Some ancient cities are the sum of their monuments, but İstanbul factors a lot more into the equation. Chief among its manifold attractions are the locals, who have an infectious love of life and generosity of spirit. This vibrant, inclusive and expanding community is full of people who work and party hard, treasure family and friendships, and have no problem melding tradition and modernity in their everyday lives. Joining them in their favourite haunts – çay bahçesis (tea gardens), kahvehans (coffeehouses), meyhanes (Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebap restaurants) – will be a highlight of your visit.
BEST TIME TO VISIT ISTANBUL
The best times to visit Istanbul are from March to May and between September and November. That's when crowds at the city's attractions are manageable, room rates are average and daytime temperatures generally sit in the 60s and 70s.
March through May
Humidity and temperatures combine to make this season feel moderate. Highs range from 76.9°F (24.9°C) and 51.6°F (10.9°C) with warmer temperatures in the later months. Rain is somewhat common with 3 to 6 days of significant precipitation per month. Spring is the busiest for tourism, which makes it a good time for those looking for things to do.
June through August
The middle-year months have very comfortable weather with high temperatures that are quite warm. These months see the least precipitation with 1 to 3 days of precipitation per month. June – August is the second busiest season for tourism in Istanbul, so lodging and other accommodations may cost slightly more.
September through November
Fall daily highs range from 82.8°F (28.2°C) and 58.1°F (14.5°C), which will feel comfortable given the humidity and wind. It rains or snows a significant amount: 4 to 6 days per month. Tourism is the slowest during these months due to the weather, so hotels may be affordably priced.
December through February
Weather is too cold this time of year in Istanbul to be enjoyable for warm weather travelers. The average high during this season is between 56.8°F (13.8°C) and 47.9°F (8.8°C). On average, it rains or snows a fair amount: 6 to 7 times per month. These times of year are fairly slow with tourists.
GETTING TO ISTANBUL
By air - The easiest way to get to Istanbul is by plane of course. Turkish Airlines and many other world airlines have regular daily flights to Istanbul. There are also local airliners that run charter flights to Istanbul especially during holiday season such as summer months or Easter and New Year's period. Some of the direct flying times are: Newyork - Istanbul 10:20 hours, London - Istanbul 3:45, Milan - Istanbul 2:45, Hong Kong - Istanbul 11:50, Moscow - Istanbul 3:05, and so on.
Istanbul has two international Airports; one on the European side New Istanbul Airport and the other one on the Asian side Sabiha Gokcen Airport. From Istanbul you can fly to many other cities of Turkey as there are frequent daily flights of different airline companies. Istanbul - Izmir or Istanbul - Ankara flight takes about 1 hour, Istanbul - Adana about 1:30.
By land - Istanbul is well connected to many European cities by highways. Some private Turkish bus companies run scheduled buses to Istanbul from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Greece, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Russia, Georgia, and Romania. Once you're in Istanbul, there are countless of local bus companies that can take you to all corners of Turkey with their modern buses. Buses are frequent and plentiful, they usually depart from the Bus Station (Otogar) in Esenler neighborhood but they also have ticket offices all around the city, especially in Taksim, Sultanahmet,Besiktas,Kadikoy etc.
You can also easily drive to Istanbul from any European country with your own car or motorbike. By car, there are mainly two borders to get into Turkey: Kapikule in Edirne coming from Bulgaria, or Ipsala coming from Greece. There is a nice highway between Edirne and Istanbul, it's about 225 kilometers (140 miles). After Istanbul, you can drive anywhere in Turkey as there is an extensive road network. However, it's not recommend to drive with your own car in Istanbul because the traffic in this mega-city is pretty dense and sometimes caotic. The best way would be to park your car and usepublic transportation or taxis.
By rail -Turkish Railways Authority (TCDD) has regular train schedules from Istanbul to Budapest - Hungary, Bucarest - Romania, Kishinev - Moldova, Salonica - Greece and Sofia - Bulgaria in Europe, or to Damascus - Syria and Tehran - Iran in the Middle East. For example, Istanbul - Salonica takes about 12 hours by train, Istanbul - Tehran takes about 68 hours. International trains arrive at Sirkeci station on the European side, or Haydarpasa station on the Asian side of Istanbul depending on where you're coming; from the West or from the East. Once you're in Istanbul, you can get a train connection mainly to Ankara, Eskisehir, Denizli, Van, Kars, Gaziantep, Adana and Konya.
By sea - There are several maritime companies that run car and passenger ferries from Greek islands or from Italy to Turkey. Most of these arrive at Cesme near Izmir. There is also a regular ferry line between Odessa (Ukraine) and Istanbul which takes about 35 hours. Many cruise ships dock at Istanbul too for daily excursions.
From Istanbul, you can get a ferry connection to Bandirma near Balikesir, to Mudanya near Bursa, to Yalova, or to Marmara Island. Within the city, Urban Maritime Transportation (IDO and Sehir Hatlari companies) and many private companies (Turyol and Dentur) run passenger ferries between both sides of the Bosphorus.
GETTING AROUND ISTANBUL
With traffic that might as well be described as the tenth circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, Istanbull’s various modes of transportation may be crowded, but they serve as a savior in disguise. Get to know all the buses, ferries, and trains that will take you to your destination without getting stuck in eternal traffic.
