Istanbul is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited. Whenever I try to describe it to someone, I feel like I’m constantly contradicting myself. Istanbul is modern, but also traditional. Busy, yet also peaceful. No matter which word I choose to describe the city, there is always a case to be made for its counterpart.
Istanbul is a little bit of everything. This beings to make sense once you consider its location and role throughout history. Location wise, Istanbul is the only city which is in both Europe and Asia. This unique location enabled Istanbul (previously known as Constantinople), to play an important role during the Spice Trade. Historically, Istanbul has been ruled by many great empires, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Together, Istanbul's history and location have created a cultural melting pot, blending European, Middle Eastern, and Asian cultures.
With such an eventful past and mix of different people, Istanbul is able to offer an incredible variety of food and experiences. On that note, here is a list of 10 unique things to do in Istanbul:
Revel at history in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is probably the most famous and historically-important structure in Istanbul. It dates back to 537 AD, the beginning of the Middle Ages, and was the largest building in the world at the time. Over the centuries, it has served as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, an Ottoman imperial mosque, and most recently - a museum. Although it no longer holds the title of the largest building in the world, it is surely one of the most beautiful. Standing inside it, my gaze was constantly pulled upwards to the massive dome above my head and the fine streams of light sneaking in through the upper windows.
Shop for a lantern in the Grand Bazaar
One of the prettiest sights in Istanbul is a lantern shop all lit up. The lanterns hang from just about everywhere imaginable and fill the space with different shades of color. For the cheapest prices on lanterns and other souvenirs, I recommend checking out the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with approximately 4000 shops inside. One thing to keep in mind though, is the goods sold in the Grand Bazaar are usually not as high quality as goods sold in small boutique shops. For a lantern made with fine Turkish craftsmanship, consider browsing outside of the bazaar.
TIP: Try your hand at negotiating in the Grand Bazaar. Negotiating here is perfectly normal and almost expected.
Sip apple tea from a rooftop
There are two things Istanbul does very well - apple tea and rooftop views. The apple tea is like apple cider, served hot and very sweet. It's a nice treat to have at night when the air gets chilly and you're looking for something to warm your hands. If you happen to be on the rooftop at sunset, you’ll likely see the silhouettes of countless mosques around you - their tall minarets pointing straight up into the sky.
Take in the view from the Galata Tower
Sitting across the Galata Bridge in the Karaköy province of Istanbul, is a stone tower which dates to medieval times. The Galata Tower, as it's called, is nine stories high and offers panoramic views of the city. During my trip to Istanbul, the Galata Tower was the perfect excuse to wander across the Galata Bridge and familiarize myself with an area outside of Sultanahmet. From Hagia Sophia, the tower was about 40 minutes away by foot. Not the quickest walk, but a pretty one.
TIP: Break up the long walk by stopping to watch the fishermen on the Galata Bridge. You may see one of them pull up a fish!
Take a ferry to the Prince Islands
If you find yourself looking to escape the city for a day, consider visiting the Prince Islands. This collection of nine islands sits about an hour away from Istanbul by ferry. While not the most exciting place I visited in Istanbul, the Prince Islands offer something which is not always easy to come by in the city - peace and quiet. This is largely due to the fact cars are not allowed on the Prince Islands. To get around, locals either walk or take a horse-and-carriage. Curious how to get to there? Here’s an article on how to get to the Prince Islands.
Experience a real Turkish bath
In Turkey, going out for a 'bath' is a relaxing experience, like going to a spa in the States. While bathing experiences can vary slightly, the one I had in Istanbul went a like this:
Enter the main reception area of the bath house
Head to the women's section of the bath house and undress
Sit in a sauna for a while to relax
Receive a short, shoulder and neck massage
Get washed with warm water and soap by a female attendant
Lay down on a central platform and have all your dead skin scrubbed off (goodbye summer tan)
One more soapy washing session and then a dip into a cold-water pool
Voila! I have yet to feel as thoroughly clean as I did after that bath.
Head underground at Basilica Cistern
Basilica Cistern is the largest, underground water reservoir in Istanbul. It was built between the 3rd and 4th centuries and can hold 100,000 tons of water. Today, the Basilica Cistern is virtually empty besides a shallow layer of water which lines the bottom. If you’re trying to picture what this place looks like, picture a dark and eerie underground room with hundreds of marble columns. Between the columns is a pathway you can wander and admire the architectural highlights from. Since the Basilica Cistern is underground, it has no natural lighting. Instead, there are little lights placed by every column, illuminating where you’re supposed to walk.
P.S. If Istanbul ever wanted to throw a good Halloween party, this would be the place to do it.
Don a headscarf in the Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque is a historic mosque built during the early 1600s. Its interior is filled with hand-painted, blue tiles, and a low-hanging chandelier. While incredibly beautiful, what I remember most from visiting the Blue Mosque was the cultural experience.
My visit to the mosque started with me picking up a headscarf outside its doors. The mosque loans headscarves to women for free so they meet the dress code requirements. Inside the mosque, I could walk around the edges of the interior but not up to where people were praying. Only men who are Muslim are allowed in the front. Putting on a headscarf, entering a mosque, and not being allowed to enter a certain area due to my gender were all new experiences for me. I'm grateful I had those experiences though, as they gave me my first glimpse into a religion and culture I know little about.
Have your fill of Baklava
Oh my gosh…baklava. Let me first say that any baklava you’ve tried in America or elsewhere outside of Turkey was probably not a good indication of what baklava should taste like (unless you have a Turkish grandma cooking for you). The baklava in Istanbul is so different than anything I’ve seen in the States. It’s rich, moist, flavorful, and everything in between. I absolutely love it. What I also learned in Istanbul, is there are also a ton of different kinds of baklava. Step inside a baklava shop and you’ll see trays everywhere, each with a different variation of baklava on it.
Try a fresh simit from a food cart
Make sure and try a fresh simit while you’re in Istanbul. Simit is the Turkish version of a bagel. They’re incredibly cheap and flavorful, and are usually served with Nutella or a type of cheese spread. To find a simit, look for a striped food truck in the touristy parts of the city (near Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque is usually a good bet).
Places I didn’t make it to but heard great things about:
This UNSECO World Heritage Site used to be the main residence of the Ottoman sultans. Today, it is a large museum which houses historic artifacts and shows off impressive architecture.
Asian side of Istanbul
Istanbul is the only city in the world which is spread over two continents. Sultanahmet, the area of Istanbul where most of the popular tourist sights are, is located on the European side. For a greener, less-crowded, and cheaper experience, check out the Asian side of Istanbul.
If you’re looking for a nice Instagram photo, check out Istanbul’s rainbow stairs. They were created as part of a citywide street art project.
Is Istanbul safe?
The short answer is yes. Istanbul is safe and a wonderful place to visit. For tips on how to stay in Istanbul, check out my guide to visiting Istanbul as a solo female traveler.
Want to see photos of Istanbul?
While I’d love to show you photos from my own trip to Istanbul, I visited back in 2015 before I carried around a nice camera with me. The photos I took were on an old cell phone and aren’t very nice to look at. The good news is, I found two articles from other bloggers with stunning shots of Istanbul in them: