The only city in the world to straddle two continents, Istanbul is the crossroads of all crossroads. This seriously ancient city has survived for more than 2500 years, during which time it has served as the capital of three empires, been called by at least four names, and been fought over by Greeks and Romans, barbarian tribes and Crusaders, and Byzantines and Ottomans. The past and the present bump and grind here like they revelers at a Beşiktaş nightclub. Lean minarets pierce the sky alongside glittering modern skyscrapers, bearded old men nurse nargiles on street corners, and designer-clad shoppers haggle for spices in the winding stalls of the ancient Bazaar. Istanbul is a hectic, crazy mix of cultures, styles, smells, and lifestyles, and it can be a challenge for the uninitiated. Luckily, you’ve got us to help you navigate the maze of the Grand Bazaar and find your way onto the right Bosphorus ferry. Whether you’re heading to Istanbul to take in the history, study the culture, or enjoy the hedonism, you’re in store for one wild magic-carpet ride.
Istanbul would be nothing without its waters. Acting as barriers, shipping lanes, and passages, they’ve come to define the city. The Bosphorus links the Sea of Marmara in the south to the Black Sea in the north, marking the border between Europe and Asia. Meanwhile, the Golden Horn (Haliç) divides the European side into north and south.
Istanbul is a single city, but its components are vibrant and distinct. European Istanbul, which features most of the historic and cultural sights, is the better looking half (sorry Asia!), although that also means it’s crammed with tourists (and those trying to make money off of them). Walk around Sultanahmet for the most famous sights, but cross over to Beyoğlu to find the soul of modern Istanbul. Heading north on the European side, you’ll find bustling Beşiktaş and opulent Ortaköy, where Istanbul’s glitterati spend and party.
On the Asian side, the mostly residential Üsküdar is bordered in the south by Kadıköy, the unofficial center of this half, while farther south, the quiet and comfortable life of Moda might tempt you to move there.
With all these neighborhoods stretched between two continents, you’ll have a lot to take in. Thankfully, between the city’s buses, trains, and trams, you’ll never find yourself far from Istanbul’s cheap, convenient public transportation network, and the city’s ferry service is the cheapest intercontinental cruise you’ll ever take.
Historical, beautiful, scenic, artsy, quirky: Istanbul has many personalities. Each sight has a history (often a very long one), and as a rule of thumb, the older the building, the more likely it’s had at least one makeover. You’ll see many mosques, where Muslims covered or destroyed Christian symbols to make way for their own faith. Even contemporary spaces like the Istanbul Modern Art Museum have used the old, an abandoned warehouse, to create something new, a showcase for the country’s contemporary art scene. Sometimes, renovation wasn’t enough. The sprawling home of the sultans, Topkapı Palace, was abandoned for the more ornate and European-style Dolmabahçe. Go beyond art and architecture, too: you’ll find culture and history everywhere, from museums to manuscripts to uncovered mosaics in old churches. Remember to step back and take in the big picture. Revel in the sensation of crossing between continents like it’s no big deal, float into the sky on the Turk Balon for an aerial view, or make your way up Çamlıca Hill for a 360-degree panorama. Whether you have your nose pressed against the glass or your neck craned back to take in the magnificence of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul has an incredible number of things to see.
Pressed for time? Check out our list of can’t-miss monuments and top things to do. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
With more than 2000 years of culinary history, Istanbul has had plenty of opportunity to refine its palate. Fish, eggplant, fragrant herbs, and fresh olive oil will please your stomach and maintain your waistline. Modern cuisine is a delicious blend of Balkan, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern specialties. Doner kebabs (lamb roasted to perfection on an upright spit) are one of the most popular Turkish dishes.
Meat-lovers will also enjoy kofta, balls of ground beef or lamb mixed with onions and spices. For lighter fare, there’s dolma, vine leaves stuffed with anything from spiced rice (zeytinyagli dolma) to eggplant (patlican) to mussels (midye). Another Turkish specialty is pilav, known to Westerners as pilaf, a rice dish cooked with an almost infinite variety of spices and ingredients. Carnivores should try özbek pilav, made with diced lamb, onions, tomatoes, and carrots, or hamsili pilav, cooked with anchovies. Vegetarians can order domatesli pilav (tomato pilaf) or nohutlu pilav (rice cooked with seasoned chickpeas).
Desserts include sütlaç, a fresh rice pudding, and flaky pastries like baklava and kadaif. Turkish sweets are world-renowned and are sure to sate even the most die-hard sweet tooths.
