City of dilemmas, the city never sleeps, city of opportunities; Istanbul is most probably the most nick named city of Turkey. Besides the popular national nick names, Istanbul is considered the melting pot of civilizations or cradle of civilizations by many authorities. Being located on top of two continents, Istanbul is a unique city in the world.
– Napoleon Bonaparte
If the world were a single state, Istanbul would be it's capital.
Everything started approximately 8500 years ago in the Asian side of Istanbul and a small fishing village has been a city for the last 3000 years. Like Rome; old Istanbul sits on seven hills as well but on the contrary, Istanbul has been a capital for two powerful empires; Byzantium and Ottoman Empire. Her location, history, residents and rulers has created the most complex metropolis of the world and today, it is the most popular tourist destination of Turkey. I have made this 'Top Ten' to help you; the future tourists of Istanbul and help them get the feeling of the city.
Tour Sultanahmet; The old city of Istanbul
Istanbul has 39 districts today and Fatih's neighborhood Sultanahmet is the most popular one among them because of The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque. Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome Square. The Serpentine Column, The Walled Obelisk and The Obelisk of III Theodosius stand in the middle of the Hippodrome square that you can explore around thirty minutes. Don't miss the German Fountain which was gifted to Ottoman Sultan II Abdulhamid by the German King II Wilhelm. You should visit the Blue Mosque in the morning and unfortunately wait the long queue to get in. You can beat those crowds in Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace if you are guided since they have privileges in the entrances of the museums registered by the Culture and Tourism Ministry. A comprehensive tour of Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace may take a day so plan your time frame well not to miss anything in the old city of Istanbul. Besides those three beauties, there are three more museums to visit; Yerebatan Cistern, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and Istanbul Archaeology Museum. These three can be explored in less that a day and it will be a journey into the Anatolian archaeology and the Muslim Turkish culture. You are able to see the biggest Turkish rug and carpet collection in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art and the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. I recommend two comfortable days in the old city of Istanbul to learn the story of the 'Little Asia' which is The Republic of Turkey today. Topkapi Palace is closed on Tuesdays so please plan your old city of Istanbul tour accordingly.
Cruise the Bosporus
Istanbul is the only city which is located in two different continents. You can change continents in Istanbul by a car, a ferry, a subway or by a helicopter. It is the only city in the world where you can enjoy your beverage overlooking another continent so the Bosporus of Istanbul offers you the best daily cruises of the world. You can cruise the Bosporus of Istanbul by a public ferry or by hiring your private boat. Public ferries depart from Eminonu so a Bosporus cruise is quiet easy if you are not interested in a private boat rental. There are half day tours as well with a public ferry departing Eminonu and going all the way up to the end of the Bosporus strait and stops by the Rumeli Kavagi where you can have lunch and get back to the same port or hire a car and drive back to the city by visiting the Rumeli fortress on the way. When in Eminonu, pay a visit to the Spice Market as well for it is smaller than the Grand Bazaar which requires almost a day. If you want a real local experience of Bosporus, I recommend you to use the ferries working in between many districts of the city located by the water. You can pass from Europe to Asia multiple times and blend your Bosporus cruise experience with the least visited neighborhoods or a food tour.
Visit the waterfront Ottoman Palaces
The Ottoman architecture was effected from Barok or Rococo styles that we can see especially at the waterfront palaces of Istanbul. Dolmabahce palace is the most gorgeous structure of the city and a witness to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Most importantly, the founder of The Republic of Turkey Ataturk had passed away in this palace where visitors are able to see his last bed. The views are phenomenal from the gardens of the Dolmabahce Palace and Culture and Tourism Ministry offers free guiding services in the palace. The other smaller yet beautiful palace by the Bosporus of Istanbul is Beylerbeyi Palace and it was built just a few years later than the Dolmabahce Palace. Both palaces are closed on Mondays and Thursdays.