Ferry - The vapur (ferry) is the best way to get from the European to the Asian side (or vice versa) when the bridge is absolutely full of cars. Rush hour starts at around 8AM and ends 6PM on weekdays, so lots of people commuting to and from work prefer to glide over the Bosphorus instead. There are three main ferry stations on the European side: Besiktas, Kabatas and Karakoy. There is also Eminonu, from where ferries go directly to the Kadikoy Ferry Station on the Asian side. You can check out the timetables for all Istanbul ferries (including Bosphorus tours) via the Sehir Hatlari website. As an alternative, the Ido and Dentur Avrasya deniz otobüsleri (sea buses) also take off from Beşiktaş and Kabataş and go to different areas of the Asian side, as well as the islands.
Metrobus - The metrobus definitely has its pros and cons when it comes to its reputation. At first glance it’s a great alternative, because the metrobuses have their own lanes, allowing them to drive right through the traffic, taking passengers all the way from one end of the city to the other (see map). However, because the metrobus makes frequent stops, it’s also infamous for its packed-to-the-limit rides, so expect to get uncomfortably close to other passengers and prepare for potentially low personal hygiene standards.
Metro - Istanbul’s metro system has grown at an incredible rate over the last years, with more lines currently in construction set to open in 2018. Even though the metro lines can get very crowded during rush hour, they are one of the best alternatives for getting around. The European side has plenty of metro lines that connect all the major neighborhoods. Make sure to ride Tunel, which connects Karaköy and Beyoglu and is the world’s second oldest subterranean urban rail line (inaugurated in 1875).
Marmaray - It was a pretty big deal when Marmaray opened because of its rail tunnel that goes under the Bosphorus strait. At the moment, Marmaray only runs from Kızılçeşme on the European side to Ayrılık Çeşmesi on the Asian side, but it’s already become quite the popular alternative for avoiding the bridge. During construction, Byzantine shipwrecks dating from the fifth to the eleventh century were discovered (something that happens often in Istanbul) setting back the opening date by four years. If you do plan on taking the Marmaray, make sure to check out the old Sirkeci train station for a taste of the past before you get on board this brand new mode of transportation.
Taxis - You’ll soon realize that there are taxi cabs all over Istanbul just driving around empty, looking for passengers. If the traffic isn’t at its peak, cabs are a good way to get around if you’re feeling a bit lazy. Make sure to get into a cab that has a logo on its car doors, which means it’s connected to a taxi stand, which eliminates the chance of getting swindled. If you want to be extra careful, use the BiTaksi app, which sends the nearest trusted cab your way.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT IN ISTANBUL
Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet is situated in famous Sultanahmet area, 10-minute walk from the Blue Mosque. This hotel is decorated in Ottoman-style and traditional accents. Featuring rooms with hand made carpets and Ottoman-style sofas, this hotel comes with a spa centre and an indoor pool. Free WiFi is available throughout the property. Guests can admire selective pieces of art made by famous Azerbaijani artists such as Sattar Bahlulzade, Mahmud Mahmudzade, İslam İsrafilzade, Jamila Hashimova, Salam Salamzade, Mikayil Abdullayev, Nadir Akhundov and Maral Rahmanzade. Rauf Tuncer's paintings representing the old days of Istanbul are also featured in Amber meeting room. All rooms offer an Loewe Ultra HD TV, electronic curtains, air conditioning and under floor heating system. For indulgence, rooms feature handmade Tabriz-style silk carpets and M Line Slow Motion beds. You will also find hairdryer, tea and coffee setup in the room. Private bathroom features hand-painted tiles and Dornbracht vitrified items. After a work-out in the gym, guests can visit Zeferan Restaurant on the 8th floor, which provides breathtaking views of Marmara Sea, the Princes Islands and Sultanahmet. Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet's décor boasts unique pieces of solid wood handmade furniture with mother-of-pearl details made by craftsmen from Damascus. 24-hour front desk and room service are available. You can enjoy the hotel's library after a busy day in the city. The Grand Bazaar is less than 1 km from Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet. Sabiha Gokcen Airport is 45 km away where airport shuttle can be arranged upon request at a surcharge. Istanbul Airport is 53 km from the property.
- Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul
Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul offers five-star luxury accommodation with its exclusive rooftop pool and award-winning spa. By the outstanding Bosphorus view, this property is within walking distance to Nisantasi where the main luxury shopping area is. Tastefully decorated by world-renowned designer Khuan Chew with the touch of Swiss design and warmth of Turkish culture, all units in Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul feature state-of-the-art technology and exclusive amenities. Along with free WiFi throughout the property, working desk and seating area are available in all rooms for your comfort. Drinks and refreshments can be found in the minibars. Some rooms feature a walk-in shower while some have a bath tub. Swissotel The Bosphorus Istanbul is also a hot spot with its stylish restaurants serving the exclusive tastes of world cuisine. Café Swiss is known especially for its weekend brunches and serves Turkish, Swiss and world cuisines with a healthy touch. Guests can fancy a drink or cocktail and have dinner in 16 ROOF restaurant and bar on the roof top while gazing at beautiful Bosphorus view. Decorated with authentic mountain lodge style, Chalet invites you to Swiss tradition accompanied by the fireplace. Les Ambassadeurs Bar allows its guest to savor their drinks while listening to jazz music. Purovel Spa & Sport offers luxurious holistic spa treatments including 14 treatment rooms, fitness centre, indoor and outdoor pools. Guests can chill and enjoy the full range of hotel services including a tennis court. Many designer shops, exclusive restaurants, brands and lively bars are within walking distance. Istanbul’s historic area with the Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar and Blue Mosque is only a 15-minute drive from Swissotel The Bosphorus. Sabiha Gokcen International Airport is 42 km away. Istanbul Airport is 42.1 km away from Swissotel The Bosphorus.
