City Guide to Istanbul, Part 4: Sightseeing Itinerary

City Guide to Istanbul, Part 4: Sightseeing Itinerary

Disclosure: We may receive a commission for links on our blog. You don’t have to use our links, but we’re very appreciative when you do. Thanks again for your support, we hope you find our posts and information helpful!


This is part three of a multiple part series in our City Guide to Istanbul. Don’t miss part one, two and three!

Istanbul is a place that we highly recommend taking some extra time to see and experience. For us, it was worth spending extra time just exploring the city and walking around because Istanbul is so different from most places we’ve been. We spent time walking from destination to destination, but also exploring different neighborhoods. Beyond wandering and exploration, there are plenty of attractions that you’re going to want to see while there. If you’re like us, you don’t want to show up and then figure out what there’s to see and do. Instead, we prefer planning our itinerary in advance so that we make the most of our time in a place. Istanbul was no different.

Clockwise (from the top): Tourist directional sign in Sultanahmet Square, looking down the promonade to Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in the distance, panoramic view at sunset, looking out and seeing the population density of the city.

So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Istanbul (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our itinerary with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.

 
 

NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. Prices given are in US dollars and have been converted from Turkish Lira at the conversion rate valid at the time. We did our best to find opening hours, however it was challenging for many of the attractions. That being said, feel free to save the map to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly), for planning out your personalized itinerary in Istanbul. 

Sightseeing in Istanbul, Day 1

Hagia Sophia Museum

Clockwise: Intricate mosaic work that has been uncovered, cats are everywhere in Istanbul - even inside the Hagia Sophia, an ablution fountain in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia, the view from the second floor of the Hagia Sophia.

Start your day with one of the most popular attractions. Not only will this set an amazing tone for the rest of your sightseeing, but being here, first thing in the morning, will grant you access to a stunning building before hundreds of other people crowd inside. Located in the heart of old Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia, built in 537 BCE, was originally a Greek Orthodox Christian Basilica. After 916 years as a church, it was converted to an Imperial Mosque. In 1935, it was converted into a museum.

Exterior of the Hagia Sophia.

As you walk around, especially on the second floor, you’ll notice the intricate mosaic Christian artwork. Look carefully, and in some areas you’ll be able to see where they were plastered over when it was converted into a mosque. Take a moment to gaze in awe at the size of the dome, as it’s the second largest in the world, a close runner up to the Pantheon in Rome. As you admire the Byzantine art and architecture, it’s interesting to note that, while Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris took over a century to build, the Hagia Sophia was completed in less than six-years. It’s said that over 10,000 men worked on the construction. Before leaving, look for the “Wishing Column” in the northwest part of the museum. It’s partially covered in bronze plates and has a hole in it at about eye level. It’s also known as the perspiring column, as it’s wet to the touch. Legend has it, that if you put your finger into the hole and then, with the same finger, rub the place on the body that needs healing, the column will have a healing effect. Another legend describes the dampness of the column as a tear from the Virgin Mary.

 

The Hagia Sophia was one of the most beautiful and breath taking buildings we've seen on this entire trip!

 

Sultanahmet Square

After visiting the Hagia Sophia, you’ll want to make your way back towards the entrance. If you look across the square, you won’t be able to miss the Blue Mosque. To get there, you’ll need to cross through Sultanahmet Square. It’s a beautiful picture worthy square, with great views on both sides. In one direction is the Hagia Sophia, and in the other is the Blue Mosque. The fountain and well-manicured garden make for a nice walk. And to imagine, this central square in Istanbul was once the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the sporting and social center of the Byzantine Empire.

 

All images are taken in Sultanahmet Sqaure. Top to bottom: Shannon with the Blue Mosque in the background, fountain and the Hagia Sophia in the background, Sergio with the Blue Mosque in the background.

 

The Blue Mosque

The exterior and interior of the Blue Mosque.

This world famous mosque, also known as Sultanahmet Mosque, will probably be a highlight of your visit to Istanbul. It’s known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that adorn the interior of the building. Built between 1609 and 1616, the mosque has five main domes, eight secondary domes, six minarets, 260 stained glass windows, and lined with over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles. As you explore the city, you may notice that other mosques have four or fewer minarets. Story has it that Sultan Ahmet, the Sultan who commissioned the construction of the mosque, asked for gold (altin in Turkish) minarets. The architect misunderstood and built six (alti in Turkish) minarets. This became a point of concern because the Mecca Mosque (Al-Masjid al-Haram) also had six minarets. The dilemma was finally resolved by adding an additional minaret to the holy Mecca Mosque.

