Istanbul is a fascinating city that sits on the edge of two continents, making it a cultural experience like no other. It’s rich history is still visible through its Ottoman era architecture while it’s modern advancements give it the title as one of the most progressive cities in Central Asia. Istanbul is a city that is traditional yet modern. Conservative yet progressive. European yet Asian. Istanbul continues to remain at the top of my favorite cities list, as it’s home to some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet and some of the tastiest food you’ll ever have. So once you finally decide make your way on over to this magnificent city, keep in mind these top 11 experiences you need to have in Istanbul.
1. Haggle at a Bazar
Haggling is a common practice in Turkey and it’s expected that the initial price won’t be the final price. The best place to put your negotiating skills to use would be in a bazar, the name given to marketplaces in the Middle East. The biggest and by far the most famous in Istanbul is the Grand Bazar, which dates all the way back to 1461. Today, this covered market is a labyrinth of hallways packed with vendors selling everything under the sun from jewelry, clothes, furniture and electronics. The Grand Bazar employs about 26,000 people and is visited by 300,000 people daily. The Egyptian Bazar (also known as the Spice Bazar) while scaled down in size, is also less touristy and more manageable. However, I highly recommend checking out both.
2. Slow down for afternoon tea and nargile (hookah)
Turkish Tea, a black tea that is served with sugar but no milk, has become a cultural staple in Istanbul and throughout the rest of the country as it’s offered as a sign of friendship and hospitality. In addition, the Turkish waterpipe, Nargile (referred to as hookah in the West), is another 500-year-old tradition that is intended to be a relaxing activity shared with friends. So taking a break from sightseeing and slowing down to smoke some flavored tobacco through these ancient pipes (that were first popularized by the Ottoman Empire) while sipping Turkish Tea is a great way to spend an afternoon in Istanbul, as there are many Nargile cafes scattered throughout the city. However, if tea isn’t your thing you could always opt for a Turkish Coffee, a small pungent brew of unfiltered coffee in which the grounds are left to settle to the bottom of the cup. In fact, Turkish coffee was declared an intangible part of Turkey’s cultural heritage by UNESCO.
3. Eat Fresh Fish Sandwiches along the Bosphorus Straight
The Bosphorus is the famous straight that divides Istanbul into the Asian side and European Side, making it the only city in the world to be found on two continents. The Boshorus is also home to be the best fish sandwich that I’ve ever had, and that’s not an exaggeration. Located next to the Galata Bridge, which crosses over the freshwater estuary known as the Golden Horn, several boats equipped with grills are docked near the shore as they cook and sell fish sandwiches straight from their boats! It’s cheap, delicious and without a doubt is the freshest sandwich you’ll ever have.
4. Go to Asia
Although the European side of Istanbul contains the majority of the historical sites and other points of interest, it’s still worth devoting an entire day to the Asian side of the city. This part of Istanbul is far less touristy and more residential, giving you a peek into authentic everyday life in Turkey. My favorite experience from “the other side” was visiting the small coastal village of Kanlica and stopping to take a break for Turkish Tea and the creamy local yogurt this village is famous for. Big passenger ferry boats offer frequent rides across the Bosphorus daily.
5. Experience an authentic Hammam
Hammams are traditional Turkish baths which are an ancient spin to the modern day spa. The process involves loosening up in a steam room (similar to a sauna) and then moving into a room where you’ll then receive a fully body wash and massage by a masseur after which you’ll be rinsed off with cold water. Hammams are traditionally separated by sexes either having totally separate buildings, wings or times of day for men and women. Many hotels and fancy resorts have luxury versions of the traditional bath but I highly recommend going to the outskirts of the city and experiencing an authentic bath for yourself. It’s not for the timid, as clothing is optional. However, you will leave relaxed, (slightly violated), and fully immersed in Turkish culture.
6. Watch a Whirling Dervish Performance
A dervish is a highly religious Muslim who forgoes earthly pleasures in order to obtain enlightenment through Allah (sort of like an Islamic version of Buddha). One of their most famous and most recognizable practices is the act of “whirling” in which they spin around with their arms in the air as in a trance-like state, a form of active meditation to get closer to god. This dance and the dervish’s traditional dress of tall cylinder hats and flowing skirts and cropped vests have been declared a “Masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity” by UNESCO. There are several dinner theaters that showcase whirling dervish performances with the most iconic being the Hodjapasha Dance Theater in the Sirkeci neighborhood. However, if you’re a broke backpacker, like I was while visiting Istanbul, you can easily drop-in on a performance. There’s a dinner show located near the Hagia Sophia that has performances you can see from the street. I stood on the side walk watching a show while eating a $2 kebab, it was the cheapest dinner show I’ve ever been to!