- Romance Istanbul Hotel Boutique Class
Only a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar, Romance Istanbul Hotel Boutique Class is located in the historical centre of Istanbul. It is within walking distance to many sights such as Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque. It offers air-conditioned guestrooms with free WiFi. Guestrooms include wood furnishings and framed art work. They have a private bathroom and come equipped with a minibar and satellite TV. The Alaturca Restaurant serves international cuisine and traditional Turkish dishes. There is a café that serves salad and lighter fare, as well as a bar that offers cocktails. Guests can relax in the sauna. Staff at the tour desk assist with car hire and provide information on local attractions. Istiklal Street is less than 3 km from the Romance Istanbul Hotel Boutique Class. The hotel has a 24-hour front desk and offers an airport transfer service on request. Istanbul Airport is 54 km away.
- The And Hotel Sultanahmet- Special Category
With a perfect location amid Istanbul’s historic attractions, The And Hotel Sultanahmet - Special Category offers magnificent views of Hagia Sophia’s 4 minarets from its outdoor dining terrace as well as the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus. Some rooms also feature panoramic balconies. The hotel has neatly decorated rooms with a private bathroom and satellite flat-screen TV. All rooms are air conditioned and offer orthopaedic beds. Bathrobes and slippers are also provided. The buffet breakfast is served on the partly covered terrace with fascinating views of the Bosphorus and the Marmara Sea. The on-site restaurant offers Turkish and international meals for lunch and dinner. The And Hotel Sultanahmet - Special Category is only 100 m from the Hagia Sophia and 200 m from the Blue Mosque. The city's famous Grand Bazaar is a 5-minute walk from the hotel, which provides free on-site parking. Istanbul Airport is 53 km away.
- Best Point Hotel Old City - Best Group Hotels
Located in the Old City of Istanbul, this hotel is within walking distance to Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. Best Point Hotel Old City offers air-conditioned rooms. Free WiFi is available throughout the hotel. Decorated with warm colours and Turkish-style décor, rooms at Best Point Hotel include a flat-screen TV, tea&coffee maker and a private bathroom with a hot tubs. Some apartments offer Turkish bath. In the mornings, guests can enjoy a buffet breakfast prepared with seasonal ingredients at the Best Point Roof Terrace with Marmara Sea and Blue Mosque View. The property can also serve gluten-free breakfast service upon request. During summer, you can enjoy the sunset on the rooftop of Best Point Hotel with a complimentary coffee, tea and soft drinks. Open buffet mezes, soft drinks, appetizers & evening canapés, cakes and cookies are also offered as complimentary. Facilities at the Best Point Hotel include car hire, ticket service and a tour desk where guests can arrange local attractions. There is also a library stocked with books on Turkish culture and history. An airport shuttle is also available. The hotel is a short walk from the Grand Bazaar and the Sea of Marmara. Eminonu Ferry Port is 750 m away, which offers easy access to the Asian side or Bosphorus boat tours. Sultanahmet Tram Station is 250 m from the property. Istanbul Airport is 55 km away.
- Dem İstanbul Airport Hotel
Situated in Istanbul, 15 km from Suleymaniye Mosque, Dem İstanbul Airport Hotel features views of the garden. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, a 24-hour front desk and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The accommodation features a shared lounge, a concierge service and currency exchange for guests. The rooms are fitted with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a desk. At the hotel rooms have a wardrobe and a private bathroom. Guests at Dem İstanbul Airport Hotel can enjoy a continental breakfast. Column of Constantine is 15 km from the accommodation, while Basilica Cistern is 16 km from the property. The nearest airport is Istanbul, 30 km from Dem İstanbul Airport Hotel, and the property offers a paid airport shuttle service.
Less than 1 km from Istanbul Congress Center, The Fox Hotels is situated in Istanbul and provides free WiFi, express check-in and check-out and concierge services. This 4-star hotel offers a tour desk and ticket service. The accommodation features a 24-hour front desk, room service and currency exchange for guests. The rooms are fitted with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a fridge, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a desk. At the hotel rooms have a wardrobe and a private bathroom. The Fox Hotels offers a continental or Italian breakfast. Taksim Square is 2 km from the accommodation, while Istiklal Street is 2.5 km from the property. The nearest airport is Istanbul, 37 km from The Fox Hotels, and the property offers a paid airport shuttle service.
Situated in Istanbul, 70 m from Taksim Square, Sofitel Istanbul Taksim features accommodation with a bar and private parking. Among the facilities of this property are a restaurant, a 24-hour front desk and room service, along with free WiFi throughout the property. The hotel has family rooms. The rooms are fitted with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a desk. At the hotel rooms come with a wardrobe and a private bathroom. Guests at Sofitel Istanbul Taksim can enjoy a buffet breakfast. Popular points of interest near the accommodation include Istiklal Street, Istanbul Congress Center and Dolmabahce Palace. The nearest airport is Istanbul, 42 km from Sofitel Istanbul Taksim, and the property offers a paid airport shuttle service.
