A Traveler’s Guide to Istanbul: The Best of Asia and Europe


Sufi whirling is a unique tradition in Turkey and the figurines could be seen everywhere in Turkey – it is also a great souvenir, they come with ceramic, copper, and many other materials. There are also candles shaped like a dance, and they twirl when the candle is lit.

Istanbul is a charming existence in Eurasia straddling the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia. The transcontinental metropolis (basically the only one in the world) has a population of 15 million and a profound history. The city area is divided by the Bosphorus Strait so taking a boat trip towards the Black Sea is an experience of “Europe on the left and Asia on the right”:).

The Asian Side (a.k.a. The Eastern half of the city), connects to Turkey’s mainland in Asia with a lot of expensive mansions on the waterfront overlooking the harbor. Yet, the majority of the historical sightseeing spots are located on the European side of the city. The city’s biggest attraction is its historic center at the Golden Horn, with a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the well-known Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia Museum, and Topkapi Palace. This area was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Unless you are staying in Istanbul for more than 5 days, or you are visiting Istanbul for the second time, most of the amazements happen in the western half of the city.

Something about Istanbul

istanbul-taksim-3The story of Istanbul begins during the time of Byzantium through the Ottoman Empire, where it is strategically located as one of the main hubs on the historic Silk Road, connecting the European and Asian worlds. It is also an important passage being the only sea route between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The rather frequent Turkey terror attacks (like bombing) linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Kurdish militant groups in the last two years may have raised tourists’ concerns about visiting the city; I visited Istanbul a few years back and enjoyed a lot the magnificent cathedrals, mosque, palace and breathtaking views of the harbor.

Turkey has such a unique geographic location and long history, through Hittites, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – it also has a very diverse heritage which can be seen in different ruins and heritages. Check out Turkish Delight: Amazing Heritage Sites for more about Greek and Roman architecture. Here in Istanbul, you will find historic buildings in the Seljuk, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods.

Over 12 million foreign visitors come to Istanbul in 2015, five years after it was named the European Capital of Culture in 2010. That year, Istanbul is the world’s 5th most popular tourist destination.

Sightseeing cruise

The Galata Tower was originally constructed in the 6th century, and again, destroyed by fire in 1348. This is a great location to climb up the 195 stairs and enjoy a panoramic view of the city. Besides, the Galata Kule Restoran is a fabulous restaurant that you should make a reservation to eat there. Something that you may not know: a Turkish jumped out of the tower with gliding wings in 1632, and successfully landed on the Uskudar, the Asian side.

A Bosphorus Cruise is an unforgettable experience that allows you to explore the captivating beauty of Istanbul from a unique vantage point. The Bosphorus Strait, separating Europe and Asia, serves as a natural and cultural crossroads, and a cruise along its shimmering waters offers a mesmerizing journey through history and picturesque landscapes.

The major landmarks of Istanbul are located closely in the heritage site Istanbul, including Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque), the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace, and Galata Tower – a tower that offers panoramic views of Istanbul’s old town, and could be seen in many spots in the city; But, if you want to have an overview of the city, a sightseeing cruise is a good way to view the scenery from afar. After we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge and returned to Istanbul from Turkey’s mainland after our trip, we boarded the cruise immediately we were on our way towards the Black Sea. The cruise travels north through the trait before returning to the same spot.

Do you know? Bosphorus means “throat” in Turkish – in fact, they share the same word, and it represents life, happiness, and fortune to the locals. This is a 32-kilometer-long strait and a very important passage that separates the Asian and European continents.

As you embark on the cruise, you’ll sail past stunning palaces, majestic mosques, and charming waterfront neighborhoods that showcase the city’s rich heritage. Marvel at the iconic sights such as the magnificent Dolmabahçe Palace, the ornate Beylerbeyi Palace, and the historic Maiden’s Tower.

