*The featured pic: Hagia Sophia (photo by Arild Vågen)
1-Taksim & İstiklal Street
Taksim Sqaure is the heart of Istanbul. It is the most bustling area of this huge metropolis, with millions of people passing through it every day. Istiklal Street, considered to be the busiest pedestrian street in Turkey, ends at this historical square. Abounding with countless cafes, street food stalls, shops of various sorts and old historic buildings on both sides, Istiklal Street is a must-see spot in Istanbul where you can become a part of the daily life in Istanbul and as you merge yourself into the busy flow of locals and tourists walking up and down the street.
Moreover, if you are a street food lover, then this street will certainly quench your cravings. Istiklal street offers a wide range of authentic street food options such as boiled corns, roasted chestnuts, Döner and traditional Turkish ice cream, to name a few.
Exploring Istiklal Street would easily take up a whole day, so be ready to spare sufficient time to discover the gems it beholds.
Notably, Istiklal street also boasts three of the largest and most stunning churches in Istanbul, that are the Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox Church, the Saint Antoine Catholic Church and the Church Surp Hovhan Vosgeperan (which is the biggest Armenian Catholic Church in Istanbul).
The Galata Tower is perhaps the most recognized landmark of Istanbul. Built in 1348 by the Genoese, this 14th-century tower has often been called the Tower of Christ on account of it being the highest point of the city. In the latter centuries, Galata Tower was also used by the Ottomans to detain prisoners. However, this tower is primarily known for being the spot where Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi jumped from the top of the tower with mechanical wings he had engineered, and flew from Galata Tower to the other side of the Bosphorus, becoming the first Turk to have successfully attempted an unpowered flight.
Galata Tower is the starting point of Istiklal street, which makes it very convenient to cover both the areas in the same day. It is highly suggested that you go up to the top of the tower where you will see the ineffable scenery of Istanbul from the observation deck.
Besides the tower itself, the Galata neighborhood includes many churches, synagogues and mosques which allows tourists to observe the way that the minorities in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire had lived in past decades. The Ashkenazi Synagogue, the Church of St. Peter and Paul, the Church of St. Benoit, the Church of Surp Pirgiç (the first Armenian Catholic Church in Istanbul) and the Arab Mosque are some of the spots travel enthusiasts will fall in love with.
3-Karaköy & Eminönü Bridge
Although it has only recently gained popularity among tourists, Karaköy has always been among the most colorful neighborhoods of Istanbul. With quaint, narrow cobblestone alleys, teeming with trendy cafes, restaurants and coffee shops, this spot will delight you with the culinary experiences it offers its visitors. In comparison with other touristic hubs of Istanbul, the prices of eateries in Karaköy is also relatively more reasonable.
From Italian to Lebanese, Turkish to Portuguese, you can find restaurants of boasting authentic cuisines from around the globe. Karaköy also has two very popular fine-dining rooftop restaurants of the city. The first restaurant is Mürver, which opened in 2017 on the top floor of Novotel. It offers “a creative, comfortable, authentic and modern dining experience”, with its menu consisting of Turkish specialties with unique presentations, as well as seafood specialties prepared in creative ways. Needless to mention, it also has a very diverse beverage menu. Click to see Mürver’s most recent Autumn Menu. Click to view Mürver’s Bar Menu.
The second rooftop restaurant is Octo Restaurant which is relatively young compared to Mürver. Having only opened right before the COVID-19 pandemic, in January 2020, this rooftop restaurant has a remarkable panoramic view of Istanbul’s historical peninsula (including Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and a dazzling view of the Bosphorus). At Octo Restaurant, you will find fine tastes of Portuguese sea food, as well as some traditional Turkish mezzes (selection of small appetizers). The restaurant’s executive chef, Jorge Lavos Costa, is from Portugal and his recipes take diners as far as the western-most corner of the Mediterranean. Click here to learn more about Octo Restaurant.
4-The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered bazaars in the world, with more than 4000 shops and over 60 alleys, spread over a vast area of 30,700 m2.
In 2014, with more than 91,000,000 visitors, the Grand Bazaar was ranked the most visited tourist attraction in the World.