Set in Istanbul and with Column of Constantine reachable within 300 metres, City Hall Hotel provides express check-in and check-out, non-smoking rooms, a shared lounge, free WiFi throughout the property and a terrace. This 3-star hotel offers a concierge service and valet parking. The accommodation offers a 24-hour front desk, room service and currency exchange for guests. The units come with air conditioning, a flat-screen TV with satellite channels, a fridge, a kettle, a shower, a hairdryer and a desk. At the hotel all rooms are fitted with a wardrobe and a private bathroom. Popular points of interest near City Hall Hotel include Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern and Grand Bazaar. The nearest airport is Istanbul, 42 km from the accommodation, and the property offers a paid airport shuttle service.
İstanbul Terrace Hotel features air-conditioned rooms with satellite flat-screen TV in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Featuring a concierge service, this property also provides guests with a terrace. The accommodation provides a 24-hour front desk, room service and currency exchange for guests. Featuring a private bathroom with a shower and a hairdryer, rooms at the hotel also offer free WiFi. Guest rooms will provide guests with a wardrobe and a kettle. Continental and buffet breakfast options are available daily at İstanbul Terrace Hotel. Suleymaniye Mosque is 1.2 km from the accommodation, while Column of Constantine is 1.5 km away. The nearest airport is Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen International, 38 km from İstanbul Terrace Hotel, and the property offers a paid airport shuttle service.
ACTIVITIES TO DO & PLACES TO GO IN ISTANBUL
Book a seat and witness the Dance called Whirling Dervishes it’s an actual worship service of Mevlana’s followers. During the ceremony the Dervishes become a bridge between God and humans through a prayer-induced trance. Although high on many visitor’s Istanbul to-do-list, people often had to skip it in the end because seats were sold out. Don’t make the same mistake and reserve your seats well in advance.
There are many important monuments in İstanbul, but this venerable structure – which was commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 – surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty.
Topkapı is the subject of more colourful stories than most of the world's museums put together. Libidinous sultans, ambitious courtiers, beautiful concubines and scheming eunuchs lived and worked here between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the court of the Ottoman empire. A visit to the palace's opulent pavilions, jewel-filled Treasury and sprawling Harem gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives. Mehmet the Conqueror built the first stage of the palace shortly after the Conquest in 1453, and lived here until his death in 1481. Subsequent sultans lived in this rarefied environment until the 19th century, when they moved to the ostentatious European-style palaces they built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Before you enter the palace's Imperial Gate (Bab-ı Hümayun), take a look at the ornate structure in the cobbled square just outside. This is the rococo-style Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III, built in 1728 by the sultan who so favoured tulips.
İstanbul has more than its fair share of Byzantine monuments, but few are as drop-dead gorgeous as this mosaic- and fresco-laden church. Nestled in the shadow of Theodosius II's monumental land walls and now a museum, it receives a fraction of the visitor numbers that the famous Aya Sofya attracts but offers equally fascinating insights into Byzantine art. The church has been closed in stages for renovation over a number of years; The best way to get to this part of town is to catch the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry from Karaköy to Ayvansaray and walk up the hill along Dervişzade Sokak, turn right into Eğrikapı Mumhane Caddesi and then almost immediately left into Şişhane Caddesi. From here you can follow the remnants of Theodosius II's land walls, passing the Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus on your way. From Hoca Çakır Caddesi, veer left into Vaiz Sokak just before you reach the steep stairs leading up to the ramparts of the wall, then turn sharp left into Kariye Sokak and you'll come to the museum. The building was originally known as the Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the Walls (Chora literally means 'country'), reflecting the fact that when it was first built it was located outside the original city walls constructed by Constantine the Great. What you see today isn't the original church. Instead, it was reconstructed at least five times, most significantly in the 11th, 12th and 14th centuries. Virtually all of the interior decoration – the famous mosaics and the less renowned but equally striking frescoes – dates from c 1320 and was funded by Theodore Metochites, a poet and man of letters who was logothetes, the official responsible for the Byzantine treasury, under Emperor Andronikos II (r 1282–1328). One of the museum's most wonderful mosaics, found above the door to the nave in the inner narthex, depicts Theodore offering the church to Christ. Today the Chora consists of five main architectural units: the nave, the two-storied structure (annexe) added to the north, the inner and the outer narthexes and the chapel for tombs (parecclesion) to the south. In 2013 a second major restoration commenced. This ongoing process is happening in stages, and involves closure of parts of the museum; the nave, two-storey annexes on the northern side of the building and most of the inner narthex have been completed, and work on the outer narthex and parecclesion were underway at the time of research.
A trip to Istanbul is not complete without a Bosphorus Cruise. Not only provides it a nice overview of the city, both the European and Asian shores of the famous waterway have a lot to offer – century old palaces and mansions galore. There are several cruises you can take: a short one (to the second suspension bridge and back), a long one (all the way to the Black Sea and back), and a sunset tour in summertime.
