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It is a city unlike any other. Cut in half by the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe from Asia, Istanbul is unlike any other city in the world; a city where two continents collide.

Throughout history it has been one of the world’s most major cultural, political, and commercial centers. It has seen occupation by the Greeks, Romans and Venetians, and was the heart of the Ottoman empire; physical reminders of each empire still stand to this day.

But its location as a meeting place between the East and West also saw it as the final stop “on the legendary Silk Road linking Asia with Europe, and many merchants who came here liked it so much that they, too, decided to stay. In so doing, they gave the city a cultural diversity that it retains.”

Istanbul ranks as one of the Top 10 most visited cities by tourists and for good reason. Visitors could spend a lifetime getting lost in the city’s cultural sights, sounds, and smells. But the big question is, do you visit Europe, or Asia?

A Transcontinental City: Things to Do in European and Asian Istanbul

How to Get Around

Istanbul is a congested place to say the least. I wouldn’t recommend renting a car as you will have to quickly learn how to drive amongst blaring car horns and insane traffic. It’s very difficult to discern the road rules!

Istanbul taxis are a cheap, easy and comfortable way to get around. But make sure you research dependable taxi companies, and have read up on popular cons. Most drivers you encounter are fair, but taxi scams are commonly reported here. So avoid these if you can by pre booking a cab or having your hotel call one.

Although most tourists will stick to the European side of Istanbul, the Asian side offers many great attractions as well. You can get between the two sides by ferry or bus (click for timetables and cost info). Let’s divide up a visit to Istanbul much like the Bosphorus and look at what each side has to offer.

European Istanbul

The European side of Istanbul offers access to the city’s most well known attractions including the Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bazaar. Most tourists spend most if not all their time on the Eastern side as there is so much to see and do.

The following are just some of the highlights that are not to be missed during your visit to Istanbul’s European side.

Hagia Sophia

In what could easily be classed as a Wonder of the World, Hagia Sophia blends symbols of Christian and Islamic faith. What was once a Christian Church would later become an Imperial Mosque, and now a museum.

This marvel of architecture, used as a setting for Dan Brown’s Inferno, will leave you speechless. Keep an eye out for Gli, the Hagia Sophia’s resident cat when you’re inside.

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

Dolmabahçe Palace

This palace is rather new by Istanbul standards, having been constructed in the 19th century. This extravagant palace of the Ottoman Empire spared no expense during its construction with its gold and silk furnishings.

The palace is the largest in Turkey and one of the most beautiful in the World. With 285 rooms and 68 toilets, it is one incredible house.

Many items were given as gifts upon its completion including a chandelier from Queen Victoria and tiger skin rugs from Russians Czars.

The Blue Mosque

Quite close to Hagia Sophia you will find the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly referred to by travellers as the Blue Mosque.

The architecture of the structure is truly incredible with its minarets, domes, 20,000 handmade İznik style ceramic tiles, and stained glass windows.

Entry is free of charge but you must dress appropriately, removing your shoes, not exposing legs, and covering your head if you are a female. The mosque is a functioning one for prayer and respect must be shown when visiting.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque Istanbul

Sultan Ahmed Mosque Istanbul

The Grand Bazaar

In what could be the oldest shopping world in the world, the Grand Bazaar is an assault on the senses. Visited by nearly 100 million people annually, it is one of the world’s largest covered markets.

Whether you are looking for Turkish textiles, ceramics, copper, food, or trinkets, you are sure to find it at the Grand Bazaar. Get lost in the thousands of shops spread out over a network of streets.

Basilica Cistern

Built in the sixth century, this subterranean ancient cistern is located close to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. A must visit, the cistern provides an eerie yet remarkable atmosphere.

Walk through the orange lit columns as you search for the swimming carp and Medusa heads. It was here where Dan Brown’s Inferno came to its climax.

