From Roman-era plumbing to Byzantine mosaics and Ottoman harems, Istanbul has thousands of years of history to share with visitors. After touring the mosques and palaces, the best way to unwind and relax is at one of the city’s famous Turkish hammams or hot baths.
If time is tight, focus on Istanbul’s big four attractions: Topkapi Palace, Haga Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and shopping at the Grand Bazaar or Egyptian Market. One of the best ways to explore this centuries old city is on a 90-minute Istanbul City Tour, hopping on and off at several stops, before taking a half-day tour highlighting an aspect of Istanbul’s millennia of history. Compare the city’s European and Asian faces on the Istanbul Two Continents Tour, or focus on the city’s Ottoman past on an Ottoman Relics Tour, taking in Topkapi Palace, Rustem Pasha Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar.
All the top Istanbul attractions can be seen in one day on a small-group walking tour, typically led by an expert local guide. Focusing on the Sultanahmet area of this East-meets-West city, the tour visits incredible sites like the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque. Step back in time to a world of sultans and harems in Topkapi Palace, admire Hagia Irene’s Byzantine architecture and then watch local artists making handicrafts in the Grand Bazaar.
The mesmerising Hagia Sophia monument was once a church, then a mosque and now an intriguing museum. Stepping inside, it’s hard not to admire Hagia Sophia’s fascinating architecture, which draws on influences from both the Ottoman and Byzantine eras. Strolling through Sultanahmet Square, you come face to face with the German Fountain – a gift from the General Emperor Wilhelm at the end of the 19th century. It is then a short walk to Istanbul’s Hippodrome where popular chariot races were once held. The site represented the heart of sporting and political life in the city during the Ottoman Empire.
The nearby Blue Mosque has six intricate minarets that dominate Istanbul’s skyline, the mosque’s striking blue Iznik tiles giving the edifice its name. Sultan Ahmet I commissioned the mosque to be built when he was just 19 years of age and it remains one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. After stopping for a traditional Turkish meze lunch, head over to Topkapi Palace Museum – one of the world’s largest and oldest palaces. Easily Turkey’s most important museum, the palace brims with relics of historical significance at every twist and turn. While exploring its four courtyards you discover the flamboyant lifestyles of the stylish sultans who lived in the palace between the 15th and 19th centuries, with the incredible Fountain of Sultan Ahmet III being a particular highlight and a great place for a ‘selfie’.
After two hours inside Topkapi Palace, take a leisurely walk to Hagia Irene – a former Eastern Orthodox church – to admire its exterior and hear about its history as the oldest Christian site of worship in Istanbul. Before the tour finishes, there is one last highlight of Istanbul to see – the Grand Bazaar. Here you can watch as local artists make handicrafts inside Turkey’s largest covered market and then spend time browsing the busy stalls and shops.
Another must-visit tourist site is the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and Market where the heady scent of saffron, cloves and other exotic spices fill the air. Known locally as Misir Carsisi, this one of Istanbul’s oldest markets and it is easy to spend hours wandering along aisle after aisle where stallholders shout at the top of their voices to sell their wares. This cavernous covered market, built in 1660, is lit by Turkish lamps, which make a good souvenir.
Everywhere you look, baskets are filled with every spice under the sun offering a kaleidoscope of colours – gold, orange, red, yellow and green. The array of dried fruits and nuts is also astounding. Try some Turkish delight, dried apricots, pistachios and walnuts, or honeyed sweets flavoured with top-quality saffron: a true taste of the mystical East.
This is a place where you should simply dive in and wander. Don’t have an agenda, just walk the crowded stalls and get lost. Stop for a cup of piping hot tea sweetened with a raw sugar lump, stop to chat with a carpet seller, but most importantly don’t rush, take your time.
In the evening, when the city’s mosques and monuments are floodlit, take a stroll along one of the many busy thoroughfares and see Istanbul by night. There are always plenty of restaurants that offer a full-course Turkish dinner with a floorshow that features amazing belly dancers!
Finally, head down to the famous Bosphorus and catch a ferry to the mouth of the Black Sea. For students of more contemporary history, the beaches of Gallipoli are within reach on a Gallipoli Day Trip. You also have the option of spending a leisurely afternoon in Canakkale, while the Burse Day Trip takes you to a traditional Ottoman city that’s also the birthplace of modern Turkish culture.
A great way to revive weary muscles after a day of touring Istanbul and its environs is a visit to one of the city’s hammams, many of which date back centuries. The Islamic equivalent of a Russian steam-bath or Scandinavian sauna, the hammam offers visitors the chance to unwind in the languid atmosphere of a series of hot rooms before experiencing a traditional massage and an invigorating cold plunge or shower.