The only city that spans two continents, Istanbul has been at the crossroads of history for millennia. The city of the Byzantines and the Ottomans has now become a cosmopolitan metropolis of fifteen million people.
Despite its size, Istanbul’s inhabitants are famed for their hospitality and good cheer. Visitors to the city can take in wonders such as the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, or enjoy the vibrant food and art scene, relax in a hammam or cruise down the Bosporus.
As you might expect from a city with over two millennia of history, Istanbul has no shortage of sights to see. The city was first known as Byzantium under the Romans, then Constantinople under the Byzantine Empire, and finally Istanbul under the Ottomans. Though Istanbul is no longer the country’s capital, its status as a history-forging metropolis remains. From the magnificent Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, the history of the Byzantines and Ottomans lives on.
Visitors to Istanbul will quickly realise that it is far more than the sum of its monuments and museums. Its streets teem with a vibrant, diverse and modern crowd enjoying the everyday pleasures of good food, exciting nightlife and a beautiful city. Explore Istanbul’s bazaars, teeming with carpets, spices and souvenirs, or indulge in some pide pizza or mussels, then head to one of the city’s meyhane taverns to enjoy some raki liquor and live music.
How do I get around in Istanbul?
Istanbul has a very good public transit system, comprised of bus, tram and metro routes. Purchase an Istanbulkart fare card at the airport or at stations throughout the city for discounted fares and convenient boarding. Other ways to get around include taxis – look for the official ones, which are yellow and display registration – and dolmuş minibuses, which follow set routes. For more unique experiences, try a trip on one of the municipal ferries when crossing the Bosporus or the Tünel funicular, the second oldest underground urban rail line in the world, which will take you from the Golden Horn to the shopping avenue of Istiklal Street.
When is the best time to visit?
Istanbul is at its best in the spring and autumn, either May-June and September-October, when temperatures are pleasant and the city is active. Summer visits are another popular option, as the city’s many outdoor attractions and rooftop patios allow visitors to escape the heat. Winter travel is not recommended to the city, as many tourist establishments close down in January and February. Also to note is that travelling during the month of Ramadan may find the city a tad more subdued. Some restaurants will remain open during the day, when Muslims are fasting, but the real activity will be after sundown, when everyone meets for the iftar meal.
Istanbul’s most popular attractions
Between historical sites, museums, art galleries and leisure activities like Bosporus cruises or luxurious hammam sessions, Istanbul offers more attractions than most visitors could possibly hope to see on their visit.
- Hagia Sofia
- Istiklal Street
- Topkapi Palace
- Çemberlitaş Hamami
Hagia Sofia: Built first as a church (its name means “Church of Divine Wisdom), then serving as a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sofia was the largest enclosed space in the world for over a thousand years. Between its many breath-taking mosaics and the indescribable feeling of standing under its immense dome, it is not to be missed.
Istiklal Street: Called Istiklal Caddesi in Turkish, Istanbul’s central boulevard is visited by 3 million people every day. The street itself is lined with cafés and boutiques, and it provides access to some of Istanbul’s premier attractions, including the views of the Galata Tower and historic Takşim Square.
Topkapi Palace: The seat of Ottoman power has been a site of intrigue, scandal and one of the world’s most powerful empires. Now its courts, squares and harem are a window into imperial life in the Sultan’s court.
Çemberlitaş Hamami: Take a break from sightseeing to relax in a gorgeous Turkish bath that dates back to 1584. Enjoy a bath and relax on a marble slab underneath a spacious dome that lets in natural light.
For more information to help you plan your trip to Istanbul, check out our guide about Istanbul.
Restaurants: A world of flavours
Istanbul’s food scene is the result of centuries at the heart of Turkish life. A dizzying array of local flavours are on offer, with a suite of international cuisines that have established themselves more recently. Even the street food has its own lexicon: from pide, Turkish pizza, to döner and a variety of flaky peynirli boregi pastries. Local taverns, called meyhane, are ideal spots to check out the local cuisine along with glasses of raki and live music.
Amedros: Just blocks away from the Hagia Sofia, this unpretentious yet sophisticated eatery serves up European and Anatolian fare, with a sidewalk patio in the summer months. A specialty is the testi kebab, a slow-cooked lamb stew.
Balik Pazari: A seafood market off of Istiklal Street with stalls selling prepared snacks and meals – some stalls have been around for over a century and offer some of the city’s best seafood, from salted kingfish to stuffed mussels.
Shopping in Istanbul: Bazaars as far as the eye can see
Shopaholics will have their pick when it comes to finding deals and souvenirs in Istanbul. Your first stop should be the Grand Bazaar – its 66 streets and 4,000 shops, all under one massive roof, are as much a tourist destination or cultural experience as a shopping trip. Different areas are reserved for slippers, goldsmiths, carpet-sellers and more, so plan on wandering around. If you are looking for Turkey’s famed spices, check out the Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian market or Misir Çarşisi) for Turkish coffee, dried figs and apricots, or pistachios and almonds. Istiklal Street and the roads around Galata Tower are great for hidden-away boutiques and cafés.
To learn more about what awaits visitors to Istanbul, see our guide about eat and drink Istanbul.