Exploring Istanbul: Here’s what to do on your first visit to Turkey’s cultural capital

Published: June 19, 2019 11:53:17 AM

Once the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Istanbul is replete with history and culture that you can explore in its many museums, mosques and palaces.

mumbai to istanbul flight distance, places to see in istanbul, istanbul visa for indians, istanbul tour packages, istanbul places to visit, places to visit in istanbul, places to visit in turkey, TAKSIM SQUARE, TURKISH FOOD, GALATA TOWER, BOSPHORUS CRUISE, HAGIA SOPHIA, WHIRLING DERVISHHagia Sophia has to be one of the most interesting museums in Istanbul for the sheer fact that it was first a church, then a mosque and now a museum.

By Pallavi Pasricha

It is a city like none other, divided by the Bosphorus into an Asian and European side and offering a flavour of both continents. Once the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Istanbul is replete with history and culture that you can explore in its many museums, mosques and palaces. If you are going here for the first time here’s what to do and where to go.

TAKSIM SQUARE: The heart of the European side, Taksim Square, is buzzing all the time. A favourite hang-out spot for locals, it is crammed with trendy shops and restaurants. Close to it is Istiklal Avenue, the long, crowded pedestrian-only street that is a mecca for shoppers with all the big brands here. But there is still a touch of heritage with neo classical architecture in some of the buildings and a red-coloured heritage tram slowly chugging from Tünel to Taksim.

Heritage Tram in Istanbul TurkeyHeritage Tram in Istanbul Turkey

TURKISH FOOD: There are plenty of cafes and restaurants on Istiklal Avenue where you can get a bite of Turkish food – from kebabs, coffee to Turkish ice cream. Get your fill of Turkish delight and baklava at Hafiz Mustafa that dates back to 1864 and is one of the city’s oldest sweet shops. There are many shops selling the Turkish ice cream locally called ‘dondurma’ and actually getting hold of one is part of the experience. The sellers make a fun spectacle out of it by not handing it to you easily and usually a group gathers around to watch – fortunately it is thick and does not melt easily!

Istiklal Street in Istanbul TurkeyIstiklal Street in Istanbul Turkey

GALATA TOWER: You can walk down Istiklal Street till Galata Tower, one of the best attractions in this part of the town. When it was built in the 14th century it was the highest tower in Istanbul and being nine stories high, it still stands proud and tall. The breathtaking view of this Turkish city, the Golden Horn and Bosphorus from the top are gorgeous, especially at sunset. Be warned, the queues are long. Galata Tower is located in the hip and bohemian Beyoğlu area which has art galleries, cafes, bars, music shops and a very arty vibe.

Galata Tower in Istanbul, TurkeyGalata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey

GALATA BRIDGE & BOSPHORUS CRUISE: From here you can cross the Galata Bridge where you will spot many people fishing. You cannot miss Balik Ekmek – a fish sandwich that is sold by the sea. It is a famous street food usually had with pickle juice and is so delicious. Many boats sell these on Eminönü Square, which also happens to be the boarding point of ferries for the Bosphorus cruise. A cruise on the Bosphorus is a must. It’s the best way to see the contrasting scenes on both sides of the continent. Going on the ferry is the most economical option and you can pick from either a full tour or a short tour.

Cruise on BosphorusCruise on Bosphorus

BLUE MOSQUE: Keep a day in hand for key sights like the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia – all within walking distance of each other. The Blue Mosque, also called Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is one of the most iconic structures in the Old City. Currently it is undergoing a massive renovation. It was given this name thanks to the blue mosaic tiles that make it look so stunning. It is still a functioning mosque. Sultan Ahmed I, whose tomb is located here, built it between 1609 and 1616. You can easily spend a couple of hours here and then make your way to Hagia Sophia.

Blue MosqueBlue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

HAGIA SOPHIA: Hagia Sophia has to be one of the most interesting museums in Istanbul for the sheer fact that it was first a church, then a mosque and now a museum. So the history goes that this was built as an orthodox Greek church but when the Ottomans took over, it was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. When the Turkish republic took hold of it, they declared it as a museum in 1934. The dome is one of the largest in the world.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul TurkeyHagia Sophia in Istanbul Turkey

TOPKAPI PALACE: Next in line is Topkapi Palace, a 15th – century palace of the Ottoman empire, and this can easily take you a 2-3 hours. It has four courtyards and many rooms and plenty of history to catch up on. Don’t miss the unique arms collection at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

GRAND BAZAAR: What will get shoppers delighted is the Grand Bazaar which is home to over 4,000 shops. It is one of the largest covered markets in the world selling all things Turkish like ceramics, rugs, leather products, tea, spices. You can easily get lost here but it’s fun to explore and do not forget to bargain. Don’t miss the Egyptian Bazaar – also called the spice bazaar where you will find a huge variety of spices. Just as you exit, there’s a market of fruits and vegetables where you get a variety of olives and Turkish cheese.

Grand Bazaar in Istanbul TurkeyGrand Bazaar in Istanbul Turkey

WHIRLING DERVISH: For a bit of culture don’t miss the Whirling Dervish ceremony. The Dervishes belong to the Sufi sect and the Mevlevi Order. This is a divine and spiritual performance called Sema where the Dervishes connect with the divine and whirl with their eyes closed. You can watch it either at Hodjapasha Cultural Centre or at Sirkeci train station.

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TURKISH BATH: And there is no way you can leave Istanbul without visiting a Turkish hammam, the traditional Turkish baths that go back to the 11th century. Here you will be washed, bathed and cleaned by an attendant and feel like a brand new person when you walk out. Don’t however expect a spa-like experience – this is more of a vigorous rub down that leaves you invigorated. A bonus: most hammams have beautiful architecture.

Enjoy the Turkish food, bath, imbibe the culture and take endless walks to get the flavour of two continents because there’s no other city in the world that offers you this.

(The author is a Delhi-based, well-known travel writer. All images provided by the author. Views expressed are personal.)

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