The bazaar was constructed in 1461 on Mehmet the II’s command, 8 years after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. In the 17th century, prominent Turkish traveler, Evliya Çelebi, mentions the Grand Bazaar in his writings as a structure that included 4399 shops, 2195 rooms, 497 niches, 2 restaurants, 11 masjids, 1 Turkish bath, 19 fountains, 8 wells, 24 guest houses, 1 school and 1 shrine. This information provided by Evliya Çelebi alludes to the fact that the bazaar has its final expansion and reached its final size 4 centuries ago.
Today, the Grand Bazaar comprises of shops selling hundreds of different goods such as spices, handcrafted wares, jewelries, carpets, artisanal copper works, antiques, ceramics and nearly everything you can think of. A crucial piece of advice for tourists to keep in mind is not to hesitate haggling. It is almost customary to do so. Even if you are not planning to shop, a difficult temptation to resist in the Grand Bazaar, I would still strongly suggest that you spare at least an hour to explore the authentic Turkish bazaar atmosphere and get a glimpse into life in old Ottoman times.
The Grand Bazaar is open every day from 9am to 7pm, except Sundays. Visiting the Grand Bazaar is free.
5-The Historical Peninsula
Situated in the southern direction of Galata, the Historical Peninsula is the most historically significant spot in Istanbul. Boasting sites like Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern, the Istanbul Archeology Museum and Hagia Irene, the historical peninsula is visited by millions of people each year.
Another important spot in the Historical Peninsula that travel enthusiasts will enjoy visiting is the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, located on the southern side of the peninsula. If you are in interested in the history of the non-Muslim minorities of Istanbul, or the history of the Armenian residents of the city, this place will certainly give you with comprehensive insight. In addition to the Patriarchate, you can also visit the Kumkapı St. Mary Armenian Cathedral, Surp Vorvots Vorodman Church and Bezciyan Private Armenian Primary School, the first Armenian educational facility in Istanbul which opened in the year 1790.
In addition to history enthusiasts, the Historical Peninsula is also a perfect area for food lovers. Particularly surrounding the Grand Bazaar are many food spots where you can try out the most authentic tastes of Turkish cuisine and enjoy a warm cup of Turkish tea or coffee.
Here are some recommendations:
-Hafız Mustafa: a long-running confectioner offering traditional Turkish sweets & pastries, and coffee & tea.
-Hacı Şerif: a small shop, serving the best irmik helvası (semolina halva) in Turkey, a must-try Turkish dessert.
-Eminönü Historical Fish Sandwich: Fish sandwiches (mostly prepared with anchovies) are served from a few boats anchored by the Eminönü Square, which is on the right side of the Galata Bridge once you reach the Eminönü side.
-Zümrüt Büfe: This small döner shop serves one of the best döners (thin sheets of meat) in Istanbul. It is located on the back side of the historical Mısır Bazaar.
-Istanbul Kahvehanesi (Coffee Shop): This small coffee shop is a historical, hole-in-the-wall café that oversees Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Stop by for a nice Turkish Coffee, foamy on the top.
Although they are two of the richest and most colorful neighborhoods of the city, Fener and Balat, located adjacent to each other, are unfortunately overshadowed by the surrounding attractions.
Apart from the lovely coffee shops and characteristic narrow alleys, this area holds a vital importance for the history of non-Muslim minorities in Istanbul, with its churches and synagogues.
Fener abounds in many churches, however the most prominent of them are the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, one of the 16 main churches that compose the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Here are the churches and synagogues in the area that you should not miss:
– Pammakaristos Church (now Fethiye Mosque): A former Byzantine Orthodox church, assumed to be built between the 11th and 12th centuries, which was converted to a mosque in 1591. Even though the structure was turned into a church 5 centuries ago, the Christian-themed frescoes and mosaics were kept as they were. It is still possible to see the Byzantine markings of the structure today.
– Church of Saint Mary of the Mongols (also known as the Bloody Church): This religious complex is the only Byzantine church in Istanbul that was not converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of the city. The church was built by Maria Palaiologina, the illegitimate daughter of the Emperor Michael VIII. She had become the wife of Abaqa Khan of the Mongolian Il-Khanete, and returned to Istanbul after the death of the khan. The reason it is called the Bloody Church (Kanlı Kilise in Turkish) by the Turks is on account of the unprecedented resistance of the Greeks in the area during the Ottoman Conquest.
– Panagia Paramythia Church: Sadly, not much is known about this church and it is quite dilapidated. However, still I would recommend you to stop by.
