Soak in 2,000 years of history
From the breathtakingly high dome of Aya Sofya to the massive walls that once ringed the city, Istanbul is full of gorgeous - if sometimes crumbling - evidence of the important role it held for centuries as the capital of the powerful Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
Party all night
Despite its illustrious past, Istanbul is no museum city. Perhaps the most visible evidence of its ever-lively present can be found on İstiklal Caddesi, the Beyoğlu pedestrian thoroughfare throbbing day and night with people out shopping, drinking, strolling, and eyeing each other. Many bars and clubs in the area keep going until daybreak; find some of the best in my guide Nightlife in Istanbul: bars and clubs.
Shop in the world’s oldest mall
The centuries-old Grand Bazaar, with its 4,000 shops in a labyrinth of streets and alleys, is a major draw for visitors and still holds true treasures amid all the overpriced carpets, tacky knick-knacks, and knock-off “designer” leather bags. But shopping in Istanbul has many faces: new modern malls seem to be popping up daily, while Beyoğlu’s backstreets are full of the workshops and boutiques of innovative young designers.
Feel the magic of the Bosphorus
The broad strait that famously divides East and West also brings fresh breezes and a sense of space and freedom to a densely crowded city. Take to the water with a Bosphorus Tour to escape the urban crush - and get a peek at the lavish homes, past and present, built along its shores - or stroll the coastline in the picturesque neighbourhoods of Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, and Bebek.
Tempt your taste buds
We long-time ex-pats may grumble about how Turkish food dominates the Istanbul dining scene, but the storied cuisine in its many forms offers plenty to tantalise the palate, from the traditional Ottoman dishes at Asitane to the fine fusion interpretations at Changa. A broad array of puddings, ice-cream, and syrupy treats are widely available to satisfy every sweet tooth. Read more on my Istanbul Cafés and Restaurants page.
Continent-hop for dinner
After nearly three years living in Istanbul, I still get a kick out of telling friends, “I went to Asia for dinner”. This one-of-a-kind experience is worth it for the short but scenic ferry ride (and the bragging rights) alone; it’s an added bonus that the Asian neighbourhoods of Kadıköy and Moda have a lively, low-key dining and nightlife scene, as well as some great food markets.
Get scrubbed squeaky clean
A scrub by one of the sturdy attendants at a traditional hamam (Turkish bath) will send the dead skin flying and remove dirt from corners of your body you didn’t know existed. Though the communal (but not mixed sex) bathing experience can be a bit intimidating to some, there’s no better way to feel totally reborn after a long day of sightseeing. The Çemberlitaş Hamamı (www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr) in Sultanahmet is beautiful and newbie-friendly; I also like the decidedly local Çinli Hamam in Üsküdar.
Enjoy music and the arts
Istanbul hosts a wealth of art, music, and cultural festivals, primarily throughout the summer and autumn. (Get the details in my When to go to Istanbul guide.) Year-round, venues such as Babylon, Salon, and Ghetto showcase exciting live music acts, while galleries in Cihangir, Tophane, Galata, and Teşvikiye display intriguing works by both international and Turkish artists. Read more on my Istanbul nightlife page.
Lay your head where sultans or inmates did
It’s not every night you can stay in a former prison or an old palace; Istanbul offers both experiences (for a price), as well as lighter-on-the-wallet accommodation in beautifully renovated Ottoman-era homes. Read my advice on my Istanbul Hotels – Award winning expert hotel reviews, from cheap to luxury hotels in Istanbul page.
Upend your expectations
It’s all too easy to resort to clichés about East and West, old and new, secular and religious to describe Istanbul, but this multi-faceted city truly does offer many visitors an insightful, surprising first look at a modern Muslim country finding its feet on the global stage. I like to say that Istanbul (and Turkey is general) is familiar enough to be readily comfortable in, but different enough to be endlessly fascinating.