Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey that has an incredibly rich history and whose culture blends the best of the (near) East and West. Being one of the earliest centers of civilization (as it is still today to a lesser extent), Istanbul has witnessed the rise and fall of empires that shaped world history. Istanbul today remains the bustling cosmopolitan heart of Turkey, as well as the country’s economic and cultural hub. Located strategically on the strait that separates Asia and Europe, it is a unique city in the world that bridges the continents. A trip to Istanbul would thus serve as a trip to both continents in one place! This post presents a list of activities that one should do (in my opinion) on a short trip to Istanbul.
A great city has a great shopping district. Paris has Champs Elysees. New York has Fifth Avenue. Singapore has Orchard Road. Istanbul has Istiklal Avenue. Istiklal is a long pedestrian shopping and commercial street emanating from Taksim Square, a major transit hub in the city, that leads all the way to the Galata Tower at its other end. Located in the heart of the European side, walking along this street feels no different from walking along any other high street in a major European city, with boutique shops and familiar brand names. There are thus lots of opportunities for people watching, live performances, sampling delicious street food (more on that later), or basically just feeling the beat and rhythm of the city. I personally enjoyed watching the young and hip crowds and the city’s ethnography, which is amazingly diverse due to its location as an intercontinental bridge.
The Beyoglu and Cihangir neighborhoods surrounding Istiklal are largely upmarket residential. Strolling through their maze-like, winding little streets makes a tranquil and meditative escape from the busy crowds, and a visual feast for the beholder’s eyes to appreciate fine Europeanesque architecture mixed with subtle oriental twists.
One just cannot visit Istanbul and miss an opportunity to bargain at the Grand Bazaar. This massive covered bazaar with four main gates has been continuously operating since 1455. All things imaginable can be found here at bargaining prices. You will find a lot of knockoff fashion goods, touristy souvenirs, oriental ornaments, jewelry and antiques, and lots of Turkish delicacies. The fun really begins when you ask for the price, drive it down to the point where you pretend to be uninterested and leaving, then the seller will yell and ask you to come back for negotiation.
The magnificent Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya as the locals spell it) is walking distance from the Grand Bazaar. Hagia Sophia was a grand medieval Byzantine cathedral, constructed in 537 when Istanbul (then called Constantinople) was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. When the city was taken over by the Muslims in 1453 and established as the seat of the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia was converted into the Grand Mosque of Istanbul. In the early 20th century, it was finally secularized and functioned as a museum. Visitors today can still appreciate the amazing architecture of the grand cathedral/mosque that has witnessed the ups and downs of Turkey. Especially unique is its extraordinary interior that combines exquisite Byzantine decor (e.g., mosaic mural depictions of Christian themes) with elegant Islamic calligraphy. The giant dome in the center has impressive wide open space and sky-high ceiling, where crowds of visitors gather and take photos.
The Bosphorus and Sunset
The at the end of the Istiklal walking/shopping street is one of the most iconic landmarks in the city, the Galata Tower. This medieval watchtower was built during the Byzantine era, even though nobody knows exactly when. At almost 67-meter height, the Galata tower offers a breathtaking panoramic view into the Bosphorus strait and the strategic Golden Horn.
One of my most favorite things in Istanbul is watching sunset over the Bosphorus strait – the waterway that separates Asia from the European continent. A few steps down from Galata Tower is where this magical strait bursts into view: wide and magnificent panoramic view of the other side of the city, sparkling water reflected under the sunlight, and fresh cool breeze blowing from the ocean. Walking across the Galata Bridge to the other side feels even more surreal as you cross from one continent to another in a half-an-hour walk. The views from the bridge to both sides is surely fantastic with expanding views to the city’s skylines (which are dominated by minarets) and blue oceans stretching to the horizons. Even more spectacular is doing so at sundown, when you will be rewarded with priceless sunset view. It is when the sun casts its last rays onto the city’s famous landmarks, hilly residences on both sides, and seagulls hovering over the water trying to catch dinner. Interestingly, one of the local favorite pastimes here seems to be fishing on this bridge.
Istanbul is the city of mosques as it served as the capital of the most powerful Islamic empire in history. A trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without a visit to its many famous mosques and appreciate the elegant interior design of Islamic architecture. One of such is the Blue Mosque. Located just opposite to the Hagia Sophia, the mosque’s interior appears ‘blue’ (hence the name) due to the tiles adorning its walls. Impressive as it appears from the outside, what’s inside a mosque is often a huge empty hall, whose floor is completely carpeted and whose sky-high ceiling supports elaborate, low-hanging chandeliers lighting up the entire hall. The downside of having so many mosques is that you would hear loud prayer calls five times a day, emanating from blown speakers from numerous minarets throughout the city, and one of them starts at 5 in the morning.
Turkish cuisine has rich tastes and sophisticated flavors that come from the unique blend of Western ingredients, spices of the East, and Mediterranean elements (olive oil, citrus fruits, and feta cheese to name a few). One of the many ways to appreciate a country’s cuisine is to sample its street food, and the best place to do so in Istanbul is, of course, on Istiklal. One of my favorite Turkish street food is midye dolma, or cooked mussels stuffed with rice with a squeeze of lemon. Another one is the bagel-like bread eaten with Nutella spread that is sold everywhere. Or stopping by at an ice cream shop (Turkish ice cream is especially chewy and rubbery), where the mischievous ice cream guy would play tricks on you. Or certainly a filling kebab sandwich on the street for less than 10 liras. A refreshing drink popular here is ayran, which is liquid yogurt that has a special savory taste, which I enjoyed a lot.
Turkish coffee is considered the country’s world cultural heritage. This coffee is particularly strong and viscous, which is resulted from an elaborate brewing process of boiling finely ground roasted coffee beans in a special copper pot. The coffee is then unfiltered and allowed to settle so that its particles sit still at the bottom of the cup before it can be drunk. Going very well with this strong coffee is Turkish delight (or lokum), which is a gelatinous sweet confection made of syrup and nuts (particularly pistachios) and sprinkled with icing sugar.
Hammam (Turkish Bath)
A trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without visiting a Turkish bath (or hammam). Originating during the Ottoman era from the practice of cleansing oneself before going to mosque, hammam has evolved into an elaborate ritual to clean one’s body (and soul) not necessarily for any religious reason, but to relax (which now integrates body massage) and socialize for both genders. During my short stay there, I made a trip to the Aga Hammam, one of the oldest in the city and a short walk away from the busy Istiklal Avenue. This boutique hammam has a reasonably priced package that includes complete hammam ritual and body massage afterwards. The ritual had me rubbed and washed (in soap water) by a strong, stocky man after a hot steamy sauna while my lower body is being wrapped in a towel. The body massage is relaxing and performed by a different younger masseur. The session finishes with guests receiving complementary sweetened hot mint tea and socializing in the main hall.