With so many appealing options in Europe to choose from, you may be wondering, is Istanbul worth visiting? Here is a glimpse of this dazzling city and everything you need to know to make your visit to Istanbul worthwhile.
So, is Istanbul worth visiting? Without a doubt, this unique city connecting Europe and Asia is surely worth visiting. A historical capital of two great empires, Istanbul is rich in arts, culture, and cuisine. Today, as Turkey’s financial hub, Istanbul is a hotspot that has much to offer to its visitors.
So, what makes Istanbul worth visiting, apart from its unique strategic position as a political and commercial center? Let's take a look at the historical and cultural highlights of Istanbul.
Top Tourist Attractions That Make Istanbul Worth Visiting
This highly coveted city dates back to the 6th millennium BCE and was ruled by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Ottomans until it finally became a part of the Turkish republic. So, it is easy to see how this vibrant city got to be adorned by so many historical and cultural artifacts, rich in number and variety.
The world-famous Old City of Istanbul is mostly centered around the natural harbor known as the Golden Horn. The historical peninsula of Istanbul is as animated as any other region in the city, so a visit to the Old City is not only a historical tourist attraction but a full-on experience of living in this rather eclectic city.
The main tourist attractions in or near the Sultanahmet district that encompasses the Old City are Topkapı Palace, Ayasofya Mosque (formerly the Hagia Sophia Church and museum), The Blue Mosque, The Basilica Cistern, Istanbul Archaeology Museums, Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, the Kariye (Chora) Museum, and the famous Grand Bazaar and Spice Market.
These historical landmarks depict the magnificent journey the city has been on throughout the centuries, offering you a glimpse of life as it used to be.
But what makes your visit to Istanbul an exceptional experience is that, in most parts of the city, you can shop for local delicacies, enjoy the Turkish cuisine and the beautiful city view with a salty breeze while exploring the culture and history.
In Istanbul, you can immerse yourself in history, culture, music, arts, and nature without even noticing! This alone makes your visit to Istanbul worthwhile.
A Fusion of Ancient and Modern
Although the city is world-renowned for its historic architecture and museums, Istanbul also offers a feast of modern art for the curious eyes. Located right on the coast of the Bosphorus on an 8.000m2 site, Istanbul Modern, Turkey's first museum of modern and contemporary art, follows contemporary Turkish artists in a global vision.
Situated between the Karaköy and Beşiktaş districts of the city, Istanbul Modern is in a great location with a stunning sea view that might steal the show from the artwork exhibited there. You can either enjoy a quiet walk to Beşiktaş from the museum or hop on a bus to visit the Dolmabahçe Palace Museum and the Naval Museum situated on the banks of the Bosphorus.
There are also many contemporary art galleries and museums in and around the Beyoğlu area. After devouring the antiquities of the Old City, and the modern, fresh breeze of Istanbul Modern, you can take a quick, nostalgic trip to the heart of entertainment and culture using Tünel (The Tunnel).
This funicular railway is the second oldest subway in the world after London Underground – and yes, it's still working! Connecting Karaköy and Beyoğlu (formerly Pera), the tunnel opened in 1875, saving people from a walk up to the highly steep streets of Galata. This historic tunnel is one of many links in Istanbul that connect the old to new, traditional to modern, Eastern to Western, and local to global.
A Visit to the Heart of Istanbul: Beyoğlu
If Istanbul is the heart that connects the veins of culture and trade coming from the East and the West, the Taksim/Beyoğlu area is what keeps that heart beating. Beyoğlu is the best place where you can find a selection of galleries, museums, concert halls, theatres, bookshops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops as it is the center of culture, entertainment, social life, and nightlife in the city for centuries.
The Beyoğlu area is also host to the Galata Tower, which was once the tallest structure in the city. You can take an elevator to the top for a panoramic view of Istanbul and enjoy your dinner with live music and dance show in the upper floor restaurant within the tower. Alternatively, you can savor a cup of Turkish coffee in one of the artsy coffee shops under the tower.
The City That Never Sleeps
Istanbul, particularly the Beyoğlu district, is alive 24/7. You can taste delicious foods from traditional Turkish cuisine at any time of the day. But as this metropolitan is all-embracing in terms of cultures, lifestyles, and culinary experiences, you can appease any cravings that you might have here, from Sushi to quesadillas!
You'll definitely try the world-famous kebabs and baklava, but also give other local delicacies a try; you won't regret it!
You can also shop for souvenirs, clothes, shoes, and accessories throughout the city. You can even spare the day for sightseeing and shop later in the evening as Istanbul's shopping centers are open until 10:00 p.m.
Most shops on Istiklal Street are open till later at night, some even serving for 24 hours! You'll find that Turkey is great for shopping, especially due to the exchange rates in your favor.
Getting Around: An Adventure On Its Own
You can get on the historic red tram through Istiklal Street (the Grande Rue de Perain) to get some great pictures, although you're going to want to walk the streets once you set foot in Pera.
Or you can always use the modern subways that can get you almost anywhere in the city quickly with the new interconnected network of public transportation, connecting rail systems, buses, funiculars, and maritime services.
Boarding the ferry boats commuting between two continents, the two sides of the Golden Horn, as well as the Prince Islands (Adalar), is another must-have experience when you're visiting Istanbul. These cruises give you quite a spectacular view of both continents and a chance to take a sip of the famous Turkish tea as you sit back, relax, and refresh for this hectic city.
Taking a ferry from the European side, you can visit Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city to witness a breathtaking silhouette of Istanbul at sunset with the Maiden Tower at the forefront.
There are also boats that can take you to the Maiden's Tower rising from the middle of the sea to enjoy a fancy meal in the tower's restaurant where you will get your money's worth.
Üsküdar has many other attractions that will make your trip worthwhile, from visiting many historical mosques with great background stories, like the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque, to the waterfront Beylerbeyi Palace beautifully adorning the Bosphorus silhouette.
Kuzguncuk and Çengelköy are two lovely coastal neighborhoods worth visiting with their beautifully preserved historical texture and welcoming local ambiance. They are both photo-worthy, appealing to both the photography-enthusiast hipsters and the more traditional locals.
Kadıköy is another cultural center to visit on the Asian side of Istanbul with its own unique cultural texture and style. You can find various cultural events on both sides of the Bosphorus on a typical day in the city.
Where to Stay
The Sultanahmet area is the best choice for a first-time visit to Istanbul. And Acacia Mansion Hotel (link to see availability on Expedia) located there, in the Fatih district, is very close to sights like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Topkapı Palace. Most importantly, it presents its guests with the unique experience of staying in an old wooden Istanbul mansion.
The Beyoğlu area is definitely the second pick for those who want to enjoy the lively Istanbul. Ayramin Hotel Taksim (link to see availability on Expedia) in the area offers great value for its reasonable price. It's located at the heart of the busy area, so it's great for easy reach to all the city has got to offer. But it also has quiet rooms, which is hard to achieve.
Istanbul: A City Not to Be Missed
In Istanbul, you can experience the rich history and culture of the city alongside modern hotspots for travelers and locals alike. A European destination that is not to be missed whether you're a seasoned traveler or budget backpacker.
So, stop wondering if Istanbul is worth visiting, and book your ticket already!