Istanbul, Turkey is well-known for its delicious ethnic cuisine, vibrant culture, and splendid shopping, not to forget it has plenty of sun and sea. Combine all this with Istanbul’s impressive historical architecture and you’ve got a destination well worth ticking off the bucket list. If this hasn’t yet convinced you, keep reading to find out why you should visit the beautiful city of Istanbul.
Visiting Istanbul, Turkey: It’s the largest city in Turkey
Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey, constituting the country’s economic, cultural, and historical heart. With a population of 14.1 million, the city forms one of the largest urban areas in Europe, second largest in the Middle East, and the fifth-largest city in the world by population within city limits.
Istanbul is a transcontinental city, straddling the Bosphorus, which is one of the world’s busiest waterways, located in north western Turkey, between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Its commercial and historical centre lies in Europe, while a third of its population lives in Asia.
Although the Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, palaces and imperial mosques still line Istanbul’s hills and are beautiful reminders of the city’s previous central role. Overlooked by the new capital during the interwar period, the city has since regained much of its prominence, and the population of the city has increased tenfold since the 1950s.
Istanbul is teeming with history
Millions of people visit Istanbul each year, so there must be something spectacular causing this city to make so many travellers’ top destination lists. Istanbul’s biggest draw remains its historic centre, but its prominent cultural and entertainment hub can be found across the city’s natural harbour, the Golden Horn, in the Beyoğlu district. Considered a global city, Istanbul is one of the fastest-growing metropolitan economies in the world.
Following the model of Rome, the historic peninsula is said to be characterized by seven hills, each topped by imperial mosques. The easternmost of these hills is the site of Topkapi Palace on the Sarayburnu. Rising from the opposite side of the Golden Horn is another, conical hill, where the modern Beyoğlu district lies. Üsküdar on the Asian side exhibits similarly hilly characteristics, with the terrain gradually extending down to the Bosphorus coast. Istanbul is beautiful, and its mosques are a main attraction.
With its long history at the center of empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments, dating back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Basilica Cistern, which are located around Sultanahmet Square.
Others are dispersed throughout the peninsula of old city, such as Church of St Savior in Chora. Its entire inside is covered by intrinsic frescoes and mosaics, and an impressive section of mostly-intact Theodosian walls, which mark the full length of the western boundary of the peninsula.
On the peninsula north of the old city, across the Golden Horn, is Galata, which is crowned by the Galata Tower. Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art, is on the nearby waterfront of Karaköy. Another sight close-by of great religious significance is the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall of the Sufi Mevlevi order, which is positioned north of the Tower. Further north is the Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s prominent pedestrian street running from near Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the central square of the entire city.
Heading west rather than north from the old city brings you deeper into the banks of the Golden Horn estuary. A neighbourhood perhaps well worth a visit here is Eyüp, to visit city’s holiest Islamic shrine and just to see what daily life in Ottoman Istanbul was like. On the opposite shores of the Horn, in Sütlüce is the Miniaturk, the first miniature park in the city, with models from around the former Ottoman Empire.
North of Taksim Square is New Istanbul, the main business district of the city. If venturing out to this direction don’t forget to check out the Military Museum
, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every afternoon. Most of the skyscrapers of the city are located in the north of this district, around Levent and Maslak, with a totally different skyline from that of the old city.
Southern reaches of the very same district has some fine neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the 20th century, around the neighbourhoods of Osmanbey, Kurtuluş, and Nişantaşı. Just east from here, with a little drop in elevation as you approach the shore, is the banks of Bosphorus, lined by pleasant neighbourhoods full of waterfront mansions and a number of waterside palaces where you can admire the ridiculous riches of the inhabitants.
The weather is hot and sunny
One of the most prominent characteristics of the climate in parts of Istanbul is its extremely high humidity, which reaches 80 percent most mornings. This tends to create a lot of fog in the region that can occasionally disrupt transportation. The humid conditions and the fog tend to depart by midday during the summer months, but the lingering humidity means that it is rather warm in Istanbul in the summer. During these summer months, high temperatures average around 29 °C and rainfall is uncommon, but the summer months surprisingly have the highest concentration of thunderstorms.
Winter is colder in Istanbul than in most other cities around the Mediterranean Basin, with low temperatures averaging 3–4 °C. Spring and autumn are mild, but often wet and unpredictable. Summer is the best time to visit Istanbul, (between June and September) but be prepared to tackle the heat and humidity.