  Basilica Cistern Istanbul

Asian Istanbul

The Asian side of Istanbul offers visitors a glimpse of how local residents live. It is literally a continent away as well as a world away from the hectic increasingly commercialised Old Town or Taksim Square located on the European side.

You seem to get more of a relaxed vibe where you can stretch out a bit along with enjoying more green parks and better coastal access.

Kadıköy Market

In what is sure to give a foodie a culinary orgasm, the Kadıköy Market offers a colourful array of food stalls, bars, and restaurants.

Fruits, vegetables, spices, cheese, breads, meats, and everything in-between is available. Best of all is the fact there are much fewer tourist crowds than you will experience in the European side’s markets.

Turkish Food

Yeldeğirmeni

Enjoy the beautiful street murals of Yeldeğirmeni. The neighbourhood is rich with history as it dates back to the 15th century and has a definite artsy vibe showcased by its numerous studios and art festivals.

You will fall in love with the area’s cafes and eateries.

Beylerbeyi Palace

Although not as grand as the Dolmabahçe Palace on the European side, Beylerbeyi Palace still offers a glimpse into sheer opulence.

Guided tours are mandatory, much like Dolmabahçe, when visiting the Palace and although they are offered in Turkish and English you must arrive at the correct time for the language you desire.

Highlights include the bamboo garden, indoor marble pool, and lavish staircases. Although it may be smaller than Dolmabahçe Palace, it receives far fewer crowds meaning fewer queues and carries a cheaper entrance fee.

Istanbul. Beylerbeyi Palace

Photo by Alexxx Malev

Waterside Trail

Enjoy a beautiful pedestrian path that seems to go on forever along the southern coast of the city. A good walk taking around a couple hours would be from Fenerbahçe to Bostancı or vice versa. You could continue on for a much longer walk if you’d care for.

The waterside walk is popular with locals on the weekends where you are sure to see all kinds of outdoor recreation being enjoyed. The walkway is lined with beautiful trees and greenery making the experience all that more pleasant as you gaze out at the Prince Islands off the coast.

Where We Stayed

We stayed on the European side at the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. Surrounded by peaceful gardens, Grand Hyatt Istanbul blends an exciting city life with a relaxing retreat in the middle of the city.

Venture into Taksim Square or explore historic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace. The service is excellent, the rooms luxurious, and the property among the best accommodation in Istanbul.

What We Loved:

➡ Amazing location: You’re an 8 minute walk from Taksim Square, which is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. This is a busy nightlife, shopping and dining district. Vintage trams trundle along Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s main pedestrian boulevard, which is lined with 19th-century buildings housing international shopping chains, movie theaters and cafes.

➡ Service is amazing: The staff go out of their way to welcome you to Istanbul, and are so kind and friendly. We arrived at 6am, well before check-in, though with rooms available we were checked in straight away.

➡ Rooms with a view: 360 stunning guestrooms and suites with city, garden, and Bosporus views. We had Bosporus views, and it was quite a novelty sitting in our room in Europe, looking over to Asia!

➡ Relax in style: The Gaia Fitness Centre & Spa offers massages, manicures, and Hammam rituals, as well as an outdoor pool, tennis courts, and more.

➡ Turkish-inspired cuisine: Dine at 34, grab a cocktail at The Library Bar, enjoy a meal at Mezzanine Lounge & Bar, and snack alfresco at Gazebo.

➡ The pool: The photo below speaks for itself.

The Grand Hyatt Istanbul

The Grand Hyatt Istanbul

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More Shots From Our Istanbul Gallery

Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

Things to do in Istanbul

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Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; a website dedicated to opening your eyes to the wild & natural world.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

If you enjoy getting social, you can follow their journey on FacebookTwitterYouTubePinterest and Instagram.

    34 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing.I hope you continue to have such quality articles to share with everyone! I believe there will be many people who share my views when they read this article from you!

