During my trip in 2015, I and my family got into a week roadtrip all around Turkey, visiting three cities that have been in my bucket list for years: Istanbul, Cappadocia and Pamukkale. I can say after the first visit that Istanbul easily has become one of my most favorite destinations in the whole world. It’s home of breathtaking architecture, delicious food, beautiful art and some of the warmest people I’ve ever met on my travels.
I loved the city so much that I visited it TWICE during the same year. The first visit was on fall season (October), followed by a winter visit on December. The city look just as beautiful at any time of the year.
Here are a few great places to visit for sightseeing and shopping for Istanbul’s first timers:
Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofia
A glorious architecture survivor in the history of Istanbul, is a former church, mosque and now a museum with a stunning Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The grand dome of Hagia Sophia that towers over the sky of Istanbul is as beautiful inside as it is on the outside. The building is nearly 1500 years in age and every wall and floor has a story to tell. See more photos of Hagia Sophia in this post.
Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque
Standing tall with its cascading domes and six minarets next to Hagia Sophia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque / Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Turkish: Sultan Ahmet Camii), or famously known as the Blue Mosque. In the 17th century, The Great Sultan Ahmed wished to build an Islamic place of worship that would be even better than the Hagia Sophia, hence the building was later named after him. Read more about The Blue Mosque in this post.
The Grand Bazaar / Kalpali Çarsi
Just as huge, as fun and as confusing as the Morrocan Souks in Marrakech Medina (read more about the Souk here), Istanbul Grand Bazaar is also just as overwhelming with hundreds of mazes and passages filled with thousands of vendors selling everything from spices, lamps, carpets, jewelries to metalwares. For centuries, this labyrinth of delight has win the hearts, minds and wallets of tourists in search of the ultimate oriental shopping experience.
Also as with any tourist shopping markets, be prepare to launch all your haggling skills. I got my rugs for 1/4 the original price offered to me. Also try to wander around first before settling in buying something at the first stall. Many vendors sell the same thing, so take your time and don’t hurry. The Grand Bazaar will probably take a whole day or two to soak in; and if you’re not a crazy shopper (like me), the place makes a very photogenic destination. Unlike Marrakech when you have to be really careful not to offend people with your camera, the vendors here don’t really mind to get their shots taken.
If the idea and size of the Grand Bazaar intimidate you, I recommend you to go to these two markets for a smaller sized yet more peaceful shopping experience:
Probably my most favorite shopping lane in Istanbul, the Arasta Bazaar is a long tidy street with shops lining on both sides. It’s conveniently situated within walking distance from the Blue Mosque (so unfortunately, still tourist price) and the selections of gifts, rugs, antiques and homewares are so much better and curated than the Grand Bazaar. It is a pleasant interlude from the bustle of the main tourist attractions with selections of cafes and restaurant inside.
The Spice Market
A short walk from the Grand Bazaar, the hundreds centuries old Mısır Çarşısı / Egyptian Spice Bazaar, open seven days a week, is another favourite of mine. The bustling gastronomic and scent paradise will spoil all your five senses. It’s the best place to pick up dried fruits, nuts, spices, oils, soap and the delicious Turkish delight for the souvenirs for people back home.
The Topkapi Palace
Home of the Ottoman Sultans during the 15th-19th centuries. Topkaki is more than a beautiful building, the Islamic museum has some amazing pieces of Islamic history. The gardens, the architecture, the history and the stories behind the place is not to be missed. Unfortunately photography is prohibited in certain places so I can’t give too many photos of the interiors.
Bosphorus Ferry Cruise
A touristic yet a highly must do activity. During the 1,5 hours ferry ride, you’ll feast your eyes on the lovely views from the Asia side to Europe and also pass the bridges that link both sides. I recommend doing this on your last day in Istanbul as chilling on the deck of the cruise would be the perfect final for your trip.14