Is Istanbul worth visiting? In this post, I’ll reveal everything to know before visiting Istanbul to help you decide whether the city should be at the top of your bucket list.
Deciding if Istanbul is worth seeing means looking at a few factors. A trip to Istanbul is a trip to Turkey’s most vibrant city. While it may not be the nation’s official capital, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who doesn’t consider this metropolis the true heart of Turkey.
Istanbul is a fascinating blend of East and West, boasting a rich trove of historical buildings, delicious cuisine, and diverse culture.
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What Makes Visiting Istanbul A Great Idea
Why visit Istanbul?
For starters, no other city in Turkey has a higher concentration of main tourist attractions. Just in the central Sultanahmet neighborhood alone, you have the Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern (scroll down for more details). At the same time, the splendors of the Topkapı Palace and the floral beauty of Gulhane Park are a short stroll away.
As with most cosmopolitan places worldwide, Istanbul is a hub for good food, whether you want a glam, fine dining experience or a kebab from a local street stall.
The same principle extends to shopping: if you want a touristy memento, you’ll find plenty of places in the Grand Bazaar willing to sell you pottery, clothing, or a magnet, but there are also huge malls that offer a more contemporary look at Turkish fashion.
There are also plenty of green spaces you can escape to on the outskirts of the city center if the bustle becomes a bit too much. Some of the most popular with locals, for example, are Belgrad Forest and Princes’ Island.
Pros And Cons Of Istanbul
While we’ve so far focused on the good reason or ten why you should plan a visit to Istanbul, it’s not all plain sailing. In this section, we’ll briefly outline the main pros and cons of any trip to this vibrant city, including discussing how safe Istanbul is.
When Is The Best Time To Visit Istanbul
The best time to visit Istanbul depends on whether you prioritize weather or lack of crowds. While the summer months are a toasty 85 degrees Fahrenheit on average (about 30 degrees Celsius), they are also when the city sees the highest number of tourists.
Overall, the shoulder months of April, May, September, and October are probably the best times to visit Istanbul. These periods tend to be less busy while also being relatively warm, with average highs of about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (23 degrees Celsius) and average lows of around 62 degrees Fahrenheit (17 degrees Celsius).
If you want to explore the city with decidedly fewer visitors, head to Istanbul from November to February. Just be warned that you will likely experience wetter weather and fewer daylight hours.
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What Does Istanbul Offer For History Fans
Istanbul has more to see than any other part of Turkey. So much has survived from the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, with even older pieces housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museums.
We’ve highlighted only our absolute favorite spots here, but you can see a more detailed list of historical sights to explore in the city in our other Istanbul posts.
The Hagia Sophia has been a symbol of the city for over a thousand years, possibly the most famous place to visit in Istanbul. Originally constructed in 537 by Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire as a Christian church, it was converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 before becoming a museum. Just a few years ago, it was reconsecrated as a mosque.
Right in the heart of the Sultanahmet district, the Hagia Sophia’s famous dome and quartet of minarets are readily recognizable on the horizon. The insides are just as splendid, filled with gilded mosaics, golden script, and glittering chandeliers.
Facing the Hagia Sophia across Sultanahmet Square, the Blue Mosque was commissioned in 1609 and opened seven years later. Officially known as Sultanahmet Mosque, it takes its name from the man who ordered its construction, Ahmed I, and was designed to become the new imperial mosque.
As such, it had to be bigger and better than the Hagia Sophia, and we can’t help but marvel at the enormity of the building every time we visit: there are 20,000 hand-glazed tiles, 200 stained glass windows, 13 domes, and six minarets.
It’s a common misconception that the Blue Mosque got its nickname because of the pastel blue color of the domes as seen from the exterior, when, in fact, the moniker comes from vivid blue Iznik tilework decorating the interior.
Another relic from the reign of Emperor Justinian I, the Basilica cistern dates to 532 AD and was used to store water for the city of Constantinople. Today, the echoey subterranean cavern contains only a shallow pool to illustrate its former purpose.
As you wander between the 332 columns that make up the space, keep an eye out for the Medusa head bases. These intricately sculpted gorgon faces were, like the rest of the structure, pillaged from other nearby ancient ruins but have become the subject of their own set of legends.
For nearly 400 years, the Topkapi Palace was the principal residence of many of the Ottoman Sultans. Mehmed the Conqueror began building the luxurious complex in 1459 atop a hill beside the Bosporus so he could look down upon the entire city – and so that his subjects could all see the symbol of Ottoman power looming above them.
