With its millennia-spanning historical heritage, wide array of vibrant cultural offering, mouth-watering cuisine and breath-taking vistas, İstanbul is a destination guaranteed to inspire visitors from all walks of life. Let’s take a closer look at the city where cultures and continents unite.
As the capital city of some of history’s greatest empires, spanning the the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) and Ottoman eras, İstanbul has long served as a bustling crossroads combining contemporary culture and deep-rooted traditions. As one of the most happening locations in Europe, the city is a cultural hub drawing hipsters, culture-vultures and classicists alike. From art exhibits to cocktails, cutting-edge designers and live music, İstanbul is a fashion-savvy cultural hot-spot drawing inspiration from thousands of years of cultural heritage.
Oldies but Goldies
The best place to begin exploring this bustling treasure trove is undoubtedly the Historical Peninsula. The area served as the social and political centre of the Eastern Roman and Ottoman empires and is thus teeming with stunning architectural delights at every turn. Some of the must-see landmarks are within walking distance of each other – from the iconic domes of Hagia Sofia Grand Mosque to the grand minarets of area’s namesake Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque.
Meanwhile, the former residence of the Ottoman sultans, Topkapı Palace, gives visitors the chance to discover the splendour of the empire’s court and the mystical beauty of harem, the sovereign’s private chambers. You may want to take a break and grab a bite or have a refreshment in the restaurant within the palace, admiring the beautiful sea view.
Just a five-minute stroll from here takes you deep underground to the mystical 6th-century Basilica Cistern – an ancient heritage site that has served as the location to various Hollywood blockbusters, including 1963 Bond classic “From Russia with Love” and the 2016 Dan Brown adaptation “Inferno”, featuring Tom Hanks. The eerie beauty of this watery subterranean setting is bound to leave a lasting impression.
Glitzy Galata Neighborhood
Right across the Golden Horn waterway, one cannot fail to ignore the imposing Galata Tower. Constructed in 1348, the tower stood as the tallest structure in the city for most of its history. Today, it still offers an impressive 360-degree view of the metropolis and lies a stone’s throw away from Galata Mevlevihanesi, which has served as the site for Türkiye’s famous whirling dervishes to hold their Sema ceremonies since the 15th century here. Visitors can behold their spiritual display every Sunday. Upon exiting this mystical arena, you can quickly expect to be jolted into the hub of the city’s contemporary life, with a wide array of independent coffee shops, designer studios and art galleries lining the surrounding area’s cobbled streets.
Time to Unwind
With so many sights and sounds to see and hear as soon as you begin exploring this vibrant hub, you may soon find yourself in need of a little self-care. Luckily, help is at hand, as the city is replete with countless historical Turkish baths, or hamams. The ancient precursor to the modern spa break, Turkish baths offer a unique, traditional means to unwind. As a purification ritual that has been upheld for thousands of years, the baths are more than just a traditional way to get squeaky clean, but rather provide a natural tonic to the stress of modern life.
Men and women often have separate allotted times to visit the baths to surrender themselves to the expert hands of a hamam’s resident masseuse to leave everything behind. If you feel like it, you may want to test the acoustics of these steamy marble halls by singing a good song! At the end of the ritual, you can be sure to cap off the experience with an ice-cold beverage or a refreshing glass of Turkish tea.
A Thriving Capital of Art, Design and Culture
İstanbul is home to a constant flow of talented up-and-coming designers and artists. The city’s funky, contemporary side showcases amazing art and fashion, with a particular talent for object design works inspired of the heritage of a city that marries the contemporary and historical heritage of both Asia and Europe.
To see the works of Türkiye’s best contemporary artists, İstanbul Modern is the right place to start – but, upon your arrival, be sure to check out what’s currently on show elsewhere in the city, as İstanbul offers a year-long cycle of temporary art exhibits, film festivals, jazz showcases, performing arts and more. These events can be found all over the city, held in a range of settings, from contemporary galleries to thousand-year-old cathedrals.
In addition to classical settings, such as the Topkapı and Dolmabahçe palaces, new-age museums have started popping up at every corner. Amongst these, Masumiyet Müzesi (the Museum of Innocence) provides a literary journey through the city’s modern history. Meanwhile, the İstanbul Toy Museum offers a glimpse of the city through the eyes of its children spanning generations.
If you are lucky enough to have your trip coincide with the prestigious İstanbul Biennial, which occurs every two years, you can look forward to a bevy of art exhibits from new and up-coming artists across the city. Art aficionados will also enjoy the annual Contemporary İstanbul, which offers a hub of works at an event eagerly attended by artists, curators and culture buffs alike.
Explore the Neighbourhood
Each and every neighbourhood in İstanbul has its own specific charm, with Karaköy and Moda spilling over with trendy bars, cafes and restaurants; Balat and Fener full of historical charm; and Şişli and Nişantaşı offering a wealth of shopping opportunities. Take a day to get off the tourist trail and explore the main markets, vintage stores, antique shops and artisan studios in these and other unique areas. You may choose between the traditional coffee places selling Turkish coffee and tea, and hyper-cool, brand-new micro coffee roasters offering flat whites and cold brews.
Upscale and Trendy
Many of the age-old former fishing villages lining the shores of the Bosphorus have since become trendy neighbourhoods where İstanbul society goes to see and be seen. Arnavutköy, Kuruçeşme and Bebek, famed for their sumptuous array of Ottoman-era seafront mansions, are now home to elegant cocktail bars and gastro pubs. While in the day these picturesque locales offer an array of chill-out opportunities and a host of dining spots, at night, they transform into pumping party districts.
A Slice of Country Life
İstanbul’s delights are far from limited to the banks of the Bosphorus. A pleasant ferry ride takes visitors to the Princes’ Islands – long admired by residents as a wistful escape from city life. On a clear day visible from the coast in the Marmara Sea, the Princes’ Islands consist of a cluster of nine small islands that have been visited by a remarkable line-up of historical figures.
Visitors can enjoy walking the cobblestone streets lined with historical mansions with mimosas, bougainvillea and other colourful flowers, free from the hustle and bustle of the city, before giving into the temptation of the family-run seafood restaurants and cafes lining the waterfronts.
Don’t forget to take your bathing suit with you, as this is the best place to enjoy the Marmara Sea in all its glory to cap off your trip!
MICHELIN Guide’s New Destination
Throughout history, İstanbul has been the center of gastronomic traditions that span continents, also the birthplace of palace cuisines. Now, selected as the 38th destination of MICHELIN Guide İstanbul 2023 and its exceptional kitchens are preparing to proudly showcase their culinary talents with its 53 restaurants selected in the guide.
The selection of the restaurants was just announced on October 11, 2022; perfect timing to discover these restaurants that are ready to take gastro tourists on a journey through flavour, aroma, culture and time.
The selection of the MICHELIN Guide Istanbul 2023 at a glance
53 restaurants selected:
- 1 restaurant with Two MICHELIN Stars: TURK Fatih Tutak
- 4 restaurants with One MICHELIN Star: Araka, Mikla, Neolokal, Nicole
- 1 restaurant with a MICHELIN Green Star: Neolokal
- 10 Bib Gourmand restaurants
- 38 recommended restaurants
Click here to learn more about İstanbul’s top rated restaurants.