Istanbul is a very unique city due to the fact that it is part of both Europe and Asia, separated by the Bosphorus strait that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean.
About a third of Istanbul population inhabits the Asian side while most of the historical marvels and landmarks lie on the European side, including the Hagia Sophia, a church turned mosque turned museum.
Here’s a small practical guide to the top cultural attractions of Istanbul as well as tips about how to get a cheap Bosphorus cruise in this city of sultans and minarets.
Are you ready?
Things to do in Istanbul #01: The Mosques and Churches
Traveling to Istanbul without visiting a mosque it’s like traveling to Mexico without eating a taco: it’s simply not possible. Istanbul is home to more than 2900 mosques, all of which are open to the public during non praying hours.
The most impressive mosques are the Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), the Suleymaniye Mosque and the Hagia Sophia which used to be a church before becoming a mosque and now it’s neither since it got turned into a museum by Turkey’s First President Ataturk.
In addition to that, you can find churches from Byzantine times and enjoy the amazing golden mosaics inside of them. The most beautiful one of these is the Chora Church located beyond the city walls of Istanbul. Entrance fee is 15TL and it’s included in the Istanbul Museum Pass.
Things to do in Istanbul #02: The Topkapi Palace and the Harem
If visiting historic palaces is more your thing, you will be pleased to know that the Topkapi Palace, former home of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire, is open to the public and features many exhibitions of the Muslim world, including the swords used by Muhammad’s blessed companions as well as the staff of Moses. The palace is fairly big and you can easily spend one full day inside of it.
Entrance to the Topkapi Palace is 30 TL plus another 15 TL for the Harem. If you’re planning on visiting also the Hagia Sophia (30 TL), Chora Church (15 TL), Mosaic Museum (10 TL) and Archeology Museum (15 TL), it makes sense to buy the Museum Pass which costs 85 TL and it’s valid for 72 hours.
PS. With the Museum Pass you can also skip the queues so it’s very handy during high season.
Things to do in Istanbul #03: The Mosaic and Archeology Museums
The Mosaic museum is located near the Blue Mosque in an area that once housed a Byzantine Palace. Today, only the mosaics remain and they tell a very interesting tale about mythology and the daily life in the last days of the once glorious Roman Empire including mosaics of midgets fighting tigers that would make Tyrion Lannister very proud.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have the Archeology Museum of Istanbul in which you will find Hellenistic, Turkish, Babylonian, Byzantine and Egyptian archeology items, including a sarcophagus that people believed to have belonged to Alexander the Great.
Whoa, Turkey sure has some very interesting history doesn’t it?
Things to do in Istanbul #04: The Galata Tower and Taksim Square
If you’re looking for a spectacular view of Istanbul, the Galata Tower is your best bet. Entrance fee is 15 TL and you have to queue twice: Once at the bottom and once at the top.
Exploring the top of the tower is slightly annoying since you’ll always be surrounded by people and you’ll have to wait until everyone has taken a photo in order to continue since there’s not enough space. Add a couple of selfie sticks and you have the perfect recipe for disaster.
Since you’re already in the area, why not continue walking north of the tower towards Taksim Square and the party scene of Istanbul? Try the traditional Raki and get the party started yo!
Things to do in Istanbul #05: The Ancient City Walls and the Basilica Cistern
Each day, visitors to the city want to visit the Topkapi Palace and so they take the tramway to the stop called “Topkapi“. What they don’t know is that the stop to the Topkapi Palace is called “Sultanahmet” and the “Topkapi” stop is actually very far from the city center of Istanbul and it is home to the incredible Byzantine city walls and the Chora Church.
In order to complete the full Byzantine era experience, pay a visit to the Basilica Cistern located near the Hagia Sophia. This underground water system is one of the most romantic and quiet places of all Istanbul. My recommendation of wonders? Just relax and walk in the darkness of the place as the instrumental music transports you to a time gone by.
Don’t forget to throw a coin to the Medusa head to make a wish! I promise you she won’t turn you into stone!
Things to do in Istanbul #06: The Grand Bazaar and the Souvenirs
Before departing Istanbul, buying souvenirs is definitely a must! From Turkish Eyes of Evil to Hands of Fatima, there’s always something for everyone’s taste. Granted, the Grand Bazaar is very overpriced compared to the traditional markets that can be found in Istanbul but it’s definitely worth a visit just for the artwork alone.
If you’re looking for the cheapest prices, go to either the Sirkeci or Taksim area to buy your souvenirs and remember to always haggle for the best price. Can you believe I got an awesome Turkish hat for only 3 TL?
I look like a total boss when I wear it!
Things to do in Istanbul #07: The Bosphorus and the Maiden’s Tower
In Istanbul, there are a lot of touristy cruises that navigate the Bosphorus all the way to the Asian side, passing through majestic palaces lying on the banks of the strait as well as making a short stop at the extremely touristy Maiden’s Tower.
The price of these touristy boats ranges from 30 to 100 TL normally. The plot twist? You can get them for as little as 10 TL (3.5 Euros) if you go directly to the Eminonu pier located right next to the Galata bridge.
The low budget Bosphorus cruise will last two hours and goes all the way to the Black Sea before going back to Eminonu. Sadly, it won’t stop at the Maiden’s tower but you can take a local ferry (4 TL each way) from Eminonu to Uskudar in order to see it up close.
Why buy tickets from the touts if you can do it yourself?
Where to stay in Istanbul, Turkey
Accommodation in Istanbul is mostly focused on the European side (mostly around Sultanahmet and Taksim Square) although there are some interesting properties on the Asian side as well. Here’s a list of my recommendations for all types of budget.
Luxury & Boutique Hotels in Istanbul:
Sirkeci Mansion, decorated in Ottoman-style architecture, this hotel is at the heart of the old town, has an indoor pool and a wellness centre offering a Turkish bath and massages.
Heirloom Istanbul, located in the bohemian Cihangir district, Heirloom Istanbul is set in a historical building restored with environment-friendly materials.
Budget Hostels and Guest Houses in Istanbul:
Cheers Hostel, located in the heart of Sultanahmet, just minutes from Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It offers a terrace bar with views of the Old Istanbul.
Downtown Istanbul Hostel, featuring free WiFi, a terrace and a sun terrace, Downtown Istanbul Hostel offers accommodation in Istanbul, 100 metres from Galata Tower. The property is set in a 150-years-old Ottoman building.
I hope you have enjoyed this travel guide to Istanbul’s top attractions. Don’t forget to subscribe in order to get more awesome updates and tips straight to your e-mail!
Have you ever been to Istanbul? Would you like to? Share your thoughts and let me know what you think of this amazing city!
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Until next time, my friends!