If you’re wondering “Is Istanbul worth visiting?” then you came to the right place. Often overlooked in favor of the southern beach resorts or the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, Turkey’s capital has a lot more to offer than you might think.
As the only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul combines all the intrigue of Asia with the cosmopolitan nature of Europe. It’s a vibrant melting pot of culture, architecture, and cuisine, with the two continental halves divided by the Bosphorus Strait. It has a rich history dating back to the 7th century BC when it was first discovered by Megara King Byzas.
The city’s storied past can be felt on every bustling street and in every show-stopping landmark, with a tapestry of design born out of dozens of different ruling eras. Here, we take a look at seven reasons why this cultural capital deserves a spot on your ever-expanding bucket list.
Two Continents in One
One of the main draws of visiting Istanbul is the opportunity to visit two continents in one trip. The European side is where you’ll find some of the most well-known sights, including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and Hagia Sophia. It’s also where you’ll find historic neighborhoods such as Balat, a Jewish Quarter offering brightly painted houses, hip cafés, and a bohemian atmosphere.
The Asian side of the city is much quieter, made up of more residential neighborhoods but with an up-and-coming vibe. Kadıköy is a relaxed district with a popular fish and produce market and lots of laid-back restaurants, making it great for food-lovers. The ferry crossing in itself is a reason to visit the Asian side, while those who do make the trip will be rewarded with wonderful views of the city’s skyline. Moda has some quirky museums and there are even a few small beaches in Caddebostan.
The fabric of Istanbul has been woven by many different empires, religions, and civilizations since its discovery several millennia ago. From the early Byzantium rule to the Roman Empire and Ottoman conquest, there is so much to discover in the city’s many historical sites.
Check out the incredible Byzantine Basilica Cistern, an ancient underground structure that once delivered water to the city. Imposing stone columns were salvaged from temples to be used for its construction, while an eye-catching medusa statue all adds to the eerie atmosphere.
Above ground, you’ll find the impressive Topkapi Palace, once home to Sultans and their wives. It features a gilded treasury of jewels as well as the secretive harem, a secluded space with its own Turkish bath where women would reside. Of course, you can’t miss the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s star attraction. Also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, this hallowed site is a vision of domes and spires, with a breathtaking interior lined with iridescent blue tiles.
Connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara while dividing the city in two, the Bosphorus Strait lends an unusual element of natural beauty to this concrete jungle. Taking a boat tour is the best way to appreciate some of the incredible sights of Istanbul, including the dazzling architecture of the Ottoman mansions and palaces which line the water’s edge. You can also visit the medieval Maiden’s Tower, an unusual lighthouse in the middle of the waterway. As the legend goes, a Sultan kept his daughter here after a prophecy predicted her death.
Inside the city, you’ll find a unique blend of culture and design, where elaborate churches stand alongside ornamental mosques and synagogues. Visit the Galata Tower to get the best panoramic views of the city, or simply head to one of the many rooftop bars and restaurants (more on that later). You’ll find striking views around every street corner, from the unexpected sleek modernity of the Sancaklar Mosque to the mysterious mansion ruins of Trotsky House.
Traditional Turkish Hammam
Spa-enthusiasts will be in for a treat in Istanbul, famous for its centuries-old bathing tradition known as a hammam. A hammam is a public bath featuring a steamy marble-clad room where you can be attended to by a masseur of sorts, who uses warm water, soap, and salts to provide a vigorous exfoliating treatment. Used since ancient Roman times as a place for socializing, an authentic hammam is usually split into separate areas for men and women. You will typically have some time before and after the treatment to relax in the soothing warmth of the room.
The Mihrimah Sultan Hammam was built by Mimar Sinan in the mid-1500s and offers classic domed Ottoman architecture to enjoy while you wind down. Luxury-lovers should check out the Hürrem Sultan Hammam, which was also built during the Ottoman times but under the orders of the Sultan himself.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar needs little introduction, known for being one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. An explosion of color and chaos, it is home to around 4,000 shops along with a mosque, post office, and police station – meaning it’s practically a city in itself! It’s the ideal place to shop for authentic souvenirs such as hand-looped carpets, stained-glass lanterns, and floral-painted ceramics. You can also pick up a cotton peştemal here, which is a traditional striped and fringed towel used in the Turkish hammam.
