Spread across two continents, Istanbul contains the ruins of empires past, from the Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque to the Galata Tower.
Istanbul’s greatest natural wonder is the mighty Bosphorus Strait that cuts through the city. Take a ferry ride up the Bosphorus to see the many Ottoman mansions, palaces, and fortresses that dot its shores. The strait connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. If you’re lucky, you can spot dolphins jumping out of the water.
In the north of the city, Belgrad Forest is one of the few places to go to be immersed in nature. The front of the park is usually filled with families barbecuing, but hike or bike through the forest's extensive jogging routes in the thick woods to get some solitude and fresh air. The forest historically was the source of much of the city's water supply, and it is still dotted with the remains of Byzantine reservoirs and an Ottoman-era aqueduct.
The Istanbul Archaeological Museum was founded during the Ottoman era and houses thousands of artifacts uncovered from all over Turkey. The collection includes ancient sarcophagi, marble statues, intricate mosaics, and more. It’s the best place to get a comprehensive overview of Turkey’s archaeological richness.
Visit Topkapi Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was the palace for the Ottoman Sultan. Make sure to go to the Harem, which was designed by famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and decorated with vibrantly colored Iznik tiles. Don’t forget to take in the views of the Bosphorus Strait from the palace’s windows before you leave.
Attend a whirling dervish performance at the Galata Mevlevi House. This is a spiritual ritual performed by Sufis in a traditional dervish lodge, and performances take place every Sunday. The lodge also functions as a museum, so you can learn about the whirling dervishes in Turkey.
Best Day Trip
Take a two-hour bus ride to Sile, a coastal Black Sea town with beautiful beaches. You can also ride a ferry south of Istanbul to Bursa, which is known for its famous historical mosques, rich Iskender kebab, and thermal baths. This is also the best jumping-off point for skiing on Uludag Mountain.
Off the Beaten Path
For fewer crowds, go to Suleymaniye Mosque instead of the Blue Mosque. The sprawling mosque campus is considered the best work in Istanbul by Mimar Sinan, and the courtyard offers a terrific view of the city.
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Most Iconic Place
The Hagia Sophia has been Istanbul’s most iconic site throughout centuries and across empires. Originally a Byzantine church, it was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans took control of the city. After the founding of the Turkish Republic, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum, and restoration of the Byzantine-era mosaics is ongoing.
Head to Bomontiada, a nightlife complex in a reappropriated beer factory. With many restaurants, a craft brewery, art galleries, a wide-open courtyard, and Babylon, the city’s preeminent music performance venue, it’s easy to have a lively night out among Istanbul’s hippest residents.
The Basilica Cistern dates back to the Byzantine Empire and was used to provide water to the neighborhood. It was restored in the 1980s, and now it’s an eerie and evocative site to wander through—as well as a place to stay cool during Istanbul’s hot summer days.