-St. Stephen Bulgarian Orthodox Church – The only iron church in the world: Also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church, this religious complex was constructed in 1898 on top of the ruins of an old wooden Bulgarian church that was burned down in a fire. The story of the construction of this church involves an amalgamation of different cultures. The architect of the church was Hovsep Aznavur, an Ottoman-Armenian citizen; the construction manager was an Austrian-German businessman named Rudolf von Vagner; and the 6 bells of the church were made in the Russian city of Yaroslava.
– Church of Ioannes Prodromos: It is not known when and by whom the church was built. The walls and the ceiling still have intact depictions of moments from Christ’s life.
– Surp Hresdagabet Church: This church was consigned to the Armenian congregation in Istanbul in the year of 1631, a century after the city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire.
-Church of Hagia Dimitri: Built in 1204, this is still an active church. Once a week, the Greek congregation in the area gather here for mass. Apart from that, the church is mostly closed.
– Church of St. Mary of Blachernae: This 5th century Byzantine Orthodox Church is the only Christian religious complex where mass is held on Fridays instead of Sundays due to a 1400-year-old legend. The legend tells that during a siege of Istanbul in the 2nd century BC, the city was about to surrender when the face of the Virgin Mary appeared in the sky on a Friday evening, following which a severe storm burst out, leaving the enemy army shattered.
-Kastoria Synagogue: Assumed to have been built by a Sephardi Jewish family, presumably during Mehmet the II’s era. Today, only the gate of the structure stands. An inscription in Hebrew embedded on top of the gate tells us that the synagogue went through some restoration in 1895. The synagogue was deserted in 1937.
-Yanbol Synagogue: Yanbol (or Yambol) Synagogue was founded in the 15th century by the Sephardi Jews who immigrated to Istanbul from the Bulgarian town of Yambol. On account of the decrease in the Jewish population in Istanbul, today the synagogue is only open for Shabbat services.
Dolmabahçe Palace was built between the years of 1843 and 1856 under the order of the Ottoman Sultan I. Abdulmecid.
It is located in the district of Beşiktaş, on the European side of the Bosphorus. Dolmabahçe Palace was used as the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1887 and from 1909 to 1922. Moreover, the palace was the residence of the last Ottoman sultans.
After the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made Ankara the capital city. However, he used Dolmabahçe Palace as a center for hosting presidents, prime ministers, delegates and goverment officials from foreign countries.
In addition to its historical Ottoman significance, the fact that the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Atatürk, spent his last days and died in the Dolmabahçe Palace makes it a culturally important spot. In this day and age, the palace recieves thousands of visitors daily, and the number of visitors skyrocket on the 10th of Novermber, which is Atatürk’s death anniversary. Click here to access information regarding visiting hours and fees for Dolmabahçe Palace.
8-The Prince Islands
The Prince Islands (Adalar in Turkish) are an archipelago off the southern coast of Istanbul. There are 9 islands in total, however, the most prominent of them are Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada and Kınalıada.
The islands are located only a short ferry ride from mainland Istanbul. Click to access the ferry schedule from the official website of Istanbul Ferry Services in English. The two that should not be missed by tourists include Büyükada and Heybeliada.
-Büyükada: Büyükada is the largest and the most visited one of the Prince Islands. Büyükada has a lot of attractions. This large island abounds with old Greek mansions, churches and monasteries. The Aya Yorgi Church, Christ Greek Monastery, San Pacifico Latin Catholic Church, Surp Astvadzadzin Armenian Catholic Church, Hesed Le Avraam Synagogue are some of the popular religious sites on the island.
However, the most visited place is undoubtedly the Prinkipo Greek Orphanage. This vast structure, made completely of wood, was constructed in 1898 and is said to be the largest wooden building in Europe and the second largest one in the world.
Moreover, after being exiled from the Soviet Union, Soviet politician, Leon Trostky, spent 4 years of his life in Büyükada. Today, the house he lived in can be visited.
-Heybeliada: It is the second largest island of the Prince Islands. The attractions in Heybeliada that are popular among the visitors include the Aya Triada Monastery, which includes the Halki Seminary, Aya Nikola Greek Orthodox Church, Bet Yaakov Synagogue, Heybeliada Sanitorium (the first sanitorium of Turkey, opened in 1924), the Terkei Dünye Church and the Aya Yorgi Cliff Church.