Everything you need to know about visiting the city the users of TripAdvisor just named the best travel destination in the world
From a rooftop terrace, you watch as Istanbul bids another day goodbye. The sun dips and a gentle breeze soothes the heat. The soaring minarets of myriad mosques punctuate the paling sky, their calls to prayer echoing around the streets. Boats churn across the Bosphorus, while lights sparkle from its opposite bank – Asia winking at Europe through the dusk. Istanbul’s magic gently wafts over two continents; the city is imbued with a new serenity, with even greater mystery.
Three things you may already know about Istanbul: it was once called Byzantium, then Constantinople, and considered capital of the new Roman Empire; it’s the only city to occupy two continents, spanning Europe and Asia; and it’s the home of Turkish delight. Three things you might not know: some of its Christian mosaics owe their survival to Islamic invaders; it’s a good idea to accept a fish bap from a stranger under a bridge; and having a near-naked local pummel you into a hot slab of marble is very relaxing indeed.
But back to essentials. Istanbul has been a major conduit for conquest and commerce for millennia, and the wealth lavished by three successive empires has bequeathed it an unmatched cultural legacy. The modern Republic of Turkey owes its identity to the vision of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who rescued his country from occupation following defeat in the First World War.
The secular, tolerant society he created pays homage to the religions that have fought over the city, and ensures the preservation of its architectural masterpieces.
The city is divided by water into three prime areas. Centred on the original fortress peninsula is Sultanahmet, home to three major sites: the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace and Blue Mosque.
Cross the Golden Horn via the Galata Bridge and you meet modern European Istanbul; dissected by the main thoroughfare of Istiklal Caddesi, this area is home to shops, boutique restaurants and a vibrant nightlife scene.
Finally, across the Bosphorus sits Asian Istanbul – which few tourists penetrate. Its local shops and cafés, Hydarpaşa Station (terminus for rail routes to Asia), the Crimean War Cemetery and Florence Nightingale Museum all add an extra dimension to a visit.
More than sites, though, Istanbul is a city of courteous, humorous, generous people: whether you meet them while haggling in the Grand Bazaar, over a thick Turkish coffee or while being sponged down in a steamy hammam, it’s the personal connections that will make your trip.
Heady, historic, welcoming, mysterious – that’s Istanbul. Here is our guide to getting at its essence. Just take a deep breath...
1. Marvel at the multifarious Hagia Sophia. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, it was inaugurated as a Byzantine church in AD 537, became an Ottoman mosque in 1453, and a secular museum in 1935. Its scale is awesome, not least the 31m-diameter dome. Also fascinating are the early Christian mosaics, painted over (but not destroyed) after Muslims took possession of the building in the 15th century.
2. Named the Blue Mosque because of the blue Iznik tiles adorning its interior, the 17th century Sultanahmet Camii, built by Sultan Ahmet I, is a great feat of Ottoman architecture; it has six minarets (most have two or four).
3. Rebuilt by Constantine for chariot races, the Hippodrome once accommodated 100,000 spectators. An Egyptian obelisk, a serpent column and another obelisk are all that remain from the original plaza. Now called Sultanahmet Square, it is a bustling meeting place.
4. The 15th-century Topkapı Palace was the nucleus of the Ottoman dynasty for over 400 years. It’s an architectural beauty, with opulent rooms and gardens, and is home to sacred relics. Arrive early to avoid queues; Harem tickets must be bought separately.
5. Built underneath the city in AD 532 to ensure a constant supply of water, the cool and atmospheric Basilica Cistern is dominated by 336 Ionic, Corinthian and Doric marble columns, recycled from older buildings around the Roman Empire.
1. Try fresh street food: simit – bread rings covered in sesame seeds; borek – filo pastry with meat or vegetable fillings; gozleme – filled pancakes; mısır – corn on the cob.
2. Wine was first produced in Anatolia 4,000 years ago, and there are still some pleasantly surprising wines available. For white, try Narince 2011; for a full-bodied red, Okuzgozu 2008. For more information, visit www.kayrawinecenter.com.
