Top 10 things to do in Istanbul

The Basillica Cistern
Istanbul is a city that has managed to preserve its history well, despite being a pivotal battle ground between the Roman and Ottoman empires, being fought over, ransacked, and changing hands several times. With a population today of 19 million, only slightly less than that of the whole of Australia, it is a frenetic place that rewards wandering around on foot, or by ferry to avoid the constant traffic jams. Invest in a Istanbul Card to allow easy and cheap travel on ferries, trams, buses and trains, and then go exploring.

Here are my top ten things to do in Istanbul.

1. Descend into the Basillica Cistern
The temperature cools noticeably, even on the hottest summer days, as you walk down into what appears at first to be a subterranean city. Built by the Romans in the sixth century to provide water to the residents of the city, it would still be a technological wonder today, holding 2.8 million cubic feet of water. It is incredibly atmospheric with subdued lighting at the base of  336 pillars, and with large fish swimming in the shallow waters. Do not miss the upside down head of Medusa at the base of the column at the very back of the Cistern.

2. Queue up for the Hagia Sophia
The Byzantine Roman emperors were crowned in this huge cathedral, until the new Ottoman rulers threw them out and changed it to a mosque. Whatever time of day there seem to be large queues to get in, but it is worth the wait. The sheer size if the interior impresses, particularly when seen from upstairs, along with the beautiful mosaics and Roman artwork on the walls.

Hagia Sophia


3. BYO food and eat on the lawns of the Topkapi Palace
The palace of the Ottoman Sultans. Ornate and laid out over huge grounds with great views of the city and the Bosphorous. It is more of a museum now, with rooms dedicated to weapons, clothing and jewellery, as well as the Sultans private harem. Beware, food and drink prices are up to ten times what you pay in the rest of Istanbul, so take your own food and eat them while sitting on the lawns overlooking the city and the river.

4. Sit on the comfortable carpet of the Blue Mosque
Next to Hagia Sophia the Blue Mosque dominates the old Istanbul skyline. The actual name of the mosque is Sultan Ahmed although it does have many hand painted blue tiles on its dome giving it its European name. A very popular place of worship, it is closed at prayer times so plan your visit, and cover up. It is a great place to sit on the carpeted floor, relax, look up at the beautifully tiled dome and stained glass windows, and people watch.

The Blue Mosque

5. Climb the City walls
These walls date back to when Constantinople was the capital of the Roman empire. Catch the ferry to Ayvansaray and walk until you are tired, then catch a tram back to Sultanahmet. Most of the walls are in good condition and can be walked on in parts. One place you can be sure that is not crowded with tourists at any time.

6. Catch a Ferry on the Bosphorus
Take in the sights of the city as you cross backwards and forwards from Europe to Asia. You do not need to catch an expensive tour boat, the regular ferries are comfortable and run regularly, and can take you as far as Andalou Kavagi for great views of the Black Sea.

Relax on the top deck of a Bosphorus ferry
7. Stop at a cafe and have a drink
Try the Turkish coffee, stronger and often with bean sediment included. I liked it, although too much can give you a raging headache. Turkish tea, whether black or fruit flavoured with Apple or Pomegranate, is very tasty although ask for no or only a little sugar unless you have a sweet tooth. Efes beer is a staple,  the main variety is a Pilsener, although I did like the dark variety also, a cross between a stout and a porter, with a hefty 6% alcoholic punch. Would be great to drink in winter.

8. Eat Baklava
The quintessential Istanbul desert comprised of chopped nuts between thin layers of pastry topped off with honey. The sheer variety of different Baklava is astonishing compared to the one offering I usually get from my local Turkish restaurant in Sydney. Different shapes, types of nuts, pastry and honey add up to a great visual and tasting experience. Istanbul has shops dedicated to selling only Baklava, mmmm. I recommend Diyar Burma, located on Bagdat Caddesi in Sultanahmet, just after the tram stop, where you can get a selection of six different Baklava for 5 Turkish Lira.

Baklava in a Sultanahmet shop window

9. Shop at the Grand Bazaar
The European end of the Silk Road, it looks from the outside like a vast Caravanserai. It now houses arcades of shops selling aromatic spices, clothes, mountains of tourist tat, and even military surplus goods (Turkish Army baseball caps are a bargain). The twisty streets outside are also full of interesting shops, and generally much better prices. I recommend getting a glass Nazar, which resembles a blue and white eye, and wards off bad luck and danger from the 'Evil Eye'.

10. Head out in the evening to Beyoglu for a tasty dinner
Get out of the Sultanahmet tourist zone and eat in the Beyoglu district on the European side. The streets between the British Consulate and Taksim square, such as Cezayir Sokagi, are full of restaurants serving Turkish and seafood dishes, and are packed out with locals. If you want to save money get there before 7:00 PM for their early evening specials, such as a plate of Calamari and a half litre of Efes beer for only 10 Turkish Lira.

Beyoglu restaurants