From Local Bazaars to Iconic Attractions—Here Are the Best Things to do in Istanbul, Turkey
From above, Istanbul looks like a precious stone, its cascade of domes and rooftops glimmering in the summer sun. Around it are the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, the two great bodies of water that converge in the bright blue of the Bosphorus. Up close, one of the first sensations in Istanbul is that of a great warmth, which radiates from being in a place that is so completely itself. Brought forth by the world’s most formidable empires and modern governments alike, Istanbul wears everything proudly—from its mixed Byzantine and Ottoman history to the much quicker pace of life it follows today.
Encounters are an Istanbul specialty: seafaring vessels dipping into the Bosphorus for trade and leisure, locals going about on cobblestone streets, and one sedan after another buzzing by. It is the meeting point of two continents, Europe and Asia, and the melting pot of many worldly influences.
For Mikaela Lagdameo-Martinez, travelling to Istanbul for this cover shoot meant finally setting foot in one of her long-time dream destinations. “I keep a list of countries I want to visit, and Turkey has always been on that list,” she shares. "It has always held a certain [curiosity] and felt like a place so rich in culture, with an adventure waiting for everybody.” Her own adventure in Istanbul began in the Shangri-La Bosphorus, where she and the Philippine Tatler Traveller team stayed for the duration of the trip.
The European and Asian side of Istanbul
Itself located in a historical ‘30s-era building, restored to match Istanbul’s beautifully preserved skyline, the Shangri-La was the perfect starting point from which to visit the city’s most treasured landmarks, as well as to watch scenes of local life unfold. “The hotel was amazingly located,” shares Mikaela. “From there, you could cross the road to a [charming] street full of restaurants and cafes, or you could hop on a ferry and explore the shorelines on both sides of the city.”
In Istanbul, thousands of people commute from one side of the Bosphorus to the other via ferry boat. It is the city’s main thoroughfare after all and considered to be the heart of Istanbul. One trip costs about two or three lira, except on public holidays when ferry rides may be given for free, along with a complimentary shoreline tour. Crossing the river from the hotel, which is on the European side, will bring you to the Asian side of Istanbul, which is more residential.
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Discover the palaces
Strewn across the city, in a route roughly parallel to the river, are magnificent historical structures that house Istanbul’s most significant memories. Nearest to the Shangri-La in the Beikta district is the opulent Dolmabahçe Palace, built by the Ottomans as a show of progressiveness in the 19th century. The largest palace in Turkey and the most expensive, the Dolmabahçe was the last residence of the Ottoman emperors, whose reign ended with Abdulmejid II, the last Caliph of the Ottomans. Apart from its sumptuously decorated European-style interiors, the grounds feature a fine imperial hammam (steam bath) made of alabaster marble from Egypt.
Across the inlet is Sultanahmet, a district best explored by foot. Here, you will find the Topkapi Palace, a spectacular, intricately-tiled compound of courtyards, pavilions, and ornate chambers, where the Ottoman sultans lived and held court between the 15th and 19th centuries. The most visited section of the palace is the imperial harem, a series of 300 rooms where the sultan, his wives, his family, and his concubines lived. “This was a sight to see,” Mikaela says. “There was so much character and beauty all around.”
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The iconic landmarks of Istanbul
Deeper still into the Sultanahmet district is Istanbul’s most iconic landmark, the Hagia Sophia. Built by the Byzantines to be the seat of Orthodox Christianity in the middle ages, the Hagia Sophia, whose name translates to “holy wisdom,” was the largest building in the world and an architectural marvel of sand and ceramic, surmounted by a spectacular silver dome.
During the Muslim conquest of Istanbul in the 15th century, the basilica was converted into an imperial mosque, and later on in the 1930’s it was declared secular ground and transformed into a museum by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk. “The gorgeous architecture of the Hagia Sophia blew me away,” says Mikaela. “It is incredible to think that what was once a cathedral became a mosque, and is now a museum.” An integral part of Istanbul’s incomparable skyline, the Hagia Sophia is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the only building in the world to be declared holy ground by three different religions: Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, and the secular Republic of Turkey.
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Another spiritual treasure of Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, so named for the thousands of blue Iznik tiles carefully pieced together to compose its grand interior. Its sacred atmosphere is preserved by a few strictly kept rules. Only worshippers are allowed to pass through the main door, while visitors have to enter through the south door. Tourists and non-Muslims are also asked to observe the same clothing guidelines. In particular, men are required to wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, while women are required to wear headscarves and floor-length skirts.
