The crossroads of Europe and Asia, Istanbul (not Constantinople, as the song says) is teaming with over 2,500 years of history. Only have a few hours to explore this jewel on the Bosphorus? Here are our tips for what to do in Istanbul that aren’t just the top ten sights.
Soak up some history
Built as a church, turned into a mosque, and now a museum, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) is definitely an awe-inspiring building and a tourist staple. However, long lines to get in can make it difficult to visit if time is tight. Instead, enjoy looking at it from the outside and then check out the nearby the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıç), built in the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire (and featured in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love). The soaring columns, eerily orange lighting, and mysterious Medusa heads are unforgettable as you walk around on boards over the water.
Turkish baths (hamams) are famous, but many of the ones found in hotels lack the traditional mix of cleansing and socializing. Seek out something more authentic like Çemberlitas Hamamı or Cağaloğlu Hamamı, both of which are hundreds of years old, for a spa experience you’ll never forget. Many hamams offer scrubs and massages or you can just enjoy the steam and basins at your own pace. Another favorite Turkish way to relax is in narghile cafes, smoking hookahs (water pipes), drinking coffee and chatting with friends old and new.
Turkish food isn’t just kebab and baklava (though these are both delicious!). Look for specialties like iskender kebap, kofte (grilled lamb meatballs), mercimek (lentil) soup, borek (a pastry stuffed with meat or cheese) and fresh seafood. Have a sweet tooth? Indulge in lokum (Turkish delight) in flavors like rose and pistachio, sutlac (rice pudding) or dondurma (a sticky ice cream). A visit to the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) is ideal to stock up on spices, pistachios, nuts and other specialties like honey-covered mulberries and dried figs stuffed with walnuts.
If you’re in Istanbul during Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish), the Muslim month of fasting, get ready for a city-wide feast when the sun goes down. The Hippodrome fills with food vendors after dark with street food favorites, crowds of people and a carnival atmosphere.
The Galata Bridge is a great place to people watch, from tourists to the many Turkish fishermen that line it daily. This bridge connects the two sides of Istanbul together over the Golden Horn so take a walk across: you can get tea in Europe, then a coffee in Asia. Another cross-cultural moment is Istanbul Modern, Turkey’s equivalent of London’s Tate Modern, a gallery with a mix of international exhibitions and Turkish artists. Of course, with all the layers of culture and history Istanbul has to offer, it perhaps is harder to find a non-cross cultural moment, but we’re certainly not going to complain.
Photo attribution: Kıvanç Niş