into Europe from the next continent.

Advertisement

10 Visit the Islands

View of Helicopter from Istanbul Islands Istanbul, Turkey. asikkk / Getty Images

Far from just a stunning city, there are also several small islands off the coast of Istanbul that make for incredible visits.

Known as the Princes' Islands, there are nine islands in total that sit in the Sea of Marmara. Once exile sites during the Ottoman Empire, today, just four of them are open to the public who want to escape the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Büyükada, which is the biggest and most popular, Burgazada, Heybeliada, and Kınalıada.

The islands have Victorian cottages and horse-drawn carriages, and if you find Istanbul a little overwhelming, take the first-morning ferry out and spend a day in silence and tranquility.

Advertisement

11 Sunset on Çamlica Hill

istanbul camlica mosque; camlica tepesi camii under construction camlica mosque is the largest

The highest point in Istanbul, Çamlica Hill, has a wide range of tea shops, cafes, and restaurants, as well as a public park with flower gardens and fountains. Take an afternoon trip to the Çamlica Mosque, which is the largest mosque in Asia Minor and includes a museum, art gallery, and library.

Then grab a refreshment and sit on the hill to watch the sunset over the bay, with some of the most stunning views you'll ever encounter.

Advertisement

12 Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahce Palace interior on May 06 2014 in Istanbul Turkey. Baccarat chandelier and staircase

If you think that Kanye and the Kardashians invented the notion of bling, it's time to take a trip to Dolmabahçe Palace. Built in the mid-1800s, this palace cost 5 million Ottoman lira, which is equivalent to 35 tons of gold, or around $1.5 billion.

Crystal Balustrades support the grand staircase, and the ceremonial hall has the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, which was a gift to the Sultan from Queen Victoria of Britain.

Advertisement

13 Süleymaniye Mosque

view to Istanbul Skyline with Galata tower Nikada / Getty Images

You won't want to miss Süleymaniye Mosque, one of the biggest and most impressive mosques in Istanbul. Perched on the top of Third Hill, the mosque features beautiful domes and minarets that stand out in the city skyline. Legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan designed this structure for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, blending Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements. Inside, you'll find a serene space adorned with exquisite Iznik tiles, stained glass windows, and a grand dome. The complex also includes a hospital, library, and a medrese (religious school), as well as the tombs of Suleyman the Magnificent, his wife Roxelana, and Mimar Sinan.

Advertisement

14 Beylerbeyi Palace

If you cross the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, you'll discover the striking Beylerbeyi Palace overlooking the water. Completed in 1865, the palace served as a luxurious summer residence for the Ottoman sultans and a venue for entertaining important guests, including European royalty. As you approach the palace from the gardens, you'll be greeted by columns of gleaming white marble. The reception hall sets the tone with a beautiful pool and a fountain. Explore the rooms and halls adorned with extravagant touches like crystal chandeliers, Chinese porcelain, and intricately painted ceilings, and immerse yourself in the atmosphere of Ottoman opulence.

15 Hippodrome of Constantinople

Istanbul, Turkey. Obelisk of Theodosius, egyptian heritage in Sultanahmet downtown. emicristea / Getty Images

The Hippodrome of Constantinople used to be a massive structure that served as the center of Byzantine social life. It could accommodate up to 100,000 people who came from far and wide to watch and bet on thrilling chariot races. The Hippodrome also hosted political discussions and became adorned with statues and monuments from various emperors throughout its history. Today, the site of the Hippodrome is Sultanahmet Square. While the original structure no longer stands, you can still see some of the preserved monuments from its glory days, including the Serpent Column, the Obelisk of Thutmose II, and the Walled Obelisk.

Advertisement

16 Walls of Constantinople

Walls of Istanbul dinosmichail / Getty Images

Many Byzantine emperors constructed walls to protect the city that is now Istanbul. However, the most effective and enduring defense was the Walls of Constantinople, which still stand today. Also known as The Theodosian Walls, these imposing structures demonstrated their worth when they successfully repelled an attack by Attila the Hun and his army. Throughout centuries, the walls withstood numerous sieges and now serve as a testament to the city's strength. Today, they not only provide a glimpse into the past but also offer breathtaking views of modern-day Istanbul.

Advertisement

17 Indulge in Turkish Delight

Lokum or Turkish Delight Fajrul Islam / Getty Images

You can’t go to Istanbul and not sample Turkish Delight. This traditional treat is also known as lokum, and it’s a favorite with locals and visitors alike. It’s sweet and chewy and comes in a wide variety of flavors, including rosewater, lemon, and pomegranate, to name just a few. Other varieties are slightly crunchy from the addition of nuts like pistachios and walnuts. You can find Turkish Delight in the markets and sweet shops alongside other local confections like baklava and halva. Koska is a well-known chain that many claim makes the best Turkish Delight in the city.

Advertisement

18 Belly Dancing and Whirling Dervishes

Belly dancer in a brown dress, suit is dancing an oriental, East dance. Beautiful exotic belly tribal dancer with blue and red shawl woman zeynep boğoçlu / Getty Images

If you appreciate arts and culture, don't miss the opportunity to attend a traditional Turkish dance performance in Istanbul. Whirling dervish ceremonies are spiritual dances where members of the Mevlevi Sufi order perform symbolic whirling movements to deepen their connection with God. The performance is mesmerizing and creates a trance-like state for both the dancers and the audience. Belly dancing is another captivating art form featuring graceful undulating movements to rhythmic beats. Across the city, various cultural centers and restaurants host these fascinating performances, providing an authentic and immersive cultural experience.

Advertisement

19 Ortaköy for Nightlife

Ortakoy mosque and bridge at dusk, Istanbul, Turkey Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

As the sun sets, the Ortaköy neighborhood of Istanbul comes alive with vibrant energy, attracting revelers in search of an exciting night out. Located along the Bosphorus Strait, this cosmopolitan spot offers a delightful mix of trendy restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Begin your evening at a waterfront restaurant, enjoying breathtaking views of the Bosphorus and the Ortaköy Mosque as a stunning backdrop. Then, venture into one of the many clubs where you can dance, drink, and mingle with like-minded people. If you're up for it the next day, explore the lively street market that takes place in Ortaköy every Sunday.

Advertisement

20 Sip Turkish Coffee

Pouring turkish coffee vuk8691 / Getty Images

No visit to Istanbul is complete without savoring a cup of traditional Turkish coffee. Brewed in a special pot called a cezve, Turkish coffee is renowned for its strong flavor and unique preparation method. Visit a local café and witness experienced baristas preparing your coffee over hot sand or an open flame. Take the time to appreciate the rich, thick brew that offers more than just a caffeine fix—it's a sensory experience. The intoxicating aroma, fine grind, and traditional serving style contribute to making Turkish coffee drinking a sought-after ritual in Istanbul.

Share

Scroll Down

for the Next Article

The Getaway Badge
Sign up to receive insider info and deals that will help you travel smarter.
Advertisement
Advertisement