The City on Seven Hills
Istanbul, one of the greatest cities in the world since antiquity to current date, is always a treat to come and repeat. That’s the third time in my case, and will certainly be more to come. It is way too big, the largest city in Europe, and fascinating everywhere offering the visitor a great and vast amount of sights, monuments, museums and historical places. Once named Byzantium, the capital city of the great Byzantine Empire founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC; then Constantinople after the Roman emperor Constantine the Great made it his imperial capital in 330 AD, it continued capital during the even greater Ottoman Empire. Buildings from every era are still standing in great fusion with the modern and elegant architecture, where broad avenues where laid out on top of the ancient city, Roman basilicas turned into churches, then into mosques; impressive royal residences and palaces built.
The Romans made of Constantinople the second capital of the empire only after Rome, and transformed it into one of the most beautiful and luxurious city the world has ever seen in antiquity. Embellished with monuments created in situ and others taken here from all over the empire, notably the Obelisk of Thutmose III from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor or the Serpent Column from Delphi in Greece to be placed in the great hyppodrome, thankfully there still today. Other one of such stunning monuments created were the bronze horses decorating the main entrance of the hyppodrome, thereafter taken by the Venitians to Venice and ever since located at Saint Mark’s Basilica; of the Column of Constantine still in its original site at the former Imperial Forum.
With many civilizations and different empires eager to take the strategic city, there’s been rise and fall periods, sieges, war, destruction and reconstruction. Too many layers of history below current ground level where every hole you dig and the history comes back to live. Noteworthy the Basilica Cistern. A spectacular water cistern described as the “sunken palace” located few meters away from the Blue Mosque itself, however, not the only cistern in Istanbul. Plenty more, however not all opened to the public.
Having so much to see and do, it would be wise you are planning accordingly your trip. Ideally 3 days, and even that can be too short, however, any less and will be physically impossible to visit unless you rush and don’t enter the monuments other than the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia which are an absolute must. Then as you would imagine, you are not the only tourist in the city, but just a needle in a haystack especially during the peak summer months. The queues for the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace easily two hours, longer for the Galata Tower, and prebooking in advance several other monuments such as the Basilica Cistern is a must or you will end up without any slot, not to mention if you are planning to treat yourself to a hamman. If already difficult during the low season months, in summer can be absolutely challenging. If you add the weather, average over 30 degrees during the day and surrounded by hordes of tourists, it is no rare than on this occasion I would recommend visiting during low season or at least avoiding June, July and August. May, September or October are great months to consider.
On a few notes about food, it is very hard to be wrong while in Turkey after all. They have great food on every corner. Of course, their famous kebabs are everywhere, but it’s not only about this. An Ishkender kebab if you find it, don’t hesitate in going for it. Other famous dishes are Tarhana soup (made of dried yogurt and tomatoes), Izmir kofte (meatballs, usually lamb or beef), Yuvarlak kofte (meatballs in sauce) coupled with the ususal hummus, falafel or dolma (staffed vine leaves with vegetables), always accompanied by a nice Turkish bread.
For more information about the city check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Turkey’s currency is the Lira (₺, TL). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change, especially in a country like Turkey where there is currently hyper inflation.
What to see and do in Istanbul
- Sultanahmet District The historic old town filled with the grandest monuments in the city and most visited anywhere in Turkey. Located in the European continent bordering the Golden Horn at the north side, the Bosphorus along the east side and the Sea of Marmara in the south. It is part of several areas declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
-Topkapi Palace Located at the eastern tip of the district, was the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. A huge complex of palaces and gardens with marvelous architecture. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. 09.00-17.00, 20TL.
-Gulhane City Park Right at the front of the Topkapi Palace and pretty much surrounding it from the sides. Offers great views over the palace and nearby sights.
-Archaeological Museum The best of its kind in Istanbul, within the Gulhane City Park boundaries, next to the Topkapi Palace.
-Royal Mint of the Ottoman Empire Side by side with the Archaeological Museum.
-Hagia Irene Church Dating from 548, it is one of the very few churches not turned into a mosque as it acted as an arsenal after the Ottoman conquest. It’s next to the Royal Mint complex.
-Sultan’s Wall While not much is left, the entire south and west perimeters enclosing the Gulhane Park and Topkapi Palace are pretty well preserved. Merely few meters across the Hagia Sophia which sits outside of the walls.
-Soğukçeşme Street A major historic throughfare between Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Gülhane Park following pretty much in parallel the Sultan’s Wall.
-Sultan Ahmet Square The main public space few meters south from the Sultan’s Wall and Topkapi Palace, where the most celebrated architectural jewels of the city stand one at each side, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque among others.
