There are several areas in central Istanbul where you can stay, but my personal favourite is in the historical Sultanahmet area, in which are most of the major tourist attractions and therefore in walking distance, as well as some great restaurants/bars. When I cruised from Istanbul with Oceania Cruises, I stayed at the boutique Hotel Nena for two nights, which has the most superb views from its rooftop restaurant over the city including the nearby Blue Mosque.
The three main sights for visitors to Istanbul are all within the same historic area: Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
The Blue Mosque is the most beautiful building, both inside and outside. Ensure you know when prayer time is as during this time (5 times/day) the mosque is closed to visitors for approximately 90 minutes. To go inside the mosque you will be required to take off your shoes, and women will need to cover their head with a scarf – these are available for a small fee if you forget to take your own. As it is a place of worship no flash photography is permitted. My tip: Go early in the morning, as soon as it opens after sunrise prayers, to get there before the majority of the crowds and feel the full awe of the place. And then go back at the end of the day to marvel at the external beauty when it is floodlit. There are gardens with ponds and benches outside the Mosque, so a great place to wander round in the early evening and get the full view.
Within a 10 minute walk from the Blue Mosque, at the other end of the gardens, is the Hagia Sophia (part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site). This is a fascinating structure that was an important monument for both Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia has always been valuable, and is a stunning building still showing a combination of all the religions and styles of its past.
In the same area is the Topkapi Palace, which is so vast, with many different areas to be explored, that you really should allow at least a full afternoon or if possible a day to make the most of it. It is the largest and oldest palace in the world to survive to our day, and is a traditional example of Turkish Palace structure, occupying 700,000 square metres, and consisting of 5km of walls and three courtyards. The craftsmanship shown throughout the buildings is amazing, and the collections now housed in what was previously the Treasury, the Armory and the Kitchens are stunning.
Other places that are definitely worth a visit include the Grand Bazaar. Do bear in mind that this is huge, and can be a little like a labyrinth, so allow yourself time. Remember haggling is important – but don’t do so unless you are actually planning on buying the item! Another market worth visiting, even if only briefly for the ultimate photo, or to pick up some exotic souvenirs is the Spice Market.
Nearby is also the Basilica Cistern, the largest underground cistern, of cathedral-like size with tall marble pillars, with walkways and interesting lighting, which make it a fascinating place to visit. The Cistern was one of the locations used in the James Bond film “From Russia with Love”.
And finally, my other “must do” is a relaxing Bosphorus cruise, which is the best way of seeing the two sides of Istanbul, and seeing the large palaces and villas (some of which are now luxury hotels), as well as other beautiful buildings and scenery. Make sure you take a boat which has English commentary so that you can really understand the history and significance of what you are seeing.
For those who are brave enough you should try a proper traditional Turkish bath or hamam (for those feint-hearted a hotel spa may offer a toned down version). It’s best to research these before you go along (take advice from your hotel), and ensure you know the etiquette of the hamam you are visiting as this can vary. Two of the most famous hamams are the Cagaloglu Hamam and Cemeberlitas, near the Grand Bazaar. Do go for the options including the traditional scrub and massage, as self-service just doesn’t give you the full effect. Despite what they may tell you in advance, hamams don’t like to take credit cards, therefore ensure you take enough cash with you – including enough to leave the expected tip!
On the note of tipping – this is expected in Turkey, no matter how much us Brits dislike it, and not to do so would offend. So if possible obtain some small change before you travel, or break a larger note at your hotel front desk, so that you have something to hand when needed.
There are many other things to see and do in Istanbul, including other mosques, museums and going outside the city, but these are my recommendations – and yes, I did manage to do all of them in two days, with early starts and long days and keeping on the go. If you’d like a more leisurely pace then allow a little longer!