The cruise offers panoramic views of Istanbul’s skyline, revealing the harmonious blend of modern skyscrapers with centuries-old architecture. The gentle breeze and the rhythmic sway of the boat create a tranquil atmosphere, allowing you to relax and soak in the breathtaking vistas.

As you glide along the Bosphorus, you’ll witness the bustling maritime activity, including traditional fishing boats and cargo ships. The sight of the graceful Bosphorus Bridge connecting Europe and Asia is truly awe-inspiring.

Whether you choose a daytime or sunset cruise, the Bosphorus reveals its beauty in different hues, creating a magical ambiance. The cruise is accompanied by informative commentary, providing fascinating insights into the history, culture, and landmarks that line the shores.

A Bosphorus Cruise is a must-do activity for visitors to Istanbul, offering a unique perspective of the city’s charm and providing a memorable experience that captures the essence of this extraordinary metropolis.

The Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side is probably the most eye-catching structure from the water; Completed in 1843 and located in the Beşiktaş district, the palace served as an administrative center of the Ottoman Empire. It is the largest palace in Turkey. The palace has an area of 45,000 square meters, with 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 bathrooms, and 68 toilets. Wait until you see the inside of the building, it’s extravagant, and it contains eclectic Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical elements, mixed with traditional Ottoman architecture. The style reflects how the ancient Ottoman Empire was influenced by different cultures, owing to its unique location on the world map.

Like the Ceremonial Hall in the Palace, showcasing a chandelier that was given by Queen Victoria, the Crystal Staircase was decorated with Baccarat crystal banisters, and the Sultan’s Hamam was decorated with Egyptian alabaster (so it’s white).

We saw many extravagant mansions (mainly on the Asian Side) of the harbor as well.

Hagia Sophia Museum

Sultan’s Lodge is a dedicated prayer room for Sultan. It was shielded by wooden screen and marble fences – yet it has a view of the entire interior space in the hall.

Hagia Sophia should be the most famous and well-known architecture in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia’s grandeur lies in its stunning blend of Byzantine and Ottoman influences, exemplified by its massive dome, intricate mosaics, and soaring minarets. The Byzantine-style building has gone quite a transformation over the last 1400 years. Originally an Orthodox church, then a Roman Catholic church, and later a mosque, and now, it was secularized and converted into a museum. (Yet most of the people I know still recognize this place as a “church” and call it a cathedral). It was built by the Byzantine emperor and it stood as the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years until the completion of Seville Cathedral in Spain.

Do you know? Hagia Sophia has been the principal mosque of Istanbul for 500 years, and it was converted into a museum in 1935. The Christian ornate mosaics were covered over the centuries as it changes from a church to a mosque. A large number of mosaics were uncovered by the research teams after it became a museum. That’s why the building is so unique as it housed both Christian and Islamic religious elements on such a large scale in one place (and in Byzantine-style). 

The Ottoman Medallions are inscribed in Arabic the names of the Muslim important figures: Allah and Muhammad; the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali; and Muhammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein. Each Medallion has a radius of 7.5 meters – the largest in the Islamic world.

Step inside and be awe-inspired by the vast interior adorned with breathtaking artwork, including mesmerizing frescoes and gilded decorations. The sheer scale and intricate design of the structure are awe-inspiring, evoking a sense of wonder and reverence.

The building has undergone years of restorations – precious, but fragile frescoes, sculptures, and mosaics have remained for modern-day visitors’ eyes. the Emperor Door, the Omphalion (circular marble slabs), the Dome, the Sultan’s Lodge, and the Weeping Column are not to miss!

As ancient as the structure sounded, sadly the building was destroyed and rebuilt over 8 times, and nothing we see today is quite the original that it was supposed to be 1,400 years ago. It suffered from a fire in 532, and after it was rebuilt from its ashes, it suffered severe damage from a number of earthquakes after the fire. Not to mention that this religious landmark has been ransacked and desecrated by invaders during the wars, namely the 4th crusade and then the Invasion of Constantinople in 1481.

