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10 best things to do in Istanbul

From bazaars to baths, the Blue Mosque to Beyoglu, Europe to Asia, we tick off the top things to do in Istanbul.

An exotic and frenetic city wedged between the continents of Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a city that oozes all the exquisitness of ancient civilisations while thriving in the edgy buzz of its modern development.

The vast and sprawling cityscape can take days to explore, but you will soon find multiple layers of history and character and a landscape where Arab/European influence collide to form a very unique destination. Blogger Becki Enright from Borders of Adventure gives us her top ten Istanbul adventure must sees.

1. Indulge in the traditional bazaars

Pack a lot of patience, money and the energy for haggling – a visit to the Grand Bazaar is an absolute must. You’ll be in a spin from the moment of entry, with stall owners vying for your attention and your eyes casting over all manner of wears, stacked floor to ceiling or glimmering in the soft undercover hues of the labyrinth-like corridors. The Spice Bazaar is smaller and more manageable, yet still retains the same electric atmosphere.

2. Visit one of the world’s most beautiful buildings – The Aya Sofya / Hagia Sophia

One of the first stops on the tourist trail, the Byzantine church and mosque (and now museum) of the Hagia Sophia looks like any other grand building from the outside. However, inside lies a treasure trove of centuries old history layered within the marble stones and intricate mosaic tiled walls, which were hidden behind layers of plaster for centuries. Well worth the hefty 40 lire entry fee.

Aya Sofia, Istanbul

3. See more than just the Blue Mosque

The striking Blue Mosque is the go-to religious attraction in Istanbul. But if you enjoy the ancient architecture and the interior splendor of these iconic buildings, be sure to check out some of the other beautiful ones in the city. You’ll be overwhelmed by how many there actually there, but two of the most stunning include the Yeni Cami (The New Mosque) and Rustempasa Cami (Rustem Pasha Mosque).

4. Explore the neighbourhoods beyond the popular tourist sites

With Istanbul being a huge city there could be an almighty breakdown of local areas, but within easy reach of the main tourist sites are a variety of neighbourhoods with their own distinct character.

– Fatih

The area comprising of and surrounding the Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque is the district of Fatih, where you’ll find quiet cobblestoned streets lined with old wooden houses and the remains of the old city walls. Keep an eye on the Turkish calendar – celebrations ignite a spectacular community spectacle here.

– Beyoglu

Across the water in Beyoglu, tourists flock to climb the picturesque heights of the Galata Tower. When you land in Karakoy from Eminönü, don’t just make a beeline for the heaving Istikal Street and Taksim Square. Dip into the side streets and escape the tourist bustle – here you’ll find hip streets awash with street art and local, creative, boutique stores.

– Besiktas

For a true local hideout head to Besiktas, not far from Taksim Square. Beyond the grand Ottomon built Dolmabahçe Palace is a busy, non descript town. It might not look like much at all, but once you soak up the atmosphere, especially within the winding restaurants streets, and you’ll soon get a feel for the strong community feel and high energy spirit that exists within Turkey.

More: 10 ways to avoid looking like a tourist

5. Eat more than a just kebabs and baklava

Forget the kebab (kepab) and the dessert heaven that is baklava, because they steal the limelight and everyone knows that they taste incredible. Breakfasts here are not to be missed, and are more indulgent than a hearty lunch. The Turkish do ‘kahvaltı’ with a phenomenal spread – an endless canvas of plates pilled with homemade jams and honey, an assortment of cheeses, sauces, salads, breads, eggs dishes, borek and, of course, chai or Turkish coffee.

For a street food-esque local treat, get yourself down to the Galata Bridge area to sample the infamous Balak Ekmek – a fish sandwich. This is so much more incredible than it sounds and an Istanbul rite of passage.

Balak Ekmek seller, Galata Bridge, Istanbul

6. Live on the ‘Asia Side’

Not many people make it to the Asia side for more than a few hours – some never cross to this side at all. Taking a ferry across to Kadikoy from either Karakoy (near Galata) or Eminönö (near Sultanahmet) brings you to an entirely different persona of the city. Here you’ll find restaurant streets, fish markets and street performers; the café lined, fashionable Moda with its boutique stores and artists; a beautiful waterfront park and promenade; and the abandoned, but beautiful, Haydarpasa train station.

Haydarpasa station, Istanbul © Becki Enright / BackpackerBecki.co

7. Go underground at the Basilicia Cistern

Hidden, mysterious and bathed in a golden glow, the Basilica Cistern is a window into an underground water system built in the 6th century. Over 300 marble columns support a system that once stored up to 80,000 cubic metres of water for use in the Great Palace in the Byzantine era. The Medusa head carvings are particularly alluring.

8. Cross the Bosphorus by ferry

Nothing quite captures the atmosphere of Istanbul while crossing a ferry between its ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’ sides. Sip on Turkish chai, watch the sunset and marvel at the picturesque expanse of city skylines as they fade and come into view. This ferry service has become one of the city’s much-loved institutions and even if you only ride it once, it has to be done.

boat

9. Take a day trip to the islands

If you have more time to spare, than a city escape to the Princes’ islands is within easy reach. The open green spaces and beach hangouts of this archipelago of four islands – lined with ancient towns, old ports and noble architecture – are a great day or overnight escape from the whirlwind pace of the city.

Ferries leave from the Adalar Iskelesi dock at Kabatas on the Europe side and Bostanci, Maltepe and Kartal on the Asia side.

10. Experience a traditional Turkish bath

You’ll never forget the experience of being doused in bubbles and scrubbed down to a new layer of skin by half naked bathing masters. These beautiful ancient hamams are still functioning to this day and the older and more off the tourist trail you can find, the more traditional (and memorable) the experience. There’s the popular Cagaloglu and Cemberlitas baths in the centre of the city, but be prepared to pay the price (although many like the modern spa touches). Ask a local for their recommendation, look out for the more obscure and hidden, or head over to Asia side for the smaller and less frequented options.

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