    • You’re welcome Slope – glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  2. I loved Istanbul when I was there most recently – though I did only have time to explore the Asian side. I still remember the blue mosque from a visit nearly 40 years ago – and that’s really something isn’t it! The Grand Hyatt looks fab – I think I need to try it out for size;)

    • So glad to hear Fiona, it’s such a fabulous city! Oh wow, what an opportunity to have been able to visit recently and compare to how it was 40 years ago!

      If you do head back in the future, definitely carve out some time for the Asian side, and can highly recommend the Grand Hyatt – it was amazing!

    • The Grand Hyatt is amazing ….. nice hotel with incredible staff. For a few years it was virtually my home and, unlike other hotels I never tired of it (guess it helped being in such a fantastic city).

    • Awesome Allan! So glad you’re also a fan of the Grand Hyatt – I can definitely understand why you would make it your second home; they set such a high standard when it comes to hotel experiences 🙂

  3. We really need to make it to Turkey, the country naturally seems to be calling to us. Ironically, Istanbul is the second largest city of our Instagram circle, probably because we are always photographing sunsets and cats.

    The Hagia Sophia seems truly special. I love seeing Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam side by side. The fact that it has its own resident cat doesn’t hurt either.

    Your photography was superb. I love the breadth and depth of your shots and they are all well composed. Bravo!

    • You do! 😀 Istanbul was absolutely incredible, it felt like a really authentic, exotic travel experience, which is really hard to find these days with most destinations morphing into a cookie cutter version of each other.

      Haha and yes, there are some of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen here, especially as the fading light creates silhouettes of the skyline and minarets. And they LOVE their cats – even the Grand Hyatt had resident cats!

      Hagia Sophia was incredible, I’m so glad I had the opportunity to visit. We went early in the day and there were hardly any lines to get in which was nice.

      So glad you enjoyed the photos, thankyou!!

  4. I loved learning about the European and Asian sections of Istanbul. I’ve never been but I can see why it is one of the ten most visited cities. The Basilica Cistern looks spooky yet fascinating. And the Kadıköy Market, I need to go to experience a “culinary orgasm”.

    • So glad you enjoyed the post Katie! We loved our time, probably one of the highlights of my travels to date 🙂 The Basilica Cistern was really cool, yes very spooky – I would love to get back, apparently they run classical concerts down there – the acoustics would be crazy!

      Hope you have the chance to travel soon 🙂

  5. I so enjoyed reading this post. It brought back happy memories of the week I spent in Istanbul visiting friends last year. Not many visitors venture to the Asian side, but like you, I loved the Kadıköy Market. I highly recommend that anyone planning a trip allow enough time to visit the Asian side for an entirely different aspect of the city.

    • Thanks Janine! So glad you enjoyed your time in Istanbul, and had the chance to take in the Asian side too. Such a fabulous city isn’t it!

  6. It is always amazing to see how this city has managed (or not) to coalesce two different concepts into one. Even the city highlights makes one recognize this dichotomy.

    • I agree – it’s highly unique; there’s definitely a line down the middle in terms of the experiences on either side, it literally feels like a different world from the Asian to the European side. But definitely a fascinating chance to see how culture, diversity, and history come together to create one city.

  7. Have heard a lot about the blue Mosque, the structure and the interiors are the unique features.
    Glad you touched upon the food as well. Being a food enthusiast, I am sure be feasting on the special cuisines.

    Thanks for the taxi details, that was very helpful.
    thanks for this nice article. Keep traveling.

    • The Blue Mosque was such a delight! Such an incredible interior – I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life!

      As a food enthusiast you’ll absolutely eat Istanbul up (lol pun intended!). There is such a smorgasbord of culinary opportunities – we had a great time 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Yes, definitely read up quickly on taxi’s before you go. You can get caught up pretty easily here if you’re not aware.

