There’s so much to see and do in Istanbul but if you find yourself with limited on time in this magical city like I was, it’s helpful to narrow your focus to the top sites you must see. Then, anything additional you see is an added bonus! Here are the top 5 sights in Istanbul:
1. The Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia in Greek) is one of the most important buildings and fascinating places in Istanbul. It’s history is so interesting! Originally it was a church and stayed as such for 916 years. Then, after Sultan Mehmed conquered Istanbul in 1453 it became a mosque. Finally it became a museum in 1934 and that’s what it still is today. I’d allow for at least two hours to spend here as there’s a lot to see and it’s nice to have time to marvel at its beauty. Make sure you bring a good guidebook, rent the audio guide, or hire a guide if you prefer so you understand the richness of the structure, its amazing art & architecture. I left the Aya Sofya with a sense of hope in my heart. If this building could survive with both Christian and Islamic symbols intact from so long ago, perhaps humanity today can be tolerant, loving and learn from one another.
On a lighter note, after you finish your intense museum time, buy some delicious boiled or roasted corn and some fresh-squeezed juice as a snack. Then, rest your weary feet at Sultan Ahmed Park and take in Aya Sofya from the outside along with the fountain show before heading across the park to…
2. The Blue (or Sultan Ahmed) Mosque is perhaps the most famous building in Istanbul because its so darn photogenic. It also has six minarets, which is unique because most mosques only have four.
Its name comes from the blue tile that decorates in the inside of the building.
It is a functioning mosque so take prayer time into consideration when visiting since the mosque is closed to visitors during those times. Also, ladies will need to cover their heads so either bring your own scarf or one will be issued to you. You’ll also need to remove your shoes and will be given a plastic bag to put them in.
3. Imagine you can take a ferry ride where on one side there’s Europe and the other side there’s Asia. You can in Istanbul and I highly recommend a Bosphorous ferry ride. It was one of the highlights of my stay. There are a few different options- you can take a full day tour (with one stop on the Asian side), hop-on/hop-off ferry, commuter ferry, or a short tour (with no stops). I opted to do the 90-minute short tour since I didn’t have a ton of time and arrived at the Eminönü pier in the afternoon just in time to catch a sunset ferry ride.
On the way up the Bosphorous Strait, our ferry stayed closer to the European coastline so I also kept to that side of the boat. We passed some pretty impressive structures, including the grand Dolmabahçe Palace, the Ortaköy Mosque, and the huge Bosphorous Bridge.
Our ferry turned around just as we approached the Faith Bridge, which is the narrowest point on the Bosphorous. On the way back to the pier, we were closer to the Asian coastline and saw impressive yalıs (waterside mansions), an ornate hunting lodge and the Beylerbeyi Palace. The ferry ride ended with a perfect sunset as we returned to the pier near Galata Bridge.
4. Topkapi Palace was my final stop in Istanbul and is a huge complex where you can easily spend a half day taking in all the various rooms. I’d recommend buying your ticket from the kiosk if possible since it’s a popular sight. It gives visitors interesting insight into the opulent lifestyle of the Ottoman sultans who lived here with their families during the 15th to 19th centuries. Don’t miss the beautiful courtyards, fascinating chambers and other rooms!
My favorite part was visiting the harem. A separate ticket with an additional fee is required to enter this part of the complex and therefore it’s less crowded. I felt like I had the place to myself most of the time. The harem houses the private chambers, rooms, hamams, and courtyards where sultans lived with their families. The Imperial Hall is one of the highlights with its stunning chandelier and the throne of the sultan.
If you need to take a break and rest your feet, the Konyali Restaurant is a perfect place to order apple tea and take in the view of the boats below. The food was rather pricey but I did lunch on lentil soup (a must try while in Istanbul) that was affordable and delicious!
5. The Grand Bazaar was one of my top places I knew I had to visit. It’s a unique experience and is popular with tourists and locals alike, which I always appreciate. I loved it so much I just had to write a dedicated post on it!
I also had the chance to explore a couple of places that weren’t on my top 5 list. I’ll be posting more on those later. Which one was or is on the top of your Istanbul list?
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