Take a food tour in the Asian Side
You can find almost all the different cuisines of Anatolia in Istanbul city and food tours has became very popular for the last decade. They are available in the popular tourist neighborhoods of Istanbul however I recommend you a food tour in the Asian side which will make you combine this activity with a ferry ride yet a Bosporus Cruise. The backstreets of the Asian side of Istanbul is offering delicious street food to everybody and from mussels to simit (Turkish Bagel), doner kebab to wet burgers, you can find the most delicious street foods of Istanbul and indulge yourself with a dessert in one of the historical patisserie in Kadikoy area. There may be more restaurants in the European part of Istanbul but the Asian part offers as good food as well and the best part of it is the lack of tourists in many of those restaurants so for the off the beaten path; Asian part of Istanbul is a must.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar
Grand Bazaar is the oldest and still trading bazaar of the world. After the conquer of Istanbul, Fatih has created a complex structure where certain manufacturers would be able to produce and trade which grew rapidly because of the volume of the trade and became the biggest covered bazaar of the world. Over thousand of narrow streets of the Grand Bazaar is hosting millions of tourists today making it the most visited attraction of Istanbul. Did you know that there are tourists who spend their layover time in the Grand Bazaar shopping around? Not only by the tourists, but also the locals of Istanbul go to the Grand Bazaar to shop and change currencies because the Grand Bazaar offers good cross rates like many other jewelry shops in the city. It is 'the' place to talk about money and anyone can develop their bargaining skills when wandering in the bazaar. The bazaar is closed on Sundays and after it is dark and was only opened thrice because of fires took place in the bazaar before. You can visit the Mosque of Soliman the Magnificent (Suleymaniye) or the Chora Church before or after visiting the Grand Bazaar and combine your Grand Bazaar experience with history as well.
Chase the Contemporary Art
Besides the ancient artifacts, you can chase the modern artifacts in the bustling contemporary art galleries of Istanbul. Karakoy, Galata and Beyoglu districts are popular contemporary art spots of the city and the Istanbul Modern Museum located by the water in Karakoy frequently hosts internationally praised artists' collections. Pera museum and Contemporary Istanbul are the other options to satisfy your contemporary art thirst.
Do a photo tour around Galata
Galata tower is among the most popular tourist stops of Istanbul and the views you get from the top of the tower is phenomenal. The neighborhood of Galata offers good photo opportunities because old and new blends really well in and around Galata. You can walk up to Galata from Karakoy or walk down from Beyoglu and during the both walks, you can see the sophisticated lifestyles of the 21st Century residents of Istanbul. The authentic tram working in Beyoglu and the 3rd oldest funicular of the world offers great photo opportunities to the tourists. You can join the entertainments of the street performers in the area or just picture the timeless city of Istanbul there. You should not miss the Nevizade or French Street in Beyoglu in the evening as well and experience a Turkish Tavern which is a must in Istanbul.
Visit a Private Museum
There are many private museums in Istanbul and four of them are the most popular among the others. First one is the Koc Museum belonging to one of the wealthiest families of Turkey who are the leaders of Turkish Industry. You can see the development of Anatolian Industry and how Turkish people created the Republic of Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. There is a beautiful car collection in the museum as well which is interesting for all ages. Koc Museum is located in the same hood as Istanbul Modern. The Museum of Innocence belongs to the Nobel praised Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. The museum is named after his book and reflecting the time of the characters in the novel. Up in the Bosporus, you can visit the Sabanci Museum which belongs to another wealthy family of Turkey and blends the old and the new. Besides their personal collection, international collections are often exhibited in the Museum of Sabanci and the location of the structure offers great views of the Bosporus. My forth suggestion is located in the Asian side; Toy Museum of Sunay Akin who is a living legend, a poet and a story teller. You are able to see toys from almost all over the world located in an old mansion which can be combined with a food tour easily.
Party in a Turkish Tavern
Turkish tavern (Meyhane) is very similar to the Greek Taverns and if you have visited a Greek Tavern before you will be surprised by the familiar music you will hear. The food is similar as well and a meyhane reminds famous Turkish spirit raki and seasonal fish. Many different appetizers are ordered to company the strong alcoholic beverage raki and after two or three glasses, you can see that everybody start singing along with the performers and dance on or around their tables. A Turkish tavern is 'the' top thing to do once in Istanbul and perfect for a night out tour and I highly recommend you to taste the amazing Turkish mezes available in the taverns accompanied by a glass of Turkish Raki, or two, or more...
Visit the Prince Islands
Prince Islands are located off shore the Asian part of Istanbul and accessible by a public ferry departing from Kabatas, Kadikoy and Bostanci. The group of islands consist of four big and five small islands with a very interesting life on top of them. Even tough the islands are deserted in winter because of the scarce ferries, they are very popular in spring and summer and attract a lot of tourists. There are only official vehicles in the islands making it a very peaceful escape from the crowds of Istanbul. You can hire a horse cart and tour the island of Buyukada or Heybeliada and see beautiful picturesque Ottoman and Greek Mansions.