-Hagia Sophia At the north side of the square. The major landmark of the city and the country, a wonder of architecture and engineering. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Originally built in 537AD as the grandest church of the back then, capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, becoming the first Roman church to have a giant round dome no less than 1000 years before it became the standard across Europe during the Renaissance period. Turned into a mosque in 1453 after the Ottoman conquest, it then served as a museum from the early 1900s until 2020 when it was converted back to a functional mosque. Therefore, there is no entrance fee and any visitor is welcomed to enter except during the praying times, and it is opened every day of the week.
-Hürrem Sultan Baths Along the east side of the square. Built in the 16th century in classical Ottoman style. Anyone can enter and enjoy a Turkish bath, however, this one will not come cheap and expect some 80 euros for a full treatment. In comparison, you can find equally great baths for merely 10 euros outside the main tourist area.
-Ruins of the Great Palace of Constantinople Right behind the Hürrem Sultan Baths. Not much is left as the Ottomans used the space to build the new city around it.
-Sultan Ahmet Museum and Tomb Along the south side of the square, in Ottoman style, like a mini version of the Blue Mosque that sits behind.
-Sultan Ahmet Mosque The most important mosque in the city, dating back to 1616. Commonly known as the Blue Mosque for its hand-painted blue tiles adorning the interiors. A wonderful Ottoman masterpiece with 6 minarets, 5 main domes and 8 secondary domes where parts were built over the foundation vaults of the Great Palace. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. As any mosque in the city, it is free to visit except during the praying times.
-Million Just along the west side of the square. A 4th century marker from where al the distances were measured in the Byzantine Empire.
-Water Tower Built during the Ottoman period in order to create water pressure. Located right by the Million.
-Basilica Cistern Next to the Million. Also referred as the Sunken Palace, it is an impressive 6th century cistern to collect water for the city, just one of the many that were built, but the largest with difference. Check the Medusa statues at the base of two columns. 09.00-18.30. 10TL.
-Hippodrome of Constantinople Few remains are visible of one of the greatest hippodromes ever built in antiquity. Several monuments brought from all over the world to adorn the spina are still in the very same position as they were for over 2000 years, together with others of later periods.
-Serpent Column Dating from the 5th century BC to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, originally located in Delphi, Greece.
-Obelisk of Thutmose III Brought from the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, in 390 AD upon orders of Theodisious the Great.
-Walled Obelisk Built in the 10th century AD by Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Originally covered with gilded bronze plaques, these were looted many centuries ago.
-The German Fountain Was a gift from the German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman Sultan.
-Bronze Horses Although currently not in Istanbul anymore nor part of the spina decoration, these once stood on top of the hippodrome boxes. Such statues were taken to Venice to adorn St Mark’s Basilica where you can see the originals in the museum, and the exact copy in the façade.
-Divanyolu Caddesi The main commercial street linking Sultan Ahmet Square at the east with the western edge of the district connecting several other major landmarks such as Cemberlitas Square, the Grand Bazaar and the University. All long its way there is a tram line connecting very fast anywhere.
-Mausoleums Heading west along Divanyolu Caddesi you’ll find the mausoleums of three Ottoman sultans. Mahmud II (1875-1839), Abdulaziz (1830-1876) and Abdul Hamid II.
-Cemberlitas Square One of the major areas for the amount of sights all around, notably the Grand Bazaar along the northern side.
-Column of Constantine Built upon orders of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great to commemorate the dedication of Constantinople on 11 May 330 AD, and located at what was back then the Forum.
-Cemberlitas Baths Next to the Column along the east side of the square. Built in 1584, and still opened today as a Turkish Bath.
-Atik Ali Pasha Mosque Opposite the baths, along the west side of the square. Built in 1496 in the traditional Ottoman style that predominates in the city.
-Nuruosmaniye Mosque Dating from 1755, is located farther north from the square behind some buildings, and by the east side entrance of the Grand Bazaar.
-Grand Bazaar The world famous labyrinthine streets are a treat for your eyes, colours, smells, tastes. Anything can be found in here, but make sure you lower the originally quoted prices at least by thrice.
-Koca Sinan Pascha Mausoleum Continuing west along Divanyolu Caddesi just after Cemberlitas Square.
-Corlulu Ali Pasa Mosque and Madrasa Meters after Sinan Pascha Mausoleum.
-Kara Mustafa Pasha Complex Across the street from the Corlulu Ali Pasa mosque. Another of many everywhere in the city however pretty much the same one from another.