7. Walk Through History in Sultanahmet
The Sultanahmet neighborhood, also referred to as the Old City, is the section of Istanbul where most of the historic gems are located including the Byzantine and Ottoman era buildings of the Blue Mosque, Hagaia Sophia and the Topaki Palace.
- The Blue Mosque – The Sultanahmet Mosque (or more commonly referred to as the blue Mosque) is a spectacular example of Imperial Ottoman architecture. It’s grand dome, six slender minarets and blue hue makes it the most photographed building in all of Istanbul. It’s still in use as a working mosque and while visitors are welcome, the building is closed to non-Muslims during certain times of the day: 45 minutes before the call to prayer and 30 minutes afterwards. Remember to dress conservatively and to remove your shoes before entering. It’s free but donations are welcomed.
- Hagia Sophia – This building is the perfect example of the Istanbul’s long history as it reflects features from two of the most powerful civilizations to claim the city, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. First a church, then a mosque and now a museum. This structure is known for its grandiose architecture and beautiful mosaics. The Hagia Sophia is a must for anyone visiting Istanbul.
- Topkapi Palace – This sprawling palace is probably what you imagine when you think of the ancient Middle East. Powerful sultans and beautiful concubines all called this place home between the 15th and 19th centuries under the Ottoman Empire. Today the Topkapi Palace stands as a museum as your free to roam these ancient royal grounds. And in the words of MTV cribs, don’t miss out on the room where the “magic happens”. One of the many rooms available for you to explore is the Harem, where Sultans were known to support as many as 300 concubines.
8. Buy a Turkish Rug (or pretend to)
Within you first hour in Istanbul, you will probably be propositioned by pushy salesmen offering to sell you “an authentic hand-crafted Turkish rug” about 20 times. Turkish rug makers seriously know how to hustle. But rather than get annoyed, you can use it to your advantage by turning it into an opportunity to hang out with a local. By showing interest in purchasing a rug, you’ll often be invited into the back of shops, offered tea and coffee and typically be told about the rug-maker’s long family history in the rug industry. If you can afford to buy a rug, do it. It directly helps to support a local family and makes for a pretty cool souvenir. Even if a handmade rug doesn’t fit into your travel budget, pretend it does and reap the benefits of Turkish hospitality. Once I was even invited into a salesman’s home and sat on his couch, looking through a catalog of samples, while his wife cooked dinner and his son watched cartoons! However, if you really don’t have any intention of buying a rug, don’t waste too much of their time. Simply take a card, let them know you need to think about it and in return, pass the card onto another tourist you see in the streets.
9. Witness the First Call to Prayer While sitting along the Bosphorus
Whether it entails getting up at the crack of dawn or staying out until sunrise (I did the latter), you need to witness the first Islamic call to prayer of the day, which promptly goes off just before sunrise (usually around 5am). The best place to do this is while sitting along the banks of the Bosphorus Straight as this low lying location makes it easy to spot all of the mosques scattered throughout the hillsides of the city (which are also conveniently backlit by display lights). Another cool aspect is that while all the mosques start their first call to prayer generally around the same time, they typically tend to be just a minute or two off from each other, turning the call to prayer into a divine symphony of Arabic hymns. Sitting there staring across the water to another continent, looking at the soft lights dotting the hillsides representing various places of worship and listening to the mesmerizing call to prayer is by far one of the coolest experiences you’ll ever have. Period. And it’s absolutely free.
10. Visit Taksim Square
This bustling city center famed for its restaurants, shops and hotels is thought of as the heart of modern Istanbul. Popular among both locals and tourists, it’s a great way to get a feel for the future of the city.
11. Have a Food-gasm
Some of the best meal I’ve ever had were in Turkey, as the food is extremely fresh and flavorful. Words really can’t describe it, Turkish food is something you just have to experience for yourself. So I’ll just leave these pictures here….