3. Be picky on your kebab quest. For an authentic taste, join the queues at takeaway gem Donerci Sahin Usta (branches near the Grand Bazaar and Nuruosmaniye Mosque) or sit down with views of the Bosphorus at Hamdi Restaurant on Eminonu Square (www.hamdi.com.tr).
4. Those with a sweet tooth should feast on melt-in-the-mouth lokum (Turkish delight), flavoured with rose water, mint, almond and more. Also try delicious baklava pastries soaked in syrup and honey, and stuffed with almonds or pistachios.
5. A meze platter makes a good meal – hummus, stuffed vine leaves, aubergine puree, meatballs, courgette fritters, deep-fried prawns and grilled cheese are usual suspects. Wash it all down with rakı, an anise-flavoured aperitif.
1.Imbat Restaurant More inventive than usual Turkish dishes in this stylish restaurant that also has great views from the rooftop terrace. Set above the Orient Express Hotel this is very popular but a good choice for a romantic meal.
2. Dai Pera. One of Istanbul’s real gems is found in Galatasaray, a block from Istiklal Caddesi. Chef Arzu is making a name for her Istanbul home cooking with a contemporary twist. Try the prawns in kadayif pastry, and the inventive salads and meze.
3. Panoramic Restaurant Probably the highest and very best uninterrupted 360 view in Sultanahmet, with a touristy but good restaurant situated above the Adamar Hotel.
4. Pudding Shop. Legendary rendezvous in the Sixties for those on the Hippy Trail to Afghanistan, this is a must-see for first-time visitors of a cerain age! The simple restaurant, a discus throw from the Hippodrome, still serves well-priced, wholesome Turkish dishes.
5.Istanbul Eats. Not a restaurant, but a series of walking tours that give you an opportunity to sample some great dishes and really get an insiders insight into Istanbul’s food. (istanbuleats/walks)
1. Indulge at a traditional hammam (Turkish bath). Go for a mid-range ‘with bubbles’ massage to get the full experience – from exfoliation to therapeutic hair-washing. The most visited are Cemberlitas Hamamı (built 1584) and Cagaloglu Hamamı (1741). Late evening is quietest; prices start from 40TL (£14).
2. Treat yourself to a night at the famous Pera Palace Hotel – perhaps in the suite Hemingway used, or the one where Agatha Christie reputedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express. Doubles from around €200.
3. Relax in a nargile café, sipping apple cay (tea) or Turkish coffee, and smoking through a water pipe. Try cappuccino tobacco through milk for a different start to the day!
4. Hang out on roof terraces – day or night, these offer spectacular panoramas of bustling ferries, sparkling waters, endless rooftops and golden minarets.
5. Watch whirling dervishes perform the Sema, a religious dance. As they spin, their right hands face heaven, their left point to the earth.
1. Spices have been traded from the fragrant halls of the Egyptian Bazaar for four centuries. Turkish delight, dried fruits, spiced nuts and exotic aromas abound. Sample before you buy and be prepared to haggle.
2. The 3km-long Istiklal Caddesi buzzes 24/7 – handicrafts leather goods, designer clothes, instruments, galleries – everything is here. Pause for a refreshing drink in the beautiful Cicek Pasajı (Flower Passage). If you get tired, hop on the antique tram.
3. On the Asian side, Bagdat Caddesi is dubbed the ‘Champs-Élysées of Istanbul’. A wide avenue flanked by plane trees, it’s home to elegant shops, upmarket restaurants and street cafés.
4. One of the world’s oldest covered markets, The Grand Bazaar is a maze of over 5,000 shops. Haggle for gold jewellery, hand-painted ceramics, carpets and textiles, slippers and more.
5. The shops of Cukurcuma, the lively antiques district in Beyoglu, sell anything from Ottoman trinkets to vintage toys. The quirkiest is The Works: Objects of Desire, which has oddities crammed up to its ceiling.
1. Turkey has been in the textile business for over eight millennia. Carpets – either knotted or flat-woven kilims – make for great souvenirs. There’s a dazzling pattern choice, and prices for all pockets – but only ask if you intend to buy. And then worry about getting them home.
2. Centuries-old Iznik tiles decorate some of Istanbul’s finest mosques. Modern ceramics, some with more strident colours, are equally ornamental: buy as tiles, plates and pitchers.
