How I spent two full days exploring the best of Istanbul.
Istanbul was one of my favourite destinations to date. The city is beautiful, steeped in history and culture, has an amazing cuisine, and not too expensive to visit. The city has a European and Asian side, separated by the Bosphorus river. I explored the European side for this trip.
When I visited, it was the first day of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. It added a layer of experience for me since I was able to witness a celebratory mass break-fast event in front of the Blue Mosque. There was also a handicraft night market which ran just for the entire fasting month.
Anyway, I consider these my must-sees and must-dos when visiting the city of Istanbul, Turkey for the first time.
The Topkapi Palace was probably my favourite place in Istanbul. It’s a beautiful museum that used to be a residence of the Ottoman sultans. It was also the administrative and educational headquarters of the state. I loved all of the gorgeous tiling and tapestry throughout the museum. The Topkapi also overlooks the azure blue of the Bosporus River.
The Imperial Harem was a complex network of apartments, and home to the ladies of the palace, including the sultan’s mother, wives and concubines. I believe the harem is a separate museum to pay for; if you like exquisite Turkish tiles as much as I do, I say it’s worth the extra ticket. I recommend hopping on to a guided tour for this, because it brings the place to life – “harem” is named after “haram” which meant forbidden, lots of salacious stories. There are tours at certain timings that you can hop on, but I rented the audio guide which worked just as well.
While you’re at the vicinity of the Topkapi, pop into the Hagia Irene church. Located at the first courtyard of the Topkapi, it is a former church that now functions as a museum and concert hall. It’s small, and I spent no longer than 10 minutes in here.
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
The museum is located near the Topkapi Palace. It holds an impressive array or archaeological artefacts from ancient Turkey, Greece and Rome.
There are three museums here: the Archeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Near East, and the Tiled Kiosk. Some parts of the museum were under construction when I visited, so I was never sure if I visited the Archeological Museum or Museum of the Ancient Near East, or perhaps I unknowingly wandered into both. The Tiled Kiosk was the most discernible, as it’s a separate building with stunning blue Turkish mosaic tiles on its front.
There were a lot of adorable cats and kittens loitering about the museum compound. One thing about Istanbul is that its stray cats look like one of the most well cared-for.
Blue Mosque / Sultan Ahmet Mosque
The Blue Mosque, or as its more officially known as, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, is Istanbul’s most iconic landmark. The mosque still functions as a place of worship today, so you do need to be modestly dressed. No worries for the ladies though; they give out sarongs at the entrance in case you have an ankle peeking.
As you step onto lush red carpeting, you’ll be taking in the high-ceilinged interiors, lovely blue tiled walled and majestic chandelier that hangs low. I sat back here for a while, enjoying the peace of the vast mosque and worshippers prayed further in front.
Located opposite the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is an important and polarizing building in Istanbul. It was first built as a church and was considered to be one of the greatest. Before St Peter’s Basilica was built in the Vatican City, this was the largest church ever built. When Istanbul was conquered by Mehmet the Conqueror, he turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Today, the Hagia Sophia is a museum and national monument.
Watch a mesmerizing Whirling Dervish
This whirling dervish is fully clad in white as he spins effortlessly, as if in a trance. It was believed this is one of the ways to get closer to God. You can pay to watch a whirlish dervish ceremony, but there’s a cute little hideaway café in Sultanahmet, close to the Blue Mosque, where all you do is buy apple tea, and wait for a hypnotic Whirling Dervish performance accompanied by enchanting live instrumental music.
Underground Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is an ancient underground cistern near the Hagia Sophia. Upon entry, you’d be met by a symmetrical rows of Roman columns rising above a shallow depth of water. I was amazed that there were actual fish in the cistern since it is a historical place. A highlight is the upside-down medusa head somewhere in the back. It was upside-down to apparently remove its powers of turning people who look at her eyes into stone.
Shop at the Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is purportedly one of the oldest covered markets in the world. I love the Grand Bazaar! It was quieter than expected when I visited. I found the people here friendly and not pushy at all. I had one of the nicest conversation with an old shopkeeper who was so excited to hear I was from Singapore; it was his favourite place ever.
Anyway, you can find a whole host of stuff here, including beautiful ceramic pottery, coaster tiles, shawls and Turkish lamps. I didn’t have enough space in the luggage, but bit the bullet and purchased three of these mesmerizing mosaicked Turkish lamps – I got a damn good deal for one and figured might as well. Other colourful souvenirs you can find are a delicious array of Turkish delights and aromatic teas. Best of all, most shops allow sampling. Halwa is another sweet treat that would be a perfect souvenir. Lots of Turkish carpet stores here – but they’re definitely not cheap.
Even if you’re not shopping, it was nice to stroll through the stores with their colourful products out on display.
Another open market that you can visit is the Spice Market.
Have lots of Apple Tea or Turkish coffee
I’m a huge caffeine fan but Turkish coffee… nope. It was a powerful brew that knocked me over upon first sip. Way too strong and bitter. You can actually add some sugar to it, but you have to request this upon ordering. I requested for some sugar after the first blow, but I was politely denied – the sugar gets added in while the coffee is being cooked, and apparently can’t be added once its served.
What I absolutely adore though: Apple Tea! Delicious, refreshing apple tea. I drank a lot of it. Some restaurants even serve it up for free alongside your meal.
Eat lots of AMAZING Turkish food
I love Turkish food. Doners, pitas with hummus, kebabs, meat platters, mmm. I loved the Iskander kebab: grilled meat on a hot platter doused with a flavourful tomato stew, pita bread and some sort of yoghurt dressing. Most kebab dishes come with grilled chillis – I loved these! They’re not spicy at all, but adds a refreshing bite to the meal.
They also do great desserts, such as Turkish delights, baklava and rice puddings. I didn’t get any, but Turkish ice-cream can be a fun (but mildly annoying to me) experience in which ice-cream man would play with you a bit.
As mentioned earlier in the post, it was Ramadan, aka the Muslim fasting month when I visited. The restaurants and cafes were opened in the daytime and you can eat your day meals with no issues at all. You can request to sit in a more private, secluded area of the restaurant to be more respectful, but I honestly don’t think it’s necessary. If I was there for longer than 2 to 3 days, I would have fasted along – but Turkey has some fantastic food that… I couldn’t. Sorry.