To enter the mosque, follow the signs for the visitor’s entrance, which will be through the courtyard, on the south (rear) of the building. During our visit there was an attendant handing out head scarfs and skirts for women who needed them. Before entering, remove your shoes and place them in a clear plastic bag (available near the entrance). Take your shoes with you or place them in the cubbies inside the mosque.

 

Clockwise: The ceiling of the Blue Mosque, the exterior and side of the Blue Mosque taken from the courtyard, a panoramic of the courtyard, us inside the Blue Mosque.

 

Obelisk of Theodosius

To the west of the Blue Mosque is the Obelisk of Theodosius. Considered the oldest monument of Constantinople, the obelisk was placed on the longitudinal center of the Hippodrome in 390 CE by Emperor Theodosius I. However, the red granite obelisk dates back to between 1500-1400 BCE, as it was originally made for Thutmose III and erected near the Temple of Karnak. Between the time that it was taken down, transported down the Nile to Alexandria, and then transferred to Constantinople, where it resides today, part of the 28 meter tall stone went missing, leaving it at its current 19.5 meter height.

Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts

Top to bottom: Interior of the Basilica Cistern, the Obelisk of Theodosius, the exterior of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

Directly across from the Blue Mosque and on the other side of the Obelisk of Theodosius is the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. The building, formerly the palace of Pargali Ibrahim Pasha, houses a collection of Turkish rugs (over 1,700), Islamic calligraphy, Quran’s, manuscripts, metalwork, glasswork, and other Turkish art. The museum is well curated, giving a glimpse into Turkish history through its art.

Basilica Cistern

Head north through the Sultanahmet District and just southwest of the Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. Once the site of a basilica, the cistern is also known as the Yerebatan Cistern because of its underground marble columns. Built in 532 CE, it’s the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Held by 336 columns, it’s estimated to be able to store 100,000 tons of water. The size, the sights, and the history of this cistern make this a must see. Don’t miss the two medusa heads at the northwest side of the cistern, used to support the columns, and the legend that follows

Gülhane Park

Gülhane Park was a beautiful park, especially during the Istanbul Tulip Festival!

A short walk north will bring you to one of the most beautiful parks we’ve seen on our travels. This may be because we visited during the Istanbul Tulip Festival, where the government plants over 10 million tulips throughout the city. On our visit, the garden was artfully designed with thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of tulips throughout the large park. If your timing doesn’t coincide with the April planting of tulips, this park is still a well-manicured park with water fountains and a playground that’s worth a visit. The park was originally the outer gardens of Topkapi Palace and only accessible by the royal court. Now, the garden has been opened to the public and is commonly used by residents. If you make your way to the park from the Basilica Cistern, you’ll enter through the south entrance on Alemdar Caddesi, and you’ll pass through the large archway which used to be a palace gate. Here, you’ll also find the Column of the Goths, an 18.5 meter monolith from the 3rd or 4th century CE.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums

After walking through the park, make your way back towards the south entrance of the park. Before you exit, notice the elevated path to the east (most likely to your left). Follow this path to make your way through the gates to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. Within the museum there are three main collections:

  • Museum of the Ancient Orient – After entering the complex, it’s located on the left. It houses a collection of pre-Islamic Egypt, pre-Greek Anatolia, and Mesopotamia items from the Ottoman Empire.
  • Archaeology Museum – Located opposite the Museum of the Ancient Orient, it houses an exhibit on Istanbul’s history, a sarcophagi collection, and a statuary collection.
  • Tiled Pavilion – Features a collection of Seljuk, Anatolian and Ottoman tiles, and ceramics dating from the 12th century.

The vastness of the collections, the history they span, and the quality of their display make this trio of an archaeology museum worth visiting.

Topkapi Palace Museum

A short walk continuing up the hill is Topkapi Palace. Built between 1466 and 1478, the palace was the political center of the Ottoman Empire. Over the years, through each sultan, new sections and halls were added onto the palace, making it the palace it is today. It was converted to a museum in 1924 and offers over 80,000 objects to view. The museum is divided into several courtyards, the Treasury, and the Harem. Just walking up to the palace will give you an impressive view, with the large imposing gate, the Imperial Gate. The views inside the courtyards are captivating and the interior gives a glimpse into the royal lifestyle of the Ottoman Sultans that ruled for 400 years. If you want even more history, don’t miss the History Channels’ Museum Secrets episode on Topkapi Palace. For more information, including visiting hours and admission prices, check the museum’s visiting information.