Today, the Topkapi Palace is one of the most elaborate remnants of the old Ottoman Empire, with colorful tilework, sculpted gardens, and impressive marble structures. If you have a little extra time (and the inclination), visit the Hagia Irene while you’re here, the only church in Istanbul still standing that has never been converted into a mosque.
While there isn’t as much to discover at the Galata Tower as at the other places on our history highlights list, the circular stone building has some of the best views you’ll find in Istanbul.
Dating back to the mid-13th century, it was once the tallest building in Istanbul and owes its Romanesque architectural style – which stands out a mile compared to the rest of the city – to the Genoese traders who built it as a lookout.
Since the 1200s, it has been transformed from a fire-detection point to a prison to a museum. We always tell visitors to time their visit during one of the daily calls to prayer so they can enjoy the sensation of being enveloped in a chorus of melodic voices reciting the adhan.
Rounding off this list, we’ve included a modern building that is also an important part of the long history: the Dolmabahçe Palace. This luxurious, neo-baroque beauty holds an enviable spot on the banks of the Bosporus and dazzles the eyes with its gold and crystal interiors.
Abdlumecid I commissioned it because the sultan felt that the Topkapi looked dated and old-fashioned compared to Western palaces. Started in 1843, construction took 13 years – perhaps an unlucky portent since the expense of the enterprise was part of the reason the Ottoman government was forced to take on unmanageable levels of debt, leaving them beholden to Western banking powers.
Dolmabahce later became a primary residence for Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Turkish Republic, before it was opened up to tourism.
What Unique Experience Does Istanbul Offer
How could we talk about Istanbul tourism without mentioning the iconic waterway separating the European side from the Asian side of the metropolis? It doesn’t matter what the time of day is; the Bosporus makes for a picturesque backdrop to morning tea, afternoon drinks, or evening meals.
Ride the local ferry from Eminonu to Ortakoy, or take a private cruise on the waters to see some of the city’s striking waterside palaces. You can even opt to enjoy dinner onboard as you sail past the glittering lights of Istanbul at night.
The Turkish hammam as a concept has been exported all over the world, but nowhere does it better than its homeland. While there are loads of traditional Turkish baths spread throughout the city, we are especially fond of Kilic Ali Pasa, which is set in a remarkably restored building, so that you feel like you are continuing your sightseeing – though, in reality, you’re mainly just enjoying a bit of self-indulgent pampering.
A great option for first-timers, the staff will explain the routine beforehand, so you know what to expect. Other hammams we can recommend are Cagaloglu Hammam and Hurrem Sultan Hamami.
You’ve probably heard of whirling dervishes, but other than the name and perhaps a Turkish Airlines ad or two, you probably don’t know much about the practice. At the Galata Mevlevi Museum, you have the opportunity to dig a bit deeper into the years of history and culture behind the Mevlevi sect.
The sect honors Allah with their dancing, which UNESCO has designated as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Regular performances are also arranged throughout the week.
Did you know that Turkey has a thriving wine scene? In fact, the country has some of the oldest wine cultivation roots in the world, dating back millennia. There are several wine bars in Istanbul where you can try some of the nation’s varietals, but a much more exciting option is to arrange a day trip or even an overnight stay at one of the vineyards just outside the city.
Culture In Istanbul
Beyond the major attractions and activities, one of the other things to consider when deciding whether to visit Istanbul is the general culture. While for some of you, the high point of a holiday is seeing the sights, for others, it’s also about immersing oneself in the local experience. So, what does Istanbul have to offer?
Istanbul, as a tourist destination, is a foodie’s paradise. There are lots of local specialties you should try while you’re in town, whether in popular restaurants or from a street food stall. Here are just some of the many delights to put on your ‘must eat’ list:
As we’ve already mentioned, Istanbul is probably the best place in Turkey for nightlife. We’ve previously written a detailed article about where to party in the city, but here are some of the districts to check out if you’re looking for evening drinks and/or dancing:
People shopping in Istanbul often find themselves pushed toward the old bazaars. While these places are perfectly fine for a slightly overpriced souvenir or just as an experience, there are many other kinds of retail therapy to be enjoyed, from markets to malls. Here’s a brief overview:
So now you should have decided. Tell us, is Istanbul worth visiting for you?
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