The shopping is endless
Istanbul is home to an abundance of great shopping centers, from the historic to the modern. The Grand Bazaar, which has been operating since 1461, is among the world’s oldest and largest covered markets. Mahmutpasha Bazaar is an open-air market extending between the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar, which has been Istanbul’s major spice market since 1660.
Galleria Ataköy ushered in the age of modern shopping malls in Turkey when it opened in 1987. Since then, malls have become major shopping centers outside the historic peninsula. Akmerkez was awarded the titles of “Europe’s best” and “World’s best” shopping mall by the International Council of Shopping Centers in 1995 and 1996, and Istanbul Cevahir has been one of the continents largest since opening in 2005.
Kanyon mall won the Cityscape Architectural Review Award in the Commercial Built category in 2006, which is worth a visit. İstinye Park in İstinye and Zorlu Center near Levent are among the newest malls which include the stores of the world’s top fashion brands for travellers who are keen to dress to impress. Abdi İpekçi Street in Nişantaşı and Bağdat Avenue on the Anatolian side of the city have evolved into high-end shopping districts.
Food, food, and more food!
Who doesn’t love Turkish food, and what better place to order your favourite kebab than from the country which invented it. Aside from typical Turkish cuisine, Istanbul is also famous for its historic seafood restaurants. Many of the city’s most popular and upscale seafood restaurants line the shores of the Bosphorus (particularly in neighborhoods like Ortaköy, Bebek, Arnavutköy,Yeniköy, Beylerbeyi and Çengelköy), while the Kumkapı neighborhood along the Sea of Marmara has a pedestrian zone that hosts around fifty fish restaurants.
The Princes’ Islands, located 15 kilometers from the city center, are popular for their seafood restaurants. Because of their restaurants, historic summer mansions, and tranquil, car-free streets, the Princes’ Islands are a popular vacation destination among locals and foreign tourists.
Restaurants featuring foreign cuisines are mainly concentrated in the Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş, Şişli and Kadıköy districts. Residing along İstiklal Avenue is the Çiçek Pasajı, now home to winehouses (known as meyhanes), pubs, and restaurants. While the focus of İstiklal Avenue, originally famous for its taverns, has shifted toward shopping, the nearby Nevizade Street is still lined with winehouses and pubs.
The street-eats are delectable
One edible treat not to be missed is the local ice cream sold at the street stands, called dondurma. The ice cream usually incorporates orchid root extract, which gives it an incredibly chewy and stringy texture, but delicious nonetheless. Be sure to try Ayran, a local drink based on yoghurt, although sour and much thinner. It isn’t always on the menu or displayed, you might have to specifically ask for it.
Kumpir is a snack which can easily be a full meal. It is originated from Albania but is quite unique to Istanbul in its present form. It consists of a baked potato with various fillings such as grated cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles, sweetcorn, sausage slices, carrots, mushrooms, and more. Don’t miss the “simit,” a warm bread sold from carts around the city, and is a fantastic snack to walk around with. The texture and taste is a bit like a sesame bagel.
The nightlife is colourful and diverse
Beyoğlu is notoriously known for its nightlife. It’s full of cafes and bars with live music, and people from all classes and ethnicities can be found here. Kadıköy also has a nightlife scene, serving mostly locals of this part of the city. It usually has a more easy-going style of nightlife, with local pubs, wine houses and traditional meyhanes. If you aren’t staying on that side of the city, it may not be worth the trouble of making the trip just to have a drink, but drop by if you’re around and thirsty.
While there are night clubs all over the city of Istanbul, the best clubs are in Ortaköy. Galata is a local hotspot for those who want to avoid the clubs of Taskim. The steps going down from the Galata Tower are busy at night so grab some beers from the local shops and have an interesting night out mixing with the locals.
Istanbul’s public transit system can be difficult to figure out as maps are rare and you often have to transfer and pay another fare to get where you are going. But if you put some effort into it, you can avoid taxis and not walk too much.
Each time you use a tram, metro, bus, or boat on the public transport system, you will need to use a token. The small metal/plastic tokens can be bought at various ticket kiosks and machines at bus, railway and metro stations. Ticket fares across buses, trams and metros are at a flat rate, it doesn’t matter how far you go. Only cash in Turkish lira is accepted at ticket kiosks of public transport, also be aware that the Istanbul subway system does not offer transfer tickets. Good luck!