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Your guide to the ancient city of Istanbul (not Constantinople)
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October 5, 2022 | View OnlineSign Up

When you arrive in Istanbul, stroll down to the Galata Bridge. Order a glass of raki to sip while you watch the sun set over the city’s seven slopes. Ottoman minarets dominate the neverending cityscape, but it’s impossible to miss the Byzantine walls, Venetian Towers, and Parisian Townhouses that complete the ancient metropolis. Empires rose and fell here.


Above you, old men cast fishing lines down from the upper deck of the bridge while gulls swoop in to snatch the fish as they’re reeled upwards. The haunting sunset prayer call echoes from over three thousand mosques while party boats crawl their way along the Golden Horn to the Bosporus Straits. The city is alive.


You know you’re somewhere special.


It’s loud, it’s charismatic, it’s history itself, and it’s utterly breathtaking.


Welcome to Istanbul.

| FUN FACTS

Many names, many empires

Istanbul is an incredibly old city. Straddling the European and Asian continents, its value as a strategic port was clear as far back as the 7th century BC (technically even further).


The first settlers were Greek. Their leader, King Byzas, came up with the creative name of Byzantium, and it remained so until around 300 AD. At that time, the city became part of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine. He turned it into one of the most important cities in the world and even the capital of the Empire, renaming it Constantinople.


In a similar fashion, Roman rule wasn’t meant to last. As the Empire decayed, the Ottomans crept in and, after a brutal siege, took the city, renaming it for a third and final time as Istanbul. The Ottomans held onto the city until their fall just after WWI, when the Turkish Republic emerged.

| KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

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You won’t see everything, and your trip will be better for it


Istanbul is massive. And a city as old and storied as this has an unbelievable range of things to see and do, making it virtually impossible to do them all, or at least enjoy doing them all.


Instead, check out which sounds most appealing to you and set aside at least half a day for each. Some of the big ticket items might need even longer, so plan accordingly. It’ll let you enjoy each place to the fullest and give you a reason to head back again.

Americans need a visa

In this day and age, most of the more common destinations for American travelers have a Visa-free entry policy. It can be super easy to forget they’re even a thing. This isn’t the case in Turkey. Americans need a visa to visit.


It’s an easy process, but Steven’s girlfriend found out the hard way when she was denied entry at the land border. Not an experience she'd wish on anyone. Also, don’t pay someone else to do it. It’s a scam.

Practice a little Turkish

You’ll likely come across some wonderful English speakers in your hotel or in the Grand Bazaar and other heavily touristed areas, but in day-to-day exploration, assume that English speakers are few and far between. If you enjoy getting off the beaten trail a little, your chances will drop even further.


It’ll mean a lot to pick up even a few phrases. The usual “thank you,” “hello,” and some other basics go a long way in at least showing that you’ve tried. After that, it’s sign language, pointing, and hoping you don’t order something weird. But sometimes that works out wonderfully too.

| TOGETHER WITH

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| THINGS TO DO

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Get humbled by the Hagia Sophia

It’s likely you’ll spot the Hagia Sophia’s dome or one of its minarets from afar before you visit. Whatever you do, don’t leave Istanbul without going inside.


Built in 532 AD by Emperor Justinian as a Christian cathedral, the Hagia Sophia is staggering. Its construction is widely regarded as one of the most significant moments in architectural history, and it stood as the largest Christian cathedral for almost a thousand years. The sheer scale of the place is breathtaking, but the intricate details still somehow come out as the star.


The minarets were added by the Ottomans after they turned it into a mosque, and it became a museum in the early 20th century. It’s stood watch over the city for fifteen centuries and has been adapted to fit the desires of whichever ruler was in charge. The fact that it was built fifteen hundred years ago defies belief. 


Even today, it finds itself at the center of Turkish life. Recently, President Erdogan turned the site back into a mosque, enraging the EU-leaning less Islamic population, as well as UNESCO, while sparking celebration in the conservative Muslim demographic that he’s garnered the support of. 


Truly unmissable.

