It’s absolutely crazy that I lived in Turkey for nearly a year and never wrote about Istanbul! The big city. The place everyone thinks about when they think of Turkey. It’s the only city my family knew, and someone even called it Constantinople. (Much to my chagrin…)
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Istanbul a whopping FIVE times. This matches the number of times I’ve gone to Paris, which shocks me. While Paris will always be my No. 1, Istanbul is my second favorite city. Each time I go, I love it more and more. Having a boyfriend who spent four years there and can take me to cool restaurants and other sites doesn’t hurt either.
Rather than talk about each of my trips, I would rather give a general overview about Istanbul and my impression of this amazing city. I first went in November 2015 with a group of Fulbright friends. We stayed in an Airbnb near Taksim Square, in the heart of the European side of the city. With my guidebook in hand, I focused on seeing the major sites. (This list isn’t exhaustive at all.)
- Haghia Sophia
The Haghia Sophia used to be a Byzantine church when Istanbul was still Constantinople. I’m talking about the Justinian era, so you know this place is super old—more than 1,400 years in fact. When the Seljuk Turks invaded and captured the city, they converted the church into a mosque. Fortunately, they didn’t erase the Christian images, so now you’ll see a combination of Islamic calligraphy and pictures of Mary and Jesus. The architecture is stunning, and what’s left of the wall art seems to be in good condition.
- The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I. There are six minarets (most mosques don’t have that many), and it sits across from the Haghia Sophia. I really liked the coloring of the tiles. Because the mosque is still in operation, women have to cover up their heads and tourists have to stand in a certain area. This actually wasn’t my favorite mosque, even though I recognize its significance. I preferred the Suleymaniye* Mosque, which was built during the 16th century, because of the architecture and the surrounding gardens. But both mosques are must-sees.
- The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar puts the Parisian passages to shame. (Maybe that’s where they took the idea from? I’m not sure.) This place is a maze of shops with little cafés sprinkled throughout. As much as I loved all the stuff I saw (I even purchased a few things), one visit was enough for me. Turkish markets can be aggressive. I’m not a fan of people shouting at me to buy something, so I felt overwhelmed. If you enjoy haggling, however, this could be a good place for you. There’s also an equally cool spice bazaar not too far away.
- Basilica Cistern
I’ll be honest: I never knew what a cistern was before coming here. It’s basically an underground cavern filled with water–an aquifer of sorts, to put it in Floridian terms. The Byzantines built it in 532, and the Ottomans discovered it by mistake.
- The Sabanci Sakip Museum
Burhan and I went here spontaneously. Built in the 19th century, several high-ranking members of government owned the mansion. In 1951, a member of the Sabanci family (one of the richest families in Turkey) purchased it. It’s full of Islamic calligraphy, oil paintings, and antique furniture. They also have contemporary art exhibitions. We spent half our time out in the gardens, which are really lush and well-manicured.
- Istiklal Caddesi
This street is like the Champs-Élysées of Istanbul. I can’t tell you how many times I walked up and down Istiklal. It’s like a major artery of the city. There are restaurants, stores, random old churches, bars, hotels… I could go on. You can’t go to Istanbul without going to Istiklal.
- Galata Tower
This is one of the most recognized landmarks in Istanbul. It was built in the 6th century. Nearly every time I went to Istanbul, the line to go up the tower was ridiculously long, and I had no desire to wait. Apparently, the view from up top is amazing. One day…
- Topkapi Palace
Visiting an Ottoman palace was so different than anything I’d seen in Europe. Topkapi was finished in 1465 and was for Sultan Mehmet II. There’s an impressive collection of clothing, armor, royal jewelry, china and porcelain, and clocks. You can also walk through the wing where the women in the harems used to live (you have to pay extra for that). I was most impressed by the kitchen wing. Making sure everyone in the palace had enough to eat was a 24-hour job!
Walking through Istanbul is an experience of its own. The city is beautiful both in the day and at night. There’s not much order to the streets, and I got lost a lot, but that’s the best way to discover new places. It’s even better going with Burhan because he likes to go to neighborhoods that I don’t know about (most neighborhoods—let’s be honest). One area in particular is Kadikoy on the Asian side. The streets are wider than on the European side, but you can find just as many people and upscale boutiques and restaurants. There’s also a lot of young people out on the weekends, so the vibe is great.
I also recommend taking a boat tour down the Bosporus. It’s a little touristy, but you get to see all the mansions up and down the Asian and European coasts. A friend and I only paid maybe 15 liras (less than $5) for a ticket.
I only went to Istanbul for short periods of time, like weekends, so I never have gotten a true feel for the city. I think it would be better to spend a week or two there continuously. I will say that there’s an incredible vibe to the city no matter when I go. There’s always something to do and somewhere to go. As we speak, I’m preparing for my flight to Turkey tonight. I will be spending nine days with Burhan, including four in Istanbul, so I’m so excited to get another chance to explore the city!
*Since I’m not using a Turkish keyboard, the spelling of many names will be off.