Kennedy Avenue

Street vendors are everywhere! Be sure to try the corn and roasted chestnuts. You may even be beckoned into a shop for baklava.

If you’re up for it, exit Topkapi Palace and make your way southeast towards Kennedy Avenue. The road is named after John F. Kennedy, the 35th United States President, and follows the path of the old sea walls of the city. It’s a pleasant stroll along the Bosphorus and a great way to experience this part of the city. Who knows, it may even be time for a snack from the street vendors. By now, you’ve no doubt seen dozens of carts selling grilled corn and roasted chestnuts. They’re cheap and ohhh so yummy!

Little Hagia Sophia

Follow Kennedy Avenue south until you make it to the last stop of the day, Little Hagia Sophia (Küçük Ayasofya Camii). Originally built in the 530’s CE as the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a Greek Eastern Orthodox church. It was converted to a mosque at the turn of the 16th century. It's called the Little Hagia Sophia because it’s suggested it was likely a model for the Hagia Sophia. The mosque was completely restored in 2007 and looks almost new, but unfortunately, the restoration efforts had an impact and it lost some of the ornate decoration it once had. While visiting, make sure you pay close attention to the intricately carved marble columns, they’re quite beautiful.

Clockwise: The Imperial Gate to enter Topkapi Palace, the Little Hagia Sophia, the gate and security checkpoint to enter the Topkapi Palace grounds.

Sightseeing in Istanbul, Day 2

Fatih Mosque and Complex

We start the day off with the Fatih Mosque and Complex, which was named for the Ottoman conqueror of Istanbul, Sultan Fatih Mehmet. The complex was built between 1462 and 1470 on the highest hill in Istanbul. Legend has is it that Sultan Mehmet aspired to build the mosque to have more grandeur than the Hagia Sophia. So, when the architect, Atik Sinan, was unable to build the mosque as tall as the Hagia Sophia, his hands were cut off. The original mosque complex was extremely large, including a hospital, several hamams (Turkish Baths), a market, a caravanseri (an inn for travelers to rest and recover from the day’s journey), and a school that could hold up to 1,000 students at once. Many of these establishments still stand. Sadly, the original mosque was destroyed in an earthquake in 1771, although the mihrab (prayer niche), schools, and inner courtyard survived and can still be seen. Also of note is the lower parts of the minarets that are original, and the column pieces and stone blocks in the foundation that were reused from the Church of the Holy Apostles that stood on the ground before the Mosque complex was built. The tomb of Mehmet II and his wife are also on the grounds of the complex. If your sightseeing schedule permits it, visit on a Wednesday, as there’s a busy street market with food, clothing, and household goods held on the grounds.

Valens Aqueduct

Walk southeast from the Fatih Mosque and Complex to find the Valens Aqueduct. It runs between the two hills where the Fatih Mosque sits on one side and Istanbul University sits on the other. It’s thought that the aqueducts were built during the late Roman and early Byzantine era and exceeded 1,000 meters in length. During the sixth century, the aqueduct was used to transfer water to the palaces, the Ahilleus bath, and the cistern. Sadly, much of the Valens Aqueduct has been destroyed, and only the section at Atatürk Boulevard survives today.

Beyazıt Square and Beyazid Mosque.

Continue southeast down Sehzadebasi Avenue, passing the Valens Aqueduct and Istanbul University. At the end of the street you’ll come to Beyazıt Square, named after the Beyazıd Mosque, but officially called Freedom Square (Hürriyet Meydanı). From the square, you can see the main university entrance and gates, and the Beyazıt tower on the university campus. Visit the Beyazid Mosque, which has an interior that’s designed after the Hagia Sophia.

 

Clockwise (from the top): Beyazıt Square and the entrance to Istanbul University, interior of the Fatih Mosque, courtyard of the Fatih Mosque, Valens Aquaduct, The Conqueror´s Monument in Fatih Anit Park that's in front of Valens Aquaduct.