The Süleymaniye crowns one of İstanbul's seven hills and dominates the Golden Horn, providing a landmark for the entire city. Though it's not the largest of the Ottoman mosques, it is certainly one of the grandest and most beautiful. It's also unusual in that many of its original külliye (mosque complex) buildings have been retained and sympathetically adapted for reuse. Commissioned by Süleyman I, known as 'the Magnificent', the Süleymaniye was the fourth imperial mosque built in İstanbul; the mosque's four minarets with their 10 beautiful şerefes (balconies) are said to represent the fact that Süleyman was the fourth of the Osmanlı sultans to rule the city and the 10th sultan after the establishment of the empire. The mosque and its surrounding buildings were designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famous and talented of all imperial architects. Construction occurred between 1550 and 1557.
This subterranean structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian and built in 532. The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in İstanbul, it was constructed using 336 columns, many of which were salvaged from ruined temples and feature fine carved capitals. Its symmetry and sheer grandeur of conception are quite breathtaking, and its cavernous depths make a great retreat on summer days.
Like most sites in İstanbul, the cistern has an unusual history. It was originally known as the Basilica Cistern because it lay underneath the Stoa Basilica, one of the great squares on the first hill. Designed to service the Great Palace and surrounding buildings, it was able to store up to 80,000 cu metres of water delivered via 20km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea, but was closed when the Byzantine emperors relocated from the Great Palace. Forgotten by the city authorities some time before the Conquest, it wasn't rediscovered until 1545, when scholar Petrus Gyllius was researching Byzantine antiquities in the city and was told by local residents that they were able to obtain water by lowering buckets into a dark space below their basement floors. Some were even catching fish this way. Intrigued, Gyllius explored the neighbourhood and finally accessed the cistern through one of the basements. Even after his discovery, the Ottomans (who referred to the cistern as Yerebatan Saray) didn't treat the so-called Underground Palace with the respect it deserved – it became a dumping ground for all sorts of junk, as well as corpses. The cistern was cleaned and renovated in 1985 by the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality and opened to the public in 1987. It's now one of the city's most popular tourist attractions. Walking along its raised wooden platforms, you'll feel water dripping from the vaulted ceiling and see schools of ghostly carp patrolling the water – it certainly has bucketloads of atmosphere.
İstanbul's most photogenic building was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I (r 1603–17), whose tomb is located on the north side of the site facing Sultanahmet Park. The mosque's wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six slender minarets. Blue İznik tiles adorn the interior and give the building its unofficial but commonly used name. With the mosque's exterior, the architect, Sedefkâr Mehmet Ağa, managed to orchestrate a visual wham-bam effect similar to that of nearby star Aya Sofya's interior. Its curves are voluptuous; it has six minarets (more than any other mosque at the time it was built); and its courtyard is the biggest of all of the Ottoman mosques. The interior has a similarly grand scale: the İznik tiles number in the tens of thousands; there are 260 windows; and the central prayer space is huge. To best grasp the mosque's design, enter the complex via the Hippodrome rather than from Sultanahmet Park. Once inside the courtyard, which is the same size as the mosque's interior, you'll appreciate the building's perfect proportions. The mosque is such a popular attraction that admission is controlled in order to preserve its sacred atmosphere. Only worshippers are admitted through the main door; visitors must use the south door (follow the signs). The mosque is closed to nonworshippers for 30 minutes or so during the five daily prayer times – two hours before dawn, dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and right before the last light of the day – and is also closed for cleaning on Friday mornings. Note that the Friday midday prayers are longer than the usual prayer time so as to accommodate a weekly sermon. Women who don't have a headscarf or are considered to be too scantily dressed will be loaned a headscarf and/or robe.
There's plenty to see at this impressive museum, but its major draw is undoubtedly the 2nd-floor exhibition of paintings featuring Turkish Orientalist themes. Drawn from Suna and İnan Kıraç's world-class private collection, the works provide fascinating glimpses into the Ottoman world from the 17th to 20th centuries and include the most beloved painting in the Turkish canon – Osman Hamdı Bey's The Tortoise Trainer (1906). Other floors host high-profile temporary exhibitions (past exhibitions have showcased Warhol, de Chirico, Picasso and Botero). Permanent exhibits on the 1st floor concentrate on Kütahya tiles and ceramics, as well as Anatolian weights and measures. The ground floor is home to the popular Pera Cafe, a comfortable space decorated in art deco style to reflect the fact that the building originally housed the swish Bristol Hotel. Students are given free entry to the museum every Wednesday, and all visitors have free entry from 6pm to 10pm on Friday. The museum is associated with the nearby Istanbul Arastirmalari Estitusu, which includes a research library and temporary exhibition space.
The city's foremost archaeological museum is housed in three buildings close to Topkapı Palace. There are many highlights, but the sarcophagi from the Royal Necropolis of Sidon are particularly striking. Currently undergoing a massive renovation, much of the main building is closed and only the Tiled Pavilion, Museum of the Ancient Orient and Ancient Age Sculpture section (where the sarcophagi are displayed) can be visited. The complex has three main parts: the Museum of the Ancient Orient (Eski Şark Eserler Müzesi), the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi) and the Tiled Pavilion (Çinili Köşk). These museums house the palace collections formed during the late 19th century by museum director, artist and archaeologist Osman Hamdi Bey. The complex can be easily reached by walking down the slope from Topkapı's First Court, or by walking up the hill from the main gate of Gülhane Park.
These days it’s fashionable for architects and critics influenced by the less-is-more aesthetic of Bauhaus masters to sneer at buildings such as Dolmabahçe. However, the crowds that throng to this imperial palace with its neoclassical exterior and over-the-top interior clearly don’t share that disdain, flocking here to tour its Selamlık (Ceremonial Quarters) and Harem. Both are visited on a self-guided audio tour (included in ticket cost). Of the two, the Selamlık is the more interesting.
