If you are planning your first trip to Istanbul, I would recommend at least 3 days to allow yourself enough time to explore this magical city. Istanbul, a perfect mash-up of East and West, holds a special place in my heart. I love the mix of old and new, the traditional and the trendy, the ancient and the modern. Here’s my list of top 5 places that you must visit in Istanbul:
1) THE GRAND BAZAAR IN ISTANBUL
I found myself getting lost in the beautiful maze of streets and passages inside the Grand Bazaar. The bazaar has about 5,000 shops that feature beautiful items such as jewelry, carpets, spices, antiques and hand-painted ceramics. It’s hard not to get lost in this chaos, so try to remember where you entered before wandering around. And you also need to sharpen your bargaining skills before plunging into shopping spree at this lovely market.
2) BLUE MOSQUE
Due to the fact that Blue Mosque is a working mosque you need to plan your visit carefully, as the mosque is closed to sightseers during their daily prayer times for Muslims (and they pray about 5 times a day!). You can go to Blue Mosque’s website to check out their schedule for prayer times. All visitors must remove their shoes and all women must cover their hair. If you forget to bring a scarf with you to cover your hair, don’t worry because you can find lots of street vendors selling scarves right outside the mosque.
3) EGYPTIAN SPICE BAZAAR
When you enter the Spice Bazaar, take a deep breath and you can smell that wonderful rich aroma of the exotic East. Spices, dried fruits, cheeses, sausages, jams, nuts and seeds, Turkish Delights and other edibles fill most of the shops. My greatest joy in Istanbul was sampling and shopping for the best Turkish delight! I did learn the best kind are not pre-packaged shiny-looking boxes sold by stores or the ones tourists can find easily at the airport for souvenirs. Those are too sugary, powdery, and dry! The authentic Turkish Delights are the ones made fresh and cut in front of you, some even elegantly covered with dry edible flowers or fruits. Be sure to keep an eye out for these exotic authentic Turkish Delights at Spice Bazaar!
4) HAGIA SOPHIA
The Hagia Sophia was once a house of worship that served several religions over the centuries. It was a Roman Catholic church and then became a mosque in 1453, remaining that way until 1931, when it was closed. It reopened as a museum in 1935. It is the most famous for its mosaics depicting various religious scenes. It is the most-visited site in Turkey so you should consider buying an Istanbul Museum Pass to avoid the ticket line.
5) PANORAMIC RESTAURANT, ISTANBUL
The restaurant has incredible 360° views of Istanbul; most notably Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It’s an experience not too be missed! We have the perfect view of the Golden Horn from our table. The Golden Horn geographically separates the historic center of Istanbul from the rest of the city, and forms a natural, sheltered harbor. The food here is decent, the price is reasonable, and the staff are friendly. You can go up to their rooftop and take some amazing pictures of the magical Istanbul at night-time.
Besides these top 5 places that you must visit, there are so many other interesting activities that you should also consider, like drinking traditional Turkish tea in elegant tulip-shaped glasses at any outdoor cafe or inside any bazaar, hydrate with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from street vendors, sampling Turkish delights, bargaining for the finest cashmeres and pashminas, listening to the call of prayer between the Blue Mosque and Sophia Hagia, the list goes on! Istanbul is one of my favorite destinations and can’t wait to come back to this magical city one day.
Have you ever been to Istanbul? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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Dimitris M says
The Hagia Sophia was never a roman catholic church. It was a byzantine orthodox church, the pride of the byzantine emperor Justinian
Susan Saxton says
I am a huge fan of Istanbul and Turkey. In Istanbul, after you have seen all the requisite sites-Hagia, Blue Mosque, Egyptian Bazaar (way too touristy), Spice Market (stock up!), there are so many other incredible places to see that rival all of the above. However, my first suggestion for your first visit is a GUIDE. If you are not a Byzantine history buff, you will be so glad to have someone explaining all the layers of history in this part of the world AND cut the long, long lines of tourists at the same time. My fantastic guide was able to get me through the Archeological museum with all the highlights, the Topkapi ( some of the best tile work) plus all the other must-see sites above. In addition, she learned of my interest in the tile work (iznak) and mosaics, and guided me to some other sites. Plus, the Blue Mosque is wonderful, but there some of the best tile work is at the “little Mosque” near the Spice Bazaar-Rustempasa.
The Istanbul Modern is under a complete renovation as I write, but when it is done, not to be missed. And, if you are a reader, the Istanbul nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk has a small museum that goes that tells the story of his fictional book, The Museum of Innocence. Such fun to follow the books protagonist by viewing all his collections and belongings described in the novel!
One other activity while there is a visit to a hammam. I have been to a traditional (one of the oldest close to the Blue Mosque) and also a modern one on my most recent trip this summer. I really, really loved the modern because it is much easier to understand the traditional treatments (scrubs, bathing–full body) in the modern vs the traditional locations. We loved our “bathers” so much that I will be requesting her next year!
I could keep going on about shopping and food, but will stop here since I believe I have added to the “incredible places” to visit and some other tips that are sure to make your first trip much more informative and enjoyable!
We Are Travel Girls says
Thanks so much for your detailed reply! You have some great tips and knowledge of the area, so if you would like to submit an article please visit wearetravelgirls.com/contribute.
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Becky, Founder of We Are Travel Girls