Istanbul has been on my bucket list for many years. I always wanted to visit this incredible city to explore its hundreds of years old Ottoman history, unique culture and vibrant environment. Home to the grandeur palaces, thousands of years old museums, colorful bazaars and scrumptious cuisine, Istanbul is a place like no other in this world. Luckily, I had a chance to visit Istanbul for an internship for a few weeks. I stayed there for about 4 weeks and explored everything I could. But even these weeks were not enough to fully explore each part of the city. That’s the magic of Istanbul. There are plenty of things to do and see in this city and every traveler should visit it at least once in a lifetime. Below are some of the main highlights of my stay in Istanbul:
1. Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia Museum is not only a famous icon of Istanbul, it’s also one of the oldest museums of the world. The museum is more than 1500 years old and it is visited by thousands of people every day throughout the year. Located in the popular Sultanahmet district, the museum represents three different cultures; Islam, Christianity, and Byzantine. I bought a 5-day museum pass for 125 TL / $26 which let me visit a number of attractions in Istanbul.
2. Blue Mosque
Your visit to Istanbul is incomplete without witnessing the world-famous Blue Mosque. Also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Blue Mosque is located near the Hagia Sophia Museum in Sultanahmet district. Sultan Ahmed ordered the construction of this beautiful mosque in 1609 and it took around 7 years to complete this masterpiece. I visited the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia on the same day and spent an hour here. The interior of the mosque is too beautiful to describe in words with colorfully stained windows and more than 20,000 blue tiles.
3. Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace is my most favorite place in Istanbul. This huge palace was built in the 15th century and since then, it has been the residential place of Sultans. Now the Topkapi Palace is open for the public to see. Topkapi Palace consists of a number of courtyards, halls, and pavilions. The part of the palace which I liked the most was Harem section where the women of Sultans used to live. I spent half a day in Topkapi Palace and explored all the sections and museums in it.
On the European side of Istanbul, there are these jaw-dropping neighborhoods of Fener and Balat. These two towns are widely famous for their historic streets, colorful houses, and a number of cafes. If you are someone like me who loves to explore off-beaten streets away from the crowds, then you must visit Fener and Balat when you are in Istanbul. You can easily find the mixture of Orthodox, Jewish and Armenian culture in these neighborhoods. I spent half a day in these towns walking around the streets and witnessing the old colorful houses. I ended my tour with a nice coffee at a local café there.
5. Dolmabahce Palace
There is no shortage of palaces in Istanbul. But the palace that caught my attention after Topkapi is Dolmabahce Palace. Built-in 19th Century, Dolmabahce is one of the most beautiful and modern palaces in the world. The palace served as an administrative center and also the residential place for Ottoman Sultans. The major highlight of Dolmabahce Palace is the room of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic. He used to stay in a small room in Dolmabahce Palace on his visit to Istanbul. He spent the last days of his life in this room and died at 9:05 am. After his death, the clocks of the room are set to that time till date. You need separate tickets to visit each section of the palace. If you are not interested in paying for every section, you can just visit the Harem where the room of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is also located.
6. Istiklal Street
You cannot just visit Istanbul and not explore its iconic Istiklal Street which is widely famous for its historic red tram and shopping spree. It is estimated that the street is visited by around 2 million people every day. Istiklal Avenue or street is home to a number of shops, restaurants, bars, museums, and churches. The street is right beside Taksim Square which is featuring the Monument of the Republic of Turkey. Besides the shopping and amazing food experience, I explore the graffiti art in Istiklal Street and also visited the beautiful Padua Church.
7. Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar
Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the world with more than 60 streets and over 3500 shops. Besides its old beautiful interior, the bazaar features thousands of products including sweets, lamps, perfumes, clothes, and souvenirs. You can also eat from a number of cafes and restaurants inside the bazaar. I spend a few hours in this market, bought a few really good perfume oils and had the delicious Turkish coffee with baklava. After the Grand Bazaar, I headed off to Spice Bazaar from where I bought plenty of Turkish sweets and nuts. There is much more to the Spice Bazaar but you need enough time to explore its shops.
8. Galata Tower
I came to know about Galata Tower when I saw its pictures on a number of photographers’ pages on Instagram and it instantly caught my attention. This huge tower is made of stone and it can be seen from a number of places in Istanbul. It took me around 8 minutes by walk to reach the Galata Tower from Istiklal Street. I bought a ticket for $5.50 and went up to the balcony to witness the 360-degree views of Istanbul. Though the views were amazing, I don’t recommend you to go for it as you can enjoy much better views from other spots in Istanbul (I came to know about it later).
9. Maiden’s Tower
Maiden’s Tower or Leander’s Tower is one of the most beautiful landmarks of Istanbul. This tower is located on a small islet at the Bosphorus Strait. The tower also features a small bar and a restaurant offering delicious Turkish food. From the roof of the tower, one can witness the jaw-dropping views of the old city of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. There are many boats taking visitors to the Maiden’s tower from Kabatas.
10. Princess Islands
Princess Islands are a group of 9 islands located in Istanbul. The islands can be reached via ferry. Though I didn’t visit all of them, I got a chance to explore Buyukada, Kinaliada, and Burgazada Island. You can catch a ferry from the Eminonu to any of these islands. If you have a short stay in Istanbul, I recommend you to visit Buyukada which is the largest island in Istanbul. The main attraction of Buyukada is Hagios Giorgios Monastery and church. You have to climb the hills to reach the church and it is believed that you if climb successfully to the church, your prayer will be answered.
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