More rather than less was certainly the philosophy of Sultan Abdül Mecit I (r 1839–61), who decided to move his imperial court from Topkapı to a lavish new palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. For a site he chose the dolma bahçe (filled-in garden) where his predecessors, Sultans Ahmet I and Osman II, had filled in a little cove in order to create a royal park complete with wooden pleasure kiosks and pavilions.
Abdül Mecit commissioned imperial architects Nikoğos and Garabed Balyan to construct an Ottoman-European palace that would impress everyone who set eyes on it. Traditional Ottoman palace architecture was eschewed – there are no pavilions here, and the palace turns its back to the splendid view rather than celebrating it. The designer of the Paris Opera was brought in to do the interiors, which perhaps explains their exaggerated theatricality – the huge Hereke carpets, crystal staircase and chandeliers in the Selamlık are particularly resplendent. Construction was completed in 1854, and the sultan and his family moved in two years later. Though it had the wow factor in spades, Abdül Mecit’s extravagant project precipitated the empire’s bankruptcy and signalled the beginning of the end for the Osmanlı dynasty. During the early years of the republic, Atatürk used the palace as his İstanbul base. He died here on 10 November 1938.
The tourist entrance to the palace grounds is the ornate imperial gate, with an equally ornate clock tower just inside. Sarkis Balyan designed the tower between 1890 and 1895 for Sultan Abdül Hamit II (r 1876–1909). There is an outdoor cafe near here with premium Bosphorus views.
Set in well-tended gardens, the palace is divided into three sections: the Selamlık, Harem and Veliaht Dairesi (Apartments of the Crown Prince). In the Selamlık, a self-guided audio tour takes visitors through huge, ornately furnished reception halls and past a series of more-intimate salons. There are also two exhibition halls here where precious objects from the palace collections are displayed. The Harem is arranged as it was when the sultans and their families lived here, and also has a room dedicated to Atatürk. The Veliaht Dairesi is now home to the National Palaces Museum, which is visited on a separate ticket. Buildings in the palace grounds include a Clock Museum filled with 19th-century clocks; entry here is included in the palace tickets.
- Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts
This Ottoman palace was built in 1524 for İbrahim Paşa, childhood friend, brother-in-law and grand vizier of Süleyman the Magnificent. It now houses a splendid collection of artefacts, including exquisite calligraphy and one of the world's most impressive antique carpet collections. Some large-scale carpets have been moved from the upper rooms to the Carpet Museum, but the collection remains a knockout with its palace carpets, prayer rugs and glittering artefacts such as a 17th-century Ottoman incense burner.
Born in Greece, İbrahim Paşa was captured in that country as a child and sold as a slave into the imperial household in İstanbul. He worked as a page in Topkapı Palace, where he became friendly with Süleyman, who was the same age. When his friend became sultan, İbrahim was made in turn chief falconer, chief of the royal bedchamber and grand vizier. This palace was bestowed on him by Süleyman the year before he was given the hand of Süleyman’s sister, Hadice, in marriage. Alas, the fairy tale was not to last for poor İbrahim. His wealth, power and influence on the monarch became so great that others wishing to influence the sultan became envious, chief among them Süleyman’s powerful wife, Haseki Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana). After a rival accused İbrahim of disloyalty, Roxelana convinced her husband that İbrahim was a threat and Süleyman had him strangled in 1536. Artefacts in the museum’s collection date from the 8th to the 19th century and come from across the Middle East. They include müknames (scrolls outlining an imperial decree) featuring the sultan’s tuğra (calligraphic signature); Iranian book binding from the Safavid period (1501–1722); 12th- and 13th-century wooden columns and doors from Damascus and Cizre; Holbein, Lotto, Konya, Uşhak, Iran and Caucasia carpets; and even a cutting of the Prophet's beard. Sections of the Hippodrome walls can be seen near the entrance.
This splendid museum is dedicated to the history of transport, industry and communications in Turkey. Founded by the head of the Koç industrial group, one of Turkey’s most prominent conglomerates, it exhibits artefacts from İstanbul’s industrial past and is highly interactive, making it a particularly enjoyable destination for those travelling with children. The museum's collection is highly eclectic, giving the impression of it being a grab-bag of cool stuff that's been collected over the decades or been donated to the museum by individuals, organisations or companies that didn’t know what else to do with it. This might sound like we’re damning the place with faint praise, but this is far from the case – in fact, we highly recommend a visit here. The museum is in two parts: a new building constructed around a 19th-century dockyard on the Golden Horn side of the road, and a restored and converted Byzantine stone building known as the Lengerhane. The latter was used as a foundry by the Ottomans and now houses a planetarium and a large collection of model trains and boats. The exhibits concerned with forms of transport are particularly fascinating: you can admire a huge collection of mint-condition classic cars; climb aboard historic trams; take a cruise on a restored 1936 steam tug (summer weekends only); enter the cabin of a 1942 Douglas DC-3 Dakota; board a 1944 US naval submarine (advance bookings essential); or take a short trip on a working narrow-gauge railway (summer weekends only).
