Istanbul is an amazing, unique city with an endless amount of things to do. Here are some of the amazing experiences you should try to add to your trip!
1. Turkish Hammam
One of my favorite experiences was visiting a Turkish bath, or hammam. The true traditional baths are separated by gender where everyone goes nude, but you can find some that are unisex and you stay covered. Rotate between the steam rooms & cooler rooms. Let someone scrub you and get rid of all your dirt and dead skin. I know it sounds awkward, but try it before you decide to love it or hate it! Some great ones are Cagaloglu Hamami (pricey but definitely worth it for the luxe experience and spectacular architecture), Cemberlitas Hamami (classic Turkish bath experience), Aga Hamami (this unisex bath is a great option for those who don't want to go full nude or want to go with their significant others).
2. Istanbul Bazaars
Spend a few hours getting lost in the various marketplaces. Start at the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market and make your way to some of the other lesser known ones if you have time. Don't forget to try some delicious, authentic Turkish delight (I loved the pomegranate pistachio one!) and snag some rose tea and Turkish towels for you and all your friends. Also, be sure to haggle!
3. Turkish Coffee
Try Turkish coffee--it's strong and amazing. My favorite was Mandabatmaz, where the barista patiently explained to us how it was done so we could try it at home (you can easily purchase Turkish coffee pots and coffee in the local markets if you want to try it at home!). Even my Italian boyfriend Mattia, who is very particular about his Italian espresso and cappuccino, enjoyed Turkish coffee.
Some other coffee shops include Karabatak (a great cafe with awesome coffee, both Turkish and European types), Fazil Bey'in (beautiful, nostalgic cafe with delicious Turkish coffee), and Sahkulu Kahvecisi (great coffee and amazing Turkish pastries to match).
4. Mosques & Other Religious Sites
Visit the mosques and other religious sites and marvel at the architecture. Be sure to be respectful of the religion and culture. Istanbul has been home to three religions (Judaism, Christianity, Muslim) in its history so you can see the influences from those eras sprinkled throughout Istanbul. Don't miss the Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia, and there are other less crowded ones throughout the city.
For mosques, remember that the Muslim call to prayer is 5 times a day for about 90 minutes, during which non-Muslims are not allowed inside.
5. Bosphorus River Cruise
Take river cruise on the Bosphorus and note the differences between the European and Asian side. Look out for the beautiful architecture of mansions, mosques, and cultural institutions. You can also watch the locals dive into the water if the day is warm.
We took the official cruise offered by the official state-run company Sehir Hatlari. There is a three hour (25 TRY) or non-stop two-hour cruise (10 TRY), which shouldn't be shouldn't be more than 10 US dollars and 5 US dollars. You can also take shorter ferries or see other options here.
6. Galata Tower
For a great view of the city, visit the Galata Tower. There may be long waits at busy times, but it's definitely worth it for the breathtaking panoramic views of Istanbul and the Bosphorus. Pay an admission fee, and an elevator will take you to the balcony on top. There is also a separate restaurant which hosts a night show inside. There should be a ticket just for the balcony and views.
You can also go up to the rooftop restaurant of the Anemon Galata as a less crowded alternative for similar great views.
7. Suada Day Club
Spend a day swimming and partying on a man-made island on the Bosphorous at the Suada Club. There's a free, short shuttle boat ride from Kuruçeşme Park that takes you to Galatasaray Island. On the island, you will find an Olympic-sized pool with treated sea-water, a restaurant, and great music.
The music gets louder in the afternoon to prepare for the restaurant/nightclub called 360 Suada Club. Reservations for the pool during the day are not needed, but are recommended at the restaurant at night.
Suada is not the cheapest experience ever but it's definitely worth it as a mini escape for the sunshine and stunning views!
8. Istanbul Sunsets
Watch the sunset over the city, here are a few options:
- Blue Mosque, or overlooking the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia from the rooftop terrace of Amabassador Hotel
- Galata Tower, or next to the Galata Tower in the rooftop restaurant of the Anemon Galata hotel
- Galata Bridge on the Bosphorus (free!)
- Banyan, an Asian fushion restaurant on the Bosphorus with excellent food and views
- Istanbul Modern, an art musuem with beautiful art as well as stunning views of the Bosphorus
9. Turkish Street Food
Enjoy Turkish street food just like the locals do--I already recommended coffee and Turkish delights above, and here are a couple local foods things you should keep an eye out for:
- Simit: a freshly baked, sesame-encusted bread that resembles pretzels, usually for breakfast; some have a sweet molasses glaze
- Doner: try authentic kebabs in Istanbul, and remember that the taste really depends on the quality of the meat and skill of the cook who grills and slices it
- Balik-ekmek: a popular fish sandwich that is served in sit-down restaurants as well as on the street in portable grills
- Kokorec: lamb intestines wrapped around bread, which may take some guts to try (which explains why it is a favorite as drunk food!)
- Lahmacun: dough topped with onion, meat, and red pepper (and is said to resemble pizza)
- Dondurma: Turkish ice cream that is sweet, sticky, and doesn't melt as fast as other ice cream
10. Night Club Life
Night life in Istanbul is awesome. Spend the entire night partying in clubs by the Bosphorus river or directly in the city. Many clubs will also have restaurants that you can enjoy dinner while waiting for the party to start (and to avoid lines and club entrance fees!)
- Reina is the top hottest club with giltz and glam and great views off the Bosphorus, known to be a hotspot for celebrities. Some arrive by boat to avoid the road traffic.
- 360 Istanbul may not be the easiest to get into after midnight, but for a good reason, it has amazing views of the city, a great atmosphere and beautiful architecture (it's housed in a 19th century building!)
- Off Pera is a small but very popular and fun place that locals and visitors both frequent, it's a great place to pop in for a drink and dnace before moving onto another club
- Anjeliuqe is another super trendy nightclub at the top of a three-story mansion that also houses restaurants and also boasts great views of the Bosphorus.
- Indigo is a great club if you're into electro music, world-famous and local DJ's alike both spin to spectacular, dynamic light shows. Like most indoor clubs in Istanbul, it is closed in the summer.
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