 

Grand Bazaar

Just east of Beyazıt Square is the Grand Bazaar. To get the full effect you’ll want to see it with crowds of people, however, be careful of your belongings and secure your pockets. Also, when we entered, we had to pass through a security check point with a guard and metal detectors.

The Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world, established in 1461 after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The market has 60 streets, over 4,000 shops and has between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors a day. While you probably won’t be able to explore the whole market because of is size, the sights, sounds, and smells are invigorating. You’ll have vendors asking you to visit their shops, samples of delightful sweets, and plenty of fabric and clothing shops. There isn’t much you can’t find here, but don’t forget to bargain on the prices!

 

The Grand Bazaar has everything from candies and spices, to leather and clothing. Remember, don't forget to negotiate the price!

 

Nuruosmaniye Mosque

Near the intersection of Nuru Osmaniye and Nuruosmaniye and the entrance/exit of the Grand Bazaar is the Nurousmaniye Mosque, meaning ‘The Light of Osman’. Built in the 17th century on one of Istanbul’s seven hills, this mosque is a fantastic example of Baroque and Rococo style architecture.

 

All images are of the Nuruosmaniye Mosque. Left to Right: From the entrance looking into the mosque, the exterior of the mosque with the Turkish flag, the impressive marble entryway to the courtyard.

 

Süleymaniye Mosque

All images taken at Süleymaniye Mosque. Top to bottom: The Bosphorus from the rear of the mosque, the grass and pathways behind the mosque, looking out over the wall to the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, the rear exterior of the mosque.

If you have the feeling that you’ve been to too many mosques, hold that back for a moment. The Süleymaniye Mosque is one that needs to be on your ‘must-see’ list. The grounds of the mosque are beautiful, with gardens and walkways that leave you feeling serene. This alone is worth a visit, however, step through the gate towards the north side and you’ll be presented with a view that will take your breath away. Have your camera with you to take pictures of the Golden Horn feeding into the Bosphorus, and the city and skyline across the water way that's scattered with hundreds of mosques and their minarets reaching into the sky.

The Süleymaniye Mosque was built on one of the seven hills of Istanbul between 1550 and 1557 and has become a landmark. Over the years, multiple fires have damaged the mosque. Most interestingly, during World War I, the courtyard was used as a weapons depot and a fire broke out when ammunition ignited. The mosque completed its most recent restoration in 2010, and during our visit, work on the gardens and surrounding streets was being performed. During your visit, with a donation, you can see the tombs of Sultan Süleyman and his Sultana Roxelana, in the garden behind the mosque.

 

All images are of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Left to right: Front of the mosque from the gardens, the pathway leading to the mosque, Sergio in the courtyard, the interior of the mosque.

 

Rüstem Pasha Mosque

Head east and towards the Golden Horn to visit the Rüstem Pasha Mosque. We recommend visiting to see the ornate, Iznik faience (colored tiles) work both inside and outside of this mosque. It’s often described as the miniature version of the Blue Mosque, but without the crowds. Finding the entrance was a challenge but after a fair bit of searching, we were successful. To make things much easier for your adventure we’re making the GPS coordinates (41.017604 N, 28.968361 E) and address available, (Hasırcılar Cd. No:90, Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, 34116 Fatih/Istanbul).

Spice Bazaar

You’ve already seen the Grand Bazaar, but your time in Istanbul won’t be complete without experiencing the vibrant colors of the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı). It was built in 1664, originally as part of the New Mosque (Yeni Camii) complex. Here you can find just about any spice there is. During our visit, we found vendors who were ready to help us find whatever we desired, but naturally, due to the language barrier, we used our phone extensively for translating.

New Mosque

Only a short distance from the Spice Bazaar is the New Mosque (Yeni Camii). While it’s not exactly new, it was built in 1663, it's an Ottoman Imperial Mosque. Located on the Golden Horn and near Galata bridge, the New Mosque is a defining building that Istanbul’s skyline has become known for. Which is, of course, no surprise, as the mosque has 66 domes and semi domes, and a beautiful courtyard. Like many of the other mosques in Istanbul, the interior of the New Mosque is decorated with gold, marble columns, and blue, green, and white Iznik tiles.

