Istanbul may be famed for being the city where “east meets west” and its staggering religious and imperial structures that conjure up images of the Orient, but scratch below these tired clichés, and there’s so much more. Istanbul is a city where you meet life at every turn and discover exquisite beauty in the most unexpected places. It’s a city full of possibilities with a strong population of 14 million that keeps it from residing in its past. If you’re visiting Istanbul, don’t just see the sights; get the full picture by including these must-sees.
1. The Walls
Istanbul’s Land Walls were erected in the fifth century, under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Theodosius II. Built to protect the old city peninsula from invaders, they were pretty effective until the great siege of 1453 when the Ottomans took control of the city. The walls run about four miles between the Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn estuary. Spending a day (or two, depending on what you visit along the way) walking along the remains of the walls will take you through some of Istanbul’s more diverse neighborhoods, and far from the madding crowds.
2. Art Galleries
Istanbul is becoming a major player in the contemporary art scene, and now hosts two annual international contemporary art fairs, as well as the Istanbul Biennial. However, if you’re not in town during these times, there’s still plenty to see. The Istanbul Modern offers insight into modern Turkish art. Alternatively, try gallery hopping along the bustling Istiklal Caddesi (avenue), visiting ARTER, Salt Beyo?lu, and the other galleries that fill up the floors of the art nouveau M?s?r Apartment building.
The Asmal?mescit neighborhood in the Beyo?lu district is even busier by night than it is by day. Istanbulites love to party, and this is one of their favorite spots to let loose. Begin by tucking into a few meze, washed down with rak? (the local aniseed spirit) in one of the many meyhanes (Turkish taverns), accompanied by the boisterous music of roving street musicians. Then, head up to Balkon bar for rooftop cocktails with a glittering view of the city. Finish in Babylon (pictured above); arguably Istanbul’s best live music venue.
4. The Bosphorus Strait
Istanbul is both defined and divided by the immensely important waterway, the Bosphorus Strait. It cuts through the city from the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea keeping Europe and Asia at an arm’s length. To fully appreciate it, hop on one of the regular passenger ferries that cross the water, offering an unparalleled view of both sides of the city. If you’re lucky, you may even spot the Bosphorus’ many dolphins frolicking alongside.
5. The Ocakba?? Experience
It would be rude to come to Istanbul without trying a proper kebab. Here, though, it is not simply a drunken munch on the way home; they really make a meal of it. Head to Zübeyir or one of the other grill joints on Kurabiye Sokak for an authentic kebab experience. An “ocakba??” refers to a particular type of restaurant where diners have the opportunity to take a seat around the open grill and watch the usta (master) as he works. The perfectly seasoned, unbelievably tender meat is then served directly onto awaiting plates just as soon as it sizzles.
Getting vigorously scrubbed and rubbed by a complete stranger who doesn’t speak your language may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday activity, but it is an unforgettably authentic Istanbul experience. The hamam (Turkish bath) tradition dates back hundreds of years and still continues today. Try the Kiliç Ali Pa?a Hamam for a luxury experience in a stunningly spacious 16th century building or visit the 15th century A?a Hamam for a more budget-friendly option.
The micro-roasting-hipster-coffeehouse trend has taken off in Istanbul, but if you want to try something a bit different, head to Mandabatmaz (just off Istiklal Caddesi) for a memorable Turkish coffee. This tiny establishment roasts their beans in-house and the coffee is prepared to your liking. There are just a few benches inside and a scattering of tiny stools in the alley outside to perch on, which allows you to fully focus on the velvet textured, chocolate-like rich coffee that’s served.
There’s an astounding wealth of historic sights to see in Istanbul, and while it’s nice to get off the beaten path, it would be a shame to leave Istanbul without having visited the three major attractions: the Hagia Sophia (above), the Blue Mosque and Topkap? Palace. All are conveniently located within the main tourist-filled neighborhood of Sultanahmet, where you can also find the Archaeological Museum, Mosaic Museum and the atmospheric Basilica Cistern, known locally as the “underground palace.”
9. Princes’ Islands
If you are struck by a need to get away from the hustle and bustle that is central Istanbul, a day trip to the Princes’ Islands is just what you need—as long as it isn’t the weekend, when it seems half the city has the same idea. Take a ferry from Kabata? or Kad?köy and settle into an hourlong trip to the pretty, car-free archipelago. There are several islands to choose from, but all have beaches to recline on, restaurants to eat at and bicycles to rent.
10. Bazaars and Pazars
Having operated as such an important trading post throughout history, Istanbul isn’t ready to give up its position as shopping capital of the world. There are some real bargains to be had at the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, if you’re prepared to haggle. The Spice Bazaar is an aromatic one-stop-shop for foodie travelers in search of exotic ingredients to take home. But the real deal is at the weekly open-air pazars (farmers’ markets), where the air is alive with the melodic calls of a hundred hawkers—all with the freshest produce they’re just desperate for you to try.
Based in the heart of Istanbul, Rhiannon J Davies is a freelance travel writer who contributes to numerous publications covering the city’s ever-evolving food, art and music scenes.