Excellent interpretive panels in Turkish and English are provided. There's also a Turkish restaurant right on the waterfront, a cafe in a restored 1953 ferry boat and a French restaurant in the Lengerhane. A children's playground and carousel are a hit with little ones. Holders of a Museum Pass İstanbul receive a 10% discount on the price of their ticket.
The painstaking attention to detail in this fascinating museum/piece of conceptual art will certainly provide every amateur psychologist with a theory or two about its creator, Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. Vitrines display a quirky collection of objects that evoke the minutiae of İstanbullu life in the mid- to late 20th century, when Pamuk's novel The Museum of Innocence is set.
Occupying a modest 19th-century timber house, the museum relies on its vitrines, which are reminiscent of the work of American artist Joseph Cornell, to retell the story of the love affair of Kemal and Füsun, the novel's protagonists. These displays are both beautiful and moving. Some, such as the installation using 4213 cigarette butts, are as strange as they are powerful.
Pamuk's 'Modest Manifesto for Museums' is reproduced on a panel on the ground floor. In it he asserts: 'The resources that are channelled into monumental, symbolic museums should be diverted to smaller museums that tell the stories of individuals'. The individuals in this case are fictional, of course, and their story is evoked in a highly nostalgic fashion, but in creating this museum Pamuk has put his money where his mouth is and come out triumphant.
This opulently furnished 1865 building was designed by Sarkis Balyan, brother of Nikoğos (architect of Dolmabahçe Palace). It delighted both Sultan Abdül Aziz (r 1861–76), who commissioned it, and the many foreign dignitaries who visited. Its last imperial 'guest' was former Sultan Abdül Hamit II, who spent the last five years of his life under house arrest here. Look for the whimsical marble bathing pavilions by the water's edge; one was for men, the other for women of the harem. Assisted by an informative audio tour (included in ticket price) you'll pass through rooms decorated with frescoes of naval scenes, Bohemian crystal chandeliers, Ming vases and sumptuous Hereke carpets, exploring both the grand selamlık (ceremonial quarters) and the small but opulent harem. Highlights include the downstairs hall with the huge marble pool used for cooling during summer, the elaborately painted and gilded sultan's apartment, and the wood-panelled sultan's audience room with its Baccarat chandelier, Hereke carpet and magnificent Bosphorus view. After the tour, you can enjoy a glass of tea in the garden cafe.
- Patriarchal Church of St George
Dating from 1836, this church is part of the Greek Patriarchate compound. Inside the church are artefacts including Byzantine mosaics, religious relics and a wood-and-inlay patriarchal throne. The most eye-catching feature is an ornately carved wooden iconostasis (screen of icons) that was restored and lavishly gilded in 1994. The patriarchal throne is in the middle of the nave. Made of walnut inlaid with ivory, mother-of-pearl and coloured wood, it is thought to date from the last years of Byzantium. Other treasures include the 11th-century mosaic icon that is on the south wall to the right of the iconostasis. This shows the Virgin Mary holding and pointing to the Christ Child, and was originally created for the Byzantine church of Pammakaristos (now the Fethiye Museum). Look for the Column of Christ's Flagellation in the southern corner of the nave. The church claims that this is a portion of the column to which Jesus Christ was bound and whipped by Roman soldiers before the Crucifixion. It was supposedly brought to Constantinople by St Helen, mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine.
- Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque
The sultan to whom this mosque was dedicated (Süleyman the Magnificent's father, Selim I, known as 'the Grim') is famous for having killed two of his brothers, six of his nephews and three of his own sons in order to assure his succession and that of Süleyman. He did, however, lay the groundwork for his son's imperial success and, to this day, İstanbullus love his mosque.
The reason for this ongoing adulation is the 'Tough' Sultan Selim Mosque's position atop the Old City's fifth hill. Its terrace has panoramic views over the Golden Horn (the mosque you see on the right is Sülemaniye Mosque) and is a popular picnic and relaxation spot. Selim's türbe (tomb) is in the garden behind the mosque. The mosque is located in the fascinating Çarşamba district, one of the city's most conservative enclaves. Women in black chadors and men with long beards and traditional clothing are seen everywhere, often hurrying to prayers at the İsmail Ağa Mosque, headquarters of the Nakşibendi Tarikatı, a Sufi sect. The huge sunken park next door was originally a 5th-century open Roman cistern; it's now home to playing fields, basketball courts and an excellent children's playground.
The building itself, constructed between 1522 and 1529, has a simple but elegant design. Inside, its mother-of-pearl inlay and painted woodwork provide the most distinctive features.
Gülhane Park was once part of the grounds of Topkapı Palace, accessible only to the royal court. These days crowds of locals come here to picnic under the many trees, promenade past the formally planted flowerbeds, and enjoy wonderful views of the Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara and Princes' Islands from the park's northeastern edge. The park is especially lovely during the Istanbul Tulip festival, when thousands of tulips bloom.
Housed in a building attached to the Neve Shalom synagogue near the Galata Tower, this museum was established in 2001 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. The imaginatively curated and chronologically arranged interactive collection comprises photographs, video, sound recordings and objects that document the history, language and culture of the Jewish people in Turkey. Visitors must have a passport to enter. Fascinating objects in the museum's collection include an array of Jewish ceremonial regalia with Turkish Ottoman influence, including a 19th-century hanukkiah (menorah made just for Hanukkah) in the shape of a minaret. Other highlights include a section about the Ladino (aka Judeo-Espanyol) language that includes musical recordings. The Neve Shalom synagogue was built in 1951. It is possible to order kosher food packages to collect from the museum (call one or two days ahead).