-Beyazit Square On the western edge of the old town, the Grand Bazar’s west side, is home to several buildings of the University among historic mosques.
-Beyazit Mosque One of the largest in the city, completed in 1501. Commissioned by Sultan Bayezid II who reigned the empire from 1481 to 1512.
-Museum of Turkish Calligraphic Art Opposite the Beyazit mosque, it is housed in a former madrasa dating from 1508.
-Gates of the University Standing where the main entrance to the Roman Forum once stood.
-Sehzade Mosque Heading northwest from Beyazit Square along Sehzade Street you’ll find this large complex dating from 1548.
-Sarachane and Fatih Parks Right at the front of Sehzade Mosque, containing some archaeological remains from the Roman period, notably the aqueduct.
-Valens Aqueduct Completed in 373AD to supply the buildings and baths of the main Forum of Constantinople, was enlarged and kept functional through many more centuries during the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
-Suleymaniye Mosque Complex Located north behind the University, or east from the Valens Aqueduct, it is one of the major sights in the city. An Ottoman Imperial Mosque completed in 1557, remaining the largest in the city only until 2019 when the Grand Camlica Mosque was built. Several mausoleums, tombs, schools, baths, hospital, kitchen and more are all within the complex.
-Spice Bazaar Dating from 1665 and as glorious as the Granz Bazaar yet much smaller. As the name indicates, it is still the main place to find great spices.
-Yeni Cami Mosque Also referred as the New Mosque, it is side by side with the Spice Bazaar. Completed in 1665.
-Galata Bridge Only important for linking both major areas of old Istanbul, not for any beautiness, however, for the best views of this part of the city and the many minarets of the mosques, just head across towards Galata. In the bridge you will see fishermen day and night, then selling the fresh fish to the restaurants nearby.
-Sirkeci Train Station Continuing east back again towards the Topkapi Palace but along the coast, you’ll find one of the main railway terminals in the city. It’s architecture makes it worth having a look from the outside.
- Galata District Just across the Galata Bridge which connects both parts of the old town with Sultanahmet. Both parts are still in European soil.
-Tunel The world’s second oldest underground railway, second to London. It connects Karakoy along the southern shore of the Bosphorus, next to the Galata Bridge, with the upper station Beyoglu, next to Sishane metro and tram station by Istiklal Avenue.
-Galata Tower The tower and the old houses under it creates one of the most recognisable images of Istanbul, which you can capture from the opposite side of the Bosphorus by the pier where all the tourist boat rides depart.
-Istiklal Avenue One of the most famous throughfare in Istanbul, not only for the charm of the architecture, but as well for the most beloved old historic red trams that crosses the entire avenue from Sishane at the western side all the way to Taksim Square. Plenty of high street shopping in this street.
-Taksim Square This is the heart of the city where old and new blends, and also the place where should a revolt or manifestation occur.
-Dolmabahce Palace and Gardens. Located not much farther east from Taksim Square and along the Bosphorus riverside. Was the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1920, nowadays a museum. Its magnificent façade can be best admired from a boat.
- Bosphorus Area This is the narrow body of water that separates Europe from Asia and links the Black Sea at the north with the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean at the south. The major attraction here are the of both shores from a boat.
-Maiden’s Tower With a history dating back to 341BC where once was a small peninsula with a temple; the later structure we see today is one of the major landmarks of the city, a tower-lighthouse in the middle of the Bosphorus from the early 18th century.
-River cruise While there are plenty of options to take a boat tour along the Golden Horn and Bosphorus, one does not necessarily need to take a tourist boat but instead, the public transportation boats. With frequencies every few minutes and merely a fraction of the cost, using these will allow you to move freely and enjoy more routes whenever you desire. The best suggestion to share is to take a boat towards Buyukdere, one of the farthest destinations one can go on a public transport boat to enjoy the entire Bosphorus.
-Ortakoy Mosque Located right under the July 15th Martyrs Bridge, the first to cross from Europe to Asia. Dates from 1854.
-Waterfront of Arnavutköy For the view of many beautiful villas and houses that you’ll see on any boat ride.
-Rumeli Citadel Just before the Faith Sultan Mehmet Bridge, and also by the waterfront. One of many citadels, watchtowers and defensive structures built along the Bosphorus for protection of invasion. Dates from 1452.
- Asian Side Just across the Bosphorus. This is a very traditional and historic fishing community in origin, where you can find plenty of beautiful old wooden houses in a maze of narrow bendy streets. The major districts are Salacak (next to the Maiden’s Tower), Aziz Mahmud Hudayi (north of Salacak) and Ahmediye (east of Salacak).