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Get your bartering hat on at the Grand Bazaar

One of the oldest and largest indoor markets in the world, vendors have been plying their wares in the Grand Bazaar since the 1400s. Today, it most definitely veers in the direction of tourist trap, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it.


As was the case with the Hagia Sophia, the scale of the bazaar is worth the visit alone. A vast labyrinth, getting lost is pretty much a part of the fun.


Despite literally thousands of vendors trying to chat you into a purchase, it never feels intimidating, like in some other markets. These guys are pros and have learned years ago that tourists are being taught not to trust them. In place of the sleazy salesman, jovial banter takes center stage, and you can’t help but enjoy the interactions.


Bartering is still a big part of the experience, but don’t be that tourist. Only haggle if you have the intention to buy, and don’t come in with wholly unreasonable offers. It’s these interactions that have prompted many of the vendors to slap permanent price tags on their goods.

Explore the city’s neighborhoods

Istanbul is made up of loads of amazing areas, unique in their own way, thanks to the ethnic groups that lived there (or still live there). Devote a little time to finding some of these lesser-known gems to help elevate your Istanbul experience.


Balat is an excellent place to start. Once the Jewish district, the area is now predominantly Muslim. It’s known for its colorful homes that zig-zag along cobbled streets, with some brilliant hole-in-the-wall Turkish eateries. It’s also the site of some controversial conversion projects, with some of the houses being converted into hip cafes and restaurants, pricing out many of the locals. Dig a little further, and you'll find a quieter side to Istanbul.


Kadikoy is found on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and highlights Istanbul’s changing landscape. While there are remnants of the Ottoman and Roman Empires, the main draw nowadays is the nightlife, restaurant, and cafe scene. It’s definitely worth an evening out or it can be combined with nearby Uskudar.


Sultanahmet is where you’ll spend a lot of time. It’s home to some of the biggest tourist draws, including the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the hippodrome, among others. It’s always busy. But why wouldn’t it be?

| WHERE TO STAY

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Ottoman splendor

Istanbul’s history lends to a stunning array of hotels and accommodations to choose from. Ultra-modern establishments are rocketing up on a regular basis, while quieter areas see Ottoman-era townhouses as a more traditional option.


Listing them all in one newsletter would be impossible, but here’s our pick of the bunch.

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Our Top Pick: The Pera Palace

Istanbul, Turkey
$$$ | See inside

Historic, luxurious, and an icon of the city. The Pera was originally built for passengers traveling on the famed Orient Express. Guests would be carried from the train to the hotel by Sedan Chair, before enjoying a decadent night in one of the finest digs in Istanbul.


It’s still a stunning hotel, with exceptional service down to the smallest detail of a cocktail, giving guests a taste of early 20th-century socialite life. To add some more romanticism, it’s also where Agatha Christie penned “Murder on the Orient Express,” and even Ernest Hemingway was a frequent guest.

Book Your Stay

Other Top Picks

| WHERE TO EAT

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Turkey by name, but not a bird in sight

Istanbul is an incredibly international city, so it’s pretty easy to stumble across anything your heart desires. But you’d be missing out if you didn’t gorge on some excellent Turkish food.


At the top of your list should be staples like kofte, grilled meatballs usually served with some vegetables, rice, or occasionally some flatbread. Another is Lahmacun, a cheap and tasty pizza-like meal. Normally a street food, roll it up, douse it in lemon, and enjoy. Don’t skimp on the doner, pide, borek, or kebaps either. Best of all, it’s pretty cheap when you get out of the tourist zones.

Our Top Pick: Tatbak

Istanbul, Turkey
$$$$$ Menu

Do the rounds of some of the quieter neighborhoods and find your favorite lahmacun and kebabs. Get used to the flavors, then try Tatbak’s take on them. They’ve been creating some of the best upscale iterations of Turkish food in the city since 1960, and their lahmacun is borderline divine. You won’t be sorry and definitely won’t be hungry when you leave.

Reserve a table

The Best of the Rest

| WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING IN ISTANBUL

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