Turkey holds a special charm for millions of travellers — having ranked as the most popular destination for European holidaymakers this summer. There’s so much to do and see in Turkey, but we recommend that you start with Istanbul. Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul is absolutely brimming with a potent mix of history, culture and culinary delights.
Here’s how to plan your days when you arrive into Istanbul’s bustling city life and bazaars.
1. Hagia Sophia – history and heritage
It would be good to start your day by first heading to the Hagia Sophia. Since 2020, it has been converted back to a mosque (it used to be a museum) but visitors are still welcome. Put aside at least two hours to soak in the beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site. Built in the sixth century as a cathedral, it holds a great attraction for tourists who want to take in its Byzantium architecture, intricate gold-silver mosaics, and colourful stones. Since it is a place of worship, one needs to be mindful of the worshippers at Hagia Sophia. But fret not – most people in Istanbul are very friendly and accommodating.
Top tip: Keep a stole on you as you will be expected to cover your head. And this applies to men and women both — you won’t be allowed in if you are wearing shorts. Also, when you are exiting via the main exit doorway, don’t miss the 11th century mosaic. It shows the Virgin Mary flanked by Byzantine Emperors on her either side.
2. Suleymaniye Mosque – reverence and poetry
One of the largest mosques in Istanbul, the Suleymaniye Mosque was built on the top of the third hill of historical/ancient Istanbul. It has a sprawling mosque complex, and you can spend about three to four hours taking in its sheer beauty and scale. Taking eight years to build, this mosque was completed in 1557 and was a tribute to Suleiman the Magnificent. For those who have watched the Turkish popular series Magnificent Century, Suleiman and Roxelana would need no introduction. Suleiman was the longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire (1520-1566), and Roxelana was his chief consort and later, his wife. You will find their tombs in the complex as well as a beautiful fountain. The mosque offers great views of the city and its surrounding areas.
Top tip: Pause and read the inscription near Roxelana’s tomb. It can make for a very romantic moment, especially if you are travelling with your loved one. Apparently the sultan wrote poems to Roxelana under a pen name, and there’s one inscribed there: “…My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…‘ If you were thinking of a proposal, maybe the lines would help set the mood.
3. Grand Bazaar – discover the joys of bargaining!
Imagine 4000 shops, 64 streets. Think of narrow alleyways selling everything under the sun. From spices, rugs, carpets, lanterns, handicrafts, soaps, perfumes, (Turkish) water pipes and metal ware, Turkish towels, condiments, koftes, confectionary… And hundreds of other things in colours of all kinds — every thing looking absolutely alluring, and attractive. The Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s most sought after market and is a good place to practice your haggling skills. Getting lost isn’t an option – you are bound to do so. But that’s the fun part of this bazaar that is sprawled over 30,700 square meters!
Top tip: You may want to visit the Grand Bazaar twice or thrice during your stay in Istanbul, especially if you have the time. It isn’t possible to cover all of it in a single visit. Also, don’t start buying souvenirs right off the first and second shop that you come across during your visit. Wait till you have explored the market a bit.
4. Book Bazaar – books, miniatures and more
A lot of tourists miss this quaint market — and we understand, there’s just so much to tick off the list in Istanbul! But if you like the sights, sounds and smell of books and bookshops, we totally advocate paying a visit. It’s just a few meters away from the Grand Bazaar and dates back to the 15th century. You will find Turkish and English literature, lots of illustrated books, miniatures, art and calligraphy as well as religious texts. What’s more, some shops have gorgeous cats perched on their pile of books. These fur balls move only when they’re done with their siesta, making the browsing quite an experience!
Top tip: You will find a lot of second-hand books as well and at discounted and bargain prices. It would also be a good place to pick up illustrated Turkish fairies or folktales. Do not miss Mehmet’s Orient Shop whilst you are there.