Meanwhile, foodies should look no further than the nearby Spice Bazaar, which is an aromatic alternative to its larger neighbor, and great for getting a taste for Turkish cuisine. Visitors can sample the many fragrant herbs and products on offer, which includes Turkish delight in every color of the rainbow and wonderfully sticky baklava, an authentic pastry smothered in honey and nuts.
The streets of Istanbul can be a little overwhelming, with a cacophony of scents, sounds, and sights pulling you from pillar to post. Thankfully the bustling city has made good use of its rooftops, where you can find spectacular views, excellent bars, and a breath of fresh air. Heading to one of these sophisticated cocktail venues come sunset is a great way to take in the city. Try the Banyan for uninterrupted views of the Bosphorus Strait, Vogue for elegant cocktails and an extensive cigar menu, or 5.KAT for a more authentic afternoon drink.
Those who love a photo opportunity can also check out various rooftops across the city which set up colorful rugs and carpets and charge a small fee for taking a picture. Kubbe Istanbul is a great little establishment with a rooftop where you can sip Turkish tea, lounge on colorful embroidered cushions, and watch the seagulls swoop and dive above the Old Town.
Istanbul’s multicultural past has led to a diverse yet delicious range of cuisine. You’ll find everything from tempting street food to Michelin-star fine dining, with something to suit all tastes and budgets. A traditional Meze is a great way to experience lots of different small plates in one go, and are sold everywhere in Istanbul. Usually, a waiter will come to your table with the options displayed on a tray. Each member of your party can select one and then they’ll be shared among the group.
Street-food specialties include simit, which is a type of bagel, and of course the quintessential kebab. Meanwhile, Mantı is often hailed as the Turkish ravioli, consisting of small filled dumplings served with yogurt, garlic, and tomato sauce. Those with a sweet tooth should try the Arab pastry known as Künefe, which contains unsalted cheese and is served warm and smothered in syrup. The Turkish are also known for their amazing hospitality, meaning you can always expect service with a smile.
How many days do you need in Istanbul?
As a vibrant city with so much to see, we recommended spending at least 3-5 days in Istanbul. This will give you enough time to see the main sights without feeling too rushed or overwhelmed.
If you choose to spend a week in Istanbul, you will also have time for enticing day trips. You can check out the car-free Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, known for their elegant horse-drawn carriages and for providing welcome respite from the commotion of the city. You can also head north of the city to the enchanting Belgrad Forest for a sense of wilderness and a little adventure.
Is Istanbul good for tourism?
With its history of conflict and conquest, you may be wondering, is Istanbul good for tourism? Well, the answer is yes! Istanbul has been popular with tourists for centuries. It’s a great place to visit with so much to explore.
Despite its religious background, it is a fairly liberal city with a great nightlife scene. Crime rates are relatively low, although you should keep an eye out for pickpockets and the like, as you would in any major city. Generally, locals are incredibly welcoming of foreign visitors, and there are even specialist tourism police to help you feel safe and secure.
What’s Istanbul famous for?
Having served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires respectively, Istanbul is famous for its rich history and culture. Once named Constantinople, many of the city’s most famous landmarks were built during the Golden Golden Age of Byzantium, such as the Hagia Sophia. This impressive feat of architecture was formerly a church but later became a mosque – a great illustration of the city’s colorful and transformative past.
Istanbul’s enviable position on the gateway to the Black Sea meant it was regularly under threat of siege throughout the ages. It suffered Arab and Barbarian attacks before Ottoman Turks conquered the city in 1453 and it was renamed Islambol. The city now serves as the capital and financial center of Turkey and is one of the largest cities in Europe.