The mosque is closed to visitors during the six daily times of prayer: two hours before dawn, at dawn, midday, afternoon, sunset, and just before the last light of day. “When I was inside, [I caught a glimpse] of some of them praying,” Mikaela shares. “The men were out in the main sanctuary, while the women had their own prayer room.” She was equally enchanted by the sound of the athan, the Islamic call to prayer. “It would sound off every few hours during the day, and it was so beautiful,” Mikaela says. “Wherever you were in the city, it could be heard.”
Shopping for local crafts
A few steps away from the Blue Mosque is the Arasta Bazaar, a historic arcade of about 40 shops that offer a range of artisanal handicrafts, ceramics, textiles, and kilims. The Arasta Bazaar was once part of the complex of the Blue Mosque. There, the shopping is a little more expensive, a little more specialised, and done outdoors. Also in Sultanahmet is the Grand Bazaar, the great marketplace of Istanbul and one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world.
A labyrinth location of almost 4,000 shops spanning 45,000 square metres, the Grand Bazaar is best explored at a leisurely pace and with the expectation of being momentarily lost. Its alleys are named after whatever wares are sold there: gold and silver jewellery, mirrors, hammam towels, pots and cups, leather products, spices, Turkish carpets, and everything in between. More modern and commercial products like handbags and clothing can now also be found in this vast shopper’s paradise.
For Mikaela, who has a slight obsession with Turkish carpets, the markets presented some of the most exciting encounters of the trip. “The prices were extremely affordable,” she shares. “A tip to those visiting is that the Arasta Bazaar is a good Sunday alternative to the Grand Bazaar, which is closed on that day.” Many samples and souvenirs of the local culture can be found in both markets and they are must-see spots when on a first-time visit to Istanbul, not only for the bargain-hunting and beautiful wares but also for their historical value.
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Most impressively, these fabled domes and marketplaces seem to be more than just relics of a time gone by and feel instead like living, breathing parts of the epic historical wonder that is Istanbul. Surrounding them are the more intimate moments of ordinary life in the city that complete the picture.
First, there is the sweeping view of the Bosphorus, which has an almost spiritual hold on Istanbul. Everything happens on the river: the daily commute via ferry boat, enterprising trips by small fishing and touring boats, and business trades on bigger vessels and container ships. Moreover, every house and building in Istanbul is built to face the Bosphorus. It is a grounding, centripetal presence for its residents, wherever they may be in the city. “There were so many breath-taking views of the Bosphorus, whether we were down by the bay, up on a rooftop restaurant, or best of all, aboard a boat,” Mikaela shares. “It was definitely a highlight.”
Dine like the locals
Second, there are the meals. “The food was delicious,” says Mikaela, “and everybody we met was genuinely accommodating and helpful.” One thing to try when in Istanbul is eating at a kebab house, usually the simplest of places where juicy, roasted meats are served in strips, stacks, sandwiches, or wraps. In addition to the kebab, which is an original dish of Turkey, these shops serve plates of appetisers called mezze, and the national alcoholic beverage, raki.
A great choice for the experience is Hamdi, which is located near the Spice Bazaar and has a commanding view of the Old City, Golden Horn, and Galata Tower from its top-floor terrace. Hamdi, which grew from a modest Urfa-style kebab stand in the 1960s and which is named after its owner, is considered by many to be the perfect ambassador of Turkish cuisine and hospitality. Another thing not to be missed is a taste of the fresh catch of the day, for which one of the best spots to try is the Sur Balik, a restaurant that serves fresh and seasonal seafood specialities within a multi-storey Ottoman mansion overlooking the Bosphorus.
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Finally, there is the daily ritual of çay or Turkish tea, which is part and parcel of the Turkish experience, whether taken alone or when huddled around a table with others. The most vital part of the ritual is holding the teacup firmly by the rim and taking a sip of the hot tea, for this is what signals that it is your turn to rest and watch local life pass you by.
Simply by being itself, Istanbul leaves you absolutely mesmerised, be it in the shadow of its cavernous structures or in the quiet moments of every day. “Making our way through the city, I was filled with awe,” says Mikaela. “Istanbul felt truly European but with a Middle Eastern charm, and though modernised, its culture was so well-preserved.”
Take a long walk along the Bosphorus or gaze at any view of it that is in front of you and you will encounter another important sensation: contentment. After all, the most enchanting thing about Istanbul is that, in the best and most daring of ways, it has always let history take its natural course. True to this, the Istanbul you will meet as a traveller today is not a city longing for the grandeur of its past or hurrying toward what lies ahead. It is purely, intensely in the present.