Hagia Sophia’s historical significance extends beyond its architectural beauty. It served as a symbol of power and a center of religious and cultural significance for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The building’s transformation from a church to a mosque and its current status as a museum reflect the rich tapestry of Istanbul’s past.

Do you know? Hagia Sophia was once the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years until the Seville Cathedral overtakes the title when it was completed in 1520.

There are a number of Gold Foil Art in the museum: The Christ with Constantine IX Monomachos and Empress Zoe.

It was quite overwhelming as we entered the museum seeing the immense height of the hall, plus the number of artworks and frescoes that remained. Check out more about my favorite cathedrals at the Top 16 Most Spectacular Cathedrals in the World!

The Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque) is kind of like a twin building of Hagia Sophia with giant domes and minarets, facing each other, in two distinctive theme colors that dominate Istanbul’s skyline. Since our flight arrived so early in the morning, we were outside Sultanahmet Square and waited before the museum opened.

The Blue Mosque, is an architectural gem and a symbol of Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage. Located in the heart of the city, this stunning mosque draws visitors from around the world with its exquisite beauty and grandeur.

Ritual washing before prayer in a mosque.

Despite the “similarity”, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque was, in fact, a thousand years younger than the Hagia Sophia, completed in the year 1616. Built in the early 17th century, the Blue Mosque showcases intricate tilework, cascading domes, and elegant minarets. The architecture still functions as a place of worship today, with prayers kneeling on the red carpet during the call to prayer every day. Not only the exterior of the building was painted with shades of blues on its domes, but also the interior was adorned with delicate hand-painted blue tiles. The mosque was also the resting place of Ottoman Sultan Ahmed the First, with ablution facilities lining up at the entrance of the prayer hall. It was the first mosque (a rather important one) that I visited and it was special.

Sultan Ahmet, I initiated the project at the age of 19, and the finished product is considered an architectural masterpiece of Turkish architect Sinan and his student Sedefkâr Mehmed Ağa. The Blue Mosque took only about 7 years to build, and Sultan died one year after it was completed at the age of 27.

Stepping inside, visitors are greeted with a mesmerizing display of blue Iznik tiles that adorn the walls, giving the mosque its nickname. The vast central prayer hall boasts a stunning array of chandeliers, beautiful stained glass windows, and intricately designed carpets.

Do you know? The Blue Mosque has six minarets, around one giant dome, and eight smaller domes, which is impressive and unique because mosques traditionally have one, two, or four (Like Hagia Sophia, Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and Taj Mahal in India, they all have four minarets, except Masjid al-Haram in Mecca has nine, and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina has ten.) Rumor has it, that it could be a misunderstanding when the sultan instructed the architect to build gold (altin) minarets, and it was mistaken as six (alti) minarets.

While it’s not difficult to spot shades of blue from the exterior of the mosque, its name most likely came from the striking 20,000 blue tiles inside the ceiling of the mosque, featuring patterns of flowers, trees, and abstract patterns of Iznik design in the 16th century.

The Blue Mosque not only serves as a place of worship but also as a testament to the Ottoman architectural style and Islamic artistry. Its serene ambiance invites visitors to appreciate the craftsmanship and spiritual significance of this iconic structure.

Basilica Cistern

It is located right across Hagia Sophia Museum, and it is an important structure that many tourists may miss. There are over 30 cisterns (water storage) in Istanbul during the Byzantine period, and this one is the largest and the most well-preserved. This is called a “Basilica”, featuring 336 marble columns, with a capacity of 100,000 tonnes of water. However, two of the most unique columns are the Hen’s Eye column (spooky tear patterns, dedicated to the hundreds of slaves who were sacrificed during the constructions), and the inverted and sideways Medusa columns.

Do you know? Basilica Cistern was featured in Hollywood’s blockbuster Inferno, another adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel. I am not going to spoil the plot here, but I am a huge fan – check out my trips in Rome and Florence which I named some of the other locations that were also featured in Professor Langdon’s adventure as well.

