Istanbul, formerly known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, is a spectacular city with a deep history that dates back to the seventh century BC when it was founded by King Byzas (hence its first name). In 1453, it was captured by the Ottoman Turks and was part of the large Empire until 1922, when Turkey became an independent country and Istanbul its capital. Now, the city is the economic, cultural, and historic center of Turkey, and continues to be a favorable destination for travelers all over the world, despite recent political issues.
Istanbul is not only a mix of modern and ancient cultures and worlds, but it’s also the only city that is located in both Europe and Asia. From century-old buildings, and modern cafes, to hamams (Turkish baths) and pazars (markets)—Istanbul is full of treasures waiting to be discovered. And to help you experience the best the city has to offer, here are our top five hidden gems we know you’ll love.
(Image source: The Guide Istanbul)
Istanbul’s Old City is Sultanahmet—an area full of historical sites including the Basilica Cistern Cathedral that’s over 1000 years old. This area has a lot of history and is not one to be missed.
We recommend you take a stroll down the steps of the Basilica and make your way to a raised walkway, surrounded by 336 columns. The Ottomans took these columns from other temples that were ruined and placed them here, many of which have intricate carvings such as the two heads of Medusa.
Nearby you will see Hagia Sophia, which once was a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica built in the sixth century that later became an imperial mosque. Today it’s a beautiful museum, featuring mosaics of the Virgin Mary, Christ and the Byzantine emperors.
And of course, right next to Hagia Sophia you will see the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque). During nighttime, blue lights shine on the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes, which is where it gets its “Blue Mosque” nickname. It is open from 8:30 am until one hour before dusk each day, excluding 90 minutes each prayer time, and two hours during Friday noon prayers.
(Image source: Unknown)
As you can imagine, Istanbul has many flea markets, one of the largest, oldest and well-known one is Grand Bazaar. However, it can be a bit overwhelming and extremely touristy. So to get away from the crowds and still enjoy browsing through stalls at a pazar, we recommend you check out Beylik Pazari, located in Beylikdüzü (about a 45-minute drive from Istanbul). Although it’s outside of the city, it is well worth the mini day trip!
The market offers fresh food, clothing, jewelry, shoes, gifts, and other knickknacks to take back home with you. What makes shopping at Beylik Pazari so great is how cheap everything is, yet it’s all very high-quality. Plus, there are security guards and cameras lined up along the market’s wide streets.
(Image source: How To Istanbul)
You can’t leave Turkey without experiencing a hamam (Turkish bath). Our top pick is the Çemberlitaş hamam, near the Grand Bazaar. This Turkish bath is the last one built during the Ottoman Empire in 1741.
The building is spectacular—with high domed ceilings, fountains made from marble and a green garden inside, in addition to two floors of individual changing areas. Çemberlitaş offers its visitors a cafe as well as BBQ festivities in the garden during the summer months, and fireplace festivities during the winter months. Aside from bathing, you can also enjoy performances from belly dancers and musicians. It’s an event not to be missed!
(Image source: Expeditie Aardbol)
It is sometimes said that in order to discover the hidden gems of Istanbul, you should look up. And if you tilt your head up when you’re in Istanbul’s Asmalimescit district, you will come across Tavanarasi. This restaurant is located on the sixth floor and is the perfect spot to enjoy a traditional Turkish meal, as well as fresh seafood and vegetarian dishes in one of the best atmospheres around.
Make sure to get there a bit early if you decide to have dinner there because the tables will get crowded, and you will want a seat by the window to get a perfect view of the city street below.
(Image source: TripAdvisor)
Finish off your day of touring, shopping and exploring at Sah Bar—a rooftop bar located in the Sultanahmet district. You can enjoy refreshing drinks—the red wine is spectacular—as you gaze at the city skyline while listening to the live music playing. It’s tucked away so it can be easily missed if you don’t keep your eye out. The atmosphere is perfect for couples, friends, dates and even individuals (if you’re out exploring on your own or in town for a meeting). The locals love it here, so you can always find someone to start a conversation with.
Overall, Istanbul is an amazing city with gorgeous views, delicious foods and wonderful sites that can keep you busy night and day. Regardless if you’re staying for a week or weekend, you will never get bored!
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