A Guide to the Great City of Istanbul
This historic city has been a major crossroads between East and West since it was founded in 660 BC by the Greeks. Constantinople, as it was formerly known, was the Byzantine capital until 1453 when Sultan Mehmet II overtook the city and it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It's a place where the ancient past meets the modern world in an explosion of color and culture. As Napoleon once said, “If the world was only one country, Istanbul would be its capital!”
Today Istanbul is a thriving cosmopolitan city of more than 15 million people with plenty of things to see and do. There are countless museums and historical sites to visit as well as shopping districts and markets where you can buy anything from antiques to local crafts.
The city is full of architectural marvels, from mosques to palaces to houses built centuries ago that still stand today. The main square in Sultanahmet is full of fascinating sites and landmarks like the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia) and the Blue Mosque. Nearby Topkapi Palace is rich with Ottoman history.
The Grand Bazaar is a labyrinthine market that has been around since the 15th Century. It's home to hundreds of shops selling everything from jewelry, and leather goods, to ceramics, and of course Turkish rugs. Shopping here is truly an adventure. Within the bazaar you’ll find the Egyptian Bazaar, fragrant with the many spices it sells, as well as Turkish delight (lokum) and souvenirs. Have an expert join you on your shopping tour.
Across the Golden Horn, you’ll find Taksim Square, Istiklal Caddesi, and Galata Tower.
Tours & Activities
You can see Istanbul's top sights in a rush on an overnight stay, but you'll need at least 2 days to do them justice, and 3 or 4 days to really get a sense of the city. In a week, you can get a good look at most of what Istanbul has to offer and even get a taste of destinations outside of the city. Istanbul offers activities that are family-friendly. You might even consider booking a tour to help make the most of your time here.
Istanbul is well-connected by a dizzying combination of buses, trams, funicular, ferries, taxis, and more. First-time visitors to the city should use caution when taking taxis as they are infamous for price gouging. For a stress-free experience, we recommend booking a private transfer.
Most of the major attractions are located in Sultanahmet district and hotels here are convenient for tourists due to their proximity to major tourist sites. Another popular district is Beyoğlu which is near Galata Tower and Taksim Square. It’s possible to stay in a hostel, apartment, or Ottoman inn.
After visiting the major sites, there is still plenty to do! You might want to take a Bosphorus cruise or an excursion to the Princes' Islands or nearby beaches. You can even relax in a Turkish bath (hamam) of which there are many in Istanbul.
It’s also possible to do a day trip to the cities of Edirne, İznik (Nicaea) or Bursa, Gallipoli, and Troy, or even Ephesus or Cappadocia.
But before you go, be sure to take some time to just sit at a sidewalk café and sip Turkish tea or coffee, or smoke a nargile (water pipe). Dine on savory Turkish cuisine in an excellent Istanbul restaurant, consume a traditional fish sandwich by the Golden Horn, and you'll realize why it's my favorite city in all the world.
-by Tom Brosnahan, updated by Kimberly Price