Guide To Istanbul: Best Bites, Must-Visits And More

Straddling the divide between Asia and Europe, Istanbul's historical sights are unbeatable
Hagia Sophia
Hagia SophiaPedro Szekely/Flickr

Byzantium or Constantinople or Istanbul, this ancient city never fails to amaze. William Butler Yeats used this city as a metaphor for a spiritual journey in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium," a city that is "no country for old men." The city's magnificent monuments compared to 'unageing intellect', the beauty of the gold mosaic monuments as "God's holy fire"—Byzantium or the modern day Istanbul was and is indeed a place that will leave a traveller mesmerised by its timeless beauty. The erstwhile ancient Greek colony, now Istanbul, is one of the most visited cities in the world. Beautiful, timeless monuments, geography, city life, culture, art, are some of the most major aspects of the picturesque city by the busy yet picturesque Bosphorus waterway. Though mostly known for its Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, Istanbul is also home to some very popular Roman architecture. Istanbul is also known as the European Capital of Culture.

Istanbul by the Bosphorus
Istanbul by the BosphorusPedro Szekely/Wikimedia Commons

What to See & Do

Topkapi Palace, erstwhile main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultanate, is now the biggest museum in Istanbul and one of the most popular sites to visit. The very popular UNESCO World Heritage Site houses an impressive collection of Ottoman clothing, weapons, religious relics and manuscripts. Ottoman imperial harem is worth the visit. But this heritage site comes with its own set of rules for visitors.

Inner courtyard at Topkapi Palace
Inner courtyard at Topkapi PalaceFlickr

Hagia Sophia, or 'Holy Wisdom' in Greek, was an old Greek Orthodox church first, then an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now even one of the most popular museums to visit in Istanbul. A great example of Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia's looming dome is a great attraction for fans of culture and architecture. The second most visited museum in Turkey presents an unforgettable show in its elaborate frescoes, mosaics and fine marble floor. Sitting right next to Hagia Sophia is Sultan Amhet Mosque or popularly known as Blue Mosque, a mosque still in function. The mosque has hand painted blue tiles (hence the name) all over its interior and exterior walls. The mosque is an architectural delight with its five main domes and six minarets. Also located near Hagia Sophia is the ancient Basilica Cistern. The famous subterranean structure, featured in 1963 James Bond film To Russia with Love, and Dan Brown's Inferno (novel and movie adaptation), is an architectural marvel. The Basilica Cistern is open daily for tourists from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

For a glimpse of traditional Ottoman palace life, visit Dolmabahce Palace. It is located on the European coast of Bosphorus and is the largest palace in Turkey. The palace reflects European influences and is home to some of the finest Ottoman art and culture. Dolmabahce Palace is largely decorated with gold and crystal. One can see the palace only through guided tours photography is not allowed inside the palace.

Galata Tower, Istanbul's most striking landmark, is a must-visit if you want to get a panoramic view of the city. There is a restaurant, cafe and a nightclub on the top floor of the nine-storied tower. The locality of Galata is a marvelous tourist attraction as it is home to many churches and synagogues. One of the most popular experiences one can have while exploring Galata is to go see a performance at Galata Convent of Whirling Dervishes. It is open to the public every day except Mondays, from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. If you are an art lover, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art is something you can't miss. From local talents to workshops and exhibitions, you can find it all here.

Dolmabahce Palace
Dolmabahce PalaceFlickr

One of the most exciting experiences you can have while in Istanbul is the Bosphorus Bridge, or the 15 July Martyrs Bridge. The Bosphorus Bridge extends between Ortaköy (in Europe) and Beylerbeyi (in Asia). If you want to take a break from all things heritage, you can visit the TurkuaZoo, a public aquarium that is also one of the largest aquariums in Europe. It is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

Shopping & Nightlife

Istiklal Avenue is an elegant pedestrian street with a number of boutiques, shops, art galleries, theatres, cafes, night clubs and restaurants. There is no dearth of entertainment options. If you want to spend some quiet time, you can visit one of the many libraries around. You can even take a tram ride around the avenue. Istiklal Avenue eventually leads up to Taksim Square, the centre of modern Istanbul. Taksim Square is one of the most important parts of Istanbul. Not only is it the main transportation hub in Istanbul, but also an important commercial district. There are many hotels, restaurants, pubs and eateries in Taksim Square, making it one of the most popular and frequented tourist places. Also, you can experience many public celebrations and events in Taksim.

What & Where to Eat

When in Turkey, eat like the Turks do. The world renowned cuisine is influenced by many cultures, so it is possible that you may find dining an experience in itself. Best is to explore the local specialities. Visit one of the local eateries for the famous and elaborate Turkish breakfast. Menemen, Turkish omelette, is one of the local favourites. Visit a meyhane - a traditional restaurant - for their mezzes, which is a shared platter. Something for a fun eating experience. Turkish kebabs are not to be missed. Do try Adana kebab, these are prepared only by restaurants approved by Adana Chamber of Commerce. Turkish ravioli manti, the famous warm desserts like baklava are also some of the dishes you must try as prepared by the locals.

Istiklal Avenue
Istiklal AvenueFlickr

Fuego Cafe & Restaurant and Old Ottoman Cafe & Restaurant in Fatih are cosy and casual dining options. Istiklal Avenue has plenty of restaurants and bars to try out.  

Where to Stay

There are high-end options like the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul, Fairmont Quasar Istanbul, Four Seasons Sultanahmet and Sura Hagia Sophia Hotel & Spa if you are looking for luxurious stay. There are plenty of budget hotels around like the Hampton by Hilton Istanbul, Orient Express Hotel, and Old City Hotel Sultanahmet if you are looking for cheaper options. Solo travelers/backpackers can also opt for hostels.

Getting There

Indians are required to have visa to enter Turkey. Ordinary passport holders can obtain their visas from Ordinary, Special and Service passport holders with valid Schengen, US, UK and Ireland visa may obtain their single entry e-visa (valid for one month) from

There are many connecting and direct flights from all major Indian airports. There are direct Turkish Airlines and Air India flights to Istanbul from New Delhi and Mumbai, operating more than 15 flights a week. Kuwait Airways, Etihad, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Air Astana offer connecting flights from all major airports.

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