I loved Istanbul from the moment our airport shuttle bus drove underneath an ancient aqueduct with city lights all around it. I could feel the city’s energy before I even got out of the bus, and when we arrived in Taksim Square around 1AM, I couldn’t contain my excitement at being there. I’m definitely a city person, and any city that still feels alive at 1AM is my kind of place. Andy and I spent about five days in Istanbul, and while there are endless possibilities, these were five of my favorite things to do.
1. Hagia Sophia
Once a church, now a museum, Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist attractions for a good reason. The Byzantine architecture is impressive, making this building beautiful inside and out. We were a little overwhelmed by the long line to get in, but it moved quickly. Once inside, we could really see the history. Being a church in a country that eventually became Muslim made for some interesting details. There were several images of Jesus and other important Catholic figures, but in one area we saw crosses that had been partially covered up.
2. Blue Mosque
Opposite the Hagia Sophia is the beautiful Blue Mosque. We first went there in the middle of the afternoon when the sun was streaming into the courtyard, making it a nice place to just relax. Unfortunately we couldn’t go inside that day because I completely forgot about bringing a scarf to cover my head, which is necessary for entering a mosque.
We returned prepared the next day, and went inside the mosque. The detailed tiles on the walls and ceilings, the multiple arches, and the stained glass windows are the reasons why this is probably the most famous mosque in Turkey.
3. Galata Tower
The Galata Tower is on the Taksim side of Galata Bridge, near the bottom end of Istakal Street. Built in the 1300’s, this tower offers the best panoramic views of the city. The elevator takes you up to a small restaurant where you can go outside and take in the views. The narrow balcony goes all the way around the tower, and from there you can see Agya Sophia, several mosques, Galata Bridge, and much more. It was overcast and rainy when we were there, so I can only imagine how much more breathtaking the view must be in good weather.
4. Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is the ultimate shopping experience. No matter what you’re looking for, chances are it’s sold there. Whether you can find it is a different issue. The bazaar has been around for centuries. Even though there have been updates to modernize the building, it’s still a massive maze of confusing streets and alleyways. The gates are numbered, which helps you find the way you came in, but for your first visit, just let yourself get lost for awhile. Then when you’re ready to buy, make sure you haggle. I haven’t experienced haggling too many times before, so I wasn’t quite comfortable with the theatrics of it, but in the end it was kind of fun.
As much as I loved the sites and the history of Istanbul, what I remember and crave the most is the food. I knew I loved Turkish food before I ever got to Turkey, but having it in its country of origin sent me over the edge. We really didn’t have a bad meal. We liked the food so much we brought home two bags of spices. Whether it was the sandwich I got when we first arrived in Taksim Square, the amazing doner we had at the Grand Bazaar (a place called Ege Doner between gates 18 and 19) or the delicious salad that had lemon juice on it, eating in Istanbul turned out to be my favorite thing.
Istanbul is now one of my favorite cities for all the great things it offers. It’s definitely a city you need several days, if not more, to really enjoy. Istanbul offers so much more than just these five things, but they would make a great start for a visit to the city that straddles two continents.