Topkapi Palace Museum

Another important historic spot in the area was the Topkapi Palace, an Ottoman Sultan’s royal residence located on a hill overlooking the entire Istanbul city. It was a Turkish version of Versailles.

Walking through the Gate of Salutation, we entered the world of Sultan in the past times.

Check out the beautiful Imperial Hall at the Harem where you will see extravagant decorations in each room and beautiful Iznik pottery, or Iznik ware – a decorated ceramic that was produced from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century.

‘Sultan’ is a Muslim Sovereign and the architectural style remained me a lot of the palaces that I have seen in Malaysia and Indonesia, where these countries also have a huge Muslim community and a strong Muslim influence. The museum showcases also exquisite jewelry, gems, and costumes from the last time. Walked through the ornate rooms and manicured gardens and temples, the Fourth Court and the Kiosks were where the imperial families reside and I was blown away by the view of the Bosphorus Strait with the Maiden’s Tower in the middle of the ocean and the Istanbul city center with the Galata Tower poking out from the old buildings.

We sat down at the terrace café and had some coffee and snack, looking at the view that never gets old.

The palace complex encompasses stunning courtyards, lush gardens, and a series of opulent chambers that house a remarkable collection of artifacts. Visitors can explore the palace’s various sections, including the Imperial Treasury, the Harem, and the Sacred Relics. Marvel at the intricate tilework, ornate calligraphy, and exquisite craftsmanship that adorn the palace’s interiors.

Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is an iconic landmark in Istanbul that offers visitors a unique perspective of the city. Standing tall in the historic Galata district, this medieval stone tower provides panoramic views of Istanbul’s sprawling metropolis and the stunning Bosphorus Strait.

To visit the Galata Tower, securing a Galata Tower ticket is essential. Once inside, visitors can ascend to the top of the tower through its winding staircase or by taking the elevator for a small additional fee. From the observation deck, breathtaking views of Istanbul’s skyline unfold, showcasing the city’s vibrant blend of ancient and modern architecture.

In addition to its regular viewing experience, the Galata Tower also hosts a captivating light show. The Galata Tower light show timings vary, but typically take place after sunset. This enchanting spectacle illuminates the tower’s facade with colorful lights, adding a touch of magic to the evening experience.

Whether visiting during the day or at night, the Galata Tower offers a captivating experience that showcases Istanbul’s beauty from a unique vantage point. It is a must-visit attraction for history enthusiasts, photography enthusiasts, and anyone seeking an unforgettable view of Istanbul’s mesmerizing cityscape.

Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi)

istanbul-grand-bazzar-1It is one of the biggest Grand Bazaars and is often referred to as one of the first “shopping malls” in the world. We took some time in the maze and bought gifts and souvenirs for my friends back home, and then we decided to get closer to the real Istanbul – so we grabbed the little time that we have left in the city and took the modern tram and reached the busiest shopping street in Istanbul – the İstiklal Avenue. The GrandBazaar has over 4,000 shops, cafes, restaurants, post offices, exchange offices, and even bathhouses. Some of the shops sell similar souvenirs, but if you look closely, you will find some unique products that suit your taste.

The Arasta Bazaar is Istanbul’s only historic market that is open. It was established in the 17th century and it was known for its beautiful carpets. Half the Bazaar was burned down in 1912, and it was renovated in the 1980s. Now it has shops that sell jewelry, leather goods, handicrafts, textiles, and pottery. This is another great place to explore as it’s less crowded than the Grand Bazaar, adding a little more chill.

Istanbul nostalgic tramways

The city has a modern tramway that connects everywhere but it’s great that the heritage tram line is still functioning today. There are two separate nostalgic tramways in Istanbul, one on each side of the city. The 1.6km European side tram line runs along the famous İstiklal Avenue from Taksim to Tünel in a 20-minute interval. Therefore it’s a convenient way to travel up and down the avenue or go back to the starting point after walking through the entire avenue – because it’s quite difficult to actually locate the stops on the avenue except for the terminus.

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