Galata Bridge

From the New Mosque you’ll be able to see the famous Galata Bridge, which has been featured in Turkish literature, theater, and poetry. Being on it is a great way to get a view of the city. However, it’s also a popular place to fish, so it’ll be difficult to get a picture without fishing lines in it. It’s a double decker bridge, the top for fishing, street vendors, and vehicle traffic, the bottom for restaurants and cafes. If you’ve worked up an appetite and are ready for food, this would be a good place with a great view to stop and get a meal. However, if you’re looking for great views and pictures, we recommend viewing the bridge while from the water…

 

Clockwise (from the top): The New Mosque seen from the Golden Horn, Galata Bridge, spices at the Spice Bazaar.

 

Şehir Hatları Bosphorus

Şehir Hatları Bosphorus is the official cruise company of Istanbul, although you can find cruises with other reputable companies that leave on a regular basis throughout the day. A word of caution, if you’re walking the docks and/or are along the waterfront, there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be approached by men who’ll offer you a cruise on their boat. We recommend kindly declining these options and instead going with a large reputable company.

Şehir Hatları Bosphorus offers three different cruises: a full day cruise (approximately six hours), a short cruise (approximately two hours), and a Moonlight evening cruise (approximately six hours). For us, the short cruise was perfect. The two hours covered the main part of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus that we wanted to see. An added bonus was that it was also inexpensive, only ₺12 per person (that was about $3.50 US dollars when we visited). The short cruise leaves daily at 2:30 pm, however the availability varies by season, so check the timetables online ahead of time. Check information on the Full Cruise and prices on their website.

During our visit, Şehir Hatları Bosphorus was unfortunately closed. Luckily, we were able to find a reputable company very close to the ticketing office of Şehir Hatları Bosphorus. The cruise we took departed once an hour and we only had to wait about 30 minutes for the next cruise. Once on board, we were surprised that the boat was about 75% full at 1 pm during midweek. Also, if you’re a bit hungry, they have traditional Turkish drinks and snacks available during the cruise.

While on the cruise, you’ll be able to see the hills of Istanbul and really get a sense for Istanbul’s sheer size and immense population density. The skyline is quite unique, especially for Westerners, since the skyline is dotted with minarets and domes of mosques, architecture that's not as common in the US. Along the water, you’ll be able to see many of Istanbul’s attractions (labeled with orange camera icons on the provided Google map above).

  • Galata Bridge – Views of Galata Bridge from the Golden Horn.
  • Golden Horn Metro Bridge (Haliç Metro Bridge) – A cable suspension bridge crossing for the M2 metro line. West of Galata Bridge.
  • Maiden's Tower (Kizkulesi Tower) – Spot Maiden’s Tower by looking to the east as the cruise enters the Bosphorus and turns to the north. Legend is that an Emperor heard his daughter would die at the age of 18 by a snake bite. To protect her, he built the tower on a rock in the Bosphorus and locked her in it. She wasn’t safe though, a snake managed to hide in a fruit basket that was brought to her, and she subsequently died from its bite. The tower was built in the fifth century and used for surveillance of the waterway. A chain connected from land was pulled tight to create a checkpoint for passing ships. It has since been used as a lighthouse, a control tower, and in 1998 it became a restaurant. You may recognize the tower from the James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough, the film Hitman, a point on The Amazing Race 7, or from the video game Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. If seeing the tower from the cruise isn’t enough, there are shuttle boats you can catch from both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.
 

Clockwise (from the top): Cruise boat on the Bosphorus, us on the cruise, view of the Bosphorus, Maiden's Tower.

 
  • Çırağan Palace – You’ll see the palace on the west side of the waterway. It was built by Sultan Abdülâziz between 1863 and 1867, when the tradition was still for sultans to build their own palace rather than inheriting them from previous sultans. This palace is the last example of this tradition, as it was used for over 100 years by the ruling sultan. After all of it, except for the outer walls, were destroyed in a fire in 1910, it was used as a football stadium for the Besiktas J.K.. In 1989 it was converted into a hotel and at present it’s considered to be one of the world’s most expensive luxury hotels.
  • Ortaköy Mosque – Also on the west bank, just before the Bosphorus Bridge, you’ll see Ortaköy Mosque, which was built in 1855. Located on the water’s edge, with an ornate exterior and large windows, it’s certainly a sight to capture on ‘film’.
  • Bosphorus Bridge – In the back drop of the Ortaköy Mosque is the large gravity-anchored suspension bridge that spans the Bosphorus and connects Europe with Asia. It’s a sight to see, and to pass under!
 

