Joana and I love visiting big cities and Istanbul being one of the biggest cities in the world, itwas on the top of our list for everything it represents on a historical and cultural level.
But when we visited Istanbul in October of 2016, our feeling was different. We had booked our trip in March or April of that year, at a time where everything seemed normal in Istanbul. But after the terror attacks on the city and the airport over the summer, when our trip came up in October, Joana and I had some concerns. We decided to travel anyway, but the truth is we were a bit afraid and that sense of fear permeated through the airport and the city.
The truth is, we came across very few tourists and we visited everything in the city practically alone because there just weren’t people around. You can think that we were better off this way but, honestly, what we really felt was that it was such a shame – for the city, for the people – because everything is so beautiful in Turkey but it was so empty. Someone even told us that tourism dropped as much as 70% in the entire country! We know that it’s normal to be afraid in this type of situations, but we also know that Turkish authorities are doing everything they can to control security concerns better – something that is very visible in the most touristic places in Istanbul, for example.
Even in this context, our trip was amazing. When you visit Istanbul, it’s impossible to think of anything other than the beauty of the monuments you’re seeing – and there are really a lot to see! So, below, check out our suggestions for the best places to visit in Istanbul:
Aya Sofya is just an amazing monument – on the outside, it has a totally different architecture from what we’re used to seeing; inside, it’s divine. The most interesting part of it all though is the way that its history reflects Istanbul’s multicultural heritage. Originally (500 AD – 1200 AD) an Orthodox basilica, Aya Sofya was the religious seat of Constantinople. In the 13 th century, it was transformed into a Catholic church until 1453, when it was converted again, this time into an Ottoman Mosque, remaining that way until the beginning of the 20 th century when it was secularized and turned into a public museum.
Right in front of Aya Sofya, you have Istanbul’s most photogenic place – and Joana and I weren’t going to pass up the opportunity to admire it every day! So, we booked our room at Arcadia Blue Istanbul with an unbeatable view of the mosque. The hotel’s rooftop terrace is the perfect spot to take photos and admire the mosque. And you should definitely visit it – its interior filled with blue mosaics is simply superb. Just don’t forget that this is a working mosque so it closes 5 times a day for prayers and you’re required to dress conservatively to enter.
This cistern is one of hundreds that can be found under the city of Istanbul – but it’s the biggest of them all and, undoubtedly, the most impressive. Built in 532 AD, the cistern has over 300 Roman columns and covers an area of 10,000m 2 ! The string of water that continues to run here combined with the low lighting create a mysterious environment that is really worth it to experience. (And, of course, you can’t miss sighting the inexplicable column with a statue of Medusa!)
One of the most important monuments when visiting Istanbul, Topkapi Palace is a treasure chest of the city’s history and stories. The seat of the royal family during the Ottoman Empire, for four centuries the palace was inhabited by sultans and concubines whose secrets we will never know. Joana and I loved visiting the entire complex of the palace – it’s a beautiful place with blooming gardens, picturesque patios and majestic halls. For a gorgeous view over the other side of Istanbul (with the Galata Tower on the horizon), go to the Marble Terrace!
To really feel Istanbul, there is nothing better than to lose yourself in the maze of colorful shops that is the Grand Bazaar. Joana and I spent an entire afternoon here and it wasn’t always easy to know exactly where we were! (But, of course, that’s part of the fun!) We could only see vendors and shops after shops after shops! Quick tip: don’t visit on a Sunday because that’s the only day the Grand Bazaar closes.
And since we’re in the only city that’s located on two different continents, why not cross them? In just one hour, you can catch a tourist ferry that travels between the two margins of the Bosphorus Strait connecting Europe and Asia. The short trip also offers you a closer view of some monuments and takes you up close to the Bosphorus Bridge.
One of Istanbul’s most historic avenues, Istiklal is also one of the city’s most popular avenues. In fact, it’s so popular that, on some days on the weekend, almost 3 million people pass by here! We wound up here by accident, but it was amazing. The street is filled with stores; there’s so many that the same store can be found almost 3 times there! But it makes sense because the crowds here are insane – Champs Elysées or 5 th Avenue next to this are nothing! There’s also a famous electric car that passes through here and connects Istiklal Avenue with Taksim Square – wait for it to pass to get the perfect Instagram moment!
One of the ends of Itiklal Avenue leads directly to the heart of modern Istanbul: Taksim Square. This is where the city’s main cultural, social and political events take place. Most known currently for the political protests that have happened here recently, Taksim Square is a true meeting point for tourists and locals. Its huge metro station makes it absolutely central and its proximity to restaurants and hotels makes it rite of passage for tourists. Spend some time here to check out Istanbul’s crowds.
Originally built in the 14 th century, for centuries Galata Tower was the highest structure in the city. Today, it’s still an imposing building on Istanbul’s skyline. The tower is open to visitors and you should definitely check out its 360-degree view of Istanbul from the observation deck.