Turkey is a wonderful location that’s well worth a look for holiday makers from around the world. It is the living, breathing, thriving apotheosis of east meets west. It offers both the charm and familiarity of Mediterranean locations like Greece or Spain combined with the exoticism of North African holiday destinations like Tunisia or Morocco and the mystery of Asian neighbors like Iran and Iraq.
Those who plan a city break to Istanbul are in for a unique treat. You won’t find a more unique city anywhere in Europe than the former Constantinople. When you hit the bustling streets of the heart of the former Ottoman empire you’ll likely be struck by the city’s incredible variety and wealth of things to see and do.
With that in mind, here are a handful of local delights that no visitor should leave off their itinerary!
Make Topkapi Palace your first port of call
Topkapi Palace is arguably Istanbul’s most oft-visited (and most photographed) landmark. And with good reason. Firstly it’s a glorious building and a stately example of Ottoman craftsmanship. For several decades the palace was the home of the Sultans and its lush grounds and ornate stone kiosks speak to its opulence. It’s also a site of great historical significance and the home of the crown jewels including the famous Topkapi dagger.
Yet while Topkapi Palace is a must see, it’s best to visit early in the morning. By the time lunch time rolls around the crowds can be extremely heavy and can limit or inhibit your photo opportunities.
Check out the Byzantine sites in Istanbul
Istanbul bears the fingerprints of two great empires who went to war long before the country that we know today as Turkey emerged. As well as numerous Ottoman sites like Topkapi Palace, Istanbul is still home to many vestiges of the holy Byzantine empire. There are many Byzantine sites in Istanbul well worth visiting which paint a vivid picture of the city’s fascinating history.
The most spectacular of this has to be the Hagia Sophia. This glorious building known around the world for its enormous dome, was originally a Christian cathedral until it was converted into a mosque in 1453. Finally it was secularised in 1931 and transformed into a museum. This incredible structure is actually a game changer in architectural history and changed the very nature of architecture forever.
If the lines are too long for the Hagia Sophia, be sure to check out its little sister, the Chora church. This site was also a church before it became a mosque before being secularised. It’s also covered from floor to domed ceiling in glorious medieval mosaics and frescoes dating back to 1312.
See the city from the Bosphorus
While there are some great sights and shots to be enjoyed by exploring a city’s streets, seeing it from the water often lends visitors a whole new perspective. That’s why any self-respecting tourist needs to see the city from both the European and Asian shores. A cruise on the Bosphorus will not only help you to get a better understanding of the city, its culture and its history, it will also give you a plethora of glorious sights that you just won’t get to see from the land.
See the real whirling dervishes
The term whirling dervish has made its way into the popular lexicon. We tend to use it to describe more or less anything that’s spinning furiously. But few people who use the term know of the ritual dance to which the term owes its name.
However, the real whirling dervishes have to be seen to be believed. The ceremonial dance may look like it’s for the benefit of tourists but it’s actually a form of worship for Mevlana’s followers. The frantic movement puts the dancers into a prayer-induced trance which forms a link between the human and the divine.
While this is a sight that needs to be taken in to get a taste for the soul of Istanbul, tickets are known to sell out very quickly. With that in mind, it’s worth booking well in advance.
Enjoy a street food tour in Istanbul
Very often the best way to sample an exotic culture is through our stomachs. As well as the sights, sounds and smells of an exotic location we cannot truly sample it until we have enjoyed its tastes.
Seasoned gourmands will want to sample a little bit of everything Istanbul has to offer and for this reason they absolutely must tag onto a street food tour. Those new to Turkish food are in for a treat. From the friendly and familiar delicacies like Simit (baked doughnuts) and Islak Hamburger (meat patties on dense, squishy buns) to more esoteric delicacies like Iskembe Corbasi (tripe soup) and Kokoreç (sweetbread wrapped in lamb’s intestines) A well-organized Istanbul Street Food Tour can open the doors to vast varieties of flavour for the adventurous.
Visit Alexander The Great at the Archaeology Museum
Alexander of Macedon was one of history’s greatest military minds who effectively (certainly by the standards of his time) conquered the known world. All before his death at the ripe old age of thirty two. You can meet him and pay your respects at the Archaeology Museum which houses his sarcophagus.
Hire a private tour guide to see the city’s best kept secrets
After you’re done with the broad strokes and the tourist traps you may start to yearn to get to know the “real” city. The spots off the beaten track which may not be frequented by tourists but where the soul of Istanbul dwells. For this reason it’s advisable to hire a private tour guide in Istanbul for a day to enjoy the hidden delights of Istanbul which lie off the beaten track.
And of course, don’t forget the Blue Mosque
Finally, no visit to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Blue Mosque (or Sultanahmet Mosque). This incredible structure needs no introduction. It’s the last great mosque of the classic Ottoman period and whether you share the Islamic faith of the majority of Istanbul’s citizenry its sheer beauty and scope make it well worth a visit..
The stunning blue tiles from which the structure gets its name bring in a steady stream of tourists all year round, yet it still serves as a functional mosque for those who wish to pray in this stunning building.
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