Clockwise (from the top): Ortaköy Mosque, under the Bosphorus Bridge, Çırağan Palace.

 
  • Beylerbeyi Palace – On the eastern, Asian side, you’ll easily be able to spot Beylerbeyi Palace, that was built in 1865. By the edge of the water you can see the marble bathing pavilions, one for men and one for women. The palace, in it’s French Neo-Baroque style was home to foreign dignitaries and an imperial summer residence. From the water you’ll be able to see the white marble exterior, however, if you wish to see the ornate interior and gardens of the palace, tours are available. For photographers, note that pictures aren’t allowed inside the building.
  • Rumeli Fortress – Look to the western, European side on the Bosphorus and you’ll lay eyes on Rumeli Fortress. The old stone walls and towers are hard to miss, and you can almost imagine what it looked like hundreds of years ago without the motorway passing by. Amazingly, this fortress was built by Mehmet the Conqueror in only four months. It’s purpose was to play a role in the final attack on Constaninople, leading to the downfall of the Byzantine Empire. Look around and you may notice that it’s built on the narrowest part of the Bosphorous. Today, Rumeli Fortress is open to the public as an open air museum.
 

Top to bottom: Beylerbeyi Palace, Rumeli Fortress, Beylerbeyi Mosque.

 

Sightseeing in Istanbul, Day 3

Galata Tower

We start the day with a popular tourist destination, Galata tower. This is a great spot for looking out over the city, so we recommend doing it on a clear morning if possible. You may even consider waiting until the morning fog has burned off to get better views; however, the tradeoff will be larger crowds and possibly a line to enter.

 

Clockwise (from the top): View of Galata Tower from across the Golden Horn, Galata Tower with the Turkish Flag, view of Galata Twoer up close.

 

Originally named the Tower of Christ, it was built in 1348 and reaches a height of 220 feet. The tower, with 12 foot thick walls, was built as part of the fortification of the city walls surrounding the expanding Genoese colony, called Galata. The tower was used for surveillance of the harbor and later as a lookout for fires in the city. The balcony offers 360º views of the city and can be reached by elevator, although, a flight of stairs must also be climbed to reach the top. 

İstiklal Avenue

Also known as İstiklal Caddesi in Turkish, or Independence Street in English, this is the busiest street in Istanbul. It’s estimated that three-million people (yes, you read the right, THREE MILLION PEOPLE) walk this street each day.  At the south end of the street is the Galata District and Galata tower. At the north end of the street is the famed Taksim Square. During the Ottoman period it was known as the Grand Rue de Pera and was predominately used by French Levantines. It attracted intellectuals, gaining the reputation as 'Paris of the East'.

We recommend walking the street to fully take in the experience of the Neo Classical and Art Nouveau architecture, cafes, cinemas, boutiques, and art galleries. A walk, without any stops or detours, down İstiklal Avenue takes about 20 minutes. You may also choose to take the classic red Heritage Tram/Streetcar (Nostaljik Tramvay) that runs alongside pedestrians and has stops all along the avenue. While on İstiklal Avenue, keep an eye out for:

Clockwise (from the top): İstiklal Avenue, looking down a side street, inside the Church of St. Anthony of Padua.

  • Hazzopulo Passage – a historical passage that was restored in 2002. You’ll recognize it by the hanging vines and branches overhead and the cobble stone path below. This shopping arcade off of İstiklal Avenue was opened in 1871 and today you can find second hand books, jewelry, and other goods here.
  • Çiçek Pasajı – Also known as the Flower Passage, this beautiful shopping arcade was once home to many florist shops. It’s now home to upscale restaurants, and it’s European design and glass canopy ceiling make for a very pretty atmosphere. This historic passage connects İstiklal Avenue with Sahne Street.
  • Church of St. Anthony of Padua – Also known as St. Antoine Church or Sent Antuan Kilisesi. It’s the largest Catholic Church in Istanbul, and is built in a Neo-Gothic style that can be admired just off of İstiklal Avenue.
  • Galatasaray Square – This square is hard to miss, as you’ll spot the towering, ornate wrought-iron gate midway on İstiklal Avenue.
  • Arter – An art gallery known for contemporary local and international art. Known to feature installation, video, painting, and sculpture artwork. It can be found near the Russian Consulate.
  • Atlas Sinemasi – This cinema, opened in 1948, plays a mix of Turkish and American films. It can be found in the indoor arcade Atlas Pasaji, and is recognized from the street by the display of hanging movie posters.
  • Markiz Pastanesi Cake Shop – This cake shop was established in 1940, and while it was closed in 1977, it was restored and reopened in 2003. The ownership and name has changed (now a fast food restaurant), but the beautiful interior décor, including the Art Noveau Faïence panels, remain. Find it opposite the Hotel Richmond and the Russian Consulate.