5. Topkapi Palace – get ready to be mesmerised
You can’t go to Istanbul and come back without visiting the Topkapi Palace. But be warned — the palace and its grounds cover more than 700,000 square meters. You simply cannot see all of it in a single visit. There are lush gardens, enormous courtyards, flower gardens, an imperial treasury, a harem, residential rooms and more. So you will have to choose and narrow down on a couple of things. Especially if you only have the time for a single visit. However, no matter what you fit in, the Ottoman style of architecture with its focus on symmetry and beauty will leave you spellbound. Take a stroll through the Royal Harem, or through the courtyards and let your mind wander to what life was like in Ottoman times.
Top tip: The Harem has over 400 rooms, and whatever you do, don’t miss going through what was the most private area of the palace in bygone times. Do also head to the library in the inner courtyard and the ornately decorated Circumcision Chamber in the fourth courtyard. Topkapi Palace attracts millions of tourists, so the Skip the Line tour can be a good option if you don’t want to get bogged down by the queues.
6. Treat your taste buds
Istanbul will tease and tantalise you with all the lovely food and drink it has on offer. Don’t forget to make the time for snacks and treats when you are hopping from one place to another. We recommend that you try its different koftes (meatballs), kebaps (grilled kebabs) and chorba (lentil soup). If you are craving something sweet, go for kunefe (a cheese-based dessert served with ice cream and pistachio nuts), firin sutlac (a baked rice pudding served in a clay dish), and baklava!
Top tip: The locals drink several glasses of Aryan (Turkish buttermilk) and we recommend you do so too. Easily available everywhere, this salty buttermilk helps a lot, especially when its hot. Street-side vendors also sell a lot of fresh fruit juices, simit (Turkish sesame bread rings), chestnuts, corn on the cob, grilled fish sandwiches and chicken pilav. You’d be missing out if you didn’t try a little bit of everything! It’s all so delicious and pocket-friendly.
7. Feed the cats!
Istanbul (and almost all of Turkey) has a large population of stray cats and these are generally very well looked after, and loved by the locals. You will find little containers of food and water for the cats set out outside shops, homes, in alleyways, around bazaars. But if you’re a cat lover, you would also feel like leaving a little treat for these gorgeous beings. You could alternatively visit a cat café or two in Istanbul if that is something you fancy.
Top tip: Please exercise caution and not pet any stray cat that you find in the streets. If you see a cat/s in shop, you may ask the shopkeeper if it is okay to offer them a treat. You may also come across a friendly cat or playful kittens while sipping Turkish tea or coffee in a bazaar or a café. Most café owners will be happy to let you know if you may pet the cat or not.
8. Princes’ Islands: a delightful day trip
It is worth considering taking a day trip from Istanbul to one of the four Princes’ Islands that are open to the public: Büyükada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Kınalıada. These islands are accessible by a short ferry ride from the European and Anatolian shores of Istanbul, and very popular with the local residents. You may want to start with, or visit Büyükada (Great Island) — which is the largest one. At Büyükada, you will fall in love with the old villas and their facades, the Greek Monastery of St Georges, as well as the horse-drawn carriages. That’s one striking bit about the Islands — there are no motor vehicles!
Top tip: Take the ferry a little early in the day so that you make the most of your time on the island.
9. Bosphorus: traverse two continents in one day
Who can resist the charm of having explored two continents in the course of a single day? The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul — with one part of the city claiming the Asian side, and another, Europe. There are several cruises that take you on a tour of the Bosphorus and from one side to another. It is a perfect opportunity to take in gorgeous sunsets, sights and sounds of Istanbul.
Top tip: You can take both the day and night ferries if you have the time. That way you will see the city donning different personalities!
10. End it all with a well-deserved Turkish bath!
Now the Turkish Bath & Hamman is quite an experience — it’s so different from our quick daily showers! You can ask your hotel to recommend a good one for you. Most baths will offer you 45 minutes of washing, followed by a traditional body scrub, foam wash and a massage.
Top tip: You can purchase, for an extra price, longer/other massages to go with your Turkish Bath experience.