Rich in colours, textures and tradition, Istanbul has plenty to offer to all kinds of travellers. If you have an eye for history, this unique culture collision is a must see. The marks of the Ottoman Empire are visible in every corner of Turkey. You will be mesmerised by the rich culture and the heritage palaces, mosques, domes and minarets that dominate the city’s skyline. Straddling between Europe and Asia, Istanbul is the only city in the world to sit across two continents.
Since I had four days to spend and was looking for a short flight, Istanbul was definitely my first choice. Here is the ultimate guide to the city:
Where to stay:
When travelling, I enjoy staying in places that are crowded and love the luxury of having cafes and buzzing streets and hence opted to stay around the Taksim square. It is the heart of the city and is buzzing with restaurants, cafes, shops and pubs. I was put up at InterContinental Istanbul, a 5-minute walk to the busy square. This city is home to many other beautiful hotels that are unique in their own way. Do check out the Ritz Carlton, Raffles, Kempinski and Four Seasons.
Blue Mosque: Built in the 16th century, this mosque is one of the top wonders in this historic city. The beautiful dome and minarets soaring towards the sky is undoubtedly the most beautiful sight ever.
Hagia Sophia: Situated right across the Blue mosque, this iconic monument served as a Catholic cathedral and imperial mosque before being converted into a museum.
Basilica Cistern– This engineering marvel built underground, was once used to bring drinking water to the city.
Topkapi Palace: This beauty once upon a time served as the main residence for the Ottoman Sultans. A trip to Istanbul is incomplete without a visit here.
Dolmabahçe Palace– A trip inside the palace is absolutely worth it. The interiors are jaw dropping and boast the extravagant lifestyle of the Ottoman Empire.
Bosphorus: The best way to experience the beauty of this place is to take a cruise preferably during sunset
Galata Tower: Enjoy a panoramic view of the city from here.
Ortaköy– This cobbled neighbourhood is replete with wonderful traditional restaurants, interesting pubs and cool cafes by the Bosphorus.
Where to eat:
The city’s culinary heritage is so diverse yet traditional. You must sample the succulent Turkish kebabs and mezze platters in local cafes that are lined up on Istiklal Street in Taksim. Don’t be surprised if you find every second store selling Doner kebabs (loved them) and mussels on the streets.
Also, Ortaköy, a charming waterside suburb, has some amazing restaurants and cafes by the Bosphorus. The views here are magical, especially during sunset. My favourite was the Beltas Café. Just take a seat by the riverside and admire the twinkling city lights and the lit up bridge that connects Europe and Asia. And yes, you cannot leave this place without trying the fancy waffles and the stuffed baked potato accompanied with your choice of toppings. If you’re craving Italian food, Faros in Taksim is a fabulous joint.
Istanbul comes alive at night. If you’re looking for something less hectic then the narrow lanes of Istiklal Avenue are just perfect. Foot tapping Turkish music sneaking out of the pubs, people sipping on kava and buzzing streets add to the amazing vibe. If you want to party and dance the night away, head to the open air venues by the Bosphorus or the local pubs of Taksim.
Where to shop:
Grand Bazaar: If you’re a compulsive shopper like me, then a trip to the Grand Bazaar is a must. A sprawling covered market with 4000 stalls was just heaven for me. You can find almost everything here – from antiques, Turkish jewellery to beautiful kaftans, cutlery, leather goods, tea, coffee, sweets, ceramics, rare spices, hand woven goods, clothing and lots more. (Don’t forget to bargain).
Spice Market: Famous for its exotic oils and spices, this market also sells dry fruits, Turkish souvenirs and caviar. I loved their selection of cheese and olives.
Ortaköy Bazaar– If you’re lucky, you will find some stunning brass and turquoise jewellery at the market here.
There are great stores on the side streets and historical passages of Istiklal Street too.
Don’t leave without:
-Watching the whirling dervishes, a spiritual performance featuring Persian chanting with traditional music.
– Trying the dondurma (sticky Turkish ice cream), waffles and baked potato at Ortaköy, water chestnut sold by locals on the streets, fresh pomegranate and orange juice available on most of the streets, the traditional Baklava and Kava (traditional Turkish coffee).
-A visit to the Grand Bazaar.
-Trying the Hammam, a traditional Turkish bath that leaves you cleansed and relaxed.
Note: Do check the timings of the mosques, museums and bazaars to avoid disappointment.
If you have more days in hand, you can stretch your trip to Pamukkale, Cappadocia, Antalya or Bodrum.
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