3. Take home a piece of calligraphic art, a truly understated Islamic skill. Avoid the quick knock off tourist handouts and instead find inspiration at the Museum of Calligraphy at Beyazit II’s mosque.
4. Look for reasonably priced leather jackets, bags, shoes, belts and wallets, which are made in the side streets of Cemberlitas and sold in the bazaars and shops. Some businesses offer customers a bespoke service if you’re staying long enough.
5. Turkey is famous for telkari (filigree) jewellery, handmade from silver wire twisted together and soldered to form delicate lacy patterns. Rings, bracelets and pendants are often studded with semi-precious stones.
1. Sample the quieter, Asian side of Istanbul. Take a ferry from Karakoy or Eminonu to Harem and wander up the coastal path to Uskudar. Play backgammon over a glass of tea or chilled ayran (a yoghurt-based drink) in a café with views back to Europe.
2. The best way to understand local topography is from a ferry deck. A 90-minute Bosphorus cruise from Eminonu quay to the Bosphorus Bridge and back, gives unparalleled views of Istanbul’s skyline.
3. Byzantine and Ottoman royalty were once exiled to the secluded Princes’ Islands; now they’re a city escape, with woodland monasteries and charming villages. Exploration is by foot, phaeton (horse-drawn carriage) or cycle. Take a ferry from Kabatas.
4. Take the ferry up the Golden Horn from Eminonu to Eyup Sultan Mosque, Turkey’s holiest site (avoid Fridays). Uphill behind the mosque is a scenic cemetery with Ottoman gravestones. The Pierre Loti Café at the top of the hill has excellent views.
5. Head to Camlıca Hill, on the Asian side, for sunset. The highest point in Istanbul, it has fantastic views over the city. Get the hop-on hop-off Blue Line bus night tour from Sultanahmet.
1. Built in the sixth century as a wooden lighthouse, the 67m Galata Tower was reconstructed from stone by the Genoese in 1348. Today, it has a 360° viewing gallery, restaurant and floorshow.
2. The Suleymaniye Mosque, the 16th-century masterpiece by architect Sinan, is Istanbul’s largest mosque complex. Combining Byzantine domes with Ottoman minarets, it’s filled with serene light, enhanced by the simple interior decor.
3. Originally a fifth-century chapel, then the Blakhernia Palace church, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was restored with biblical Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in 1316 by scholar Theodore Metochites. Today it is part of the Kariye Museum.
4. Set on the banks of the Bosphorus, the opulent Dolmabahce Palace – the last residence of the Sultanate – is an excess of bling. Crystal balustrades support the grand staircase, and hanging in the ceremonial hall is the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, a gift from Queen Victoria.
5. The Kucuk (or Little) Hagia Sophia is an early Byzantine church that was converted to a mosque during Ottoman rule. Its interior is plainer than its bigger sister, but they share the same proportions.
1. You need to buy a visa on arrival at the airport (£10), which can take up to an hour.
2. A taxi from Atatürk Airport to central Sultanahmet can take two hours; expect to pay 60-90TL (£21-32). In general, taxis are cheap but ensure the metre is on to avoid being landed with a phantom quote.
3. An Istanbulkart travel card makes using all public transport easy. Credit can be topped up at machines in stations, which have an English-language option. You have to put your credit/debit card into the machine before being able to select the language.
4. Enlisting a guide at some of the keys sites means you may be able to skip the often-lengthy queues. Otherwise, arrive at attractions as they open or an hour before they close.
5. Lokantas (tradesmen’s restaurants) are excellent, economical places to find genuine Turkish homecooking.
In September 2012, 15 readers joined Wanderlust’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes and travel photographer Paul Harris to research and photograph Istanbul.
The team compiled everything in this feature.
Writers: Louisa Richardson, Jean Ashbury, Nigel Reid, Philippa Collett, Simone Talfourd
Photographers:Tony Sullivan, Kav Dadfar, Alyce Biddle, Rachel Lauderbaugh, Karlyn Meulman, Angela Reid, Claire Waring, Carolyn McKay, Gwen Pearson, Fiona Braham.