But I’m going to step to the plate and share an ultra-condensed list of our most favorite experiences in this fascinating, vibrant city as well as our picks for places to eat (see the very bottom for the full list).
Basilica Cistern: Just beneath the heart of the Old City lies the largest of Istanbul’s several hundred ancient cisterns. The Byzantines built the underground water source using hundreds of columns, many of which were salvaged from temples, hence the occasional carved stone head lying around.
A meal rich with culture — Walk down the famous İstiklal Caddesi — Istanbul’s famous pedestrian avenue — to Ficcin for Circassian cuisine (and an improptu Circassian folk dance, if you’re lucky), or Çukur Meyhane for a traditional meyhane experience. Meyhane literally means “drinking place”, and is where the Turks go to for raki (Turkey’s beloved anise-flavored liquor), mezes, and hours of conversation. Şerefe! (“Cheers”, pronounced like “Sheriff A”).
Cezayir Sokak: Head to Cezayir Sokak, a lively, somewhat hidden pedestrian side street that’s packed with terrace-lined cafés and bursting with live music. Nearby Solera Winery is another option, particularly if you’re in the mood for wine in a less hectic setting.
Holy Savior in Chora and the old landward walls: Check out the stone walls that surrounded and protected the city of Constantinople before making your way over to Holy Savior in Chora. Along the way, you’ll walk through some of Istanbul’s poorest and most conservative neighborhoods and experience a totally different side of the city. Chora is a tiny church, but completely covered with beautiful mosaics in all their glittering gold glory. If you want a quick snack, grab something next-door at Asitane, which offers Ottoman cuisine prepared using the same recipes that nourished sultans hundreds of years ago. Its hummus, a cinnamon currant variety, is among the best I’ve ever had.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
- Egyptian Spice Market: This Ottoman-era marketplace sells spices, dried herbs, nuts, dried fruits, and trinkets.
- Galata Tower: This medieval stone tower dominates the New City’s skyline and offers a panoramic vista of Istanbul’s historic peninsula for those willing to pay to go to the top.
- Karaköy: This “it” neighborhood has a hipster vibe and tons of trendy coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Unter is a great nightlife spot, and Karaköy Güllüoğlu has some of the best baklava in Istanbul.
- Boat to Kanlıca: This tranquil district up the Bosphorus is home to the best yogurt I’ve ever had, from a water-side cafe called İsmailağa. Plus, you get a bonus boat cruise Bosphorus and can say you’ve gone to Asia for the yogurt.
- Galata Bridge: Walk across the Golden Horn on this fishermen-lined bridge that connects the Old City with the New City.
Byzantine Istanbul: Much remains from the days of Constantinople beyond what I’ve listed above (Hagia Sophia, Chora, city walls, and Hippodrome). The Great Palace Mosaic Museum is pretty cool, plus John has outlined tons of other ideas for exploring Byzantine Istanbul.
- Whirling dervishes: Wearing long, flowing robes and tall hats, the Whirling Dervishes twirl to live music played on ancient instruments as a form of worship said to bring them closer to god. I can personally recommend Hodjapasha Dance Theatre, but there are plenty of other places to catch a ceremony.
- Ortaköy: This cute neighborhood is home to a lively square, cafes, shops, and the very photogenic Ortaköy Mosque, which sits on the shores of the Bosphorus.
- Hookah and backgammon: You’ll find these quintessential Turkish things all over the city, but there are bunch of spots in Karaköy, right by the Tophane tram stop. Most don’t serve alcohol, but La Viola and other spots on Gazeteci Erol Dernek Sok. (a block south of İstiklal) offer both.
- Mehter Military Band: The world’s oldest military band plays music that’s designed to instill fear in its enemies. Catch a performances nearly any day at the Turkish Military Museum.
- Süleymanie: One of the grandest and most beautiful Ottoman mosques, it’s perched atop one of the tallest points of the Old City. Listening to the sunset call to prayer here is one of our favorite Istanbul experiences because you can hear several of them at once, coming from minarets across the city.
- Dolmabahçe Palace: The sultan’s palace on the Bosphorus symbolizes the magnificence and decadence of the 19th century Ottoman Empire.
- The Pierre Loti Cafe: Named after the French novelist, it’s famous for its spectacular views over the Golden Horn.
- Cappadocia: Okay, this isn’t Istanbul, but if you’ve got a week, this stunning region in central Turkey is a must in my book and is very cheap to fly to from Istanbul. It’s known for its bizarre rock formations, moon-like landscape, cave churches, and houses carved into rocks. You can even stay in a cave hotel!
- New city (Galata/Istikilal): Ananas Juice Bar, Antiochia Concept, Cafe Privato, Community Kitchen (vegan), Ficcin, Helvetia, Hayvore, Leb-i-Derya, Mezze by Lemon Tree (fine dining), Miss Pizza, Pizza Vegas (pizza by the slice), Varka Antakya Lezzetleri, Yeni Lokanta (fine dining).
- New city (Cihangir/Taksim): Babel, Cuma, Çukurcuma Köftecisi, Datli Maya, Falafel House, Hayri Usta, Heirloom Cafe and Market, Kahve 6, Klemuri, Marco Paşa, Miss Pizza, Pizza Vegas (pizza by the slice), Van Kahvalti Evi
- New city (Karaköy): Karaköy Lokantası, Lokanta Maya (fine dining)
- Old city: Asitane (fine dining), Fine Dine Istanbul, Imbat Restaurant, Köşk Cafe & Restaurant, Kafe Kybele (cool interior, but we only had drinks here)