Istanbul is the Best of Both Worlds
Traditional and trending. Secular and religious. European and Asian. Man-made marvels and natural beauty. Only one city in the world can claim all of these labels as its own.
Straddling two continents, Istanbul has long been at the nexus of cultures, empires and religions. Through history, each succession has added to the mosaic that makes the city unique and a must-see for any traveler.
Istanbul is easy to get to for Americans – award-winning Turkish Airlines has nonstops from 10 US cities. So with that in mind, here are eight iconic experiences you won't want to miss during your visit.
Get Intercontinental on the Bosphorus
Generally speaking, it’s not easy to find an intercontinental cruise that lasts but a few hours. And yet, the shores along the Bosphorus are teeming with opportunities for just such experiences. This narrow, natural strait divides European Istanbul and Asian Istanbul, and, moreover, the continents of Europe and Asia. Just let that sink in for a second.
Whether traversed via ferry for the cost of a few dozen lira, via romantic sunset cruise or posh private yacht, no journey to Istanbul would be complete without a sail from the Sea of Marmara (on the Bosphorus' south end) to the Black Sea (on its north end) and back. As an added bonus, many vessels offer hop-on, hop-off privileges, so you can use your nautical exploration as a launch point for adventures all along Istanbul’s buzzing coastline as well.
Sip a Turkish Coffee
Brewed in a copper coffee pot known as a cezve, Türkiye’s thick, sweet and sometimes spice-infused take on java will have your taste buds and your neurons dancing—the latter thanks to its strength, as Turkish coffee has more than twice the caffeine of typical espresso.
Enjoy a cup at one of the beloved cafes or restaurants on İstiklal Avenue (called İstiklal Caddesi in Turkish), arguably Istanbul’s best-known street. The avenue begins near the historic Galata Mevlevi House Museum, where Sufi Dervishes still practice their famed whirling meditation, and meanders north and east to the Beyoğlu neighborhood’s Taksim Square. In this bustling pedestrian area, you can sample some of the city’s best food, marvel at the Republic Monument at the center of tree- and garden-lined Gezi park or catch an impromptu show by a talented street musician. Take a vintage trolley back if your feet are tired.
Full-Flavor Shopping at Istanbul’s Markets
Istanbul’s stunning handmade goods make window shopping a must—and “just looking” a near impossibility.
When—not if—you give into temptation, we suggest choosing goods with a rich Turkish history, and which you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. You’ll find many such treasures at the Grand Bazaar on the historical peninsula. In the 4,000-some shops that make up the covered market, choose from a dizzying array of hand-loomed carpets; wander booths full of high-quality leather goods; or select a set of ornate, hand-painted Turkish tiles that will remind you of this magnificent place each time you look at your wall.
Then, for shopping thrills with less commitment, head due north to the Spice Market where, among other treats, pungent spices and a near-endless selection of Turkish Delight are on offer. Bars of the famed Turkish dessert are stacked into pyramids and come in flavors that range from the traditional rosewater or orange to more adventurous ones—like mint, pomegranate and chocolate.
Tour Museums Old and New
Modern art buffs will appreciate a visit to Istanbul Modern, a museum that houses celebrated works by contemporary Turkish artists. Those whose interests are rooted deeper in the past will be gratified by a stroll through Topkapı Palace Museum. The regal building that houses the museum’s art and artifacts is itself the most storied and historic object on the grounds, having played home to more than two dozen sultans and many colorful dramas surrounding their empires between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Visit Dazzling Mosques
If there is one architectural wonder whose story most closely mirrors the complex religious history of this region, it’s the Hagia Sophia. First built as a Christian church in 537 CE, over the following centuries this palatial structure became a mosque, then a museum and, in July 2020, a mosque again. Venture to the eastern end of Istanbul’s historical peninsula to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s towering exterior, awash in shades ranging from umber to persimmon; its regal gardens and fountain; and its awe-inducing interior whose art-covered walls double as a chronicle of its history.
Also on the historical peninsula are two additional must-see religious outposts. Marvel the six imposing minarets (or spires) and layered, arch- and dome-bedecked exterior of the Blue Mosque, which sits just a 4-minute walk away from the Hagia Sophia. The Süleymaniye Mosque in the northern part of the district is perhaps less imposing from the outside, but its stunning interior—which includes shutters adorned with mother-of-pearl; stained glass windows in prismatic patterns; and fine İznik tiles in contrasting hues of blue and bright coral—conveys its status as one of the most important structures of the Ottoman empire.
See Istanbul’s Highs and Lows — Literally
Now a popular site for scoring 360-degree views of the city and its surrounding waterways, Galata Tower was built in 1348—or re-built, actually, to replace a tower constructed in the early 6th century but destroyed in the Crusades. It was first used as a lighthouse, then as a dungeon before, from the 1700s to the late 1960s, it served as possibly the world’s fanciest fire tower.
If the line to make the 205-foot climb is long during your visit (as it can be), the outdoor cafes and shops in the recently restored square surrounding the tower make a fun diversion, too.
For an impressive experience at a much lower elevation, head to the recently restored Şerefiye Cistern. This underground reservoir once supplied water to the Great Palace, the Baths of Zeuxippus (public bathhouses constructed during the Byzantine Empire) and other historic fixtures.
Eating in Istanbul
Döner, köfte, meze, dolma, kumpir, kebab… Türkiye’s delicacies are almost as fun to say as they are to eat.
Thanks to the cultural fusion embodied in Türkiye’s flavorful cuisine, fans of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Central Asian fare will all find familiar dishes—with a uniquely Turkish spin—on menus across the city. Make sure to cap off a meal (or several) with a piece of Turkish Baklava, characterized by layers of crushed pistachios and buttery, flaky phyllo dough soaked in a lemony syrup.
See Istanbul Less Traveled — and Beyond
It’s easy, affordable and worthwhile to say merhaba (Turkish for “hello”) to neighborhoods outside the central tourist zone during your Istanbul vacation. Kadıköy, located on the southern coast of Istanbul’s Asian side, is alive with colorful murals, hip cafes, thriving nightlife and high culture (thanks to the Süreyya Opera House and its milieu of ballets, classical concerts and, yes, operas). The trip from the city’s European side is affordable by ferry, train or bus.
The Fener neighborhood on the European side, which overlooks the waters of Golden Horn, has a more nostalgic feel. Cobblestoned streets, beautifully weathered ornate buildings and gold-gilded churches characterize this lovely area.
Want to explore Ankara, Türkiye’s cosmopolitan capital; or the surreal rock formations that characterize Turkiye’s arid Cappadocia region? Türkiye's reliable, affordable train and bus systems, accessible domestic air travel and a variety of full-service cross-country tour operators make seeing more of Türkiye a dream you need not defer.