Istanbul first-timers need comfy shoes, hearty appetites, history lessons and laser sharp haggling skills, as newbie Nikki Ridgway discovered on a recent trip. Here she helps you suss out the top sights to see and snap once, and the local spots that will keep you coming back for more
Explore Hagia Sophia
For first timers, a trip through Crack Gate into the historic Sultanhamet District should be stop one. The oldest part of the city, it’s home to the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and the dusty pink church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, Hagia Sophia. The current building dates from the 6th century and is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture — point your camera lens up to the mosaic adorned domes and ceilings for the best, crowd-cropped photographs. The iconoclastic mosaics that were covered up during its 500 years as a mosque are now on brilliant display, though portions of the grand hall are still under a lattice of scaffolding. Make a wish in the magical cistern, snap a shot of the intricate marble door and stand at the Loge of the Empress imagining the 1,500 years of history that unfolded under the gilded domes. Beat the crowds by buying your ticket (25TL or $11) online in advance and arriving early on a weekday (excluding Monday).
Visit the Blue Mosque
Opposite Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is Istanbul’s most recognizable sight — its unique six minarets and bulbous main dome captured on countless postcards and souvenir trinkets. Officially named Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the blue of its more familiar moniker is a nod to the 21,000 blue, red and white Iznik tiles that adorn the 17th-century mosque’s great ceilings. As a functioning place of worship, you’ll need to time your visit around the five daily prayer calls and avoid Fridays altogether. Be aware that women need to wear headscarves and everyone must remove (but can carry) their shoes. Don’t be put off by the endless single-file line that snakes through the vaulted arcades and into the central court, it moves quickly between the prayer times and, unless you have a guide explaining the intricacies of the classical Ottoman architecture and dozens of tulip designs, you’ll find it’s a quick but important stop in Sultanhamet. No fee; closed Friday.
Shop in the Grand Bazaar
Still in the Old City, the 550-year-old Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest covered market in the world, familiar to many from Bond's rooftop bike chase across its domed rooftops in the opening scene of Skyfall. Anticipate and enjoy getting lost among the 4,000 stalls stacked with nazar ornaments and Turkish tea cups, colorful towels and eye-poppingly expensive pottery, or, if you’re a shopper on a mission (carpets and textiles are most popular), head deep into the Bazaar for the best prices. Away from the 22 busy entrances, these more established shops will often give you a “final price” that’s still better than the haggler-friendly stores on the busiest corridors. Between all the shopping, stop for coffee, sweet cake and serious people watching at Fes Café, track down a tost (cheese toasty) at any juice bar, or soak up delicious menemen (scrambled egg in a tomato soup) with a stick of French bread at hole-in-the-wall Onur Piliç.
Walk from Taksim Square to Galata Tower
The 14th-century, 70-meter Galata Tower is worth the souvenir snap, but a stop here should be part of a longer day exploring the center of Istanbul, starting in Taksim Square. Once the heart of upscale Istanbul, today you’re more likely to see groups of teens, young couples meeting by the large flower stall and hippy crowds after dark. Head south on mile-long, car-free Istiklal Street (but watch out for the almost silent tram that runs down one side) passing a Turkish Delight stalwart that dates from 1777, shopping malls and high street fashion brands, the hip House Café, the Galata Whirling Dervish Lodge and, yes, even a Shake Shack burger restaurant. If you’re here in the evening, join a 20-something crowd in the Asmalimescit enclave where bars like Ugly and Narrdo are jam packed most nights of the week. At Galata Tower, peel off left for a dose of retail therapy on boutique-lined Serdari Ekrem street, then choose between tea and pastries at Guney cafe, traditional fare at hip Kiva Han or a serious Turkish wine list and romantic atmosphere at Sensus Wine & Cheese.
Cruise the Bosphorus by Charter or Ferry
A top pick for your first day in the city, boat tours along the Bosphorus will set your city compass and give your jetlagged body a break before all the sightseeing. Book through your hotel or guide, or go solo and step aboard the short, full or night cruises offered by Istanbul’s official ferry company, Sehir Hatlari. Spot runners on the jogging tracks, grand dame hotels like the new Shangri-La Bosphorus, Four Seasons Bosphorus and ornate Cirargan Palace Kempinski, dozens of elaborate palaces and listed wooden buildings, impressive Bosphorus Bridge, and enormous Turkish flags fluttering on both sides of the river. Or, for a more local experience, hop a ferry from Karaköy and take the 20-minute ride to Kadıköy on the Asian side. Morning ferries are packed with commuters sipping Turkish tea and eating simits, while in the afternoon you’ll catch the magical early evening light and classic photographs of the sun setting behind the Blue Mosque.