Caffeine addicts should try a strong Turkish coffee on for size, then examine the grounds at the bottom to try their hands at kahve fali, or coffee dreg fortune-telling. For less mystery and a stronger kick, sip rakı, an anise-flavored liquor, often served with seafood. Rakı turns milky-white when diluted with water, as it is usually served—hence its nickname, aslan sütü (lion’s milk). A common Turkish saying claims that if you want to get to know someone you should either travel or drink rakı together. If you’re visiting Istanbul with friends, you can do both, and the effects of this famously strong drink will probably reveal more secrets than the kahve fali did earlier. Teetotalers can try another of Turkey’s favorite drinks, ayran. A unique mix of yogurt, water, and salt, ayran is served chilled and is the ideal companion to a steaming kebab.
Start your day with a generous Turkish breakfast (usually bread, cheese, olives, eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers) or, even better, with kaymak (cream) and honey. If you don’t have time to sit down for breakfast, grab a street-side simit (Turkish bagel with sesame).
For lunch, pop into a lokanta to choose from the prepared dishes waiting for workers on their lunch breaks, or go to a restaurant and order a thin pide, the so-called “Turkish pizza.”
To combat your afternoon slump, find a patisserie and have a baklava, or any one of the many similar syrup-soaked pastries the Turks love so much.
For dinner, try a fish restaurant (Istanbul’s seafood is top-notch) or order some mezze (vegetable or seafood appetizers) to share between friends.
When late-night fast-food cravings kick in, look for joints that sell dürüms (kebab wraps); tantuni (diced meat); and, if you’re feeling adventurous, kokoreç (chopped lamb intestines).
Oh, and let’s not forget about çay (black tea), without which no Turkish meal can be complete.
In Istanbul, you don’t just enjoy arts and culture—you live arts and culture. Music is a big deal in the city, whether it’s jazz, classical, electronica, or anything. Besides large concerts, the city hosts plenty of festivals that showcase local bands and bring in international stars. Don’t forget the bars, nightclubs, and smaller venues, where you can discover rising talents in the Turkish and European music scenes.
Istanbul’s breathtaking architecture is shaped by the city’s long history of East-meets-West, Christianity-meets-Islam, and invader-meets-walls. Back in the days of the Greeks, architects valued both form and function. The famous Maiden’s Tower, perched on a tiny island in the Bosphorus, was built by a Greek general in 408 BCE as an ancient maritime stoplight to direct ships passing through the strait. When Constantine rolled into town, he decided that his new capital city wouldn’t be complete without the 150ft. tall Column of Constantine. The Romans also built two large aqueducts and the Hippodrome, capable of seating 100,000 spectators.
The Byzantine Empire fortified the city with impressive walls that included 55 gates, one of which was made of gold. But the greatest architectural masterpieces of the era were the city’s churches and monasteries. The Hagia Sophia, commissioned by Emperor Justinian and finished in 537 CE, is the most famous example of Byzantine architecture and stood as the world’s largest cathedral for more than 1000 years. Byzantine architects also turned their talents to more practical projects, like the massive subterranean Basilica Cistern, which is supported by 336 ornately decorated columns. Another highlight is the six-domed Chora Church, which contains 45 unbelievably detailed mosaics dating back to the 14th century.
After the conquest of Constantinople, there was a new boss in town, and he had seriously different priorities. Churches were converted into mosques, and Sultan Mehmed II began an ambitious reconstruction plan. The first project was the Eyüp Sultan Mosque (1458), followed by the even more impressive Fatih Mosque (1463-71). But mosques weren’t the only addition on the Ottoman agenda. The Topkapı Palace, begun in 1459, was home to the Ottoman sultans and as many as 4000 other residents for over 400 years. But amazing architecture wasn’t restricted to rulers alone. The 58 covered streets of the Grand Bazaar, opened in 1461, were the ancient equivalent of a megamall. More impressive mosques followed, including the famous Sultanahmet or Blue Mosque(1616), with six minarets and space for 10,000 worshippers. The 18th and 19th centuries brought increased European influence, giving architects a chance to mix and match different styles. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw Istanbul change direction once again to become a leader in the international Art Nouveau movement.
While music is for locals and visitors alike, folk and religious dances like the sema do great business in the tourist industry. Despite all their marketing and showbiz airs, the dances still offer colorful insights into traditional Turkish culture.
