Every city claims to be unique, but Istanbul is truly one-of-a-kind. There is no other city in the world that spans two continents, after all!
Istanbul sprawls over 7 hills and is split by the mighty Bosphorus River: Europe on one side of the water and Asia on the other.
We were utterly enchanted by Istanbul.
You’ll see Muslim women wearing hijab walking beside tattooed and pierced hipsters. Sophisticated restaurants share the same zip code as traditional teashops and spice markets. Istanbul is home to fishermen and millionaires, age-old mosques and H&M.
Although nearly 20 million people call this city home, it doesn’t feel too compact, and green spaces frequently break up development. Modern construction backs up to ancient ruins in a tangible marriage of new and old.
Because Istanbul is the meeting place of Asia and Europe, traces of both continents are found here, along with a presence uniquely its own. Influences from Christianity and Islam merge with the grandeur of ancient Roman civilization, and are then mixed with a pinch of Middle Eastern flair.
There are so many reasons to visit Istanbul, but in our opinion, this city has a little bit of everything: Europe and Asia, old and new, upscale and authentic, Christian and Muslim. There is something incredibly charming and mesmerizing about how everything melds together in one beautiful masterpiece.
If you find yourself in this wondrous metropolis, you’ll be at no shortage of things to do, and the difficult part will be choosing how to spend your time.
How to do it yourself: The metro is very convenient and is the cheapest way to get around. The taxi drivers are known for ripping off tourists (as in many big cities), so this was our preferred mode of transportation. First, you’ll need to purchase an Istanbulkart card.
Buy this from one of the machines at the metro station for 10 TL and it will come preloaded with 4 TL on it. Even if you are traveling with multiple people, you only need one card. Simply pass it back once the first person has gone through the turnstile.
We’ve put together an itinerary with some of our favorite things we did in Istanbul, from the must-do activities that headline all guidebooks, to the lesser-known city secrets.
There are plenty of hammams, or traditional bathhouses, to choose from around Istanbul that range from basic to straight up luxurious.
Be sure to have a few traditional Turkish breakfasts.
Istanbul is a sprawling city and it can seem overwhelming at times, but think of it as a compilation of many smaller cities. Each neighborhood in this metropolis has a distinctly different feel, and attracts people for different reasons. Sultanahmet: This is where many of the main tourist attractions are, so as you may expect, it is very touristy.
Being that the city of Istanbul spans two continents, it’s not surprising that it holds an incredible amount of historical significance. There are 3 buildings that should be on every history-lover’s Turkey Bucket List and each has its own allure.
Step Back in Time: Visit Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & Basilica Cistern
Take in the beautiful tile work of the Blue Mosque, see images of Christianity and Islam side by side in the unparalleled Hagia Sophia and walk underground in the eerily captivating Basilica Cistern. All three buildings are on the same block, so it’s possible to explore them all before lunchtime!
Istanbul has some killer sunsets, so be sure to catch at least one. Whether you’re on a rooftop or near the water, you’ll be enchanted by the orange sky and flapping seagulls.
Our favorite sunset-viewing spot was on the Galata bridge where we could watch the fishermen pack up for the day and see spectacular views of at least three mosques.
Look up the time of sunset, and make it to the Galata bridge (or whatever spot you wish to watch the sky fade to orange and purple) a bit ahead of time. Find a comfortable spot to relax and get ready to be wowed.
Browse the Bazaars
Istanbul is known for its variety of Bazaars, and we’d recommend taking a gander. Breathe in the scents of the Spice Bazaar, but if you want to purchase anything, step outside, where prices are cheaper.
Get lost in the Grand Bazaar, and wander through the Little Bazaar, both of which mainly sell souvenirs.
Wander the bazaars, sampling local cheese and Turkish delights (yes, sampling is encouraged!). Snack on dried fruits and nuts, and save room for baklava.
Spend an afternoon getting lost in narrow cobbled streets of Beyoglu. This up-and-coming neighborhood has a bohemian feel and boasts many small shops and cute restaurants. Be sure to wander past the Galata Tower, and if you want views of the city, head to the top for 25 TL
Taking a boat trip on the Bosphorus was something we didn’t get to until our very last day in Turkey, but we’re sure glad we squeezed it in! Since Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents, it is pretty cool to cruise between the two, seeing Asia on one side and Europe on the other.
Eat a Fish Sandwich on the Bosphorus
Lining the Galata bridge are crowds of fishermen, and beneath the bridge are an assortment of restaurants that all have one thing in common on their menus: fish sandwiches with lettuce, onion, fresh cucumbers and herbs, a squeeze of lemon and Turkey’s famous pomegranate molasses.
Unfortunately, they no longer make the fish sandwiches in the traditional way over coals, but instead focus on getting them out as quickly as possible. You may risk getting soggy bread and wilted lettuce.
Head east on the Galata bridge. Once you reach the end of the bridge, turn left 180 degrees and aim for the water. Walk north close to the water, dodging restaurant owners trying to lure you in, and you should find two boats of fishermen cooking the fish on the charcoal grill making the holy grail of fish sandwiches. Be sure to order one with all the fixings!