Stop for Hamam Time
On the “no pain, no gain” end of the spa spectrum, a traditional Turkish hamam experience is a must for first timers. Rituals vary by bathhouse, but all involve donning a peştamal (a cotton wrap) and letting the masseurs — natir for women, tellak for men — lead a series of soaking, scrubbing, exfoliating and rinsing treatments in two distinct sections of the Hamam. For a traditional experience try 16th-century Çemberlitaş Hamam in the Old City, or stick to the classic bathing rituals in a more contemporary setting at the recently revamped Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam in Tophane. Alternatively, the city’s upscale hotels offer authentic, if pricier, Hamam experiences and arguably better service; Four Seasons Bosphorus and CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La Bosphorus are local favorites and well worth the splurge.
Culture and Cuisine at Istanbul Modern
The oft-cited catalyst to Istanbul’s most recent cultural renaissance and ever changing contemporary art scene, Istanbul Modern occupies a converted warehouse near Karaköy on the banks of the Bosphorus. Start on the top floor with the impressive permanent collection of contemporary works by 20th century Turkish artists including Ghada Amer and Sabire Susuz, then descend to the temporary exhibition hall, pop up display and separate photo gallery where Fahrettin Örenli’s Conspiracy Wall installation is currently on show. Plan your visit for a sunny day at lunchtime and nab a table on the outdoor terrace of fash-pack favorite, Restoran Im. The successful menu is a mix of international favorites (handmade pasta, posh salads) and traditional Turkish fare, including the must-try manti — completely addictive small ravioli bundles stuffed with minced meat and covered in yogurt and spices.
Book a Splurge-Worthy Meal with a View
After getting under Istanbul’s skin in its maze-like markets, ancient mosques, local neighborhoods and along the Bosphorus straits, save one night to see the city from above at a splurge-worthy hillside or rooftop restaurant. Much celebrated Mikla fits this bill from its top-floor perch in the Marmara Pera Hotel, serving up fusion Scandinavian and traditional Turkish prix-fixe meals in a retro modern dining room. The knockout views span across the city to the minarets of Old Istanbul. Alternatively, score a reservation at contemporary Ottoman favorite, Topaz, in the upscale Gümüssuyu neighborhood and plough through chef Tevfik Alparsian’s hearty dishes like stuffed vine leaves with mince meat and sour cherry while ogling views of the Bosphorous and Dolmabahçe Palace through a full wall of windows. For more of a scene, stick to Beyoğlu and take up a perch at hip 360 restaurant, where the namesake panoramic views capture scenes across the neighborhood, the menu focuses on small-plate share dishes, and the expertly mixed cocktails flow as DJs spin late into the night.
Go Antiquing Cukur Cuma
Likened to New York's Soho and London's Shoreditch, the hilly 'hood of Cukur Cuma (pronounced "chukoor juma") is home to Istanbul's most creative clans and brims with eclectic antiques shops, artisan boutiques and cozy cafes. Serious shoppers scout for vintage kilims (rugs), kaftans and Ottoman embroidery textiles in three-story A la Turca, plus vases, jewelry and earthenware jars at treasure trove, Aslı Günşiray, but aimless wandering through the winding, boutique-lined streets is just as rich a pastime here. If you've read Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence make a stop at the small museum of the same name — a showcase of life in upper class 1970s Istanbul.
Essential Street Eats
Don't leave Istanbul without sampling some of its great street eats, starting with your morning simit from any cart vendor. These bagel-like sesame bread rings cost 1TL wherever you buy them and can be eaten plain with Turkish coffee or slathered with cream cheese. Other street cart favorites seen across city include kestane kebab (roasted chestnuts), nar suyu (freshly squeezed pomegranate juice) and midye dolma (stuffed mussels with lemon). Under the Galata Bridge or down by the docks in Karaköy, keep an eye out for the balık ekmek (grilled fish sandwiches) caught straight from the Bosphorus and prepared with freshly chopped onion, tomato and chillis. And for arguably the best baklava in the city, get thee to Güllüoğlu in Karaköy where you point out, pay for and then devour your baklava or börek of choice, ideally with a sweet tea.