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What to do and see in Istanbul
What to do and see in Istanbul

Straddling the banks of the Bosphorus, Turkey's capital is a modern, energetic city, but one where the past is never far away. With endless opportunities for sightseeing and a wealth of shopping opportunities, Istanbul has fascinated visitors for centuries.

Visiting Istanbul

Istanbul is situated on a narrow land bridge, with the Black Sea on one side and the Marmara on the other. Many visitors arrive by plane at Istanbul Atatürk Airport, which is located 20km west of the city centre, then take a taxi, the metro or the half-hourly express bus service into the city.

The city's second major airport, Sabiha Gökçen International, is another option for arrivals, it is further away at roughly 35km east of the city centre. If you are not renting a car and don't have anybody picking you up at the airport, you may wish to use the Havatas bus to the city centre.

Once you have arrived and are ready to explore, getting around in Istanbul is fairly easy. Despite it being a very large city, many of the main tourist sights are conveniently located in one district that is easily walkable from the city centre, and for longer distances you can take a bus or tram that is heading in the right direction.

If you are planning to make use of Istanbul's public transport, it is a good idea to invest in an Istanbulkart – a readable card that can be used on nearly any bus, tram, train and even some ferries. It is also worth noting that Istanbul's metro runs from 6am to 12am (or 1am on some lines).

If you are looking to immerse yourself in the culture and history of Istanbul, the Sultanahmet (the Old City) is the place to be. Here you will find many of the city's world-famous buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, including the Blue Mosque, the Topkapı Palace and the incomparable Hagia Sophia. Consider buying a museum pass if you are planning to see more than a couple.

For a little luxury on the shores of the Bosphorus, stay at Çırağan Palace Kempinski. It has its own spa, infinity pool and a superb selection of restaurants and bars, and is only 10 minutes away from the main sights of Istanbul.

Historic Istanbul

Few cities have played such as an important role in the history of Western civilisation as Istanbul. The city was favoured by Constantine the Great, becoming the seat of power for the Byzantine Empire, and later for the Ottoman Empire. Throughout its lifetime it has served as a centre of culture, art, learning and government.

All this history is still evident in modern-day Istanbul, home to some of the most celebrated Christian and Islamic structures in the world. From the mosque complexes of Eyüp to the tranquil neighbourhoods of the Asian Side, Istanbul's unique melting-pot of cultures and traditions needs to be experienced in person.

Istanbul's cuisine

Istanbul's cuisine can be seen broadly as a fusion of Greek and Middle Eastern cooking: expect plenty of hummus, yoghurt, feta-style cheese and, of course, kebabs. For breakfast, try the local take on an omelette: known as menemen, it is a delicious combination of eggs, tomatoes and peppers.

When you are out and about, you will probably want something light and simple to eat. Meze is the perfect answer: a selection of appetisers such as grilled aubergine, mint yoghurt dip, pinto beans and tomatoes to pick and choose from. Karnıyarık, a preparation of garlic-infused minced meat and vegetables in a hollowed-out aubergine, is another must-try.

As a port city, Istanbul also has some spectacular fish dishes. For a street food fix, try Balık-ekmek – a simple fried fish sandwich served with a little salad and onions in local bread, and ideal for lunching on the go. If you are eating at a seafood restaurant, see if you can find bluefish on the menu: it is a local delicacy, and restaurants compete among themselves to get the best out of its unique flavour.

Don't forget to sample the famously strong Turkish coffee – such an integral part of the country's culture that their word for breakfast literally means "before coffee". It is often served with a chocolate stick to counter its rich, bitter flavour.


There is no shortage of places to see in Istanbul – often the only trouble is how to fit everything in, as each landmark has its own fascinating story.

The Hagia Sophia

Truly monumental and as stunning on the inside as it is on the outside, the Hagia Sophia was originally a Christian basilica, later becoming an imperial mosque and today, a museum. It is famous for its enormous dome and meticulously decorated interior, which includes a treasure trove of Christian mosaics in various stages of restoration.

The Blue Mosque

So named because of the blue tiles on the interior, the Blue Mosque is unmissable in more ways than one – you can see its towering minarets from all over the city centre, and it is particularly beautiful when lit up at night.

Basilica Cistern

An eerie but fascinating place to visit, the Basilica Cistern is an underground structure which once supplied the city's drinking water. It is supported by more than 300 nine-metre-high marble columns - look out for the Medusa heads and Greek-influenced embellishments on many of the pillars.

Topkapı Palace

The former home of the Ottoman Sultans, Topkapı Palace is just as grand as you would expect, with its expansive green grounds and its treasury of priceless gems and artworks. After exploring the palace, nearby Gülhane Park makes a great place to relax and cool down with an apple tea.

Grand Bazaar

From gold jewellery to spices to luxury carpets, you will find all your souvenirs and keepsakes in the Grand Bazaar’s 3,000 shops and stalls. Take the time to enjoy a coffee if the vendor offers - and never accept the first price they give you

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