The city is very well connected to every continent by two international airports, with Istanbul Airport replacing the ageing Ataturk thus becoming one of the largest and busiest gateway connecting Asia and Europe, and the smaller Sabiha Gokcen. Plenty of local buses do connect the airport with every district in the city, with special mention the route towards Taksim Square or Sultanahmet Square costing approximately 50 TL with a duration of an hour. Please note here, it will soon be completed the metro line extension to Istanbul Airport making things even easier and faster in the near future. As for the smaller Sabiha Gokcen, it is directly connected with metro line 4 and plenty of local buses with a cost towards Taksim Square of approximately 25 TL. While it can be very convenient to get the contactless transport card Istanbulkart for 20 TL non refundable deposit and add any credit as needed, it would only make sense if you are staying for at least 3 days and planning on moving all over (with buses, metro, trams, boats) as it would come cheaper every time you touch in the reader, however, one can just simply touch in with their normal debit/credit cards paying the full fare which is just a little more than with an Istanbulkart.
Within the city centre and running along the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, University and beyond through the main street there is a very convenient tram line. Although such sights are easily reachable on foot since that’s one of the main routes any tourist would do in Istanbul. In the other hand, considering you are in one of the largest cities in the world, there’s an ever growing metro system and generally quite handy specially when heading towards Galata and Taksim from Sultanahmet district, or if heading towards the Asian side. To name a line of historic interest, is the Tunel, the world’s second oldest underground railway (after London), connecting the riverside of Galata with the upper station Sishane that interconnects with other metro lines and the historic red trams by Istiklal Avenue.
Moving by boat is very common in this city where pretty much everywhere you are surrounded by water. Fast and reliable, it is also the best way to admire the city and its great architecture and landscape. No matter if you opt for a tourist boat, the ones they generally explain you the buildings and what you see along the way; or the public transport ones which cost a fraction of the price and go even further should you need it or want it, hence visiting more places.
Being one of the largest cities in the world and of such importance ever since ancient times, the selection of properties to stay the night is impressive. First of all, a key financial and industry hub linking no other than Europe and Asia. A key political roleplayer like no other and an ever growing tourism machine. It is one of the hundreds cities I’ve been so far with the greatest amount of hotels, no doubt. From super luxurious properties to very cheap hostels and everything in between, therefore finding a good deal, no matter the budget you have, is pretty much straightforward, although needing to consider the peak summer months when prices are higher and the selection smaller due to sold out rooms.
The best and most convenient areas to stay are Sultanahmet (the historic old town) and Galata (the 19th-20th century elegant extension across the Golden Horn). With both areas linked via a bridge or plenty of public transport, it does not really matter which one is better than the other.
Being the 4th time in the city, I can actually recommend three of the hotels I’ve stayed, as for one of the stays it was something cheap near the airport (former Ataturk Airport) as it was merely an interconnecting flight with 8 hours to spare. Starting with the very first time back in November 2012, we stayed at the Albatros Premier, in Kucukayasofya Mahallesi, Cayiroglu. This is right in the middle Sultanahmet area merely 5 minutes’ walk to the Blue Mosque. A very nice place, welcoming, friendly, elegant and very clean, but bear in mind they have two buildings, one being the charming historic boutique and the other right across the road, more modern and not so elegant yet equally comfortable and great.
The next property was booked in May 2015 and equally highly recommend, however far from the city centre is the Elite World Business Hotel. Again, next door to the former Ataturk Airport but well connected to the city centre by bus. It was a great 5* stay, with a superb breakfast and an amazing hamman, jacuzzi and steam room facilities. Extremely clean and well cared with a very helpful and approachable staff.
Lastly in the most recent trip to Istanbul in November 2021, we stayed 3 nights at the Victory Hotel & Spa in Sultanahmet district, just opposite the University Gates on the main street leading towards the Blue Mosque. Just 5 minutes’ walk to the Grand Bazaar and most of the sights, location could not be any better. However with prices quite different to the years before in terms of a hefty increase (let’s not forget the hyper inflation the country is suffering at the time), the value for money was not what we expected. Still, was good enough, with comfortable, quiet, neat and tidy rooms which is the most important. Friendly, helpful and welcoming staff, but a poor breakfast buffet. The choice of food was quite weird to be honest, other than dozens of cheeses which we still don’t understand the need for that many, some dubious tasteless meat cuts, vegetables and rarely fried or boiled eggs depending on the day. The spa in the other hand was really great! But please bear in mind you will need to have a swimming cap covering your hair before being allowed to enter the nice indoor pool.