Taksim Square

The end of your walk on İstiklal Avenue, will end at Taksim Square, a famous public square with an assortment of restaurants, cafes, shopping, and a central metro station. The square is known as a primary venue for political demonstrations over the last century. It’s also a meeting place for celebrations, parades, concerts, and other public events. Walk around the busy square and you’ll see the Independence Monument (Istiklal Aniti in Turkish). It celebrates the fifth anniversary of the Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923.

Dolmabahçe Palace

From Taksim Square, continue your walk downhill and towards the Bosphorus to Dolmabahçe Palace. Replacing a structure made of wood, the current palace was completed in 1856 and the complex included sixteen buildings. It served as home to the last six sultans of the Ottoman Empire. You likely saw this opulent palace on the Bosphorus Cruise. We think it’s worth a visit inside. The visit will begin with the entrance through the ornate Imperial Gate that leads to the beautiful clock tower inside. To understand the magnitude of this palace, it may be interesting to know that there are 285 rooms and 6 Turkish baths. To decorate the palace, 14 tons of gold were used for gold leafing on the ceilings, over 130 handmade silk carpets adorn the palace, and the chandelier, from Queen Victoria of England, is the largest in the world, weighing 4.5 tons.

To see the palace, a tour is required, but please note, that photos aren’t allowed inside the palace. A full combined ticket, for both Selâmlık and Harem was ₺40 (roughly $11.25 US dollars at the time of our visit). More information on the palace can be found on the Dolmabahçe Palace website.

Left to right: Dolmabahçe Palace, the Imperial Gate entrance to Dolmabahçe Palace.

Zorlu

After touring Dolmabahce Palace, we took a trip to Zorlu, a modern residential development. Quite a change in scenery from the palace, Zorlu is a square with all the needs of modern life, but based on the historical town square concept. We walked the public square, went around the shopping areas, and admired the greenery and geometric modern shapes of the buildings. For us, it was like walking through a futuristic film set or video game (like the Citadel in Mass Effect). More information can be found on the Zorlu Center website.

There's Even More to See!

It was a busy three days, but we saw so many incredible things in Istanbul. Being such a large and old city, the expanse and history would take much longer to fully explore, if it ever really could be. There are a few more places worth mentioning that you may want to add to your itinerary if you have extra time.

Top to bottom: Istinye Park Mall, Zorlu, Istinye Park Mall from the opposite end.

  • Istinye Park Mall – For those who like to shop, this is a modern mall with 291 stores that sharply contrasts the shops in the old city of Istanbul. The mall is covered by an arching glass ceiling and has four levels of upscale designer and brand name shops.
  • Sakıp Sabancı Museum – This art museum is a bit out of the way but it’s a chance to venture into one of the more affluent neighborhoods of Istanbul. The permanent collection houses calligraphy, painting, furniture and decorative arts, and Islamic and Ottoman traditional art. In addition to the art, the views from the museum are quite beautiful. At the time we visited, entrance was free on Wednesdays.
  • Chora Museum – The Chora Museum preserves the 11th century Constantinople era Byzantine Greek Orthodox Church. It was converted into a mosque during the 16th century Ottomon rule. The Byzantine mosaics and frescoes, depicting the story of Christ and the Virgin Mary, have been restored and the building turned into a museum in 1948.
  • Pera Museum – Located in the old Hotel Bristol building, this fine art museum holds over 300 works, including the famous, ‘The Tortoise Trainer’ by Turkish artist Osman Hamdi Bey. Be sure to visit all five floors of this museum.

Catch Up On Parts One, Two and Three!

This concludes our City Guide to Istanbul. Don't miss out on the rest of the guide and our adventures! 

Don’t Make This Costly Error When Booking Airline Tickets

Don’t Make This Costly Error When Booking Airline Tickets

City Guide to Istanbul, Part 3: Public Transportation

City Guide to Istanbul, Part 3: Public Transportation