Fun fact: Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents; Europe and Asia. And with ancient history to rival the likes of Rome, world-class attractions and an ambient atmosphere, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe.
This epicenter of European and Middle Eastern culture has been gaining popularity over the past decade, mainly because there is something for every type of traveler.
A study by Istanbul Convention & Visitors Bureau showed that between 2000 and 2013 approximately 10 and half million international visitors came to Istanbul. But in 2014 – between the months of January and October alone – 10,142,888 people had already visited the city.
A little history lesson:
There is a lot of history surrounding Istanbul. Evidence has shown that human settlement here could have dated back as far as 3000 BC. Greek colonialists built the first official city in the 7th century BC, calling it Byzantium after King Byzas. It then was in possession of many empires at different stages throughout history including the Roman Empire – to which it became the capital of in 330 AD and renamed it Constantinople – and Byzantine Empire before the Ottoman Turks took over in 1453.
Sultan Mehmed II, leader of the Ottomans wanted to rejuvenate the city and envisioned Istanbul as a multi-cultural populace. He brought in Muslim, Christian and Jewish families as well as allowing the fleeing Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents back.
Being a lover of history, food, shopping and colour, Istanbul ticked all the boxes for me. With doner kebabs here, an array of bazaars there and beautiful mosques here, there and everywhere, I was happier than Old McDonald on his farm.
The Turkish people are very friendly and a majority will speak English. Just be wary of market stall owners trying to overcharge you and remember haggling is accepted there.
But do you want to know my favourite things about Istanbul?
I thought you’d never ask…
This 1500-year-old church turned mosque turned museum perfectly encapsulates the changing cultures of Istanbul. See Christian artworks alongside Islamic calligraphy and it was recently voted the 10th best travel sight IN THE WORLD. No biggy.
“Like the beautiful city in which it stands, Aya Sofya represents a unique crossroads of continents and faiths,” wrote Lonely Planet.
The most beautiful of the 3,000+ mosques around the city, the stunning ceramic art inside had my jaw dragging on the Turkish carpet.
Where to shop: Grand Bazaar
Visit one of the oldest and largest undercover markets in the world with around 5,000 shops.
Where to find history: Valens Aqueduct or Walls of Constantinople
Drive under the aqueduct dating back to 360AD or walk the 5th century Walls, breached only twice in 1600 years.
What to eat: Turkish delight
If you’re a sweet tooth like me, then you will fall in love with this traditional delicacy. Made differently to what we would get back home, my favorite flavor was the pomegranate and pistachio. Yum! The Egyptian Bazaar (or Spice Bazaar) is the best place to buy these and definitely worth a look.
Where to stay: Sultanahmet – Old City district
This area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985 and is within walking distance of most famous attractions.
Best panoramic view: Galata Tower
Sat on a hill overlooking the city, the tower is a great spot for some Instagram worthy photos.
A little ways out of the centre, take in views of the Golden Horn and surrounding neighbourhoods while enjoying traditional Turkish food.
Best place to people-watch: Galata Bridge
Watch the local’s fish off the famous bridge.
Best place to get lost in: Fener-Balat quarter
The most historic part of Istanbul only attracts 1% of all tourists meaning it is completely off the beaten path. In Balat (Jewish quarter) and Fener (Greek neighbourhood), find odd shaped and colourful buildings and kids playing soccer in the narrow streets. Just don’t get too lost.