Built over a grand archway attached to the New Mosque, this small kasrı (pavilion) or mahfili (loge) dates from the same period and functioned as a waiting area and retreat for the sultans. It comprises a salon, bedchamber and toilet and is decorated with exquisite İznik tiles throughout. Entry is via an extremely long and wide staircase that is now ulitised by the İstanbul Ticaret Odası (Chamber of Commerce) as a temporary exhibition space.
In the centre of the Hippodrome, this immaculately preserved pink granite obelisk was carved in Egypt during the reign of Thutmose III (r 1549–1503 BC) and erected in the Amon-Re temple at Karnak. Theodosius the Great (r 379–95) had it brought from Egypt to Constantinople in AD 390. On the marble podium below the obelisk, look for the carvings of Theodosius, his wife, his sons, state officials and bodyguards watching the chariot-race action from the kathisma (imperial box).
After sacking Aya Sofya in 1204, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade tore all the plates from this obelisk, at the Hippodrome's southern end, in the mistaken belief that they were solid gold (in fact, they were gold-covered bronze). The Crusaders also stole the famous Triumphal Quadriga (team of four horses cast in bronze) and placed them atop the main door of Venice's Basilica di San Marco.
WHERE TO SHOP IN ISTANBUL
The colourful and chaotic Grand Bazaar is the heart of İstanbul's Old City and has been so for centuries. Starting as a small vaulted bedesten (warehouse) built by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461, it grew to cover a vast area as lanes between the bedesten, neighbouring shops and hans (caravanserais) were roofed and the market assumed the sprawling, labyrinthine form that it retains today. When here, be sure to peep through doorways to discover hidden hans, veer down narrow lanes to watch artisans at work and wander the main thoroughfares to differentiate treasures from tourist tack. It's obligatory to drink lots of tea, compare price after price and try your hand at the art of bargaining. Allow at least three hours for your visit; some travellers spend three days!
An aromatic, colourful and alluring showcase of the best fresh produce in the city, the Kadıköy Pazarı is foodie central for locals and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for tourists. Equally rewarding to explore independently or on a guided culinary walk, it’s small enough to retain a local feel yet large enough to support a variety of specialist traders. Getting here involves crossing from Europe to Asia and is best achieved on a ferry – from the deck you’ll be able to admire the domes and minarets studding the skylines of both shores and watch seagulls swooping overhead. Once you've arrived, cross Rihtim Caddesi in front of the main iskele (ferry dock) and walk up Muvakkithane Caddesi or Yasa Caddesi to reach the centre of the action. The best produce shops are in Güneşlibahçe Sokak – you’ll see fish glistening on beds of crushed ice, displays of seasonal fruits and vegetables, combs of amber-hued honey, tubs of tangy pickles, bins of freshly roasted nuts and much, much more.
Vividly coloured spices are displayed alongside jewel-like lokum (Turkish delight) at this Ottoman-era marketplace, providing eye candy for the thousands of tourists and locals who make their way here every day. Stalls also sell caviar, dried herbs, honey, nuts and dried fruits. The number of stalls selling tourist trinkets increases annually, yet this remains a great place to stock up on edible souvenirs, share a few jokes with vendors and marvel at the well-preserved building. Vividly coloured spices are displayed alongside jewel-like lokum (Turkish delight) at this Ottoman-era marketplace, providing eye candy for the thousands of tourists and locals who make their way here every day. Stalls also sell caviar, dried herbs, honey, nuts and dried fruits. The number of stalls selling tourist trinkets increases annually, yet this remains a great place to stock up on edible souvenirs, share a few jokes with vendors and marvel at the well-preserved building.
Above the main entrance and accessed via a steep flight of stairs, is Pandeli, a historic restaurant with three stunning dining salons encrusted with turquoise-coloured İznik tiles. Sadly, the quality of food served here is average at best, so we don't recommend dining here. On the west side of the market there are outdoor produce stalls selling fresh foodstuff from all over Anatolia, including a wonderful selection of cheeses. Also here is the most famous coffee supplier in İstanbul, Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, established over 100 years ago. This is located on the corner of Hasırcılar Caddesi, which is full of shops selling food and kitchenware.
A leader in Turkey's contemporary-design movement, Özlem Tuna produces super-stylish homewares and jewellery and sells them from her retail space near the Tophane tram stop. Her pieces use forms and colours that reference İstanbul's history and culture (tulips, seagulls, Byzantine mosaics, nazar boncuk 'evil eye' charms) and include hamam bowls, coffee and tea sets, coasters, rings, earrings, cufflinks and necklaces.
Serious antique shoppers should make their way to this old-fashioned business near the bazaar's Nuruosmaniye Gate. Silver candlesticks and trays, enamelled cigarette cases, jewellery, watches and an extraordinary range of icons are on offer in the elegant shop. The elderly owner and sales members are happy to welcome browsers.
A branch of the popular bath-ware retailer, which has its main showroom nearby.
This historic arcade of shops was once part of the külliye (mosque complex) of the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii). Mosques built by the great and powerful usually included numerous public-service institutions, including an arasta (row of shops) such as this, as well as hospitals, soup kitchens and schools. The arasta is now home to some of Sultanahmet's most alluring boutiques.