1. Topkapi Palace
The primary residence of the Ottoman sultans from 1465–1856, this palace complex is a major attraction for its holy relics—including Muhammad’s cloak, sword and footprint—the palace treasury, and the Imperial Harem which housed the sultan’s family and concubines.
Tip: Allot a half day to explore all of the buildings and courtyards of this gorgeous, expansive complex.
2. Hagia Sophia
Once a Greek Orthodox church, then a mosque, and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia features a domed roof, lovely chandeliers, and a mix of Christian and Islamic symbols: large round medallions display the names of Allah, Muhammad and others in Arabic script while gold mosaics feature Mary and Jesus. At the Sultan’s Tombs, you’ll see replicas of 16-century tiles, purportedly stolen and now on display at the Louvre.
Tip: The line can get really long. If offered to join a tour while standing in line, do it. It’s worth the price. You’ll skip the line, get out of the heat and learn a lot about the vast history of this important building.
3. Istiklal Street
This long, crowded pedestrian-only street is full of shops and cafes with bars and restaurants found off side streets. Colorful strings of lights light up the night and street vendors sell roasted chestnuts. At one end of the street is the famous Taksim Square and Monument of the Republic, a common although illegal place for public protests.
Tip: Try the stuffed grape leaves at the Beyoglu Hulk Doner Restaurant.
4. Grand Bazaar
Covered and crowded with thousands of shops, the Grand Bazaar is great for souvenir shopping and practicing your haggling skills.
Tip: Visit Nick’s Calligraphy for a truly special souvenir. His dried leaves with hand-painted calligraphy are often given as gifts to heads of state. You’ll find pictures of his most famous clients—including Hillary Clinton—hanging in his shop. Choose from Christian, Jewish or Islamic inscriptions. Visit www.nickscalligraphy.com for more information.
5. Blue Mosque
It’s hard to ignore this spaceship-looking mosque with six minarets that’s right in front of the Hagia Sophia. Inside, the mosque is intricately detailed with stained glass and traditional blue and white Iznik tiles.
Tip: You can enter the mosque for free, except during prayer. The line is long but fast-moving and scarves will be distributed at the entrance so ladies can cover their neck and hair, or arms and legs if not dressed conservatively. Donations are requested at the exit.
6. Bosphorus Strait
Take a 2-hour boat ride up the Bosphorus, one of the world’s busiest waterways. You’ll ride by palaces, mosques and forts and see Istanbul from a new perspective.
Tip: There are multiple tour companies and options. Don’t feel pressured to “buy now” from the salesman in touristy areas.
7. Asian Side
Take a short ferry across the Bosphorus and land in a new continent: Istanbul exists in both Europe and Asia! On the Asian side, explore the spice market.
Tip: Tour the Maiden’s Tower (also known as Leander’s Tower) in the middle of the Bosphorus. Its construction is shrouded in mystery and attached to several interesting legends.