While most of Istanbul’s theater is in Turkish, you’ll do just fine with the musical performances—after all, isn’t music the universal language? Old classical favorites grace established venues like the CRR Konser Salonu and Sürreya Opera, while you can find more modern and experimental works in the bank-sponsored art centers.
Istanbul is home to a variety of festivals: a few of our favorites include the Jazz Festival, the metal Sonisphere festival, and the Club to Club dance and electronic festival. Keep an eye out for other events advertised on posters, flyers, and billboards across the city.
Steam, sweat, squeeze, and scrub: you can get it all at your local hamam. Once a mainstay of Turkish urban society, the neighborhood hamam is losing its share of the bathing scene thanks to the spread of indoor plumbing and adjustable shower nozzles. These days, hamams are mostly frequented by older men looking to relive the good ol’ days and tourists looking for a taste of traditional Turkish culture. If you can get over the fear of getting pummeled while nearly naked, you’re in for an invigorating treat.
Hamams vary: you can either wash yourself, or have someone do all the work for you. Everything starts with the shoes—in order to keep the place clean, it’s customary to take them off and put on slippers. In the changing rooms, bathers-to-be undress and put on the peştamal, a traditional towel that covers those very important parts. Start your journey in the sauna, or sıcaklık,where you’ll lie on a warm marble slab and feel like every single drop of moisture is being squeezed out of you. When it seems like your body has lost half its weight, cool off by turning on the tap and splashing yourself with the blissfully refreshing water. If you’ve ordered a massage, say “güle güle” to the layers of dead skin, as your body is scrubbed, lathered, and washed to baby smoothness. Finally, you’ll be handed a towel and dried off, before heading to a cool room to lounge and relax with a cup of tea.
And what about those steamy, bathhouse fantasies? Forget it—most hamams have separate sections, or segregated bathing times, for men and women, and if they don’t, both genders wear bathing suits. Hamams in Istanbul, especially the tourist-oriented ones, provide same-gender attendants for men and women.
Istanbul is a modern, cosmopolitan city that has adopted many Western social customs, but visitors who’ve never traveled to a Muslim-majority country before may find certain traditions completely foreign. Public displays of affection are not as common or as widely accepted as in many other European countries, so even if you find yourself a Turkish sweetheart, keep the public canoodling to a minimum. Turks are very proud of their country, and visitors should be aware that insulting the Turkish nation, national flag, or Atatürk is not only rude, but against the law. Steer clear of touchy subjects: Islamic extremism, Syria, and the Armenian Genocide are not acceptable targets for your latest rant or comedy routine. Turkish culture also places a high value on respect for elders. It is considered proper to make your greetings from eldest to youngest, regardless of how well you know each person.
Invited to dine at someone’s home? Lucky you, and welcome to Istanbul, land of legendary hospitality. Show your gratitude by bringing a small gift, such as flowers or a dessert. Play it safe and don’t bring a bottle of wine for your host (many residents don’t drink alcohol). Enjoy your meal, and make sure to let your host know how good it tastes. They’ll be sure to keep loading up your plate, so bring a hearty appetite and pants loose enough to accommodate an expanding waistline. If you’re invited to dine out at a restaurant, bear in mind that the host always pays, although an offer to pay is customary. Leaving a 10% tip in restaurants, cafes, and bars is expected.
Though some mosques are open only to Muslims, most of Istanbul’s exquisite mosques welcome all visitors, provided they are courteous and dress appropriately. Remove your shoes before entering and wear modest clothing. Miniskirts, shorts, and tank tops are definite no-nos. Make sure you have your shoulders, upper arms, and thighs completely covered. When entering, women will be provided with a headscarf to cover their hair—though if you want it to match your outfit, you might want to bring your own. Once inside, remember that this is a place of worship, so keep your voice down and be conscientious if you want to snap a picture. When you hear the call for prayer, clear out to make room for worshippers.
Remember that body language isn’t universal. Even something as simple as shaking your head might not mean what you expect. To say “yes,” nod your head downward. “No” is nodding your head upwards, while shaking your head from side to side means that you don’t understand. The hand gesture made by forming an “O” with your thumb and index finger, which means “OK” in the US, is considered very offensive in Turkey. When you enter someone’s home, take off your shoes and accept slippers if offered. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is common, but pay attention: exposing the bottoms of your feet is offensive, no matter how adorable your toe socks are. Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, so take a quick trip to the bathroom to save yourself from awkward stares.