  8. Dreaming of Istanbul sometime in the next six months, so thank you! Pinned to my Pinterest bucket list xx

    • You’re welcome Anne! Hope you have an amazing time – it’s an incredible city 🙂

  9. I love Istanbul so much! Together with Rome, it’s my favorite big city. I’m a sucker for ancient history turning every corner! Thanks for the tour, brought back good memories. 🙂

    • So glad to hear that Stella! Rome is a fabulous city also – especially if you’re a fan of ancient history. You’re right, there’s so much history in Istanbul it’s like an open air museum. Glad we could bring back good memories!

  10. This just isn’t fair. Aside from a ferry ride down to the Prince Islands, I didn’t actually see any of Asian Istanbul. Granted, as one of the largest cities in Europe (and the world), it was nearly impossible to get to even the best attractions in the six days I was there. I spent a lot of time on Freedom Avenue and watching dolphins from the bridge, not to mention losing two days during Ramadan when everything was closed. I’ll just have to make it back there someday..

    • Sounds to me like you have a great excuse to plan a second trip! I totally understand though – the European side really can keep you busy for weeks on end!

  11. Thank you for the virtual tour of Istanbul. I’d love to visit some day. The architecture is stunning and the hotel looked very warm and welcoming.

    • You’re welcome Alice, glad you enjoyed the post! I hope you do have the opportunity to visit at some stage 🙂

  12. Oh Istanbul. I love this city. It’s incredible. I was inspired to come here after watching 007 tear up the grand bazaar on a motorcycle in Skyfall. The grand bazaar is the place where I bought the leather satchel I still use till this day. Istanbul is the city where I met and hung out with a first cousin I never new existed who married a beautiful women from Turkey. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are my favourite and the Grand Bazaar. Topkapi Palace was also beautiful. I regret not spending much time on the Asian side except Galata Tower but hey, I have family there…so I’ll be back.

    • Glad to hear you’re a big Istanbul fan too! It sounds like you made some incredible memories during your trip, and came home with some awesome souvenirs. Amazing that you met a long lost cousin here!

      With family in Istanbul, it sounds like you have the perfect excuse for a return trip at some stage. Definitely carve out some time for exploring the Asian side when you get back there 🙂

  13. My husband and I are currently on the fence about visiting Istanbul this year, but this post has made me really want to go! The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are just so iconic! I hadn’t heard of the Basilica Cistern, but that looks wicked cool as well. It looks like it’s underground. Is it?

    • I can only highly recommend it! Yes, the Basilica Cistern is completely underground, and it’s a really eerie but cool experience. And apparently they often perform concerts down there, which would be amazing to catch if your trip coincides with it! Feel free to hit me up with any questions you have if you’re still on the fence 🙂

  14. I was all set to go to Istanbul years ago but at the last minute my plans had to change. Sad face. The blue mosque is something I’ve always wanted to see. Well, all the architecture there is really amazing actually. I’m glad yo mentioned the chaotic driving there. I would never want to try and drive there myself.

    • Well they say that everything happens for a reason, but hopefully you have the chance to plan a new trip soon 🙂 Yes, definitely don’t plan on driving yourself – halfway through our first taxi ride we turned to each other and said thank god we hadn’t gone with a car rental!!

  15. I hope to make it to Turkey, postponed it for long. Each time we planned there was some political development in and around the country.

    The Hagia Sophia is truly special, more after I saw its smaller look alike in Thessaloniki. Pictures are so beautiful. The food scene there tempts me a lot.

    • Honestly, I would travel anyway. We visited right after the coup in 2016, and all government warning advised against it for political uncertainty. But we had no issues whatsoever and felt very safe. Similarily, my government advises against travel to Istanbul right now, but I know many friends who are visiting and highly recommend it.

      So practice caution and common sense always, but I think that this is a region which might always have some type of political development unraveling. From my own experience, the city welcomed travelers 🙂

  16. I have heard lot about Blue mosque, its long pending wish to visit Turkey.Pictures are so beautiful.Enjoyed reading it

    • It is truly incredible inside, photos really can’t do it justice! I hope you do have the opportunity to visit at some stage soon 🙂

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